During the colonial epoch and afterwards, criticism was justly levelled at the colonial educational system for failing to produce more secondary school pupils and more university graduates. And yet, it can be said that among those who had the most education were to be found the most alienated Africans on the continent. Those were the ones who evolved and were assimilated. At each further stage of education, they were battered by and succumbed to the values of the white capitalist system; and, after being given salaries, they could then afford to sustain a style of life imported from outside. Access to knives and forks, three-piece suits and pianos then further transformed their mentality. There is a famous West Indian calypsonian who in satirizing his colonial school days, remarked that had he been a bright student he would have learnt more and turned out to be a fool. Unfortunately, the colonial school system educated far too many fools and clowns, fascinated by the ideas and way of life of the European capitalist class. Some reached a point of total estrangement from African conditions and the African way of life, and like Blaise Diagne of Senegal they chirped happily that they were and would always be ‘European’.
Early educational commissions also accorded high priority to religious and moral flavouring of instruction-something that was disappearing in Europe itself. The role of the Christian church in the educational process obviously needs special attention. The Christian missionaries were as much part of the colonising forces as were the explorers, traders and soldiers. There may be room for arguing whether in a given colony the missionaries brought the other colonialist forces or vice versa, but there is no doubting the fact that missionaries were agents of colonialism in the practical sense, whether or not they saw themselves in that light. The imperialist adventurer, Sir Henry Johnston disliked missionaries, but he conceded in praise of them that ‘each mission station is an exercise in colonisation’.
In Europe, the church had long held a monopoly over schooling from feudal times right into the capitalist era. By the late 19th century, that situation was changing in Europe; but, as far as the European colonisers were concerned, the church was free to handle the colonial educational system in Africa. The strengths and weaknesses of that schooling were very much to be attributed to the church….
Whatever the church taught in any capacity may be considered as a contribution to formal and informal education in colonial Africa, and its teachings must be placed within a social context. The church’s role was primarily to preserve the social relations of colonialism, as an extension of the role it played in preserving the social relations of capitalism in Europe. Therefore, the Christian church stressed humility, docility and acceptance. Ever since the days of slavery in the West Indies, the church had been brought in on condition that it should not excite the African slaves with doctrines of equality before God. In those days, they taught slaves to sing that all things were bright and beautiful, and that the slave master in his castle was to be accepted as God’s work just like the slave living in a miserable hovel and working 20 hours per day under the whip. Similarly, in colonial Africa churches could be relied upon to preach turning the other cheek in the face of exploitation, and they drove home the message that everything would be right in the next world. Only the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa was openly racist, but all others were racist in so far as their European personnel were no different from other whites who had imbibed racism and cultural imperialism as a consequence of the previous centuries of contact between Europeans and the rest of the world.
In serving colonialism, the church often took up the role of arbiter of what was culturally correct. African ancestral beliefs were equated with the devil (who was black anyway), and it took a very long time before some European churchmen accepted prevailing African beliefs as constituting religion rather than mere witchcraft and magic. However, in its hostility towards African cultural and religious manifestations, the Christian church did perform certain progressive tasks. Practices such as killing twins and trial by ordeal were frowned upon by the European missionaries, and those were reflections of superstitious ideas rooted in an early stage of African development, when something like the birth of twins could not be scientifically explained, and, therefore, gave rise to religious fear.
It is to be noted that in West Africa long before the Colonial Scramble, many outcasts in society and persons who suffered from religious and social prejudices were the first converts of the Christian church. What was supported by one section of the population was opposed by another, and in the present century the cultural imperialism of the church excited great opposition. Prevailing African customs such as polygamy were attacked without reference to their socio-economic function. On the question of monogamy the Christian missionaries were introducing not a religious principle but rather a facet of European capitalist society. For their propaganda to have been successful, European activity had to work a transformation in the extended family patterns of African societies. That was very slow in occurring, and, in the meanwhile, many Africans accepted the religious aspects while rejecting the cultural appendages and the European missionaries themselves….
In the final analysis, perhaps the most important principle of colonial education was that of capitalist individualism. Like many aspects of the superstructure of beliefs in a society, it had both its negative and positive sides, viewed historically. The European bourgeoisie were progressive when they defended the individual from the excessive control of the father in the family and against the collective regulations of the church and feudal society. However, the capitalist system then went on to champion and protect the rights of the individual property owners against the rights of the mass of exploited workers and peasants. When capitalism had its impact on Africa in the colonial period, the idea of individualism was already in its reactionary phase. It was no longer serving to liberate the majority but rather to enslave the majority for the benefit of a few.
When individualism was applied to land, it meant that the notions of private ownership and the transfer of land through sale became prevalent in some parts of the continent. Much more widespread was the new understanding that individual labour should benefit the person concerned and not some wider collective, such as the clan or ethnic group. Thus, the practice of collective labour and egalitarian social distribution gave way to accumulative tendencies. Superficially, it appeared that individualism brought progress. Some individuals owned large coffee, cocoa or cotton shambas, and others rose to some prominence in the colonial administration through education. As individuals, they had improved their lot, and they became models of achievement within the society. Any model of achievement is an educational model, which directs the thoughts and actions of young and old in the society. The model of personal achievement under colonialism was really a model for the falling apart and the underdevelopment of African society taken as a whole.
It is a common myth within capitalist thought that the individual through drive and hard work can become a capitalist. In the U.S.A., it is usual to refer to an individual like John D. Rockefeller as someone who rose ‘from rags to riches’. To complete the moral of the Rockefeller success story, it would be necessary to fill in the details on all the millions of people who had to be exploited in order for one man to become a multi-millionaire. The acquisition of wealth is not due to hard work alone, or the Africans working as slaves in America and the West Indies would have been the wealthiest group in the world. The individualism of the capitalist must be seen against the hard and unrewarded work of the masses.
The idea of individualism was more destructive in colonial Africa than it was in metropolitan capitalist society. In the latter, it could be said that the rise of the bourgeois class indirectly benefitted the working classes, through promoting technology and raising the standard of living. But, in Africa, colonialism did not bring those benefits-it merely intensified the rate of exploitation of African labour and continued to export the surplus. In Europe, individualism led to entrepreneurship and adventurism of the type which spearheaded Europe’s conquest of the rest of the world. In Africa, both the formal school system and the informal value system of colonialism destroyed social solidarity and promoted the worst form of alienated individualism without social responsibility. That delayed the political process through which the society tried to regain its independence….
Only in North Africa, with its heavy white settler population, did the French find it unnecessary to encourage a local elite to run affairs under the direction of the metropolis and the governor; although even in Algeria there emerged a number of subjects called the Beni Oui Oui — literally ‘the Yes, Yes men’, who always assented to carrying out French instructions in opposition to the interests of most of their brothers. Another far-sighted aspect of French political policy in the education sphere is the manner in which they forced the sons of chiefs to acquire education. It was a deliberate attempt to capture the loyalty of those persons who had previously held political power in independent Africa, and it was an attempt at continuity with the pre-colonial phase. As the French themselves put it, by educating the sons of traditional rulers, ‘a bond is thus established between the native cadres formed by us and those that the native community recognises’.
In 1935, a team of British educationalists visited French Africa, and they admitted with a mixture of jealousy and admiration that France had succeeded in creating an elite of Africans in the image of Frenchmen — an elite that was helping to perpetuate French colonial rule. To greater or lesser extent, all colonial powers produced similar cadres to manage and buttress their colonial empires in Africa and elsewhere.
After the second World War, it became obvious that colonial rule could not forever be maintained in the same form in Africa; Asia already having broken loose and Africa being restless. When the awareness that the end was in sight became generalised, the metropolitan powers turned to their colonial cadres and handed to them the reins of policy in politically independent Africa. It should be emphasised that the choice that Africa should be free was not made by the colonial powers but by the people of Africa. Nevertheless, the changeover from colonialism to what is known as neo-colonialism did have the element of conspiracy in it. In 1960, the then British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, made the oft-quoted statement that ‘a wind of change was blowing across Africa’. That was the bourgeois way of expressing what Chinese Premier, Chou En-Lai was soon to assert: namely, that ‘Africa was ripe for Revolution’. In order to delay or hijack the African revolution, the colonising powers turned to a group which they had already created for a different purpose — the elite of colonially educated Africans, from among whom were selected wherever possible those who were most suitable for elevation to political leadership, and the administration and military apparatus were left in the hands of similar trustworthy cadres….
Students who were taken to universities in the metropoles were the most favoured and the most pampered of the Africans selected by the white colonial overlords to become Europeanised; and yet they were among the first to argue vocally and logically that the liberty, equality, and fraternity about which they were taught should apply to Africa. African students in France in the post-war years were placed carefully within the ranks of the then conservative French national student body, but they soon rebelled and formed the Federation of Students of Black Africa (FEANF), which became affiliated to the communist International Union of Students. In Britain, African students formed a variety of ethnic and nationalist organisations, and participated in the Pan-African movement. After all, most of them were sent there to study British Constitution and Constitutional Law, and (for what it is worth) the word ‘freedom’ appears in those contexts rather often!
The fact of the matter is that it was not really necessary to get the idea of freedom from a European book. What the educated African extracted from European schooling was a particular formulation of the concept of political freedom. But, it did not take much to elicit a response from their own instinctive tendency for freedom; and, as has just been noted in the Somali instance, that universal tendency to seek freedom manifested itself among Africans even when the most careful steps were taken to extinguish it….
The process by which Africa produced thirty-odd sovereign states was an extremely complex one, characterised by an interplay of forces and calculations on the part of various groups of Africans, on the part of the colonial powers, and on the part of interest groups inside the metropoles. African independence was affected by international events such as the second World War, the rise of the Soviet Union, the independence of India and China, the people’s liberation movement in Indochina, and the Bandung Conference. On the African continent itself, the ‘domino theory’ operated, so that the re-emergence of Egypt under Nasser, the early independence of Ghana, Sudan and Guinea, and the nationalist wars in Kenya and Algeria all helped to knock down the colonies which remained standing. However, it must be stressed that the move for the regaining of independence was initiated by the African people; and, to whatever extent that objective was realised, the motor force of the people must be taken into account.