Colonialism as a permanent form of imprisonment


Elliot Ziwira @the Bookstore
THOUGH, it may be problematic to come up with a holistic definition of colonialism in isolation with imperialism, it is imperative to put it in context that the phenomenon is a practice of domination and subjugation of a people by another.

Colonialism is not a modern phenomenon, as it has been in existence since time immemorial, neither does it come accidentally, or clumsily. As a form of conquest, relying heavily on the mighty of the imperial power, colonialism involves violence and follows a systematic pattern that makes it impossible, or difficult for the colonised to be fully decolonised without exerting an equal measure of violence in retaliation; because it affects the psyche through cultural erosion and a deliberately structured education system, (Fanon, 1967).

Colonialism remains the cause of universal social neurosis in post-colonial societies because of the way it affects individual thought and behaviour; it is a kind of permanent psychological imprisonment. According to Lacan (1973) in “The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book 111”, neurosis is deeper than a specific condition, but assumes the form of “legible” delusion that is structured like a language. Because of its impact on the psyche, colonialism is a kind of disease (neurosis) that is not curable, in the sense that to the oppressed it is a condition that is lived and relived; generation after generation, thus becoming an intricate social system.

Colonial trauma shapes societies, generations after colonisation, because individual experiences of the coloniser (master) and colonised (native), shape the way they think, hence, in the end contradictory neurotic behaviour ensues, as purveyed in Spivak’s “retrospective hallucination”, (Spivak, 1967:275).

European colonisation of African societies did not come by chance, as it was premised on a well calculated desire to acquire raw materials and cheap labour for expanding industries. With opportunities availing themselves through industrialisation, and slavery on the wane, capital had to find a vent to expand; and the natural route became Africa, as the Middle East and Asia proved unprofitable, (Williams, 1944).

Because colonialism, like imperialism, involves political, social and economic control of the apparatus required for physical, psychological, mental and emotional subjugation of the colonised. The obligation to ‘civilise’ the world, which Europeans thought was God-given, meant that the barbaric nature of colonialism had to be given an innocent face through Christianity and Western forms of education.

As Franz Fanon observes in “The Wretched of the Earth” (1967), as a Manichaean world, the colonial world is aware that “it is not enough for the settler to delimit physically, that is to say with the help of the army and the police force, the place of the native.

“As if to show the totalitarian character of colonial exploitation, the settler paints the native as a sort of quintessence of evil,” (Fanon, 1967:32).

As is the case in Mongo Beti’s “Mission to Kala” (1957), and Charles Mungoshi’s “Waiting for the Rain” (1975) and “Coming of the Dry Season” (1972), the native has to be portrayed as one whose emancipation only comes through his/her negation of the values that shapes his/her humanity. The cultural mores and values that shape him/her are bastardised and demonised, through a subtle dosage of Western education and its attendant religious intonations.

The underlying process of education fed to Africans through colonialism was meant to uproot them from their African beliefs, alienate them from their background, and assimilate them if possible. In the end the half-baked resultant individual finds it difficult to relate to either of the two worlds created for him/her. Being neither European per se, nor African the individual trudges on in no man’s land as normlessness engulfs him/her. The more the individual imbibes of Western education, the less he/she knows, and the more irrelevant he/she becomes to his/her community.

The Church today is a reflection of how the African, through colonialism, has been made to hate himself and all that shapes him as a person of colour. He calls evil, all that which African belief systems hinge on, but when he hits a brick wall in his endeavours to conquer the unknown, he seeks solace and explanations, not in science, which he scantly understands, but in the same traditions that he so much loves to chide.

It is this aspect of the African which exposes him to charlatanism.

This vexing situation is what Jean-Marie Medza, the protagonist in Mongo Beti’s “Mission to Kala” (1957), like Lucifer in “Waiting for the Rain” (1975), finds himself enmeshed in.

Medza considers himself “The Conqueror” and an “evil genius” by virtue of being at college at a time when only a sprinkle of Africans have such blessings, yet he admits that he “was ploughed”. Medza’s failure of his oral baccalaureate examination is not only reflective of his ignorance of what makes him an African, but the inadequacy of Western education on the part of the colonised, even though it is still revered, in both Vimili and Kala. Set in colonial Cameroon, the book explores the tragedy of a continent, whose hopes are intertwined with individual aspirations where Western education is accorded undue prominence.

The educated elite, who should be the community’s visionaries, are simply swallowed into the colonial system of oppression and capitalism. Because they are esteemed, they use societal myopia to impoverish their own people, yet at the same time are unable to offer any meaningful contribution to their communities. Education becomes not only a tool of oppression, but an extension of colonialism. The conceited, rude and arrogant Medza, embodies this kind of redundancy in African communities as he is escorted around the village “like an American diplomat under the protection of his private eyes”, on his daily excursions around Kala.

On the other hand, the Mandengu family in “Waiting for the Rain” vainly waits for the metaphorical rain to take their lot to Utopia. However, the ‘prophet’ of their fate, Lucifer, is alienated from their dream, yet they put so much hope in his ability to steer them forward because of his acquisition of Western education and values; which leads to paralysis and stasis. But how does advancing in Western forms of art help the colonised, who have their own cherished art forms as embodied in the Old Man and Garabha?

Like Medza’s, Lucifer’s perceived knowledge, does not improve the situation of the lot of the colonised, but only serves the interests of the colonial power. Knowledge in this context, as seen through the eyes of Medza’s father, Old Bikokolo and Medza, for instance, becomes not only instrumentally in service of power, but rather is a form of power, (Said, 1979).

Because of the nature of knowledge steeped in the native, finding interfaces between African value systems and European ones, especially on the part of Lucifer, becomes a mammoth task.

Medza’s foibles, by his own admission, are exposed through the intelligent questioning that he suffers at the hands of his audience.

His first encounter with the reality of his lacks, comes when he is asked whether whites were “cleverer than (him) in class?” or “learn quicker”. The protagonist’s failure to convincingly expound to his audience what they are taught at school and what it really is and how it would help him and his people, blows his bubble. His failure to give them a convincing definition of Geography in the vernacular and his use of examples drawn from New York, lays bare the folly of Western education.

Medza’s realisation that “knowledge” should be put to test “by genuine circumstance not under the artificial conditions of an examination room” as he “had already discovered vast gaps in the frontiers of (his) tiny kingdom”, (ibid:62), exposes the fallacy of any educational system premised on inflexible set syllabi.

However, as Medza struggles to locate himself in the discourse of the colonised, like Lucifer, Nharo and Nhamo, all is not lost on the part of the native, because, as Fanon posits, it is possible to be decolonised, albeit violently.

The Church in the colonies as Fanon observes, “is the white people’s Church, the foreigner’s Church. She does not call the native to God’s ways but to the ways of the white man, of the master, of the oppressor,” (Fanon, 1967:32). The white man did not bring God to Africa, whom Africans have always known and worshipped in their own way, but he brought the Christian God; his God, whom he used to hoodwink the people of colour.

The African should violently confront colonialism, for that is the only way to decolonise both himself and his society, (Fanon, 1967), even though he cannot help falling into the trap of the subtle and systematic nature of the colonial machinations that numb his psyche and twist his mindset; leading to social and political neurosis, as well as paralysis, stasis and malaise on the familial, communal and national discourses, as hope remains a mirage etched on the receding horizon, thus making psychological imprisonment a permanent condition.

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