Why Societies Must Decolonize: Critical Questions Surrounding Decolonization


Decolonization is a long and cumbersome process. In relation to Africa, decolonization has undergone many phases. Political decolonization peaked in the 1960s, with many African countries gaining independence, though the question of neo-colonialism in all its forms still hovers over most African countries. This article scratches the tip of the iceberg regarding the ongoing debate around the world on the vexing legacy of colonialism. It is not surprising that this debate is taking place in Europe as well, primarily led by the descendants of people whose countries were colonized by the European powers in the 19th century. Though talking about decolonization generally, I will draw examples and inspiration from academia, formal education, and Africa. I start with my academic discipline: anthropology.

Anthropological Understanding of Colonialism

I am writing from the standpoint of a discipline that studies culture. Anthropologists see culture in everything ever invented by humans – food, farming, dressing, education, socialization, communication, religion, sexuality, language, etc. More importantly, we devote much of our research on cultural changes. Cultures broadly change either from the inside or from the outside. They change within due to innovation. People may discover a new farming tool. Cultures change from outside, through borrowing or acculturation, the latter describing when a dominant culture imposes itself on a weaker one. It is a matter of power, not that some cultures are more important than others.

Colonialism engendered extreme forms of acculturation in the colonies. For the colonized, it was a catastrophe, an assault on their cultures. In fact, colonialism was a racist war aimed at eliminating and destabilizing the cultures of the subjugated folks. At the same time, the colonialists were relentless at imposing European cultural values on the colonized, an unrepentant scheme at spreading and affirming the supremacy of white people. In the face of this strong influence, the colonized have uncomfortably adjusted their cultures around standards set by the colonialist. This is evident in all areas of life including education, kinship, language, economy, sexuality, politics, and religion. The debate on decolonization revolves around this assault and cultural adjustments in the post-colony.

Why we must decolonize

Decolonization simply means distancing from the colonial roots, making sure that the colonial residues do not define or constitute the center of postcolonial life. It is a way of de-centering the colonial and creating spaces that value and valorize the cultures of the colonized. In other instances, decolonizing would mean allowing diversity to flourish. Some people erroneously interpret decolonization as meaning nativism, that is, the tendency to focus on the inside while rejecting all that is coming from the outside. That is not it. Circumstances may necessitate that people blend knowledge and accept some aspects of the colonial legacy in order to find meaning. Additionally, the colonial legacy is so strong that even staunch decolonial scholars face an uphill task when they do not draw inspiration from colonial philosophies.

Presently, the decolonization debate chiefly targets higher education, though in countries like South Africa, the conversation has gathered momentum to the extent that people talk of decolonizing everything. South Africa is undoubtedly at the forefront of decolonization in Africa, probably because the educational institutions and curricula draw from and reflect the life experiences of the minority white population. In South Africa and all over in the continent, the persistence of colonial and colonializing education is built in the educational system and reproduced either consciously or unconsciously. This has much to do with educators’ frame of reality, how they see and have been made

to see the world. Our cultures frame our reality, socializing us to know what we know as well as how we know what we know.

Teachers and researchers in the post-colony grapple with issues of knowledge or epistemology, theory, and methodology. They may suffer from what Chimamanda Ngozi describes as the danger of a single story. This is when they are unaware of the incompleteness of their knowledge. For example, teachers who read only research outputs produced by scientists in the global north would see the world from the western point of view. This may lead them to conclude that only western knowledge matters. If they do not venture into other research produced elsewhere, their teaching and mentorship would tend to suggest other knowledge do not count.

Criticizing the conservatism of such approach to knowledge production and dissemination, decolonial scholars argue that exposure to different knowledge systems spares teachers and researchers from embarrassment. It is actually for the good of researchers who may find themselves entangled in what Lewis Gordon describes as epistemic closure. This is a situation where researchers erroneously conclude that the knowledge of a phenomenon is complete and thus, foreclose the possibility of further enquiry.

Not an Easy Endeavour

At a recent conference on decolonising educational research held at the University of Buea, Cameroon, some researchers argued it is out of place to continue blaming colonialism for the woes of Africa. To make their argument stronger, they reminded the audience that colonialism in Africa lasted less than a century, an insignificant period compared to the South American experience. It is a point of view to agree with only if one defines colonialism as an event. First, the colonial experience cannot be the same everywhere, though there are commonalities in relation to power and economy. Unfortunately, the postcolonial still looks like the colonial, though with a disguised name. Colonialism established ideologies and a system of exploitation that are difficult to untangle. Presently, capitalist economic institutions enable the system, regulating the relations between the formerly colonized and the colonizers.

My point is that an attack on racism and white supremacy must be the target of our practice and rhetoric when we talk about decolonization in Africa. Colonization had a mission to spread white people’s supposed supremacy in all forms, including education. To decolonize in Africa, we must target racism embedded in neoliberalism, exploitation, sanitized criminality of white people, and strategies that push Africans out of the realm of the human.

Looking into the Future

Colonialism alienates the colonized and in the domain of education, it implants an alien spirit in the learners who in turn respond to the wishes of aliens. This is in terms of what knowledge counts, what language they should value, who theorists are, etc. Prioritizing colonial knowledge and ways of knowing is a way of discounting and belittling the knowledge systems of the colonized. The unsettling thing about the colonializing knowledge is that students may feel lost if the voices of people who look like them are missing or framed negatively. They may simply conclude that they do not belong or that people who look like them have not contributed to their academic discipline. The punchline critique of colonial knowledge is: must societies continue to rely only on knowledge systems shaped by colonialism as though other knowledge do not count ?

Dr. Primus Tazanu
Dr. Primus M. Tazanu
Research Fellow in Governance | + posts

Dr Primus M. Tazanu is a Research Fellow in Governance at the Nkafu Policy Institute .He is equally a lecturer at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Buea, Cameroon. Primus holds a PhD in social anthropology from the University of Freiburg, Germany


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