Colonialism and imperialism at the present time are usually discussed in very simplistic moral terms. Are you – and the books written about them – ‘for’ or ‘against’? The fall-back position for most commentators is that imperialism was an unrelieved evil, responsible for many if not all of today's problems in places like Africa. Hence my interest, as an imperial historian, in this contribution to a blogsite I subscribe to (USA Africa Dialogue), by an African scholar, Oluwatoyin Adepoju, dealing with some of the questions about colonialism that ought to be asked.
If Africans were not colonised, what would have been the implications for scribal literacy, which was low on the continent?
If Africans were not colonised, what would have been the implications for the unquestioned dominance of classical African religions, as opposed to the greater pluralism, the range of choices, opened up by the current co-existence of these religions and Christianity?
Without passing through the colonial experience, would we be using an international language, English and chatting on the Internet?
All contemporary Africans are shaped by colonialism, particularly poignantly so those deeply invested in the globally dominant educational system, which has its origins in Europe and has little input in its methods and understanding of reality from learning systems from other cultures.
Would any such person prefer a classical African education to the Western one? Under what circumstances, outside the forceful coercion of colonialism, would an informed choice between them or to integrate them have been possible?
Colonisation birthed the Universities of Ibadan and Makere, for example, pioneers in post-classical African scholarship, more critically oriented, more international in range of reference and communicative scope, than the earlier classical African systems of Ifa, among others.
Is the current challenge not one of synergy between these systems?
The creative possibilities represented by these developments are possible without colonisation but colonisation is the historical trajectory through which they emerged.
Ursula le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover novels visualise encounters between a space faring Terran civilisation and non-technological cultures, in which the Terrans are scrupulous about not interfering in the local culture on the planets they find themselves.
Its also true, I think, that Africans were visiting Europe before colonisation.
How best could we have benefited from what Europe had to offer, without having to pass through the still reverberating agonies of colonisation?
Perhaps I need to understand the colonial experience better. While not justifying the self serving so called civilising missions of the colonisers, I think colonialism in Africa and perhaps Asia needs to be appreciated in more complex terms than that of binary good and evil.
A painful journey but one whose every segment is vital, in my view.