This question has been asked intermittently over the years and several answers have been provided, especially when African countries south of the Sahara are compared with the Asian Tigers with whom they were at par in terms of development as colonialism winded up, .
While some commentators, mostly Africans and the so-called liberal minded westerners, tend to lay the blame at the doors of the Europeancolonial powers who they say took, and is still taking Africa’s resources while paying so little for these benefits. This group believe the colonialists have been replaced by multinational corporations that have effectively replaced the piece of broken mirror that bought dozens of slaves in the old days with bribes paid in dollars to a few corrupt politicians who then sanction the continuing rape of a much-exploited continent.
Others, less liberal, perhaps less politically correct, contend that the reasons are easily traceable to the genetic makeup of the African, that natural trait that gifts the black race a much lower intelligent quotient than other races, or so they say. For this group, the fate of countries like Haiti and Jamaica, which are not too far removed from that of sub-Saharan African countries, and that of the African American community, is too visible a point to be ignored.
However, another school of thought believes that neither the Africans nor the European colonialists are without blame. For this group, to which I must confess to belong, the culpability of the African in the continuing rape of the continent and the current culture of micro development is of utmost importance to any discourse on the reasons Africa is the way it is.
To this school of thought, Africans, even if a very minute number made up of corrupt politicians and technocrats, constitute the biggest hindrance to the development of the continent. Though they argue that lack of willingness by the political class to implement far-reaching policies contributes greatly in keeping Africa underdeveloped, they are quick too to concede that the western multinationals, through purchased influence, are doing everything possible to keep the status quo, which aids what many have come to believe is their exploitation of Africa.
However, beyond the political class and the multinationals, there is a bigger culpability; that of individual Africans who refuse to heed the call for emancipation from what the late Bob Marley so aptly called “mental slavery”.
To many Africans, mental slavery is a myth, something coined by people who needed something for which to blame the west. However, the truth is more effervescent than that. Without recourse to the dictionary, mental slavery is a concept simply explained to mean a psychological inclination towards self-depreciation. It is a disease that is widespread amongst people of sub-Saharan African decent wherever found--be it in the neon lighted avenues of Hollywood, USA, or in the stone and mortar house neighbourhood of my hometown Nkwe, Enugu state, Nigeria. It has found expression in our way of life, inflecting our speech patterns, our mode of dressing, our dances, and how we marry.
Though many seem not to know it, but the truth is there, we are daily losing ourselves, one bit at a time, to the dictate of a culture that is not perfect by a long haul.
The way we were
Our culture, in the past, was dynamic and tailored to suit our environment and temperament. Our forbearers were wise, very much so. The laws they gifted us, largely forgotten, were all embracing and suited for every foreseeable situation.
Most Africans have forgotten their culture or know so little about it that they easily deride it for being what they term ‘fetish’--a consequence cleaving to an European heritage Christian church that found new expression in Africa.
Even though a woman is not considered married in most African societies until her bride price is paid and other traditional rituals of marriage performed, the norm these days is to consign that act to mere formality, while more effort and money are spared towards a lavish ‘white wedding’ whose history or significance most African brides know little or nothing about.
These days the hype is all about Saint Valentine’s Day, Easter, Christmas, and of late and strangely too, Halloween and thanksgiving. One hardly hears about the new yam festivals, the coming of age festival, new moon and other stuffs that our fore fathers celebrated. We seem to think them too old fashioned.
Sometime ago, I was talking to a friend about the need for us to look backwards if we are to become more relevant, and she countered: “we are not farmers anymore, what would a new yam festival be about?” Anyway, I did not get mad or laugh when she could not explain the reason for thanksgiving, which she was advocating as a replacement.
Therein lay the source of our problems, and consequently, Africa’s continuous battle with under-development--our mental enslavement to western culture.
Our emancipation lies in our languages
The most visible aspect of this enslavement is our dependence on European languages for communication among ourselves.
Many reasons were proffered as to why most African countries chose to use the language of their colonial masters as ‘official’ languages, but most of these reasons, no matter how logical, all point to a belief that the salvation of the African lies without. Hence, the recourse to adopt foreign languages to act as a buffer between African tribes existing within an European demarcated territorial border.
This, I believe, is the greatest obstacle to development in Africa. Many people will readily contest this point, believing, erroneously, that Africans countries using European languages, as official language is a plus in the present age of globalisation. It is my belief that had African countries chosen to communicate with each other and the rest of the world with their own languages; they would have done much better than they have so far.
However, aside the much-vaunted advantages of using an ‘International’ language for communication, there are the dangers and disadvantages, usually under the surface, but becoming more glaring in Africa. Here, one finds that since the end of colonialism in Africa hundreds of languages have died out or become so adulterated with European words that they are now, functionally, hybrid languages – Igbo and Yoruba are ready examples.
Had we allowed our languages to be our medium of communication and expression within our countries, even if not with the outside world (as India and many others did) we would have made more impact at the world stage. The multinationals would still steal, but they would need to learn our languages to do this. The west would still cheat us by making sure we sell raw materials cheap to them and buy same back as fabricated goods, but they will need to program the computers in Hausa or Igbo. Imagine the joy of learning maths in Igbo, discussing theorem and logic in Yoruba or exploring the gray areas of law in Bini.
Yes, we would have had most of our citizen fluent in their mother tongue, with youths more eager to record the thoughts of the elders and write our traditions, largely oral, in the ink that will preserve them for tomorrow.
Years ago, we had a choice between our culture and the western culture, just like the Chinese, Indian, Japanese and many others had. Drawn by lack of respect for our heritage and urged on by the religion of our oppressors, masquerading as liberators, we chose to be more western than the white man was. Thereby consigning our soul to the dregs that history says it is at today.
Becoming western, we lost our culture, and with that loss, went the checks and balances that kept us on a straighter path than the new religions can only hope to dare.
By choosing to be western, we lost a chance to be relevant in the world, hence our underdevelopment.
Now we look on, as the rest of the world continues to run way ahead of us; praying that we someday catch up. We dream on, even as our culture, the messiah we ignored and continue to ignore, loses the battle to survive, every day.