Alterity, African Modernity, and the Critique of Change

  • Elvis ImafidonEmail author
Living reference work entry
Part of the Handbooks in Philosophy book series (HP)


A large chunk of the existing literature on African modernity understood here as African experience largely defined and influenced by her contact with the West or foreign cultures has mainly described the modern experience in African spaces as a predicament, an unfortunate distortion of the pre-modern status quo or systems in Africa. In this chapter I intend to explore a perspective for understanding and appreciating the description of the African experience of the West as a predicament, one founded on alterity and difference. I argue that the primary basis for understanding the claim that African modernity is a predicament is to understand the ways in which the one mode of thought or cultural orientation (African) was radically alien from, and different from, the other mode of thought or cultural orientation (Western). Specific cases of alterity between both cultures include moral values, system of education, religion, ontologies, and knowledge production and cognition systems. The African experience of the West could easily become a predicament because the former’s experience of the latter was under compulsion and the latter refused to accept and respect the otherness of the former, but rather painted it as nothing of worth. To explore this line of thought, I begin by examining important texts in the description of the African experience of the West as a predicament. I then proceed to show that these texts can best be understood as emanating from the difficulties that were associated in coping with the difference and changes that came with African contact with the West. I conclude that difference can be a positive force and easy to accept if it is willfully understood and assimilated, but it can become a negative force and a source of frustration if it is imposed on the other by the self or vice versa.


Modernity Africa West Radical differences Social change Predicament 


A front-burner issue in the discourse of the African experience today is the nature, problems, and challenges of African modernity. African modernity is understood here as African forms of life and experiences after contact with the West, which distinguishes it from pre-modern African forms of life and experiences prior to Western influences. A common understanding of African modernity in this sense is that it is “the global expression of Western man’s superior power over natures and [African] peoples” (Diop 1980). Hence, it is seen as a largely oppressive system that imposes and forces the Western ways of life on African people disrupting the African way of life. It is a system that was perpetuated by means of the slave trade, colonialism, imperialism, and other agents and forces of Westernization. In the words of Jay Ciaffa, “colonialism violently disrupted African cultural traditions and imposed, with varying degrees of success, European forms of thought and social organisation upon colonised peoples” (Ciaffa 2008). The critique of this forced change has been enormous, protracted, and comprehensive. In response to the forced change, many have advocated for cultural revivalism, and, in the extreme, some advocates of the revivalist program have advocated for a return to past ways of life while completely abandoning Western modern ways. But more broadly construed, cultural revivalism “assumes a basically reverential attitude toward the African cultural heritage. According to this view, the key to effectively addressing contemporary problems lies in reclaiming and revitalising indigenous traditions that have been degraded and suppressed in the wake of colonialism [and modernity]” (Ciaffa 2008, p. 121).

Both the critique of African modernity and the responses to the imposed and forced change that came with it have been questioned and criticized on several grounds. The critique of modernity has, for instance, been accused of shying away from the evils that Africans themselves have done and continue to do in the making of the unfortunate situations in African modernity. The responses have also been criticized for their cultural nostalgic lingering in past ways of life and past glories of Africa and the clamor for an unattainable return to, or revival of, past ways of life (see for instance Oke 2006). Critics of the conception of the African contact with the West as a predicament tend to emphasize on focusing on positive aspects of the contact and building on such. But it seems to me that critics of the perception of the African experience of the West as a predicament have failed to focus on an important aspect of the critique of African modernity: the forced alterity that African had to deal with in their contact with the West. The radical difference in modes of thought and the ensuing forced social change was and remains one that would always render the African experience of modernity as a predicament. For the radical difference did psychological, material, and immaterial harm to the African consciousness. Hence a new way of reading and making sense of existing literature of the critique of modernity, some of which I carefully highlight in what follows, is from the perspective of radical difference or alterity and forced social change. To clearly expose this point, I begin with an examination of some classical poems expressing the forced social change. I then explore more deeply some literary presentation of the African experience of modernity as a predicament. I proceed further to show why radical alterity is essential in understanding the literature on the critique of African modernity. I conclude that difference can be a positive force and easy to accept if it is willfully understood and assimilated, but it can become a negative force and a source of frustration if it is imposed on the other by the self or vice versa.

Some Poetic Expression of Africa’s Forced Change

In this section, I will examine three poems and their depiction of Africa’s contact with the West. Perhaps an interesting poem to begin with is David Rubadiri’s “Stanley meets Mutesa.” In “Stanley meets Mutesa,” David Rubadiri gives an apposite description of Africa’s contact with the West and the tension that accompanies it. The last stanza reads:

The village looks on behind banana groves,

Children peer behind reed fences.

Such was the welcome

No singing women to chaunt a welcome

Or drums to greet the white ambassador;

Only a few silent nods from aged faces

And one rumbling drum roll

To summon Mutesa’s court to parley

For the country was not sure.

The gate of reeds is flung open,

There is silence

But only a moment’s silence-

A silence of assessment.

The tall black king steps forward,

He towers over the thin bearded white man,

Then grabbing his lean white hand

Manages to whisper

“Mtu Mweupe Karibu”

White Man you are Welcome.

The gate of polished reed closes behind them

And the West is let in. (Rubadiri 1976. Emphasis is mine)

The poem is a prototype of conflict generated by the meeting of Western ways and traditional African life. The poem describes the meeting of Stanley, one of the great explorers of the interior of Africa in the nineteenth century, with King Mutesa of Buganda. The contrast which the poet finely draws between the regal stature of the king and the puny build of Stanley is instructive. And the king’s courteous reception of Stanley is ironically symbolic: for by demonstration of nobility, he let in the means of his own colonization and dispossession (Senano and Vincent 1976a). The village is tensed with the coming of the white man, but yet he is let in and the change sets in; nothing remains the same.

Gabriel Okara’s “Piano and Drums” is yet another powerful and apt description of the confusion and difference that set in from the contact between Africa and the West. And I can help but repeat the poem here:

When at break of day at a riverside

I hear jungle drums telegraphing

The mystic rhythm, urgent, raw

Like bleeding flesh, speaking of

Primal youth and the beginning,

I see the panther ready to pounce,

The leopard snarling about to leap

And the hunters crouch with spears poised;

And my blood ripples, turns torrent,

Topples the years and at once I’m

In my mother’s laps a suckling;

At once I’m walking simple

Paths with no innovations,

Rugged, fashioned with the naked

Warmth of hurrying feet and groping hearts.

In green leaves and wild flowers pulsing.

Then I hear a wailing piano

Solo speaking of complex ways

In tear-furrowed concerto;

Of far away lands

And new horizons with

Coaxing diminuendo, counterpoint,

Crescendo. But lost in the labyrinth

Of its complexities, it ends in the middle

Of a phrase at a daggerpoint.

And I lost in the morning mist

Of an age at a riverside keep

Wandering in the mystic rhythm

Of jungle drums and the concerto. (Okara 1985)

Gabriel Okara paints a powerful image of the confusion, otherness, and indecision that result from the cultural alterity of African and Western cultures in modern Africa. This confusion is made vivid in the raw emotion of the poem. In the poem, “piano” represents the Western life, while “drums” represent African life. A description of a simple African life metaphorically represented as “drums” can be clearly seen in the first two stanzas. He says, for instance, “I am in my mother laps a suckling,” “… I am walking simple paths with no innovations,” “… in green leaves and wild flowers pulsing,” etc. This can be contrasted with the description of the Western world metaphorically represented as the “piano” in the third stanza where the poet describes a soft seductive but yet complex and somewhat deceptive tune (the Western ways): “solo speaking of complex ways in tear-furrowed concerto,” “of far away lands and new horizons…,” “coaxing diminuendo, counterpoint, crescendo,” etc. The last stanza makes it very vivid the confusion and lost the poet feels from this softly revealing complexity.

In a similar vein, David Diop has described Western incursion on African soil as vulturine in nature in his classic “The Vultures”:

In those days

When civilization kicked us in the face

When holy water slapped our cringing brows

The vultures built in the shadow of their talons

The bloodstained monument of tutelage

In those days

There was painful laughter on the metallic hell of the roads

And the monotonous rhythm of the paternoster

Drowned the howling of the plantations

O the bitter memories of extorted kisses

Of promises broken at the point of a gun

Of foreigners who did not seem human

You who knew all the books but knew not love

Nor our hands which fertilize the womb of the earth

Harsh instinct at the root with revolt

In spite of your songs of pride in the charnel-houses

In spite of the desolate villages of Africa torn apart

Hope lived in us like a citadel

And from Swaziland’s mines to the sweltering sweat of Europe’s factories

Spring will be reborn under our bright steps. (Diop 1976)

Diop’s poem embodies some of the most powerful images of Africa’s contact with the West and Western control of Africa under the pretense of a civilizing mission closely allied to the work of Christian missionaries in converting or forcing Africa to change to a religion which demands humility (Senano and Vincent 1976b) – “When holy water slapped our cringing brows.” Diop metaphorically describes the West as “vultures,” opportunistic, greedy, and lacking humane values: “O foreigners who did not seem human,” “You who knew all the books but knew not love,” etc. The last part of Diop’s poem expresses hope for the future, a hope that rests on Africans’ ability to develop their continent on their own: “Spring will be reborn under our bright steps.”

These three poems provide us with a picture of the critique of modernity which we would now explore further from important literature in the humanities published in the last six or so decades.

The Conception of African Modernity as a Predicament

The description of the African experience of foreign cultures as a predicament has been the main theme and focus of numerous books, journal articles, and other literatures. These scholarly literatures have been written to buttress the point that the African experience of foreign cultures has left the continent in a precarious state. As Abiola Irele succinctly puts it:

African literatures may be said to derive an immediate interest from the testimony it offers of the preoccupation of our writers with the conflicts and dilemmas involved in the tradition/modernity dialectic. This observation is based on the simple premise that, as with many other societies and cultures in the so-called Third World, the impact of Western civilization on Africa has occasioned a discontinuity in forms of life throughout the continent. It points to the observation that the African experience of modernity associated with a Western paradigm is fraught with tensions at every level of the communal existence and individual apprehension. (Irele 2001)

Moses Oke adds that:

One of the general points that may be drawn from discussions of the African predicament is that the root cause of the postcolonial continental failure is the erosion of basic African values that have helped to promote stable social existence over the ages. This erosion is then traced to the advent of colonialism and the consequence introduction of European socio-political systems, values and structures of capitalist economy. (Oke 2006, p. 333)

The numerous scholarly literatures on the African experience of the West as a predicament have, therefore, been preoccupied with theorizing about the dilemma that a forced Western-embellished modernity colored with radical differences had on African traditions. We have seen a tip of the iceberg in the previous section where three poems have the same focus – exposing the confusion and difference resulting from Africa’s contact with the West. However, the seriousness of the issue can only be appreciated with a more thorough and broader analysis of the position from the perspective of the humanities. These literatures aim to show the reader the adverse effect that agents of Westernization – slavery, colonialism, imperialism, and globalization – had and continue to have on African communities and nation-states. We shall attempt here to examine a few out of many.

Let us begin with Frantz Fanon’s classics: Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth (Fanon 1963, 2008). Black Skin, White Masks remains one of the first deliberate attempts to express the pain, anger, and psychological trauma or mental disorder that resulted from the colonial experience. First written in 1952 (trans. to English, 1967), the book expresses the outrage and anger of the author over the negative effects of colonialism on the Black continent. According to Ziauddin Sardar, the book is an attempt to express:

The anger of all whose cultures, knowledge systems and ways of being that are ridiculed, demonized, declared inferior and irrational, and, in some cases, eliminated. This is not just any anger. It is the universal fury against oppression in general, and the perpetual domination of the Western civilization in particular. This anger… is an anger borne out of grinding experience, painfully long self analysis, and even longer thought and reflection. As such, it is a guarded anger, directed at a specific, long term desire. The desire itself is grounded in self-consciousness. (Sardar 2008)

The anger expressed in the book is evidently borne out of the author’s investigation of the psychology of colonialism. (The psychology of colonialism developed by Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks and later in The Wretched of the Earth has further been rigorously developed by Thiong’o (1986) and Nandy (1989). Nandy, A., for example, therefore defines colonialism in the first chapter of the work: “Psychology of Colonialism: Sex, Age and Ideology in British India”, as “a psychological state… in both the colonizers and the colonized. It represents a certain cultural continuity and carries a certain cultural baggage”, p. 2.) He examines how colonialism is internalized by the colonized, how an inferiority complex is inculcated, and how, through the mechanism of racism, black people end up emulating their oppressors. Fanon writes from the perspective of a colonized subject. He is a subject with a direct experience of racism who has developed a natural and intense hatred of racism. When it comes to experience, this is no ordinary subject: already the author has fought for the resistance in the Caribbean and France, has been wounded near the Swiss border, and has received a citation for courage. He has a professional interest in psychoanalysis and speaks of Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler, and Carl Gustav Jung without much distinction. He offers us a psychoanalytic interpretation of the black problem. But we can be sure that this is not a therapy session. Fanon is no armchair philosopher or academic theorist. He has a more urgent and pressing thing on his mind: liberation (Sardar 2008, pp. x–xi). And how can this urgent and pressing need be achieved? According to Fanon, “For the Negro who works on a sugar plantation in Le Robert, there is only one solution: to fight. He will embark on this struggle, and he will pursue it, not as a result of a Marxist or idealistic analysis but quite simply because he cannot conceive of life otherwise than in the form of a battle against exploitation, misery and hunger” (Fanon 2008, p. 174).

But Black Skin, White Masks is only a prelude to a more energetic and radical presentation of the negative effects, particularly the mental disorder, resulting from colonization and the suggestion that a violent revolution that can completely break away from Western influence is the only way forward: The Wretched of the Earth. As Fanon says:

That imperialism which today is fighting against a true liberation of mankind leaves in its wake here and there tinctures of decay which we must search out and mercilessly expel from our land and our spirits. (Fanon 1963, p. 249)

With a controversial Preface by Jean-Paul Sartre, The Wretched of the Earth is written with specific regard to the Algerian experience of Westernization or colonization. In this famous work, colonization is described in quite horrifying terms as a systematic negation of the other person and a furious determination to deny the other person all attributes of humanity, which forces the people it dominates to ask themselves the question constantly: “In reality, who am I?” The defensive attitudes created by this violent bringing together of the colonized man and the colonial system form themselves into a structure which then reveals the colonized personality. This “sensitivity” is easily understood if we simply study and are alive to the number and depth of the injuries inflicted upon a native during a single day spent amidst the colonial regime. It must in any case be remembered that a colonized people is not only simply a dominated people. In Algeria, for example, there is not simply the domination but the decision to the letter not to occupy anything more than the sum total of the land. The Algerians, the veiled women, the palm trees, and the camels make up the landscape, the natural background to the human presence of the French (ibid., p. 250).

The Wretched of the Earth stresses far more than Black Skin, White Masks the mental disorder and psychological trauma left by colonization. In fact, Fanon says somewhere within the text that:

The truth is that colonialism in its essence was already taking on the aspect of a fertile purveyor for psychiatric hospitals. We have since 1954 in various scientific works drawn the attention of both French and international psychiatrists to the difficulties that arise when seeking to “cure” a native properly, that is to say, when seeking to make him thoroughly a part of a social background of the colonial type. (ibid., pp. 249–250)

The mental disorder or psychological trauma associated with colonization is an outcome of the suffering and abuses that the colonized go through in the hands of the colonizers: forced labor, corporal punishment, inequalities in salaries, limitation of political rights, etc. (ibid., p. 148)

Fanon also argues in line with Sartre (in the Preface) that colonization did not only result in psychological problems but led to the complete destruction of the cultural values of the people who were then compelled to accept Western ways while abandoning theirs. As Sartre says in the Preface:

The European elite undertook to manufacture a native elite. They picked out promising adolescents; they branded them, as with a red-hot iron, with the principles of Western culture; they stuffed their mouths full with high-sounding phrases, grand glutinous words that stuck to the teeth. After a short stay in the mother country they were sent home, whitewashed. These walking lies had nothing left to say to their brothers; they only echoed. From Paris, from London, from Amsterdam we would utter the words “Parthenon! Brotherhood!” and somewhere in Africa or Asia lips would open “… thenon! … therhood!” It was the golden age. (Sartre 1963)

For this reason, Fanon is harshly critical of Europeans. He admonishes Africans to completely rid themselves of the influence of Europe:

Leave this Europe where they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them, at the comer of every one of their own streets, in all the corners of the globe. For centuries they have stifled almost the whole of humanity in the name of a so-called spiritual experience. Look at them today swaying between atomic and spiritual disintegration… Europe has declined all humility and all modesty; but she has also set her face against all solicitude and all tenderness.

She has only shown herself parsimonious and niggardly where men are concerned; it is only men that she has killed and devoured.

So, my brothers, how is it that we do not understand that we have better things to do than to follow that same Europe? (Fanon 1963, pp. 311–312)

He continues:

That same Europe where they were never done talking of Man, and where they never stopped proclaiming that they were only anxious for the welfare of Man: today we know with what sufferings humanity has paid for every one of their triumphs of the mind.

Come, then, comrades, the European game has finally ended; we must find something different. We today can do everything, so long as we do not imitate Europe, so long as we are not obsessed by the desire to catch up with Europe. (ibid., p. 312)

In fact the concluding chapter is devoted to a harsh condemnation of Europe (or the West). What is the way forward? As usual with his writings, violence is given a prominent place in The Wretched of the Earth. This is clearly seen in Sartre’s Preface, and in the first chapter entitled “Concerning Violence.”

Fanon is hardly the only one that has given such a harsh condemnation of the colonizers and the precarious situation they have put Africans in. Another thorough criticism of the West in relation to the conception of the African experience of foreign cultures as a predicament is the confiscated work of Albert Memmi: The Colonizer and the Colonized first published in 1965 (Memmi 1965). Memmi gives a similar description of the colonizers as Fanon. According to him the colonizer in the colonial territory assumes the behavior inherent in his role such as brutality, bigotry, exploitation, and oppression; gin is the fundamental driving force of the colonizers, which obviously explains the situation of sustained exploitation carried out by the colonizers against the colonized. Memmi also explains how the colonizer formulates a somewhat imaginary image of the colonized in order for him to fully perpetuate his exploitation and oppression of the colonized. The colonizer portrays the colonized as lazy, primitive, lacking civility, etc.; in this way, the colonizer is able to turn the colonized into an object existing only as a function of his needs (see ibid., pp. 80–83). Having shown this domineering relationship between the colonizer and the colonized, Memmi then concentrates on showing why colonialism can only be stopped through a violent revolt, not through the initiative of the colonizers. Revolt seems to be the only option because the only other alternative option – assimilation – will not be possible. This is because inherent in it is an overthrow of the colonial status quo, and, as such, it will never be tolerated by the colonizers. Subsequently, the only tool left for the colonized is to reclaim their liberty by force.

Perhaps, these two scholars – Fanon and Memmi – were greatly influenced by the work of a foremost predecessor: Aime Cesaire in his Discourse on Colonialism (Cesaire 2000). It is thus not surprising that they quote him copiously in their works. Hence, it will only be appropriate to say a thing or two about Cesaire’s Discourse on Colonialism. Discourse on Colonialism first appeared in 1950 (trans. to English, 1952). To be sure, it energetically embodied and reflected the same views expressed by Fanon, Memmi, and others later: the evils of colonialism and a campaign for a declaration of war against it. As Robin D. G. Kelly says in his Introduction to Discourse on Colonialism entitled “A Poetics of Anticolonialism”:

Aime Cesaire’s Discourse on Colonialism might be best described as a declaration of war. I would almost call it a “third world manifesto,” but hesitate because it is primarily a polemic against the old order bereft of the kind of propositions and proposals that generally accompany manifestos. Yet, Discourse speaks in revolutionary cadences, capturing the spirit of its age just as Marx and Engels did 102 years earlier in their little manifesto. (Kelly 2000)

He adds that Discourse on Colonialism offers new insights into the consequences of colonialism and a model for dreaming a way out of our postcolonial predicament and the barbaric West. It also draws our attention to the fact that while we still need to overthrow all vestiges of the old colonial order, destroying the old is just half the battle (ibid., p. 28).

Cesaire himself starts Discourse on Colonialism with three indicting statements against the West:

A civilization that proves incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilization.

A civilization that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a stricken civilization.

A civilization that uses its principles for trickery and deceit is a dying civilization. (Cesaire 2000, p. 31)

By implication, he adds that “The fact is that the so-called European civilization – ‘Western’ civilization – as it has been shaped by two centuries of bourgeois rule, is incapable of solving the two major problems to which its existence has given rise: the problem of the proletariat and the colonial problem; that Europe is unable to justify itself either before the bar of ‘reason’ or before the bar of ‘conscience’; and that, increasingly, it takes refuge in a hypocrisy which is all the more odious because it is less and less likely to deceive” (ibid.). Thus, Europe is morally and spiritually indefensible (ibid., p. 32). And colonialism, even though it may kill, crack down, and imprison, the colonized now know that their temporary masters are lying and the principal lie is that colonialism brings civilization. But the truth is it destroys civilization, it breeds tyranny, it promotes the frontiers of ignorance, and it is inimical to the rule of law (ibid., pp. 32–33). Cesaire puts it thus:

And I say that between colonization and civilization there is an infinite distance; that out of all the colonial expeditions that have been undertaken, out of all the colonial statutes that have been drawn up, out of all the memoranda that have been dispatched by all the ministries, there could not come a single human value. (ibid., p. 34)

Hence, he starts his study with an analysis of “how colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to buried instincts, to covetousness, violence, race hatred, and moral relativism;…” (ibid., p. 35) he then gives a detailed analysis of how agents of Westernization such as slavery, colonialism, and Christianity destroyed the cultures, values, and potentials of Africans. In doing this, he becomes quite emotional and embittered:

I am talking about societies drained of their essence, cultures trampled underfoot, institutions undermined, lands confiscated, religions smashed, magnificent artistic creations destroyed, extraordinary possibilities wiped out…

I am talking about thousands of men sacrificed to the Congo Ocean? I am talking about those who, as I write this, are digging the harbor of Abidjan by hand. I am talking about millions of men torn from their gods, their land, their habits, their life – from life, from the dance, from wisdom.

I am talking about millions of men in whom fear has been cunningly instilled, who have been taught to have an inferiority complex, to tremble, kneel, despair, and behave like flunkeys…

I am talking about natural economies that have been disrupted harmonious and viable economies adapted to the indigenous population-- about food crops destroyed, malnutrition permanently introduced, agricultural development oriented solely toward the benefit of the metropolitan countries; about the looting of products, the looting of raw materials.

They [Europeans] pride themselves on abuses eliminated.

I too talk about abuses, but what I say is that on the old ones – very real – they have superimposed others--very detestable. They talk to me about local tyrants brought to reason; but I note that in general the old tyrants get on very well with the new ones, and that there has been established between them, to the detriment of the people, a circuit of mutual services and complicity… colonial Europe grafted modern abuses onto ancient injustice, hateful racism onto ancient inequality. (ibid., pp. 43–45)

For these reasons, Cesaire says, “the barbarism of Western Europe has reached an incredibly high level, being only surpassed – far surpassed, it is true – by the barbarism of the United States” (ibid., p. 47). Therefore, comrades, he says, “you will hold as enemies… And sweep out all the obscurers… And do not seek to know whether personally those gentlemen are in good or bad faith, whether personally they have good or bad intentions. Whether personally… they are or are not colonialists because the essential thing is that their highly problematic subjective good faith is entirely irrelevant to the objective social implication of the evil work they perform as watchdogs of colonialism” (ibid., pp. 54–55). The goal of such revolt is to promote an African, non-European civilization; for as he clearly states “…I make a systematic defence of the non-European civilization” (ibid., p. 44).

Another scholar that has been greatly influenced by Cesaire (as well as Fanon) is Walter Rodney, famous for his classic How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (Rodney 2005), a book that caused him his life (see Bacchus 2005). In this book, Rodney gives a thorough and detailed analysis of the major role played by the West in the present precarious and underdeveloped state of African nations. This is clearly seen in the topics discussed by each chapter of the book. In Chap. 4, for instance, entitled “Europe and the Roots of African Underdevelopment to 1885,” Rodney gives a systematic and detailed analysis of such themes as the European slave trade as a basic factor in African underdevelopment, technological stagnation, and distortion of the African economy in the pre-colonial epoch and the coming of imperialism and colonialism (see Rodney 2005, pp. 108–176).

Being also influenced by Karl Marx, his work follows the trend of Marxism or historical materialism. Hence he states that “power is the ultimate determinant in human society, being basic to the relations within any group and between groups. It implies the ability to defend one’s interests and, if necessary, to impose ones will by any means available. In relations between peoples, the question of power determines manoeuvrability in bargaining, the extent to which a people survive as a physical and cultural entity. When one society finds itself forced to relinquish its power entirely, that is a form of underdevelopment” (Rodney, W., quoted by Smiley 2010). It therefore follows logically that the West is responsible for the underdevelopment of Africa since she forced Africa to relinquish its power and freedom completely by means of agents of Westernization.

Therefore, Rodney charts the need for a break from the exploitative and ravaging colonial and neocolonial systems in order for a new order to be created. As Vincent Harding says in the Introduction to the 2009 edition of the book:

It is our courageous, creative attempt to respond to such a magnificent summons that we begin to break the chains of our underdevelopment and shake the foundations of all human exploitation. And is it not clear by now that the process of exploitation leads to an underdeveloped humanity both at the “centre” and at the “periphery”? Do we not see that the underdevelopment of the centre, in the homeland of the exploiters, is simply covered over with material possession and deadly weaponry, but that the nakedness and human retardation are nevertheless there? So who among us does not need to break the coils of the past, to transcend and recreate our history? (Harding 2005)

How can this complete breakaway from the exploitative colonial and neocolonial systems be reached? After a detailed account of the slavery, subjugation, deprivation, and humiliation, when whole civilizations were crushed in order to serve the imperialist selfish interests of the West, when settled societies were disintegrated by force of imperialist arms so that the plantation owners of the “new world” could get their uprooted, and therefore permanent labor force to build what is now the most advanced and powerful capitalist economy, it becomes absolutely clear that the only way out of the current impasses is through a revolutionary path (Babu 2005).

Another prominent scholar of the African experience is Basil Davidson who, although has been writing about Africa for more than four decades, is famous for two major works: Africa in History and The Black Man’s Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State (Davidson 1981, 2000). Africa in History sings the praise of the authenticity of early, pre-colonial Africa, its civilization – e.g., Egyptian civilization (For details on Davidson’s view on Egyptian civilization, see Africa in History, 15ff.) – culture (specifically the ancestral heritage), and political and social institutions. It then laments the negative consequences that slave trade and colonialism had and continue to have on this authentic civilization. He uses the suffering of the blacks in South Africa during the racial apartheid as an instance where blacks were prohibited from the “white fortress” of government, wealth, and education (ibid., p. 347) in their own native land. Africa in History also highlights the unrest in postcolonial Africa evident in civil wars, corruption, and political instability. But a thorough going analysis of what has gone wrong in postcolonial Africa did not emerge until the publication of The Black Man’s Burden.

The Black Man’s Burden is a thorough-going attempt to diagnose what is wrong with postcolonial Africa, specifically its political institutions. It is “an excellent introduction and historical background to the institutional and leadership crises facing Africa in the 1990s” (Hall 1993). Basil sets off by admitting that:

… the actual and present condition of Africa is one of deep trouble, sometimes a deeper trouble than the worst imposed during the colonial years. For some time now, deserts have widened year by year. Broad savannahs and communities have lost all means of existence, or else are sorely threatened. Tropical forests such as the world would never see again have fed the export maw. Cities that barely deserve the name have spawned plague of poverty on a scale never known in earlier times, or even dreamed of. Harsh governments or dictatorships rule over peoples who distrust them to the point of hatred, and usually for good and sufficient reason; and all too often one dismal tyranny gives way to a worse one. Despair rots civil society; the state becomes an enemy; bandits flourish. Meanwhile, the “developed” world, the industrialized world has continued to take its cut of Africa’s dwindling wealth. (Davidson 2000, p. 9)

But what is responsible for the many problems of Africa? As Davidson considers the question of “what has gone wrong in Africa,” he lays the blame squarely on a virulent Western neocolonial nation-state system. The idea that the modern nation-state was the machine that would power decolonization in Central and Eastern Europe and Africa was taken for granted. Sovereign African governments would take the place of colonial ones, and few gave the issue much more thought than that. He does not blame Africans for this. African leaders like Nyerere of Tanzania saw the potential for disaster in Africa’s instant move from colonies to numerous and competing nations. He and others proposed federalist systems as the alternative: “unities of sensible association across wide regions within which national cultures, far from seeking to destroy or maim each other, could evolve their diversities and find in them a mutual blessing” (ibid., p. 286). Suggestions such as these were swept away by the tide of nationalist self-assertion that washed over Africa as it threw off colonialism. Unfortunately, applying European “solutions” (which proved not even to work in Europe) to African challenges spelled disaster absolutely everywhere (see A Review: The Black Man’s Burden – Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State. Retrieved December 02, 2010 from:

Western Europeans certainly took the virtues of the modern nation-state for granted. They ignored the evidence coming out of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, where groups like the Serbs, when given the chance, eventually set up brutal authoritarian ethnocentric regimes. Though support from the mass of African people was necessary in the movements to throw off colonialism, their leaders were most often European educated and in general shared many of the same assumptions as their colonial rulers, especially when it came to the idea of what postcolonial governments would look like. After “liberation,” they quickly devolved into client states of Europe and later the USA and Soviet Union. They needed the common people to launch their movements, but ended up betraying them utterly. As central governments collapsed and poverty deepened to the point of starvation in many places, an atmosphere of despair gave rise to despotic governments that gutted the infrastructures of countries, taking everything they could steal. The core issue as Davidson sees it is what nations exist for: do they exist for their own sake, for the material benefit of the elites who run them, or do they exist to serve the interests of the people? What is perhaps most tragic is that Africans themselves had answered this question in the pre-colonial period in favor of mass citizen participation, and had their own history not been violently disrupted and ultimately rejected and forgotten, Africa would most probably look very different today (ibid.).

The reason why things are so bad in Africa, therefore, is because “liberation has led to alienation” (Davidson 2000, p. 10). Davidson maintains that African leaders (often with Western training and ideology), in their rush to liberation and in their alienation from African culture which they viewed as savage and primitive, agreed to construct new nation-states of European models imposed upon them by supposedly departing colonial authorities; they uncritically accepted undemocratic and authoritarian elements in the colonial legacy (Hall 1993, p. 157).

Put differently, the educated African elite who aspired to self-governance were alienated from their own history. These would become the people of the mission in Soyinka’s Aké. Many of them were “re-captives” who had been enslaved by Africa, liberated by Europe, and resettled in Sierra Leone or Liberia, so they adopted nineteenth-century European liberal ideas including the nation-state. Alienated from Africa, they become the agents of “Christianity and Constitution” (Davidson 2000, p. 27). They returned to their African homes as missionaries or, sometimes, in the colonial administration, often after being well educated overseas (Grose 1999).

These African “re-captive” elite chose to reject their own history although it could have been a valuable resource. Hence the West succeeded in dislodging “the indigenous institutions at the same time robbed colonized peoples of every scope and freedom for self-development” (Davidson 2000, p. 72). Africans were denied the opportunities to reform their societies in a way consistent with their own environment and experience.

The way forward is a return to pre-colonial institutions and a complete breakaway from the institutions of the West. Davidson contends that pre-colonial tribes were nations with experience in governing themselves in a way appropriate to their environment since the first farming communities had developed on the continent around 6000 B. C. This experience was ignored when power was given to legal and constitutional experts with a European orientation. Many African societies had developed into myth-based participatory polities with distrust of executive power. For example, the Igbo resisted chiefs and kings even when the British tried to impose them. The Yoruba myth of origin legitimized regional distribution of power; it was a “Charter for the rulers, the descendants of Oduduwa.” It built in checks and balances on power with the Alafin or king, the Oyo Mesi, or big men from big families and the Ogboni society which provided access to power by new groups (ibid., p. 87). The balance of power was distorted by colonialism. The colonial mentality dismissed ethnic diversity as “tribalism.” Ethnic units were grouped together into tribes for administrative convenience (ibid., p. 100). These groupings became tools to amplify the group’s political voice in postcolonial clientelist political structures. Differences were masked during the social struggle against colonialism, but they emerged within the structure of the nation-state imposed with independence to serve the commercial interests of colonial powers (Grose 1999).

Obviously, one cannot possibly exhaust the list of scholars who have extensively discussed the African experience as a predicament in books, poems, novels, and other literatures. That we have not discussed works like Chinua Achebe’s classic novel, Things Fall Apart, that discusses the negative consequences of colonialism, specifically with regard to cultural alienation (Achebe 1969), or Cheikh H. Kane’s novel, Ambiguous Adventure, that illuminates the cultural confusion that has resulted from the meeting of Western and African forms of life (Kane 1969) gives credence to this fact. What we have attempted to do here is a sketch of what such a discourse resembles by presenting a summary of the views of a few of some of the famous scholars that have described the African experience of the West as a predicament. J. Obi Oguejiofor has given a fine summary of the negative consequences that has resulted from the African experience of the West and as contained in many scholarly discourses on the African experience in his Philosophy and the African Predicament (see Oguejiofor 2001). Such consequences include fear, psychological trauma, social insecurity, political instability, incompetent leadership, violence, economic crises, and cultural alienation.

Critics of this perspective of the African experience of the West often argue that such a perspective is parochial and myopic because it focuses too much on the negative contribution of the West to Africa’s modernity completely ignoring the positive aspects. Two authors readily come to mind here: A. Oyebola’s Black Man’s Dilemma and J. O. Odey’s Africa: The Agony of a Continent: Can Liberation Theology Offer Any Solution (Oyebola 1976; Odey 1996). These scholars’ works were greatly informed by their visit and tour of Europe and, undoubtedly, by their Western training. They have both contended that pre-colonial Africa was ridden with negativity, backwardness, parochialism, and primitiveness until the “thinking world” (i.e., the West), as Ayebola would put it, intervened. These scholars are strongly convinced that Africans are inferior to all other races. Odey aptly expresses this view thus:

After visiting some other parts of the world… after seeing just a little of what the white man has done in Europe and America. I began to ask myself questions, which under normal circumstances should not have arisen at all: is the black man truly made of the same stuff as the white man? Is the black man equally created in the image of God, endowed with the faculty of reason to be used in conquering, transforming and recreating the world as the white man has been doing? (Odey 1996, pp. 63–64. Quoted by Oguejiofor 2001, p. 57)

This obviously is an outright vilification of Africans. But it is this group of African scholars who see nothing good in Africa and justify everything done by the West that Fanon describes earlier as the “native elite” and Davidson as “re-captives” who haven’t visited the West and received their training there have been brainwashed and whitewashed to the extent that they see nothing good or positive about their own culture or roots, but see the West only in positivity. In this way, they oversimplify the African experience: they see slavery as a normal part of history; they see colonialism, imperialism, and globalization as merely a positive enlightenment for the colonized; and they view Christianity as a liberation from the shackles of false, barbaric, and primitive religious systems. But it is obvious both from everyday experience and from the bulk of scholarly discourse on the African experience that we cannot afford such a naïve simplification. The African experience is much more complicated than an all-rosy approach to it, and it is difficult, almost futile, to deny that the African experience of the West has not produced precarious situations for the continent. Perhaps, such critics would better understand the perspective of African modernity as a predicament if they pay closer attention to the alterity or radical differences it brought to African spaces.

African Modernity and Radical Differences

African modernity saw the inauguration of many forms of radical differences with the Western form of life alleged to be the dominant form of identity and African form of life residues of such identity that the former consciously strives to suppress and ridicule. We vividly see these punctuations of radical differences all over the discourse of the precarious nature of African modernity in the previous section, difference that alienates and violently others the one from the other, whites and blacks, the European and the African, the colonizer and the colonized, the liberal and the communal, the allegedly civilized and the allegedly barbaric, and the logical and the illogical or pre-logical, and the predicaments quickly manifest from the one deliberately and consistently compelling the other to become her, compelling indeed, with lots of threats, the other to abandon her ways of life and accept without questioning or doubting the way of the one.

There are many specific cases where this dangerous play of the one and the other, the West and Africa, manifest. Take, for instance, education. The West implanted their formal education system and dislodged the African education system as informal and ineffective due to the difference in the principles and methods of education. Those who had been educated in the “informal” form were now referred to as “illiterates,” a derogatory term used not merely to make the other abandon his ways of education but to make her assimilate, accept, and live by the rules of the one. The Western education system in Africa was then used to perpetuate even more precarious forms of otherness such as othering the Western-educated African from the non-Western-educated African. In the words of Ihechukwu Madubuike:

French education, without a doubt, has produced individuals who are alienated from their traditional culture, who display a Western model of behaviour (they eat at the table, wear suits and ties, spend their holidays in France) but who all the same are not assimilated because they betray by their social conduct some of the traditional values still clinging to their normal selves. (Madubuike 1983. Quoted in M’Baye 2006)

The same form of radical alterity is noticed in religion in African modernity. In the dawn of African modernity, African indigenous religions became trivialized and were caught in a crisis of relevance. The Judeo-Christian religion of the West has succeeded quite well in presenting African indigenous religions as irrelevant and evil in nature. What results from this is that Christian converts in Africa today regard the missionaries as superior instructors and authorities in religious matters than traditional priests and diviners. The efficacy of intercessory rituals of traditional priests and diviners is questioned and slighted; Christian doctrines as expressed in catechism and bible passages become the unquestioned and cherished religious system. In the early days of Christian missionary activities in Africa, pupils and even teachers were not left with any option but to accept the doctrine of the missions in charge of their schools as this was a requirement for admission and employment. In this way the West succeeded in displacing traditional beliefs and installing Western ones (Onobhayedo 2007, p. 271). This displacement of indigenous religions had severe effects on the moral values of African peoples since there was a close link between moral and religious beliefs – religion played a key role in the enforcement of moral codes of conduct. In the words of Bolaji Idowu:

Christianity by a miscarriage of purpose makes its own contribution to the detrimental changes in moral values. Somehow it has replaced the old fear of the divinities with the relieving but harmful notion of a God who is ready to forgive perhaps even more than man is prone to sin, the God in whom ‘goodness and severity’ have been put asunder. So also does Islam unwittingly create the erroneous impression that the fulfilment of the obligatory duties and acts of penance by good works are sufficient for the purpose of winning heaven. The result of all these is that our ‘enlightened’ products of the two ‘fashionable’ religions can now steal without any twinge of moral compunction those articles of food placed for sale at cross roads and by roadsides, which used to be quite safe; they can now cheerfully appropriate other persons’ property; they can break covenants, or promises made on oath, with brazen indifference. (Idowu 1977)

Other forms of radical differences and dislocation in the ways of life of African peoples that came into being due to Africa’s contact with the West include the disregard for indigenous languages in favor of the English and French languages, the dislodging of indigenous marriage/familial system, and the disruption of traditional healthcare system and other institutions, values, and norms meant to sustain order or equilibrium in the community. For instance, traditional health practitioners have been relegated to inferior positions since the advent of Westernization. Several aspects of their practices are now regarded as unscientific, superstitious and, possibly, hazardous to health when compared to orthodox Western medicine which is now seen as the only source of good health and well-being (ibid., p. 271).

Today these differences remain glaring and cannot be denied. Questions of white privileges, white supremacy, inferiority of indigenous knowledge and practices, anti-black racism, and the like emerged and remain entrenched in the African experience due to a Western-tailored African modernity. Hence, as found in majority of existing literature on African modernity, it is in no way out of place to blame the West for the African predicament since she is guilty of inaugurating and deliberately perpetuating radical forms of difference and alterity in Africa spaces both in Africa and in the Diaspora. And the search for solution to the present and ongoing challenges may not be found simply in a revivalist approach or in an approach sympathetic toward the West. It may be found more easily in attempts to understand and appreciate by both the player and the played, the oppressor and the oppressed, the one and the other the radical forms of differences that shape our lived experiences; it is important that both the Westerner and African understand that a meaningful life is attainable through mutual respect for differences and not by attempt to suppress the differences and envelop them into the one.


The beauty of life lies in the abundance of difference. The opportunity we have to experience the other and the not-the-same is the fragrance and color of a meaningful life. Seeing the different and experiencing the not-the-same bring awe and wonder, but unfortunately, the awe and wonder often too quickly creep into a fearful wonder about the different, the other, an unholy fear that quickly instigates the violation of, and the violence toward, the other. A negative experience of the other is thus born, and a negative relation with the different is planted on hostile grounds. The West’s experiences of Africa’s difference was mostly viewed in negative light, a negativity that brought about hostility toward the African other and threatened the meaningfulness of the African life. If the negativity toward African difference continues, both the West and Africa will know no peace. A change of attitude in the encounter of the African other by the Westerner and of the Western other by the African is therefore essential: a positive approach to difference. A positive approach to difference consists of respect for the being and character of the other and the ability to hold back from the urge to suppress the other or make the other into the same as self. If the West maintains a positive approach to Africa’s difference and vice versa, a meaningful relationship between the one and the other would emerge.


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy, Faculty of ArtsAmbrose Alli UniversityEkpomaNigeria

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