Decolonising the mind as necessary as ever

Joseph Rwagatare

A little over thirty years ago, renowned Kenyan writer, Ngugi wa Thiongo, published a collection of essays entitled: Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature.

It was an important collection in which he examined the negative impact of the use of colonial languages on the languages, cultures and dignity of Africans.

The essays made a passionate case for linguistic decolonisation and reclaiming our languages and cultural identity.

He was writing at the height of a debate in Africa about the place and use of foreign languages in education and literature. That debate has never been resolved as indeed the whole question of decolonisation.

Ngugi’s essays were published more than a quarter of a century after independence in much of Africa. That was a time when we sought to reclaim our political and territorial space. That too seems not to have been completed.

Today we are still talking about decolonisation and its necessity is as valid and urgent as it ever was. Of course we do not use the word much. Actually, we avoid it. For some, it has a negative ring of the past about it that does not sit comfortably with the more hopeful present.

They want to be seen as forward looking, marching to the future and not stuck in the past. Others want to appear as being firmly in charge and do not want to be mistaken for whining or even to admit failure.

Yet more think that, fifty years after independence, it is no longer credible to blame all our failures on colonisation.

And so we hear variants of the concept of decolonisation instead. They go like this: we must control our own affairs; there is need for a mindset change; we have to hold our destiny in our own hands, and so on.

The admission here is that things have not really changed much, that we do not control these things and so must continue the struggle to wrest them from whoever is.

But this does not mean that there has been no effort to change this situation. Every conference on Africa is about this. Attempts at unity through various means, such as regional economic integration, continental free trade area, open skies, digital integration and so on aim to correct this.

Indeed the just concluded Transform Africa Summit in Kigali examined the issue of digital integration across the continent, among other matters. One such aspect of digital integration is operating a one area network for mobile telecommunication.

We learnt that one of the greatest impediments to greater integration was the question of mindset. While many countries have signed up to the one area network, many others have not. Apparently some people simply refuse to see the value of intra-Africa cooperation, and instead prefer ties to outside countries.

We learnt that fifty years after the first wave of decolonisation efforts we still cannot communicate directly among ourselves. A lot of telecommunications traffic still has to go through Europe before reaching those for whom it is intended in other African countries.

There are several things wrong with this state of affairs,

First, our communication is controlled by others. What we say is closely monitored. We cannot claim any sort of sovereignty.

Second, foreign countries through which communication to ourselves transits charge a fee for the service. They make money out of our own communication, while we lose it.

Third, it makes closer cooperation among African countries very difficult.

The continuation of transfer of telecommunications traffic through Europe makes no business or technological sense, according to Dr Hamadoun Toure, Executive Director of Smart Africa Alliance.

President Paul Kagame stressed the issue of losing money to outsiders. He said Africa loses billions every year through lost taxes, sending private assets abroad.  For him the issue has to do with mindset and one way to correct it is to identify mindsets that hold us back and change accordingly.

Do not imagine for a moment that those guilty of the sort of mindset that looks outside Africa for all manner of things are the ordinary people. Far from it. They are actually among Africa’s business, intellectual and political elite, including leaders at the highest level. They actively back the trend or are indifferent to it. For whichever reason they do this, it is clear that they have not liberated themselves from looking to the outside for leadership or solutions.

It might be a question of mindset or a complex of some kind, ignorance or because they have in some way been compromised. All of which point to the fact that decolonisation is still unfinished business whether we want to call it by its name or not. Beyond the concerns of literature and culture, Ngugi wa Thiongo’s essay on decolonising the mind is as relevant today as it was when he published it in 1986.


The views expressed in this article are of the author.


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