The MisEducation of the Negro" In the African


The MisEducation of the Negro" In the African Context

by George B N Ayittey

Applied to Africa, [Carter G. Woodson's "The MisEducation of the Negro] has great validity, which can be labeled "elite dysfunctionalism." This restricts "mis-education" to African elites, rather than to the people at large.

Colonization initiated a process of acculturation. Through contact with European colonialists and education, African natives came to learn of the former's way of life, such as mannerisms, habits of dressing and eating. The process was accelerated by education, the military might of the colonialists, and the general disparagement of African traditional beliefs and customs.

Denigration of Africans and their traditions was a common feature of colonialism, and references to Africans as  "primitive" and "backward" punctuated scholarly work. The European colonialists constituted a super elite group (reference group), who seldom socialized with the natives.
They ran their own social clubs and organizations (Rotary and Polo clubs) and generally held the natives in contempt. Sociologists refer to this treatment as "withdrawal of status respect."

"Disparagement demonstrates that his traditional occupation is not sufficiently valued by the reference group to validate other aspects of his traditional behavior. He may be as diligent a cultivator or petty manufacturer or shopkeeper as anyone could possibly expect, yet he is still disparaged. Groups whose opinions he has learned to respect no
longer look on his role as entirely worthy. For peace of mind he must feel that the position which defines his position in the social structure is worthy and he must also defer to the
attitudes of the reference group. These two inner attitudes are now contradictory; he cannot do both" (Hagen, 1962, 206).

These inner conflicts produced anxiety and frustration, which in turn caused irritation and rage. The victim could not vent this rage on his oppressors because they were too powerful. The anxiety, frustration and hostility produced by acculturation tended to create three general types of personalities: retreatists, malcontents, and ritualists
(conformists). The retreatist was the individual who, apparently baffled by the complexity of the new culture, retreated into the sanctity of his traditional world. By fleeing to the rural area, such individual escaped the unrelenting onslaught of denigration by the colonial administrators
residing in the urban areas.

The malcontents were generally highly educated and professional. They found the very fact of colonialism unacceptable and were never satisfied with the colonial status. Infused with the ethos of liberty and humanism, this group rejected the subjugation of one human group by
another. Although they possessed the qualifications required to work in the colonial administration, most chose, out of high moral and intellectual principles, not to. Instead, they waged a relentless crusade against colonial rule. Out of this group came African nationalist leaders of the anticolonial struggle: Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, among others.

The ritualists were by far the most predominant type of personality. In experiencing extreme derogation, the victims sought to protect themselves by a psychological reaction mechanism known as identification with the aggressor. They persuaded themselves that if they had characteristics identical to the aggressors', they would not be harmed
or destroyed by them. So ritualists modeled themselves after the aggressors (the colonialists), slavishly imitating their external traits. If the colonial masters wore white shirt and tie, so did they, never mind Africa's hot and humid climate. If the colonialists consumed sardines and drank tea at 4:00 p.m. and Ovaltine at night, so did they.

"And so in a Dutch colony, in his sports, clothes and speech he [the ritualist] might become more Dutch than Dutch; in a British colony, depending on his social class he went in for soccer or tennis or golf and, whatever his class, for physical fitness. If he had the opportunity he might study in the western type of university which the colonial masters established. He might pursue the occupations they approved,
becoming for example a clerk in their offices" (Hagen, 1962, 419).

In their frenzied attempts to imitate the colonialists or imbibe their alien incomprehensible traits, the ritualists never questioned or sought to understand why the colonialists drank tea at 4:00 p.m. or behaved the way they did. Ritualists just aped them -- a mimic syndrome that Africans call "monkey dey see, monkey dey do." Thus, their behavior was
by rote or mechanical rather than alert and rational, a fact that often resulted in a confused emotional state.

Although the ritualists were naturally predisposed toward conformism, the colonial government also demanded conformist behavior for the preservation of the status quo and took steps to ensure that the educational system served this purpose. While missionaries were concerned primarily with teaching people to read so that they could absorb the lessons of the Bible, the colonial governments needed only obedient clerks. No large demand for technical skills was envisaged, as the colonies were conceived to be purveyors of raw materials and foodstuffs. "Adapted to the purposes of forming clerks, ministers of religion and later lawyers and officials, the educational institutions in Colonial Africa laid stress on literary and legal studies and neglected industrial and commercial training, not to speak of the agricultural, shunned by everybody and stigmatized by the notion that anything to do with the cultivation of the soil is fit only for a poor and uneducated rustic" (Andreski, 1969, 204).

Students were taught the French constitution, the British parliamentary system, the geography of the British Isles and France, British history, and French literature. The subjects' relevance was seldom questioned. To ritualist students, education was a passport to white collar employment,
prestige, and the status that had been denied them. What mattered to them most was the acquisition of the magic piece of paper. Indeed, for a placement in the post office, instruction in the British constitution was a requirement.

Gradually an educated class, an elite (evolues), began to emerge distinct from the populace. These African graduates enjoyed salaries that, although well below those of the colonial administrators, were extremely high by African standards. They acted like the European colonialists because to be called "obroni" (white man) was a term of praise. To have obtained part of one's education in Europe or America or
even to have merely visited there carried the prestige label "been to." To live in a bungalow (however small) in the European residential area carried prestige. Eating European dishes, inviting Europeans to your home, or generally associating with Europeans was prestigious.

To the elites, Westernization offered a way to gain acceptance or equality. Accordingly, African elites wore Western clothes, spoke Western languages, drove Western cars, and talked about Western art and culture. In Westernizing themselves, they believed that discrimination
at the hands of the colonialists would ease. And in proving that they were more "French" than the French, the ritualists hoped that they would be accepted.


The malcontents led the struggle against colonial rule, and the
immediate effect of independence was to catapult them into power in Anglophone, and, later, Lusophone Africa. In Francophone Africa, with the possible exception of Guinea and Algeria, ritualists, such as Leopold Senghor of Senegal and Felix Houphouet-Boigny of Cote d'Ivoire, came to power. The malcontents tended to be anti-Western, while the
ritualists were more pro-Western. Nonetheless, both groups quickly moved into positions vacated by the departing colonial administrators. The ritualists had little difficulty continuing where the colonialists left off. The malcontents, however, had it rough, for the inner psychological contradictions they had long suppressed burst into the open. During the liberation struggle, the malcontents had characterized colonial rule as
"alien" and the colonialists as "infidels." Imbued with a deep
sense of African pride and dignity, they felt, on the one hand, the need to eradicate all the vestiges of the hated system of colonial rule. But, on the other, they could not reject everything Western. After all, they had obtained their education in the West. In addition, they were in awe of
the trappings of Western culture and craved the finest the West had to offer.  Rather perversely, the malcontents in the became pseudo-ritualists, imitating Western or foreign paraphernalia - especially in the field of development.

After independence, African nationalists and elites settled down to face the daunting challenge of developing Africa, in a manner consistent with African traditions and necessary to uplift African dignity. At the same time, however, there was a deep seated hatred of colonialism. Emotions were running high after independence. The elites, euphoric over freedom
from the colonial yoke, abhorred reminders of their former subjugated status. Colonialism and imperialism were adjudged to be exploitative and oppressive. Any institution perceived to be "colonial" or associated with colonialism in the slightest way was to be annihilated.

Apart from their hostility toward the "colonial institutions," the
elites displayed another inimitable trait: an impatience to develop Africa. They could not be faulted on either proclivity. The colonial regimes were alien and there was clearly the need to develop Africa to suit Africa's own needs, not those of Europeans.

Having condemned the colonial system as impoverishing, the nationalists and elites found themselves under tremendous pressure to "prove to the world" that they could develop Africa, and quickly, to shame the colonialists. Nkrumah of Ghana, for example, was determined to "achieve in a decade what it took others a century." He also vowed to "demolish
these miserable colonial structures and erect in their place a veritable paradise." Virtually all the nationalists shared similar beliefs.

But there was a pervasive belief among the nationalists and elites that Africa's own indigenous institutions were "too backward," "too primitive" for the rapid development and transformation of Africa. Almost everywhere in Africa, the native institutions were castigated as "inferior." Ashamed of the label of "backwardness," the elites embarked upon a program of development that placed obtrusive emphasis on
industry. No longer should Africa be relegated to the "inferior" status of "drawers of water and hewers of wood." Industrialization was synonymous with development. Consequently, agriculture and other primary
activities were shunned as too "backward."

The natives were urged to abandon their backward ways and adopt "modern methods." For example, Kenya's Minister of National Guidance and Political Affairs, Mr. James Njiru banned the True Love magazine in February 1989, for publishing a cover photograph of naked girls dancing before King Mswati of Swaziland. "He argued that Kenyans should abandon
backward cultures for modern ones that are acceptable to foreigners, but this seems to deny that Africans should be proud of their African culture. There is nothing intrinsically virtuous or respectable in Western modes of dress and behavior" (New African, March 1989; p.28).

It was widely assumed, not only by African elites but outside experts as well, that the adoption of foreign values was necessary for successful economic development. Development became synonymous with "change." Nkrumah, again, best expressed this attitude. Though agriculture was the
main economic activity of indigenous Africa, he felt he could not rely on peasant farmers for a rapid agricultural revolution because they were "too slow to adapt or change their practices to modern, mechanized methods" (Uphoff, 1970; p.602).

Misconstruction Of The Notion Of Development

Development was almost everywhere in Africa misconstrued to mean "change" and the "adoption of modern and scientific methods." In this rote behavior the real meaning was not clear. The approach was akin to what educators call the "refrigerator fallacy." All teachers have refrigerators and therefore if one tried hard enough to acquire a refrigerator, one would become a teacher! The developed countries were
industrialized and therefore if one acquired enough industries (and perhaps a nuclear bomb), presto one would become a developed country.

Clearly, this perverted way of looking at things shifted the emphasis away from the rigorous process of training to become a teacher to the rather facile task of acquiring the "symbol" of the occupation to be considered a teacher. Similarly in development, the emphasis was shifted
from understanding the modus operandi to a preoccupation with its symbols. If an African head to state showed off a brand new shiny piece of imported tractor, it would "prove" that agriculture had been "mechanized." Precisely what that tractor was supposed to do to improve agricultural productivity or whether the support infrastructure existed
or not was irrelevant. The mere presence of the tractor was of
overriding importance. Such antics and obsession with symbolism betrayed a woeful lack of understanding of the development process.

African elites took this peculiar development approach and its
concomitant neglect and deprecation of indigenous systems to many other fields as well. In this way, almost every production activity organized by the elites became so dependent on the very inputs Africa did not have or possess the foreign exchange to import. Agriculture, for example, now
required chemical fertilizers, tractors and combine harvesters. Without these, the elites were stuck, as "mechanization" was all the rage.

Feeling that they could not rely on Africa's "backward" indigenous institutions, the nationalists and elites searched for some foreign systems to adopt for Africa. But then, they possessed only an imperfect understanding of these foreign systems too -- a double jeopardy for Africa. One could not expect African nationalists to be completely conversant with the intricacies and the internal mechanics of the British, French, Russian or Chinese systems. Moreover, each of these
foreign systems had evolved through time and reflected the unique cultural and political experiences of their peoples. In every political constitution there is a cultural imprint. The political events experienced by Africans are decisively different from those of Americans and other people. Obviously, implanting an American or Soviet constitution in an African country would be absurd.

African elites were in a fix; their choices were limited. The adoption of Western systems was generally out of the question, as they symbolized a submission to Western notions of "superiority," colonial exploitation and oppression. Since capitalism was synonymous with colonialism, it too was evil and exploitative. The inevitable choice was socialism, the anti-thesis of capitalism. It was to be the guiding ideology. Only socialism could check the evil machinations of neo colonialism, imperialism and capitalist exploitation, the nationalists argued. Moreover, socialism could be accorded some authenticity by such African concepts as "family pot," "strong sense of community or tribalism" and "sharing." These arguments provided the rationale for the near-universal adoption of one-party socialist state systems under life-presidents in Africa. One convenient argument was that "there was only one African chief and he ruled for life." But these nonsensical arguments for one-party socialist dictatorships could in no way be validated by African tradition. Indigenous African systems were grossly distorted by various African dictators to suit their political purposes.

Africa's current development crisis emanates from the defective approach adopted by African elites and leaders with considerable support from foreign governments and multilateral agencies. What occurred in Africa was development by imitation. Grandiose projects and schemes were copied abroad and transplanted into Africa with little understanding of their suitability.

American farmers use tractors and chemical fertilizers; so too must we in Africa. New York has skyscrapers; so too must Africa in the middle of nowhere. London has doubledeck buses; so too must Accra and Lagos. The Soviet Union has state farms; so too must Africa. In 1964, Nkrumah
demanded a bylaw to require all advertisements in Accra to be lit by neon so that the streets of the capital would resemble Piccadilly Circle in London. France once had an emperor. So Bokassa of the Central African Republic spent $20 million in 1976 to crown himself an emperor. Rome has
a basilica; so too must Ivory Coast. The United States has two political parties; so too must Nigeria. Accordingly, the military regime of President Ibrahim Babangida created two political parties: the Social Democratic Party and the National Republican Convention. To add more insult, the military regime also wrote their party manifestoes. The U.S. has a space program, so too must Nigeria. The list of this type of
unimaginative aping ("so-too-must-we" syndrome) in Africa is endless.

This Mis-Education of the Negro is really elite dysfunctionalism in Africa.

George Ayittey,
Washington, DC


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