Kemi traveled to Africa. She thought she would be re-immersed into her original roots and culture, but she found something else.
Colonial Mentality, by Kemi
In 2010, I longed for a change of environment, and decided I wanted to travel to other parts of the world for some time, and then thought going to Africa for a year would be ideal since many had accused me of losing touch with my roots, so off I went to West Africa to spend one year in Nigeria.
I expected that I would be re-immersed into my original roots and culture. But I was to be surprised because most of the people I met suffered from a condition that’s best described as ‘colonial mentality’.
In his book, Colonial Mentality in Africa, Michael Nkuzi Nnam describes (African) colonial mentality as an unintentional attempt by Africans to continue to behave like they are still under colonial rule. It happens when people who have been colonised accept the culture or doctrines of the coloniser as fundamentally better or more superior. It usually means the colonised feel inferior or improper if they don’t adopt the coloniser’s ideals.
So in what ways did I notice this trend?
Fashion / Appearance
I didn’t expect Nigerian people to dress like cave men or women, but I expected that people would be prouder of their heritage. On a positive note, I did notice that a lot of Nigerians took a lot of pride in their culture and this was evident in the food they ate and the colourful, fanciful, Nigerian clothing they wore. Most companies even had the policy of advising employees to wear traditional Nigerian clothing on Fridays, a sort of ‘dress down Friday’ initiative, which I really loved. However, when it came to physical beauty, unfortunately, I’d say a lot of Nigerians, in fact a lot of Africans, are still nursing a colonial mentality. I was coming from the Western world, where many black women were becoming more and more aware of their roots, becoming proud of these, and showing it by starting movements such as those that encourage natural hair. Natural, thick, full, black hair has become a sort of statement (and dare I say aspirational trend) for many black women in the Western world, and rightly so, celebrated. However, in Nigeria, the ideal woman has Brazilian or Indian hair extensions which she buys with half of her salary. If (especially as a woman) you carried a funky natural style or afro around in Nigeria, you automatically would be assumed to be some religious zealot or mad being. I tell you.
Everyone’s got their right to adopt whatever look they feel works for them, and this is not a campaign against wearing human hair extensions; but truth be told, let’s call a spade a spade, let’s hit the nail on the head, let’s not beat about the bush, if you feel incomplete, improper or inferior when rocking your natural hair, you have a case of colonial mentality.
Apart from the hair, I notice that even among most Africans, lighter skin complexions are favoured over darker skin tones. More so in Nigeria, it is evident in pop culture, and for example in some Yoruba music lyrics which use words like ‘omo pupa’ (light-skinned girl) or ‘apon-bepo-re’ (as light as palm oil) to describe a man’s ideal woman. Women with lighter skin tones are seen as more beautiful. The dark complexion of a woman now baits unpleasant jesting. Duduyemi as a name has become a joke, in fact some sort of sarcasm, rather than the statement of black beauty it is supposed to represent. So it is no surprise that skin bleaching creams are all over the beauty shops in Nigeria, in Africa, even in many parts of Asia. This is simply colonial mentality.
A lot of Nigerians eat their own native food, which they refer to as ‘proper food’. Proper because any other food is not proper. That’s a beautiful thing. But then you find that when a lot of Nigerians want to show that they are well-off or posh, they don’t go for ‘proper food’. For example, if you know you really love ‘proper food’, but because you want to appear posh at a Nigerian party you decide to go for foreign plates, you are clearly suffering from colonial mentality.
There is a certain perception of affluence you get in Nigeria if as a native you have a foreign surname. If you are Nigerian, you may not agree because it’s one of those attitudes that have been so subconsciously ingrained in the society, so, few people are aware of or even talk about it. In Nigerian movies, I’ve observed that most times, rich kids are portrayed as bearing surnames such as ‘Williams’, ‘Davies’, ‘Philip’ or ‘Brown’. There’s nothing wrong with having a non-Nigerian surname, after all, if that’s your lot, there’s not much you can do about it, you didn’t choose it, you were born into it. However, what is wrong is the perception of such names as superior/better, compared to indigenous names.
Colonial Mentality or Acculturation?
Having said all that though, colonial mentality is not the only reason people adopt non-indigenous values or cultures. Let’s face it; there is this issue of globalisation. Every single day, the world keeps converging to become a global village. No country is an island on its own (figuratively speaking!). Thanks to technology, education, travel and many other factors, inter-continent and inter-country interactions make us all share our cultural tastes. We begin to discover new ways of doing things, and adopt them, if we prefer them to our own cultures. It’s probably mostly also a case of acculturation, where people take on new cultures and psychological attitudes after their own cultures intercept with others’. Even in our culinary choices, Chinese cuisines, for example, are not only popular and loved in Western countries, they are now becoming popular in many other countries, and especially in Nigeria, where there are a growing population of people who continue to discover and add new dimensions to their palate. This doesn’t necessarily mean they have a colonial mentality if they prefer foreign food over their native food. It’s all about motives really. If people are trying out different things to see what works for them, then it is understandable. But there is clearly an issue when somebody thinks less of something they like personally, just because the world says it is not the ‘ideal’.
Of course you do have your rights to choose who you want to be, what you want to wear and the message (s) you want to pass across in your chosen way of life. Just always remember that it’s your life at the end of the day, and letting the world dictate for you what you should do with your life is surrendering the control of your life to the manipulative demands of that world.
Fela Kuti, one of Africa’s most prominent musicians before his death wrote a song titled ‘Colo Mentality’. Even though he shortened the word ‘colonial’ to ‘colo’, that title is an amusing pun, because colo in Nigerian slang means ‘crazy’ or ‘mad’. An excerpt from the lyrics from the song says: “Dem don release una, but you never release yourself.” Translation: They (the colonisers) have released you, but you have not released yourself.
As Bob Marley put it, “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery.”
The colonial masters have released you. Now release yourself.
Kemi is an ex-journalist based in the UK, of Nigerian origin, who I likes to compare cultures of Africans at home and those in the diaspora. Her blog: http://kemiogunniyi.wordpress.com