Friday, April 27, 2012

VIEWS: Colonial Mentality in Africa

UK guest blogger 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:


  1. Dear afro-blog

    Kemi will not be the last african from the diaspora to come up with such nonsense. There is a lot negative to say about Africa today and one of the things Africa do not deserve is the misconceptions grown in the heads of so called African diaspora who travelled to Africa and expected to discover a continent living on its own. 500 years of direct contact with different continents, slavery, colonisation and freedom struggle in Africa and around the world have impregnated the very fabrics of Africans in the continent and Africa. This historical heritage and its very negative impact on Africans and the associated frustrations felt by African in the diaspora often lead to this search of a mythical Africa. A reverse Livingston expedition is really a damaging and experience for African from the diaspora. Some Africans from the diaspora are expecting to find a virgin Africa in the same way white supremacists are longing for a white Europe liberated from the negative black touch.

    Africa as been part and parcel in the creation of the modern world and achievements that might be defined as western are in fact our own product. The so called accusation of colonial mentally is a lousy attempt to get Africans rejecting their place in world history in the same way white supremacists in UK are frustrated because of Black presence. African can dress like Prince Charles, talk like Bob Marley and enjoy Jolof rice; and still be Africans who do not reject their historical and cultural heritage. It is all ours. That is the true face of Africa today and the main concern of Africans should be tackling pressing issues like poverty alleviation, business and wealth creation, sustainable management of our natural heritage and democratic development.

    As far as the so-called colonial mentally when referred to the fact that African do not behave as Kemi might expect I fear it in the same way I fear the idea of a mythical white Europe.

    Dear Kemi, we need to move forward to a liberated Africa where Africans are not caught in misconceptions that do not take into account our rich and controversial historical and cultural heritage. Africa do not deserve new reverse Livingston expeditions with young Brits following the fotsteps of Livingston or frustrated African in search of a mythical Africa.

    Birame Diouf
    Oslo, Norway

    1. I think you missed Kemi's point, or are in complete DENIAL of her assertions and observations! It certainly IS a colonial, highly-destructive mentality for Africans, and as she noticed, Nigerians in particular, to bleach their skin, denigrate dark skinned black women as ugly and inferior, place the lighter skinned minority as more beautiful and acceptable, find their indigenous last names as inferior to Western surnames, and believe their own God-grown and God-given hair as diabolical and ugly, but straight Asian hair extensions as supreme. ALL THIS SOUNDS LIKE A SUCCESSFUL MISSION OF COLONIAL MENTALITY, and no good can come from it! If Africans don't love and appreciate their own bodies and selves, how on earth can they expect the rest of humanity to do so?!

      A rereading of Franz Fanon's "Black Skin, White Masks" would work wonders for Africans right about NOW!

    2. I understand what Birame says. It is simply time for us humans to be humans and literally come out of our "skin" (color, gender, profession, nationality, etc.) to finally embrace our true nature. Oneness through diversity. Not entitlement through diversity. We're not entitled to anything. We are all products of the immense cosmos over billions of years and beyond. If we allow ourselves to begin to look deeply within, then some of the atrocities of our time will progressively fade away. One love,

    3. @Birame (IYPAD): Thanks for reading and also for your comment! I appreciate your point of view. I hope you would also see as John also pointed out that the article was not an attempt to put Africa or Africans in a negative light, rather, it is supposed to highlight issues that are still preventing Africans from progressing due to their own lack of identity. I don't expect you to accept this fact, as everyone is entitled to their own opinions, and I love it when someone has a different opinion from mine. The world would be a boring place if we all agreed.

    4. @Kemi I read your blog post, Its on one of my favorite blogs, but I'm not sure it belongs here. My question to you is, why single out Nigeria and not take more time to address the issue of so called "colonial mentality" as a whole throughout the African Diaspora? Laziness? Your article is a bit superficial as well. You named many symptoms but I didn't read any actionable responses to your hangups. Africans are everywhere in the Diaspora as you well know. Let's start a conversation of African contributions and real progress prior to 1619 and we might distract ourselves from the same conversation about our hair, clothing, and other topical attributes that we have used to define ourselves since the start of colonization and the institution of slave trade. We have more to talk about than what your ideal Africa looks, smells, feels like. I don't wish to offend but you provided your opinion in a public forum. I only wish to contrast it a bit. Thanks for listening.

  2. I agree w/ Kemi. Xala a 1975 Senegalese comedy that touches on this issue. In the movie the President ignorantly boasts that he only drinks imported water from Europe. He even uses bottled water to for his car's radiator.

    1. Amusing!
      I personally know people in Nigeria who only wear clothing from Europe or North America. Note I say 'ONLY'. There is nothing wrong in wearing clothes from different parts of the world; but there's surely something wrong when I see people in Nigeria who deliberately ONLY prefer foreign things. These seemingly little issues are parts of the root causes of greed (because 'foreign things' don't come cheap), which eventually lead to corruption, as seen evidently in some African nations' politics today.

  3. All the phenomenons Kemi and John are pointing out are marginal in African context and cannot be used again and again to tell that Africans have lost contact with whom they are. Millions of African do have Arab or Roman-Christians names, have light skin without bleaching or are married with men or women who are lighter in skin than themselves. Many of the readers of this blog will find themselves in the above mentioned categories and I would not never allow myself to idenfiy them as suffering from a colonial mentality.

    We need to move forward and offer new paradigms and avoid reproducing clichés. I am not surprised that my reply will be answered by more clichés but please give me an answer about the main question: Could Kemi find her lost original roots, a Nigeria not marked by colonialism and Western influence?

    Not to deny that the clichés do exist the purpose of my reply was to raise a debate that goes beyond clichés. Kemi was not in Africa to ressetle. She is not ready for that as far as I can read from her contribution. She was there just for a year to reconnect to her original roots and expected to find Nigerians acting and living like "Nigerians". She would then return to her safe and welcoming UK more confident that her fellow Nigerians will keep the fire alive still living as "Nigerians".

    I have read Fanon. And I have also also read Cheikh Anta Diop a black and tall Senegalese man who by the way is one the main role models for Afrocentrists, and a man who was married all his life with a white woman.

    Did that alter his world views or reduced him to a puppet for colonial powers? Not at all. His contribution to the uplifting of Black self esteem and pride is acknowledged around around Africa and the African diaspora.

    We must move beyond the clichés to tackle the real issues affecting Africa and Africans. That is the debate I want to see in this blog and not the reproducing of old and fallen clichés and stereotypes about Africa and Africans.

    May be I am on the wrong blog.

    Birame Diouf

    1. I appreciate how you embrace the emergence of a new consciousness Birame. Why is it so important to be labeled "African" when a child in Afghanistan hasn't eaten, when a woman in Bulgaria just got sold to a brothel and her "pimp" may not let her come out of it alive? Why will I shout everywhere "I'm African, I'm supposed to be wearing this color or that color or that fabric clothing (boubou, basin, pagne, etc...)" when sadness is everywhere? Can we re-evaluate ourselves just for a moment? I'm human. I want to be nothing else that separates me from the other humans. And yes, we've all contributed to each other's cultures over years and years of interaction. It's very subtle. Look deeply within...

    2. Birame,
      One more thing...I think you missed the part in the article where I discussed the concept of acculturation. If you read that part you would see that I did appreciate that gradually as a result of globalisation and other historical events, we interact with other cultures and adopt new ways of life. I did point out that this in itself does not mean we are taking on a colonial mentality. There is, in my opinion, clearly an issue if due to acculturation anybody (whether African or not) begin to think less of themselves or their preferred way of life because a certain cultural expectation paradigm of a society. That was really the main point of the article.

    3. Birame,
      One more thing...I think you missed the part in the article where I discussed the concept of acculturation. If you read that part you would see that I did appreciate that gradually as a result of globalisation and other historical events, we interact with other cultures and adopt new ways of life. I did point out that this in itself does not mean we are taking on a colonial mentality. There is, in my opinion, clearly an issue if due to acculturation anybody (whether African or not) begin to think less of themselves or their preferred way of life because of a certain expected cultural expectation/paradigm of a society. That was really the main point of the article.

  4. Dear Kemi,

    Africa hasn't changed. Did you look around? The sky is the same, the water is the same. The trees are the same, green and producing the oxygen for its people to breathe, the birds, oh the beautiful birds! The sand has that particular color it always had. Did you look around?

    To you, people have changed just like to them, you have changed. We humans do change, as we respond to different stimuli and evolve in our own humanity.

    You were disappointed because of specific expectations you had of what people should be doing.

    Next time you decide to return to Africa, just go with an attitude of love and service. Give them love, laugh with them, accept them. They need that from you. No judgement.

    They probably judged you too, only they do not have a blog like this to express it on.

    I haven't been to Africa in 16 years, I don't care what people will be doing or wearing when I do go. Thsi time when I am there, I will make sure I discover Africa, I smell the flowers, I admire the birds, I pay hommage to the trees, I smile with the kids running around barefoot, I let my skin be touched by the African breeze. I never did that all the years I live there during my childhood and my adolescence.

    Africa and every other part of the world, this earth, has not changed. The sun still goes down as the moon rises.

    One love,


    1. Thynna,
      Thanks for your comment.
      I cannot believe what I am reading from you. Let me quickly correct you. "They probably judged you too, only they do not have a blog like this to express it on." I'd like to inform you that Africans in Africa have blogs and they blog a lot, in fact.
      I am surprised you wrote that because you are supposed to be challenging my stance on the subject of colonial mentality, as I assume from your comments that you probably don't agree with my stance.
      But you are right to say, as I also said in my article, that acculturation does happen, and as cultures interact, we inevitably take on each other's way of life.
      I suggest you visit countries in Africa sometime soon when you can, they are indeed beautiful. Just always remember that visiting for a few days or weeks is different from actually living there.

    2. Hum... Not everybody you have met, I presume, does have a blog. Some do, I am sure, some don't.
      I was simply looking at things from a different panoramic angle.
      I, in fact, acknowledge what you write and I have no place in trying to challenge your discourse.
      Any dissertation is a noble work of a brain. Thank you for this exchange.

      On a lighter note, if you had showed us some pictures of handsome African men, I would have been even more delighted! That brown skin (all shades, of course) on tight muscles... Hum...


      One love,


    3. LOL.
      I do have some pictures ;)

  5. Let me begin by saying: THANK YOU, dear Kemi, for visiting Nigeria and sharing your astute observations with us! We need more stories like yours. I sorely tire of African/African-Diasporic blogs about Black folk going to countries, taking snapshots by bodies of water and piles of sand and groves of palms trees----and telling us NOTHING! I, for one, want to read insightful, enriching dialogue that reveals "how did natives of given foreign land relate to the Black visitors? What was their reception?" You did that, Kemi, and we should be grateful.

    As for the dissonance about what you saw.....It is what it is. NO ONE has written anything substantive to disprove the reality that Black Africa is dangerously sliding down a slippery slope of self-hatred if it "joyously" continues to revel in this "lighter skin is prettier, Western attire is finer, colonial surnames are nicer" path. How can anyone deny that self-hatred is dangerous? I don't get it! We African Diasporans in the Americas have seen---and suffered---500 years of this.

    Even today, in every Spanish-speaking country in the Americas there is a "pigmentocracy", a racist caste system based on skin tones, where white skin is seen and accepted as the most superior and black skin tones are the most inferior and unacceptable. Even Haiti, the first country in the Americas to win their freedom from enslavement endures this to this day. The wealthiest, most educated and politically-powerful Haitians are self-named "Mulatto elites." The unmixed black-skinned Haitians are "servants" in the very land their ancestors freed. Is this what Africa is willing to accept---and even embrace, with the fervor for skin-bleaching creams?

    I'm not going to go back and forth arguing my point, but those who know the deleterious effects of embracing a colonial mindset, which you observed to certain degrees in Africa, Kemi, know in their heart of hearts that the more Africa looks in the proverbial mirror and sees the reflection of "ugliness" staring back at them, the more problems they will face in the near future.
    Take it or leave it, naysayers.

    1. End of discussion! :)
      John, you've nailed it. It is a matter of 'take it or leave it', it is what is it, regardless of any denial.
      Keep rocking.

  6. Well, First, I would say THANKS to all of you. Especially to Kemi, who wrote this interesting article! Second, I would apologise for my English, I always do, since I now express myself in a more confortable way only in Spanish.
    Without beat around the bush, and hitting the nail on the head, I have to say that I do agree with Kemi's point against that social self-persuasion that the lighter-skinned you are, the more beautiful you are. That's actually what I remember hearing when I was a child there, and It's also true that even in the Americas, after that History that have, countries such as Argentina o Chile, have practically exterminated their black inhabitants along the last century in other to welcome only white skinned European immigrant. And it's also true that countries such as Brazil o Cuba, blessed with a powerful black popultation of Africant descent have established that kind of "pigmentocray" (love the term!), and their society is based on to date. I will not support that kind of ideology on basis of Globalisation interaction networks. This a long time wave that has been developped till dangerous borders for some people in the world. However, it's also true that most Africans I know are light skinned people, more o less, that's not the point. Lots of mixture have been there. And what is more important, there are also millions of Africans who do appreciate their dark skin colour, because we can go step by step out of that colonised mindset, which is a fact to, according to my experience. But, it is not to blame Nigerian living in Nigeria: they copy and imitate mostly African American celebrities or other pop "black" artists from diaspora; they have been educated into that ideology long time ago, and it takes time to form a proper self indetity, beacause Identity is based on 3 features: selfsameness, the opinion of others, and biological origin. And, unfortunately, they all influence the person we want to be, and maybe it should be that way. We are looking for such thing like a Proper Black African continent, we (I) aware that people change as we all change. I just wish we could respect ourself better to reach a better respect in the world: not racist, but neither paternalism or cultural neo-colonialism.

    And I think that Birame was right in outlining the question about Kemi's expectations: maybe there is not such a mytical Africa we dream of when in diaspora; but, true that, it does not mean that we should accept every attitude we know to be wrong only because it comes from our African brothers. I, as an African, I do accept that thinks have changed, that my nephews and cousins to chat, and have blogs, do love American music and culture, but I cannot accept that they may think in their inner heart that a whiter woman is worther than a darker one (I know what I'm talking about); but I think that it's a process, a step in our lifetime path that will finally lead to selfesteem. There nothing written about preferences and choices, but every culture should try to dignify its people, which does not necessarily mean that they disrespect others culture.
    I also went back to Africa, especially to Cameroon, after more than a decade abroad(adolescence, University time) and did notice that things have changed, but there possitive and negatives points over this change. We all should be critical about the future we want: not just a Romantic desire of kissing children and smelling flowers (which I love), but also a aim of getting stronger, from the deep to the surface. Thanks, and sorry for my english again.

    1. This is an excellent view of both sides Resplebis, and insightful as well. I agree, we need to be critical now about the kind of future we want, and not get touchy when these kind of issues are raised. It's a journey, definitely not a destination.

  7. Well, sorry, I meant: "We are NOT looking for such a thing like a Proper Black African continent" and "We are aware that people change"...

  8. I would like to thank Kemi for replying to all the comments. If you want a reply from Kemi, please comment on her blog from now on.

    But of course you can still give your opinion in this dicussion.

  9. I agree with Birame's comments

  10. Thanks to Kemi and commenters for a very interesting read.

    As an African American who has not [yet] traveled anywhere besides in the USA & Canada, I love reading about Black cultures throughout the world. And I love watching music/dance videos of those cultures. I'm not looking for some mythological traditional Africa. I know that cultures can & do change, and that change can be a sign of health & well being.

    However, I confess that some changes sadden me. For instance, I've been noticing in videos of Senegalese women dancing sabar, that a number of the young women wear a shirt and jeans. I've also noticed videos of West African women wearing their hair straightened, or blond, or with hair weaves (extensions). Yes, I believe that women should have the right to choose how they want to dress, and how they want to wear their hair. But my concern is that those choices might reflect an attitude and belief that traditional African clothing and natural hair styles (or bald head) in women are inherently unstylish, and are inferior to Western clothing and Western hairstyles. And as for skin bleaching! I believe that the use of those products is not only unhealthy in the long term but also reflects a societal view that White is always better than Black or Brown.

    African American have been there, done that. And some of us (I think an increasing number of us) have come to the realization that White values and physical appearances should not be considered the only standard of beauty or the standard of beauty that is always superior to any other.

    As Resplebis wrote "There nothing written about preferences and choices, but every culture should try to dignify its people, which does not necessarily mean that they disrespect others culture".

    Thanks again!

    1. Thanks for reading Ms Azizi, and for that last quote from Resplebis!

  11. What an interesting piece to read! in as much as Nigeria aspires to move forward and join her counterparts in the world, there is bound to be changes, adjustments and imbibing of other cultures. Almost every culture in the world is shifting balance to accommodate & preserve globalization, also technology advancement in the last 20 years is quite amazing and thus its quite expedient to keep up with the changes in the world. Example is the embarrassing video of an African Prime Minister's diplomatic blunders:
    We have seen Europeans singing songs in Yoruba language, witnessed the Africans rising to the top of professions in foreign land, non-Africans joining in celebrating of Nigerian festivals and many other things we have unknowingly inscribed into the culture of the 'supposed colonial masters'
    Remember, the only constant thing in life is change, despite that I do not support the neglect of our culture, values, heritage and roots rather they should serve as a guide on which the platform for 'necessary changes'would be made.


  12. This goes to show that there is a basic necessity to increase the communication between the diaspora and the motherland. We are fortunate to belong to such a beautiful and spiritual race of people. We have a long and rich history which goes back to the dawn of mankind. In such a long time it's possible to go off track now and then. At this present time, it's up to us all to rediscover our roots, so to speak in order to remind us, that what some people on the planet try to imply about the history of Africa and Africans (all of us), is hardly true. Then we must work towards regroupment and reconciliation with the idea of combining the sum of our acquired knowledge in Africa and from around the world along with the wealth of the natural resources of the continent and build a legacy for our future generations. One our first goals should be to stop the destructive bickering and to universally take governments and industry to task by demanding accountability for their lopsided treatment of our people.
    Oyee has made some very pertinent points. In my opinion he has understated by quite a bit. I would go so far as to say that without the wealth of Africa and the labor, creativity and resilience of her people the colonial nations would be but shadows of themselves. This includes their economy, culture, technology and religion.

  13. Your article is absolutely true!! Thank you for writing it. I work with MANY Nigerians and other Africans who are EXACTLY like this. Still bleaching the skin, afraid to state and opinion to the 'white' people and terrified of the 'white' supervisor or boss. Feeling my hair, because I wear an 'Afro'. WTF??? A very accurate description!! I just think in some ways, they are mentally where we, Americans were in the 50's.

  14. Thanks for writing this, Kemi.
    Black Africa still has a long way to go when it comes to appreciating our skin colour. Bleaching is still very common. Let us not pretend these issues don't exist. Let us not move forward by keeping quiet. Let us move forward by addressing these issues.


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