Writer Chika Unigwe on Colonization

Colonization was the epitome of arrogance

© Konstantinos Tsanakas

Europeans passing through foreign lands, plundering and discovering things that already exist,n and renaming them however they wanted, that is the epitome of arrogance.

If Europeans could discover and rename existing rivers in Africa, today an African can do the same in London. The playful action of a man renaming the Thames to the River Gulu caused many amused reactions. But it did more than that, says MO*columnist Chika Unigwe. ‘Such an action actually asks us to work towards an honest history of colonization, one that recognizes it for what it is.’

In April 2019, the Ugandan Milton Allimadi posted photos of himself standing at the Thames and other natural landmarks in London with the caption that he’d ‘discovered’ them and he renamed all of them with names from his local language. The Thames was baptized River Gulu.

He was joking, of course, and no one took it seriously. It was entertaining and he got so many likes and retweets and ‘lols’ from both Africans and non-Africans who naturally understood that he was not serious.

Food for Thought

However, beyond the laughter it evoked, his posts also gave pause for thought and provoked some serious discussion. I thought that the fact that the immediate reaction of many people was to laugh – because it is hilarious that anyone could ‘discover’ something that was already in existence and then casually proceed to both claim and rename it – is illustrative of how ridiculous the whole notion of the colonial enterprise is with its explorers and discoverers and colonies.

Europeans traipsing through foreign lands, looting and discovering things already in existence and renaming existing things where they willed is to me the height of arrogance.

Why is one valid and not the other?

One of my biggest vexations is being taught the history of Nigeria at elementary school in a way that presented that history as starting from Lord Lugard’s amalgamation of Nigeria in 1914, as if before then Nigeria was a huge void, this endless blackness where nothing and no one existed.

That is an enduring legacy of colonization – a truncated, one sided history, sometimes because some of the history of the original owners of the land has been intentionally (and in many cases violently) erased.

My ancestors used the River Niger to bathe and wash in and called it a name that Mungo Park presumably could not be bothered to learn. Instead, he promptly renamed in it in English. No child in Nigeria ever learns the history of Nigeria without learning that the River Niger was discovered by this Scottish explorer who died at a relatively youthful age of 35.

If he could discover River Niger, if David Livingstone could come all the way from Scotland to ‘discover’ Victoria Falls, why can’t a Ugandan adventurer discover rivers in England and call them whatever they want to call them? Why is one valid and not the other?

What is Colonization?

When my then 6-year-old child asked me what colonization was, I told him it was like someone he didn’t know, coming into his bedroom and claiming everything in it. ‘Even me?’ he asked. I told him yes. He was stunned.

The person would “discover” his bedroom, regulate everything he did, what language he spoke, how he worshipped, take all his toys away and then demand gratitude whenever he, my son, was allowed into the bedroom.

He looked horrified. Understandably so. I told him this person might even be his age or younger, but they would have access to clubs with which they could hit my son. He said he’d fight the person even though they could easily win the fight.

it is almost impossible to have any nuanced conversations of the long-lasting effects of colonization with anyone who thinks that it is all done and dusted.

I told him that then maybe one day, the person might decide that he’d fought or begged long enough to be allowed full use of his room and give it back, but his room (and he) would never be the same. He couldn’t go through that kind of trauma and remain the same person he was.

His bed might have been broken beyond repair, the contours of the room would have shifted to accommodate its invader, some of his toys might have been carted away forever, and he, so used to being told what to do might even struggle with his independence for a while.

And the one who colonized him would also be forever changed. They might forget that they were invaders but instead think of themselves as benefactors, and of their incursion into his bedroom as a mission of charity. They would find it difficult, if not impossible to imagine that they and my son were equal, and that power dynamic would color the relationship forever, even after my son got his room back.

Recognition is not denial

It is this same explanation I wish I could give adults who think that because ‘colonization’ happened a long time ago, Africans should get over it. Those who complain about the instability in Africa, the economic situations in Africa and etc. that force people from the global south to seek refuge from the global north do not understand, for example that the scramble for Africa, formalized by the Berlin Conference of 1884, spurred on by Europe’s greed for Africa’s natural resources created problematic arbitrary boundaries which exist today.

Colonization might be over, African countries might have their independence but the consequences of colonization are still with us and they are myriad. And yes, those consequences include much of what is wrong with Africa at the moment.

Simplistic, I admit but it is almost impossible to have any nuanced conversations of the long-lasting effects of colonization with anyone who thinks that because it happened a long time ago, it should not matter, that it is all done and dusted.

The relationship between Europe and its former colonies should be one that is guided by humility, gratitude and respect on Europe’s side.

It is important for me to state here that an acknowledgement of the connection between colonialism and Africa’s poverty today (and therefore its continued dependence on foreign aid ) isn’t a denial of the role Africa’s corrupt political elite play in perpetuating that poverty.

However, when we (Africans) come to Antwerp or Brussels or Paris and admire the architectural wonders we are also reminded that the money that developed these cities came from Africa.

When the descendants of the victims of King Leopold’s atrocious policies in the Congo come to Belgium as economic or other refugees, the descendants of Leopold would do well to remember that these were the people upon whose ancestors’ blood the wealth of Belgium was created.

The relationship between Europe and its former colonies should be one that is guided by humility, gratitude and respect on Europe’s side. And one way to achieve that is by ensuring that the unvarnished truth of colonization is taught in schools.

For Belgium, that might include making both David van Reybrouck’s extensively researched Congo and Adam Hochschild’s searing King Leopold’s Ghosts Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa required reading.

I always found it frustrating that my sons’ Belgian education glossed over Leopold’s crimes in the Congo while asking them to help ‘raise funds for the poor of the Congo,’ and I wish that their school curriculum had provided a complement to the more balanced, more nuanced history lessons they got at home from myself and my husband.

When that Ugandan man went around London mock discovering the Thames and the like, he was really asking us to engage with a history of colonization that is honest and recognizes it for what it is: a ridiculous, self-aggrandizing project.

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