The Western Impact

But the traditional African society was destroyed by the impact of colonialism, capitalism and ·western type of education – though mercifully not completely. Colonialism shifted the centre of political, social and economic gravity from the African’s own environment to the colonial metropole. All his actions and aspirations had to be appraised and facilitated by the metropolitan power. He was left with no judgement of his own, nor initiative other than those permitted by his superior. This was a catastrophe to the African psyche: it engendered an acute inferiority complex.

The colonial impact and the introduction of the monetary economy radically transformed the fabric of the African family structure. Whereas the basic principle in the traditional African family was always to encourage men to think of themselves as members of a larger group, a community, the capitalist monetary economy introduced into Africa by the colonial and trading powers operating on the basis of the profit motive, encouraged individual acquisitiveness and economic competition. By encouraging acquisitiveness and individualism, capitalism transformed the essentially communitarian society into an acquisitive one. Nyerere describes what happened:

“The economic inequalities between men become so great that man’s basic equality is imperceptibly transformed into a merchant and client relationship. It is then impossible to discuss together as equals with a common interest in the maintenance and development of society. The common interest has been at least partially replaced by two interests,’ those of the ‘haves’ and those of the ‘have-nots’. The unity of society has been weakened because the equality of its members has been broken.”

Nyerere’s argument here is not against the merchant-client relationship per se, but the kind that was introduced into Africa by the alien traders. Exchange of goods, whether on the basis of barter or money, is an ancient human practice; indeed, one of the socially cohesive elements in any society. There have been African traders before the arrival of the ‘Western influence’, but it was capitalism as an economic system, to be discussed later, which transformed what was once an essentially subsistence economy, with buyer and seller in a face-to-face relationship pervaded with an egalitarian ethos, to an impersonal one where the sole object is to accumulate profit, and hence oblivious to essential needs of society.

The introduction of European education further undermined the structure of the African traditional society. By removing the child from his environment, as the missionary and secondary boarding school education did, and by inculcating him with novel values and aspirations totally at variance with those of his forefathers, Western education transformed the traditionally egalitarian African into a class-conscious one.

Yet it was precisely the principle of sharing that served to maintain and deepen the unity of the family. Now it is gone – or going. In the traditional family, the child was ‘indoctrinated’, with the principle of sharing and obligation to society. Now he is educated how best to improve himself and how best to get the most from society for himself. In the traditional society, the individual was an integral part of the community. He emotionally, spiritually and materially belonged to it. “The African”, Nyerere contends, “never felt himself to be a cog in a machine”. But because of the kind of education he has received, he is now increasingly being alienated from his own people.