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10-08-2015, 22:54


Although generalizations are difficult on this most diverse of continents, it is clear that the impact of the West has been greater on urban and educated Africans and more limited on their rural and illiterate compatriots. After all, the colonial presence was first and most firmly established in the cities. Many cities, including Dakar, Lagos, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Brazzaville, and Nairobi, are direct products of the colonial experience. Most African cities today look like their counterparts elsewhere in the world. They have high-rise buildings, blocks of residential apartments, wide boulevards, neon lights, movie theaters, and traffic jams. The cities are also where the African elites live and work. Affluent Africans, like their contemporaries in other developing countries, have been strongly attracted to the glittering material aspects of Western culture. They live in Western-style homes or apartments and eat Western foods stored in Western refrigerators, and those who can afford it drive Western cars. It has been said, not wholly in praise, that there are more Mercedes-Benzes in Nigeria than in Germany, where they are manufactured. The furniture of their minds has become increasingly Western as well, in part because of the educational system. In the precolonial era, education as we know it did not really exist in Africa except for parochial schools in Christian Ethiopia and academies to train young males in Islamic doctrine and law in Muslim societies in North and West Africa. For the average African, education took place at the home or in the village courtyard and stressed socialization and vocational training. Traditional education in Africa was not necessarily inferior to that in Europe. Social values and customs were transmitted to the young by storytellers, often village elders who could gain considerable prestige through their performance. Among the Luo people in Kenya, for example, children were taught in a siwindhe, or the house of a widowed grandmother. Here they would be instructed in the ways and thinking of their people. A favorite saying for those who behaved stupidly was “you are uneducated, like one who never slept in a siwindhe.”6 Europeans introduced modern Western education into Africa in the nineteenth century, although some Africans had already become literate in one or more Western languages by taking part in commerce. The French set up the first state-run schools in Senegal in 1818. In British colonies and protectorates, the earliest schools were established by missionaries. At first, these schools concentrated on vocational training with some instruction in European languages and Western civilization. Most courses were taught in the vernacular, although many schools later switched to English or French. Eventually, pressure from Africans led to the introduction of professional training, and the first institutes of higher learning were established in the early twentieth century. Most college-educated Africans, called “been-to’s,” however, received their higher training abroad. With independence, African countries established their own state-run schools. The emphasis was on the primary level, but high schools and universities were established in major cities. The basic objectives have been to introduce vocational training and improve literacy rates. Unfortunately, both funding and trained teachers are scarce in most countries, and few rural areas have schools. As a result, illiteracy remains high, estimated at about 70 percent of the population across the continent. There has been a perceptible shift toward education in the vernacular languages. In West Africa, only about one in four adults is conversant in a Western language. One interesting vehicle for popular education that emerged during the transition to independence in Nigeria was the Onitsha Market pamphlet. Produced primarily by the Ibo people in the southeast, who traditionally valued egalitarianism and individual achievement, the pamphlets were “how-to” books advising readers on how to succeed in a rapidly changing Africa. They tended to be short, inexpensive, and humorous, with flashy covers to attract the potential buyer’s attention. One, titled “The Nigerian Bachelor’s Guide,” sold 40,000 copies. Unfortunately, the Onitsha Market and the pamphlet tradition were destroyed during the Nigerian civil war of the late 1960s, but they undoubtedly played an important role during a crucial period in the country’s history. Recently, Onitsha has become the largest producer of video movies in sub-Saharan Africa. Outside the major cities, where about three-quarters of the continent’s inhabitants live, Western influence has had less of an impact. Millions of people throughout Africa (as in Asia) live much as their ancestors did, in thatch huts without modern plumbing and electricity; they farm or hunt by traditional methods, practice timehonored family rituals, and believe in the traditional deities. Even here, however, change is taking place. Slavery has been eliminated, for the most part, although there have been persistent reports of raids by slave traders on defenseless villages in the southern Sudan. Economic need, though, has brought about massive migrations as some leave to work on plantations, others move to the cities, and still others flee to refugee camps to escape starvation. Migration itself is a wrenching experience, disrupting familiar family and village ties and enforcing new social relationships. Nowhere, in fact, is the dichotomy between old and new, native and foreign, rural and urban so clear and painful as in Africa. Urban dwellers regard the village as the repository of all that is backward in the African past, while rural peoples view the growing urban areas as a source of corruption, prostitution, hedonism, and the destruction of communal customs and values. The tension between traditional ways and Western culture is particularly strong among African intellectuals, many of whom are torn between their admiration for things Western and their desire to retain an African identity. “Here we stand,” wrote one Nigerian, infants overblown poised between two civilizations finding the balancing irksome, itching for something to happen, to tip us one way or the other, groping in the dark for a helping hand and finding none.