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Archive for the tag “colonialism”

Things fall apart

Things Fall ApartThings Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a short novel set in eastern Nigeria in the late 19th century. The protagonist, Okonkwo, is a man of renown in his village, first as a wrestler, and then as a self-made man who has worked hard to attain a position of respect in the community. But he is also hot tempered and something of a domestic tyrant over his family. He despises weakness in others, and in himself.

The traditional way of life of the village is disturbed by the coming of white men — missionaries, traders and colonial rulers. Okonkwo does not like the social changes they bring to the village, and urges others to resist them, but this resistance, and the manner of it, bring about his downfall.

The first half of the story is fairly static. It describes the village and its social life, the seasons of planting and harvesting, in a manner reminiscent of George Eliot. It enables the reader to experience something of the atmosphere of rural life. To readers from elsewhere, the description makes the unfamiliar become familiar. The main crops may be unknown in other places, but we are told enough about the farming methods to become familiar with the rhythms of rainy seasons and dry seasons, seed-time and harvest, and thus to appreciate something of the shock of social change when it comes.

As a missiologist and church historian I found the social change wrought by the missionaries particularly interesting. There are two missionaries in the story, Mr Brown and Mr Smith, The names are generic, deliberately so, I think. They represent two types of missionaries, and two different approaches to Christian mission in the 19th century.

The first, Mr Brown, represents the missionaries who preceded the New Imperialism of the 1870s and later. He is interested in the culture of the local people, and has religious discussions with them. I think this part is worth quoting in full, as it has much to say about Christian mission in general, and is thus of interest to missiologists:

(Mr Brown) made friends with some of the great men of the clan and on his frequent visits to the neighbouring villages he had been presented with a carved elephant tusk, which was a sign of dignity and rank. One of the great men in that village was called Akunna and he had given one of his sons to be taught the white man’s knowledge in Mr Brown’s school.

Whenever Mr Brown went to that village he spent long hours with Akunna in his obi talking through an interpreter about religion. Neither of them succeeded in converting the other, but they learnt more about their different beliefs.

‘You say that there is one supreme God who made heaven and earth,’ said Akunna on one of Mr Brown’s visits. ‘We also believe in him and call him Chukwu. He made all the world and the other gods.’

‘There are no other gods,’ said Mr Brown. ‘Chukwu is the only God and all the others are false. You carve a piece of wood — like that one’ (he pointed at the rafters from which Akunna’s carved Ikenga hung), ‘and you call it a god, but it is still a piece of wood.’

‘Yes,’ said Akunna, ‘It is indeed a piece of wood. The tree from which it came was made by Chukwu, as indeed all minor gods were. But He made them for His messengers so that we could approach him through them. It is like yourself. You are the head of your church.’

‘No,’ protested Mr Brown. ‘The head of my church is God himself.’

‘I know,’ said Akunna, ‘but there must be a head in this world among men. Somebody like yourself must be the head here.’

‘No,’ said Mr Brown. ‘The head of my church in that sense is in England.’

‘That is exactly what I am saying. The head of your church is in your country, He has sent you here as his messenger. And you have also appointed your own messengers and servants. Or let me take another example, the District Commissioner. He is sent by your king.’

‘They have a Queen,’ said the interpreter on his own account.

‘Your queen sends her messenger, the District Commissioner. He finds that he cannot do the work alone and so he appoints kotma to help him. It is the same with God, or Chukwu. He appoints the smaller gods to help him because the work is too great for one person.’

‘You should not think of his as a person,’ said Mr Brown. ‘It is because you do so that you imagine that he must need helpers. And the worst thing about it is that you give all the worship to the false gods you have created.’

‘That is not so. We make sacrifices to the little gods, but when they fail and there is no one else to turn to we go to Chukwu. It is right to do so. We approach a great man through his servants. But when his servants fail to help us, then we go to the last source of hope. We appear to pay greater attention to the little gods but that is not so. We worry them because we are afraid to worry their master. Our fathers knew that Chukwu was the Overlord and that is why many of them gave their children the name Chukwuka — “Chukwu is Supreme.’

‘You said one interesting thing,’ said Mr Brown. ‘You are afraid of Chukwu. In my religion Chukwu is a loving Father and need not be feared by those who do his will.’

‘But we must fear him when we are not doing his will,’ said Akunna. ‘And who is to tell his will? It is too great to be known.’

In Achebe’s report of these discussions, which is probably a condensed report of thousands of such conversations, it strikes me that Mr Brown’s interlocutor, Akunna, had a better grasp of Christian theology than Mr Brown himself had.

Last week I heard someone speaking about Christianity in relation to Graeco-Roman and ancient Egyptian paganism, and some of the issues that arose from that seem remarkably similar. Mr Brown and Akunna represent two different approaches, and in Things fall apart the first approach, that the gods of the pagans are human inventions, is presented as Christian, and the second, that there is a great God, the Creator, who made the little gods, is presented as pagan. That was also the approach of the speaker I heard on Friday. But if we read the Christian holy scriptures, we can find both approaches.

Akunna’s remarks seem to echo Psalm 94/95:3 — For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods; or, in the Septuagint, ὅτι θεὸς μέγας κύριος καὶ βασιλεὺς μέγας ἐπὶ πάντας τοὺς θεούς·.

This is seen even more clearly in Psalm 81/82, which is sung with great jubilation in Orthodox Churches on Holy Saturday, and perhaps indicates the line that Mr Brown should have taken with Akunna — that the little gods have messed up. They have ruled the nations unjustly, and the Psalmist prays “Arise, O God, judge the earth, for to Thee belong all nations.”

And just before his death Jesus announces that he has come in answer to that very prayer: Now is the hour of judgement of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out, and I when I am lifted up, shall draw all men to myself” (John 12:31-32)

That’s not what Akunna said, but it’s not what Mr Brown said either. Mr Brown missed the point.

This can be seen more clearly in Deuteronomy 32, where both approaches can be seen. In verses:8-9:

When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of men, he fixed the bounds of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God, for the LORD’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.

That implies that while all the nations had their own national spirits (Akunna’s “little gods”), Israel alone could by-pass the middle man, and approach the Almighty directly. The “to Thee belong all nations” cry in Psalm 81/82 is a plea that this will come to an end, and when Jesus says he will draw “all men” to himself, he is saying that the time has come. That is why mission organisations in the Orthodox Church use the slogan “panta ta ethne” — “all nations”.

Also interesting is that Akunna speaks of the little gods as “messengers” of the great King above all gods, and the Septuagint version of Deuteronomy 32:8-9 reads:

ὅτε διεμέριζεν ὁ ὕψιστος ἔθνη, ὡς διέσπειρεν υἱοὺς Αδαμ, ἔστησεν ὅρια ἐθνῶν κατὰ ἀριθμὸν ἀγγέλων θεοῦ, καὶ ἐγενήθη μερὶς κυρίου λαὸς αὐτοῦ Ιακωβ, σχοίνισμα κληρονομίας αὐτ

When the Most High divided the nations, he divided them according to the number of the angels (ie messengers) of God. In other words, the little gods are angels, or messengers of God, which Mr Brown failed to recognise, though Akunna knew it.

And back in the second century St Justin Martyr explained that the pagan gods of ancient Greece and Rome were angels, albeit fallen ones, as the Psalmist laments in Psalm 81/82. But I’ve written more about that here.

Though Mr Brown had his shortcomings, however, he also had his good points. It was missionaries of Mr Brown’s type who, earlier in the century, had consecrated Samuel Adjai Crowther, a freed Yoruba slave, as a bishop in western Nigeria.

Mt Smith, who followed Mr Brown, represents the new-style missionaries who came after the New Imperialism. They were more confident in themselves, more convinced of their own superiority, and less willing to learn anything from the local people. They were generally racist, and denounced their predecessors who had consecrated a native bishop in the person of Samuel Adjai Crowther, saying that it was premature, and the natives “weren’t ready for it”. For the Mr Smiths it would take centuries if not millennia of white tutelage before Africans were ready for a black bishop.

The Mr Smith-type of missionary was dominant until 1914, when the First World War shook European complacency and the tide of the New Imperialism began to recede. Achebe doesn’t take us that far, however. He just shows us the effect that it has on Okonkwo.

Achebe also shows how colonialism introduced or exacerbated corruption in African society, and how Christian mission became entangled with colonialism. If these things were unique to one small part of eastern Nigeria, it would perhaps make the novel less interesting, but in its very particularity, the story is universal. The society may change, its economy may change, but rural societies have often undergone such changes. The detailed descriptions at the beginning enable the reader from a different culture to feel at home in the society, to feel that it is not so strange. I’ve never seen or tasted a yam, but in reading the book I become aware that yams in that society play the same role as mealies in southern Africa, or wheat in England, or oats in Scotland. Achebe does that particularly well.

I find it interesting that one can learn quite a lot of missiology from works of fiction like this book. There are others that come to mind as well. The Poisonwood Bile by Barbara Kingsolver tells of an American missionary in what is now the Democratic Republic of congo, who is a Mr Smith-type missionary, and fails to come to terms with the local culture, and all the members of his family make their own different adaptations. Another that deals with modern mission, this time in South America, is At play in the fields of the Lord by Peter Matthiesen. In all these instances the missionaries have been immersed in modern culture, and come unstuck when they encounter premodern culture.

For a novel that deals with premodern missionaries and premodern people, an interesting one is Credo by Melvin Bragg.

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Where the rainbow ends

Where The Rainbow EndsWhere The Rainbow Ends by Clifford Mills
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

When I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 1965, at the age of 24, I wished I’d had it to read when I was younger. Even though I was preparing for final exams at university, I bought as many of the other Narnia books as I could find, and shared and discussed them with friends, and bought them as Christmas presents for children that I knew.

One day a group of us were discussing the genre of children\s fantasy, in a wood that reminded us of the Lantern Waste, and we tried to recall such books we had read as children. One friend mentioned The Princess and the Goblin, and I was sad that I had not read any of the ones the others mentioned. The only such book I had read as a child had “rainbow” in the title, and it featured children looking for their parents, and being helped by St George and hindered by the dragon, At one point there were two forests, one bright and good, and the other dark and evil, where the dragon tried to distract the children from their quest. But I could not remember the title or the plot, so I wanted to re-read it. I knew only that one of the children was called Rosamund.

The following year I was in London, and knowing that the British Museum was a copyright library, supposed to receive a copy of every book published in the UK I spent a couple of days there searching for books with “rainbow” in the title, without success.

Eventually I found a copy on a secondhand bookstall in Woolwich Market. I grabbed a copy, and read it. It was a huge disappointment. It was nothing more than imperialist propaganda. It featured a lion cub called Cubby, who always got sick when he wasn’t dosed with a patent medicine called “Colonial Mixture”. St George was no saint, but was a mascot of the British Empire.

All those passed me by as a child, at least consciously, thought it may have brainwashed me into being a closet colonialist. But in 1967 is stuck out like a sore thumb.

So why did I read it a third time?

I was taking part in NaNoWriMo (National Novel-Writing Month) and the novel I was writing featured St George, so I re-read it to remind myself how St George was handled in fiction.

I suppose, when I read it as a child, I would probably have given it three or four stars. But now, it’s somewhere between one and two. And I still wish I had had The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to read as a child.

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Liberal genocide

There seems to be a trend, not exactly new, because it’s been going on for several years now, to blame anything that’s perceived to be bad on liberals. Here are a few examples that turned up in my Facebook feed this morning:

Liberal Mom Aghast as Huge Guy Wearing Lakers Jersey Walks Into Ladies’ Room:

A liberal mom got a rude awakening that changed her views about the “bathroom debate” and decided to share her story regardless of what the backlash would be. This is a reality check like no other.

Kristen Quintrall Lavin runs a blog called, The Get Real Mom, in which she exposes the harsh realities of what she calls, “momming.” However, on a recent trip to Disneyland with her young son, Lavin, she was exposed to another harsh reality — the reality of bathroom stalking, which made her question her progressive liberal views on the bathroom debate.

Zille’s Tweets and History’s Miasma | The Con:

In the departure lounge of OR Tambo (taking a break from complaining about the missing TV remote and milk) Helen Zille, the former leader of South Africa’s opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), and premier of the Western Cape, casually invoked one of the continued liberal myths of colonisation – that Europeans brought with them medical care to the colonies.

Liberal moms and liberal myths.

My question is, what does the gratuitous insertion of the word “liberal” contribute to either story?

I suspect that the answer is that the not-too-heavily disguised purpose of both articles is to make liberals and liberalism look bad or stupid.

But this kind of devaluation and debasing of the word “liberal” and turning it into a kind of general signal for disapproval tends to make it meaningless.

The main reason that people dislike liberals and liberalism is that they themselves tend to be authoritarian. Authoritarianism can range all the way from mild bossiness through being a control freak to being an absolute dictator, like Hitler or Stalin. But people who diss liberalism do tend to be control freaks of one kind or another.

<SATIRE>

Another trend, also not exactly new, is to devalue terms like “genocide” by applying them to things that are a great deal less than genocide.

If I wanted to follow that trend, I could say that all this anti-liberal propaganda is calculated to provoke liberalophobia (fear and loathing of liberals), in which the next step would be a genocide of liberals.

That wouldn’t be true, of course, because “genocide” means the systematic and planned extermination of an entire race of people, and liberals are not a race (in spite of the attempts of racists to make liberals seem to be a race by prefixing the word “white” to “liberal” when the latter is used as a noun). If it isn’t hate speech, it is at least anti-liberal propaganda.

My daughter recently accused me of mastering the art of clickbait when I reblogged another post recently (the curious can find it here). Well yes, the heading of this post probably may be seen as clickbait, Whether you believed or anyone expected what happened next is up to you.

</satire>

So no, I don’t expect a liberal genocide (but see here), but authoritarian governments do tend to kill off or at least crack down on liberal opposition. And most colonial governments have been authoritarian, at least vis-à-vis the colonised, whatever Helen Zille or Matthew Wilhelm Solomon may say.

Singapore, colonialism and Helen Zille

A few days ago there was a big tizz-wozz on Twitter about Helen Zille tweeting that colonialism was not so bad because piped water.

You can read more about that at Zille’s career in ruins:

She has a million followers on Twitter and as she waited for her flight she engaged, as is her wont, in some argument with her followers and critics.

And then, for some maniacal reason, at 8.25am, she tweeted: “For those claiming legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water etc.”

So powerful was the outrage from (mainly) black South Africans, who don’t have quite so rosy a memory of colonial South Africa, that by 9.59am she was obliged to tweet this: “I apologise unreservedly for a tweet that may have come across as a defence of colonialism. It was not.”

Except, of course, that it was. We are all prisoners of our time and our generations.

The timing could not have been better for those who were facing embarrassing questions from the judges of the Constitutional Court for the mess-up of SANSSA and CPS and the possibility that 17 million pensioners and other recipients of social grants might not get paid. That was a big joke, according to the president. Seventeen million people could go hungry, ha ha ha. They could be evicted for not paying rent, Heh Heh Heh.

But a silly tweet about colonialism, and suddenly the pressure is off.

And it was a silly tweet.

Did Thailand (then known as Siam) have no piped water until they were colonised by the Japanese in 1941? And did the Japanese have no piped water because they weren’t colonised? Did Ethiopia have no piped water before they were colonised by the Italians in 1936? Seeing the judiciary, transport infrastructure and water reticulation as products of colonialism is really daft.

But, like the misdirection of a stage magician, that silly tweet distracted the attention of the nation from something much more serious.

And, to give Helen Zille her due, she sometimes says and writes things a lot more useful than that silly tweet, and I think this is much more worth reading From the Inside: Lessons from Singapore | Daily Maverick:

I thought loftily: “What can we learn from Singapore? It’s an authoritarian country. We are the South African Miracle, the rainbow nation, that moved from being the skunk of the world to democracy’s poster child in less than a decade. Our transition was even faster than Singapore’s! They can learn something about democracy from us.”

I had drunk the Kool-Aid of South African exceptionalism.

She writes about how Singapore has changed in the last 35 years, a single generation, and what South Africa can learn from Singapore.

But I visited Singapore a generation ago, back in 1985, when South Africa was still wracked by P.W. Botha’s States of Emergency and Magnus Malan’s Total Strategy to meet the Total Onslaught.

Singapore was probably more authoritarian then than it is now, and though there weren’t Kasspirs and Hippos visibly prowling the streets there was, underneath the surface calm, that knowledge that somewhere behind the scenes Big Brother was watching.

But one other thing impressed me.

Singapore was a small country, and had no natural resources. The only resource it had was its people, and to make the most of that it invested heavily, very heavily, in education.

Back then, in 1985, the South African education system was broken, and had been badly broken for a generation, since Bantu Education and Christian National Education were brought in in the 1950s. The education wasn’t too good before the 1950s either, but at least then the government wasn’t deliberately trying to cripple it, as the National Party regime set out to do after 1948. And we can see the difference even today, when we meet the much-looked-down upon immigrants from Zimbabwe, legal and illegal, who are generally much better educated than their South African counterparts. Whatever else Mugabe and Smith before him (authoritarians both, like Singapore) managed to destroy, they did not set out to destroy the education system as the Nats did in South Africa.

Then came 1994, and all the talk of “transformation”.

But was the education system transformed? Hardly at all.

So yes, listen to Helen Zille when she talks about Singapore.

Singapore managed to transform their education system. We haven’t transformed ours.

 

 

The devastating effects of the new colonialists

When there was a coup in Madagascar a few months ago, there was widespread condemnation of the unconstitutional actions — from the US, from France (the former colonial power) and from the African Union, with several African countries threatening to impose sanctions. BBC NEWS | Africa | Pressure grows on Madagascar coup:

The African Union has suspended Madagascar after the army forced out the president and installed the opposition leader in his place.

Southern African leaders say they may impose sanctions on the Indian Ocean island unless legality is restored.

But as with many such stories, there is more to this one than meets the eye.

Wish you weren't here: The devastating effects of the new colonialists – Nature, Environment – The Independent:

The urban poor were angry at the price of food, which had been high since the massive rise in global prices of wheat and rice the year before. Food-price rises hit the poor worse than the rest of us because they spend up to two-thirds of their income on food. But what whipped them into action was news of a deal the government had recently signed with a giant Korean multinational, Daewoo, leasing 1.3 million hectares of farmland – an area almost half the size of Belgium and about half of all arable land on the island – to the foreign company for 99 years. Daewoo had announced plans to grow maize and palm oil there – and send all the harvests back to South Korea…

The government of President Ravalomanana became the first in the world to be toppled because of what the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization recently described as “landgrabbing”. The Daewoo deal is only one of more than 100 land deals which have, over the past 12 months, seen massive tracts of cultivable farmland across the globe bought up by wealthy countries and international corporations. The phenomenon is accelerating at an alarming rate, with an area half the size of Europe’s farmland targeted in just the past six months.

War and the Enlightenment

In Notes from a commonplace book: war and the Enlightenment there is an interesting comment on how the Enlightenment changed Western attitudes to war.

I’ve not really looked into that before, but have been interested in how the Enlightenment changed European attitudes to witchcraft, and made it difficult for Europeans to understand African attitudes to witchcraft, because it disturbingly reminded them of their premodern past (see Christian responses to witchcraft and sorcery).

This piece, however, sparks off a new train of thought. Even today white apologists for Western colonialism use the argument that European rule in Africa brought about peace and ended the endless wars that devastated the continent. But if we look at the precolonial wars in Africa, they were generally much milder than the wars brought about after colonialism, which are often driven by neocolonialism (eg the history of Congo for the last 50 years). This modern warfare was far more devastating than the precolonial kind, with the possible exception of the Mfecane.

I’m not sure whether this is simply another postmodern reaction to the worldview and values of modernity, but I think it needs further study.

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