Post-colonial Residue

Alaka Holla, English 27, Brown University, Autumn 1997

The difficulty that arises in defining the term post-colonial stems from the semantic implications of the actual word. Most simplistically (that is, if the word is divided into the prefix post- and the word colonial) post-colonialism means "after colonialism." This definition, however, is too restrictive, too limiting, for it implies only political independence and suggests that colonialism has completely ended. It does not take into account the continuing, far-reaching effects of colonialism or the "overt or subtle forms of neo-colonial domination" (Aschcroft, Griffiths, Tiffin, General Introduction, Post-colonial Studies Reader, 2).

The lack of scope in this simple definition compelled the editors of the Post-colonial Studies Reader to ascribe a new meaning to post-colonial. According to them, "the word 'post-colonial' has come to stand for both the material effects of colonisation and the huge diversity of everyday and sometimes hidden responses to it throughout the world" (3). Therefore, post-colonial literatures do not simply consist of writings that chronologically come after independence but rather result from the "interaction between imperial culture and the complex of indigenous cultural practices" (1).

To think that colonialism can end abruptly, dictated by independence's inception, is naïve. Colonialism -- which brings new values, new beliefs, foreign languages, alien traditions -- cannot be shed like the skin of a snake and then tossed away and forgotten. It will always leave something behind, some form of colonial residue.

Language seems to be the most obvious and the most pervasive of the colonial legacies, especially in countries over which the British Empire held sway. This becomes evident when one considers the fact that a great amount of post-colonial literature has been written in English. Because language "provides the terms by which reality may be constituted" and "the names by which the world may be 'known'" (Introduction, Post-colonial Studies Reader, 283) perhaps the effects of language in a colonized country transcend the basic function of speech as communication and acquire a more cultural significance. Ngugi Wa Thiong'o may be implying this when he writes, "Language carries culture , and culture carries, particularly through orature and literature, the entire body of values by which we come to perceive ourselves and our place in the world" (Ngugu Wa Thiong'o, "The Language of African Literature", Post-colonial Studies Reader, 290).

This significance placed on language raises the great debate: what should become of the English language in the former British Empire? Should it be rejected, embraced, or perhaps subverted? Does writing in English suggest the betrayal of the mother tongue or the assumption of a new post-colonial identity? Is English a "post-colonial anomaly, the bastard child of the Empire" (Salman Rushie, Introduction, Mirrorwork: 50 Years of Indian Writing, 1947-1997, x) or has it evolved to fit the need of its speakers in the post-colonial world?

No one can deny the socio-economic advantages that the knowledge of English brings. The narrator of Saro-Wiwa's "The High Life", who considers himself the cream of the bourgeoisie, boasts of his book purchased in Onitsha market: ". . .if you see the big English they blow in that book, you will respect the writer." (A Forest of Flowers 67) In another short story, "The Stars Below", Saro-Wiwa demonstrates how his protagonist, Ezi, equates English and erudition: "They called him 'the essayist' mockingly. He was for ever consulting the Oxford English Dictionary, Roget's Thesaurus, Hartrampf's Vocabulary Builder" (101).

The African nations colonized by the British, the social elite spoke English almost as their mother tongue and thus reaped the benefits. In Soyinka's Aké young Wole, upon being lost, doesn't understand his native language when an English officer attempts to assist him:

"Kini o fe nibi yen?"

I knew the words were supposed to be in my own language but they made no sense to me, so I looked at the sergeant helplessly and said,

"I don't understand. What is he saying?"

The officers eyes opened wide. "Oh, you speak English."

I nodded.

"Good. That is venhrry clenver. . . .What can I doon for you?" (46)

The fact that Wole's native language sounds foreign to him does not put him at a disadvantage in his own country. In fact, his knowledge of English precipitates the officer's willingness to help.

Even in the literary world, English bears the mark of socio-economic distinction. "The English language is a tool of power, domination and elitist identity, and of communication across continents" (Braj. B. Kachru, "The Alchemy of English", Post-colonial Studies Reader, 291). Two of the major responses to English's pervasiveness in post-colonial writings include rejection and subversion.

Fearing English's encroachment on indigenous culture and traditions, Ngugi Wa Thiong'o calls for the complete rejection of the imperial language and concludes, "The bullet was the means of the physical subjugation. Language was the means of the spiritual subjugation" ("The Language of African Literature, Post-colonial Studies Reader, 287). He believes that the retention of the colonizers’ language prevents a nation from ever gaining true independence.

In a traditionally oral culture, English in its written form is not only an alien language but also a foreign concept. In Vera's Nehanda, Ibwe, noticing the difference between his treatment of words and that of the white man, stresses the need for retaining orality:

Our people know that power of words. It is because of this that they desire to have words continuously spoken and kept alive. We do not believe that words can become independent of the speech that bore them, of the humans who controlled and gave birth to them. . . .

The paper is the stranger's own peculiar custom. Among ourselves , speech is not like the rock. Words cannot be taken from the people who create them. People are their words. . . . (40)

Words must be kept alive. They must always be spoken. (42)

This animosity towards the language of the colonizers, expressed by Ngugi Wa Thiong'o and Vera, however, seems self-defeating when one considers that these criticisms were originally written in English. Perhaps in their criticism and intended rejection of English, they really were adhering to the notion of subversion.

Subversion involves the use of English as a means of retaliation, hence the concept of "the Empire writes back." The post-colonial writers’ adoption of the colonial language to local needs by constructing it into a "very different linguistic vehicle" (Introduction, Post-colonial Studies Reader, 283) attempts to impose something on the West. Ethnographic phrases, found in Aké, A Forest of Flowers, and Nehanda, function as assertions of the author's naming power, for "to name the world is to ‘understand’ it, to know it and to have control over it" (283).

Another lasting effect of colonialism surfaces in the hybridization of the cultures of both the dominator and the dominated. New values and customs are assimilated; old traditions and habits are lost. Cultures collide; "coca-colonization" (Introduction, Mirrorwork: 50 Years of Indian Writing, 1947-1997, xi) globalizes.

The character Ezi in Saro-Wiwa's "The Stars Below" epitomizes the cultural collision of the Western notion of individuality and the African concept of community:

The open market, which spread monstrously below him, was a confused mix of dirt, noise and bright colours. The babble of voices emanating from there was like the gulping rabble of frogs squatting in a mucky swamp. Ezi did not belong to all this. He wished he could fly away from it, from the market which reminded him of weavers in their bunched nests, twittering crazily. (100)

The glamour soon wore off and he began to question many of the things he had taken for granted. . . .The idea that the few, himself among them had access to what was best in the country while the huge majority wallowed in want. (102)

Ezi's colonial inheritance -- his education, values, adamant use of English -- serves to isolate him. The Western idea of the individual alienates the elite from their indigenous cultures. Although Ezi can enjoy the perks that come along with his Western lifestyle -- a house, a car, money, and women -- his sense of community has become obsolete.

In Aké, Wole describes the present day influx of Western culture in his hometown:

The hawkers’ lyrics of leaf-wrapped moin-moin still resound in parts of Ake and the rest of the town but, along Dayisi's Walk is also a shop which sells moin-moin from a glass case, lit by sea-green neon lamps. It lies side by side with McDonald's hamburgers, Kentucky Fried Chicken, hot dogs and dehydrated sausage rolls. It has been cooked in emptied milk-tins and similar containers, scooped out and sliced in neat geometric shapes like cakes of soap. And the newly-rich homes stuff it full of eggs, sardines from Portugal and corned beef from the Argentine. (156)

Moin-moin can coexist with McDonald's hamburgers, but at what expense? It now bears no resemblance to the original version which Wole savored during his childhood. Inevitably, it seems, commercialism, the most ubiquitous colonial import, will now reign as king.

Although the widespread use of English and the hybridization of cultures have arisen from the oppressive institution of colonialism, their presence does not have to imply a continual subjugation. The products of colonialism will not disappear, for reversion to a glorified pre-colonial past is simply an impossibility. The present is a post-colonial reality, that is, an amalgamation of indigenous culture, colonialism, and independence.

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