Post-Colonialism: Trying to Regain Ethnic Individuality

David Washburn

Indeed, the stranger has unusual customs. The white man held the paper like a sacred thing. His hands shook, and we mistrusted him... For how many moons will the stranger be among us? (Vera 43)

The stranger still lives among the people of Zimbabwe, though the colonial political authority has left. Yet I wonder if the town elder speaking in the above passage from Yvonne Vera's Nehanda would recognize current Zimbabwean authorities as strangers or countrymen. Could he relate to today's government officials and understand the languages which they speak? Would he feel at home in an African country with borders defined by European imperial powers without regard to the various ethnic nations involved? Post-colonial theory attempts to explain problems such as these, yet it does so almost exclusively in the languages of the European colonial powers. Europeans even created the word Africa. "To name the world is to 'understand' it, to know it and to have control over it" (Ashcroft 283). Because knowledge is power, and words, whether written or spoken, are the medium of exchange, using words incurs responsibility.

One must use special care with broadly defined words and terms, such as post-colonial. Post-colonial literature describes a wide array of experiences set in the contexts of heterogeneous societies which themselves represent many different ethnic groups. Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin define post-colonial theory as discussion of "migration, slavery, suppression, resistance, representation, difference, race, gender, place, and responses to the influential master discourses of imperial Europe... and the fundamental experiences of speaking and writing by which all these come into being" (Ashcroft 2). The wide-ranging nature of the term post-colonial threatens to weaken its usefulness by "diffusion... so extreme that it is used to refer to not only vastly different but even opposed activities" (Ashcroft 2). Post-colonialism encompasses many of the issues encountered in the work we have discussed thus far in the semester. Yet because vague and generalized theories have limits and tend to oversimplify, clouding over real problems, one must handle the term with care.

Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin suggest that we should restrict the term post-colonial to signify after colonialism. "All post-colonial societies are still subject in one way or another to overt or subtle forms of neo-colonial domination, and independence has not solved the problem" (Ashcroft 2). After colonialism, new elites, often in the form of dictators, frequently rose and still rise to power in post-colonial countries. In Chinua Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah, Ikem complains about countrymen worse than thieves, "leaders who openly looted our treasury, whose effrontery soiled our national soul" (Achebe 39). Ikem refers not to the white strangers but rather to Africans who have ruled with policies similar to those of colonial oppression. With the British empire gone, African societies must look inward to find remnants of colonialism which continue to harm their nations, and perhaps, find those which are advantageous in the new world they have been thrust into. Ikem's speech directed to all Nigerians rather than to any particular class pleads, "you must develop the habit of skepticism, not swallow every piece of superstition you are told by witch doctors and professors... When you rid yourself of these things your potentiality for assisting and directing this nation will be quadrupled" (Achebe 148). Part of the danger of the term post-colonial stems from people's disregard of their responsibility for their situation. As Ikem notes in his speech, people prefer to blame other groups, perhaps even post-colonialism, for their problems and rarely comprehend that only they can help themselves.

Yet for people to act responsibly, they must first have a certain level of understanding of the situation which faces them. However, because colonialism and exposure to Western culture caused so many changes in African societies, people were thrust into new experiences which they could not comprehend with the guidance of the old traditions. In Ken Saro-Wiwa's Forest of Flowers, when a young man becomes dumbfounded after bringing home a man who he thought was a woman, people explain transvestites in the following manner. "One man said it was spirit, another said fairy and another ghost" (Saro-Wiwa 73). Resorting to old superstitious explanations of events makes it very difficult to understand real life situations and from thence, act responsibly in them.

Too much has changed to simply revert to the old ways of life. New problems exist and will continue to do so unless one can learn to deal them in the modern context. Blaming post-colonial syndrome for the ills of developing countries sentences those countries to continue in their state of hardship. Rewinding the clock to prevent colonialism from occurring is impossible, so we must look at each issue now, in the modern context, as a separate problem which we must attack.

These problems affect not only African countries after colonialism, but also strike deep into the identity of the modern Mexican. The question of identity exemplifies one so personal and varied between individuals, that we must be careful not to simply write off these issues as common effects of post-colonialism.

The modern Mexican wishes neither to be Indian nor Spaniard and renounces his descent from both of them. He thinks of himself not as a mixture but as an abstraction. "He becomes the son of nothingness. His beginnings are in his own self." Mexican society is racked by a deep cleavage between the privileged and members of the working class who are part of a "culture of poverty" disposing them to violence, authoritarianism, fatalism, and machismo. In this crucible of countervailing messages education is called upon to achieve unity and a coherent sense of nationality (Epstein 72).
Yet even today, in many African nations, schools teach in English in all classes beyond the primary levels. This is not desirable, but, perhaps English, too, could serve as a tool for national unity in Africa. Which one of over one hundred indigenous languages spoken in certain countries could replace English in education? A few African languages could rival the widespread use of English in Africa but only in certain regions. However, these languages, notably Swahili and Arabic, neither provide the same economic benefits as English to their speakers nor are they themselves indigenous. Furthermore, the availability of classroom textbooks and educational resources written in English far surpasses that of similar books written in indigenous languages. The governments of most African countries simply lack the funding for education to make learning in native tongues possible.

Perhaps a mixture of both English and indigenous languages could be used in the future. After all, "Progres," the pride of Dukana, is the name of the bus travelling to Dukana and its local school in Saro-Wiwa's A Forest of Flowers (Saro-Wiwa 1). "Progres" symbolizes the link between the modern and the traditional using a word adapted from English to fit in the setting of a more traditional African town. Clearly, colonialism caused changes, but upon the end of the empire, Africans should change previously imposed norms and vocabulary like "progress" to fit the needs of their own geography and heritage. English can also change to include new words, like 'tomahawk' and literary styles can evolve in attempts to recreate oral tradition (New 303-4). The narrative style in Nehanda does this effectively. The language used is an adapted form English which effectively relays the old storytelling tradition by means of a new international medium. Wole Soyinka, on the other hand, prefers to first write prose in a traditional manner and then translate it into English.

Ile o,
ile o
Ile o, ile o
Baba (Iya)
re'le re
Ile lo lo tarara
Baba re'le re
Ile lo lo, ko s'ine

Home, Home
The elder has gone home
The elder has gone home
Directly he is
Home bound, he will not miss his way. (Soyinka 87)

George Lamming comments that the native writer, "hungers for nourishment from a soil which he (as an ordinary citizen) could not at present endure" (Lamming 17). Many authors of post-colonial literature, however, may not be able to, like Soyinka, write in languages other than English. Most post-colonial discourse is written in English and by the "been-to" writers educated in the Western tradition. Tom Crick, Graham Swift's history teacher in Waterland relays the importance of telling any history so that it relates to the social setting as it existed. How, then, can authors torn between European and indigenous societies effectively relay in English an old tradition in which they did not grow up? They should not have to. For better or for worse, indigenous and Western societies have been permanently changed by colonialism and interaction with other cultural ideals.

Decolonization is a process, not arrival... it has been the project of post-colonial writing to interrogate European discourses and discursive strategies from a privileged position within (and between) two worlds (Tiffin 95).
New doors have been opened with post-colonial literature, exposing a world previously ignorant of African traditions including storytelling. Post-colonial theory, like a theater, is useful as a stage for previously unhired actors to present their varied roles. Yet the roles are certainly wide-ranging whether the actors be from different ethnicities or simply of the opposite gender. Categorizing a wide range of literature as simply 'post-colonial' is as dangerous as complete assimilation into the Western world. If each actor on this stage were seen as having the same part, how insightful would the production be? Post-colonialism is only the theater, it itself cannot define the cause and effects of every act on stage.


Achebe, Chinua. (1987) Anthills of the Savannah, New York: Doubleday.

Ashcroft, Bill; Griffiths, Gareth and Tiffin, Helen (eds.). (1995) The Post Colonial Studies Reader, London: Routledge.

Epstein, Erwin. (1985) "National Consciousness and Education in Mexico" in Brock et al. (eds.) Education in Latin America, London: Croom Helm.

Lamming, George. (1960) "The Occasion for Speaking", in Ashcroft.

New, W. H. (1978) "New Language, New World", in Ashcroft.

Saro-Wiwa, Ken. (1995) A Forest of Flowers: Short Stories, Essex, England: Longman.

Soyinka, wole. (1989) Ake: The Years of Childhood, New York: Vintage Books.

Swift, Graham. (1992) Waterland, New York: Vintage Books.

Tiffin, Helen. (1987) "Post-colonial Literatures and Counter-discourse", in Ashcroft.

Vera, Yvonne. (1994) Nehanda, Toronto: TSAR Publications.

Postcolonial Web Postcolonial Theory Yvonne Vera Overview Chenjerai Hove Overview Ken  Sarowiwa Overview