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Learning from Olufemi Taiwo (part one)

I’ve only read the introduction to Olufemi Taiwo‘s How colonialism preempted modernity in Africa but just the outline of his argument is intriguing. He thinks that the ‘standard story of colonialism [as] the spoilsport who destroyed, distorted or altered African forms of social living’ neither accounts for the agency of African people nor adequately comes to terms with the role missionaries have played in Africa.

Distinguishing between missionaries

Christianity and Christian missionaries, according to Taiwo, came to Africa in two distinct waves. The first, earlier missionaries (early 19th century) ‘under the philosophical leadership of Rev Henry Venn, the long-serving secretary of the Church Mission Society (CMS), held that their aim was to create national churches that, driven by African agency in all its ramifications would be self-supporting, self-propagating and self-governing.’ They still thought they were superior to Africans but believed that African lack of progress was more to do with a lack of opportunity (including the ravages of their own society’s slave trade) than to do with Africans’ ability or nature. They believed in empowering Africans, believing them to be as capable as themselves.

The second, later group (19th-20th century) were much more likely to believe that Africans were ‘by their very nature, incapable of progressing beyond a set limit to anything that approaches full autonomy over their lives.’ In other words, these missionaries saw themselves as permanently superior and those they deemed inferior to be perennially in need of their help. Taiwo argues that while the first missionaries had a model of producing autonomy in Africans, the second wave of missionaries had a model of perpetuating aid. ‘The first group thought that Africans could exercise agency but needed to be taught how best to do so; the second insisted that agency would be too much of a burden for Africans and proceeded to substitute their agency for that of the natives.’

Questions for today:

  • Which group are we more like?
  • Do we actually believe Africans are capable of governing themselves well, or is that lip service while we swallow the popular narrative of corruption and chaos in Africa?

Distinguishing missionaries from colonialism

While the first group of missionaries believed in the autonomy of Africans and even the second group contended that they were members of the human race and made in the image of God, the colonists had little problem denying Africans the opportunity ‘to decide for themselves what relationship they would have to their existing institutions… as well as those newly imported with the advent of Christianity and in other areas, Islam.’ What colonists called ‘indirect rule’, Taiwo says is Europeans deciding and enforcing what was the African way of being human.

Those colonisers may have had the trappings of modernity (technology, infrastructure, etc.) but because they believed Africans incapable of governing themselves, they betrayed a key concept of modernity: subjectivity. What he means by ‘subjectivity’ is the sense of self and the right to make one’s own decisions. Early missionaries believed in this, even though it meant they couldn’t ‘control’ their converts.

Taiwo argues that these converts were some of the most fruitful in African history. He says they wanted to ‘marry the best of their indigenous inheritance with the best that the new forms of social living enjoined by modernity had to offer.’ He cites as an example, Samuel Crowther, the first African Anglican bishop of Nigeria and translator of the Bible into Yoruba.

His point is that missionaries and colonisers were not necessarily in cahoots. Oftentimes, they had very different agendas. ‘The standard narrative does not separate modernity from colonialism and this does not allow its proponents to consider the attempts by Africans inspired by Christianity-inflected modernity to remake their communities without at the same time being dubbed colonialists or allies of the colonialists.’

Questions for us today:

  • How do we talk about African missions history?
  • Do we assume that Africans were unthinking or vulnerable, or unable to interact with the message of the missionaries in a sophisticated way?
  • How do we assume we know better than Africans how to be African?
  • Do we have a right to tell them what language they ought or ought not to do their higher education in, for example?

Like I said, I’ve only read the introduction and I’m looking forward to reading the rest. One reason I’m particularly interested is because Taiwo takes three case studies: his native Nigeria, Kenya and Tanzania. Scholarship about Tanzania is very difficult to come by and I’m excited to read something which directly analyses our context.

Categories: Uncategorized Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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