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Learning from Olufemi Taiwo (part two)

I’ve finally finished Olufemi Taiwo’s How colonialism preempted modernity in Africa, having sporadically slogged my way through it over the last few months. Taiwo’s intellect is massive, and I felt like you practically had to have a Masters degree just to understand the English, let alone the fact that he covers philosophy, history, theology, economics, legal theory, etc. He is also very careful to tell you what he’s going to say, to say it and then to tell you what he’s said, so it can feel like he spends longer talking about his argument than actually arguing it! Nevertheless, this is a fascinating read.

Modernity, missionaries and democracy

Taiwo argues that Africa’s problems today come not because of modernity but because the tenets of modernity were ineffectually implemented. This is where the missionary stuff fits in. The first wave were committed to modernism’s values, believing in the inherent value and intelligence of African peoples and seeking to develop autonomy in them after hundreds of years of the slave trade. CMS father Henry Venn gets a good write up here. These missionaries had their failings, chiefly the paternalism and ignorance of treating Africans as ‘culturally naked’, but their aims were compassionate rather than exploitative, which often put them at loggerheads with the colonists. In Taiwo’s view, the idea that we often run into among Tanzania’s middle class, that missionaries functioned to soften Africans up with the gospel so the colonists could swoop in, is unfounded.

That said, Taiwo’s argument at this point is largely based in west Africa. I’m not sure of the interplay between missionary work and the colonial enterprise in Tanzania specifically. The historical placement of these is important because the second wave of missionaries in the later 19th century were more tied to the colonial enterprise. Their outlook was that Africans were barely human, at least children in the world’s family if not close to animals, with a lack of capacity to self-govern. Taiwo argues that the first wave of missionaries raised up many leaders, but that they had nowhere to go because the colonial administrators would not listen to or employ them.

For Taiwo, this aborted attempt at modernism has consequences today. Democracy is one outworking of modernism and many people are dismayed at its shallowness in Africa. However, despite the west’s applause for so-called democratic countries in Africa today, Taiwo argues that much of democracy in Africa is anaemic, defined by ‘having elected governments’ but without the values or general conditions of life that contribute to actually ‘being democratic’. (This argument seems particularly poignant in light of Woodberry’s measure of democracy as beneficial, and Arthur’s comments about that.) If democracy has failed in Africa, it is because the colonists did not abide by their own claim to modernity. While the colonial apologists have claimed that they brought the British legal system to Tanzania, Taiwo shows how, in Tanzania for example, ‘natives’ were disenfranchised from this system. He says we ought not to be surprised that a people who never experienced the British legal system or were able to participate in it, have not internalized its values.

Modernity and agency

Taiwo’s argument is not that Africa should become more western, but rather that Africans should have been afforded the agency (a key tenet of modernism) to take what they wanted from modernism and apply it in their own context. Contradicting the myth that Africans were tradition-bound and suspicious of anything new, Taiwo gives examples of two constitutions in west Africa which were written by natives (his word), embodied the tenets of modernism, and were rejected by the colonial authorities because they would give too much autonomy to the native, that is were more committed to the tenets of modernism than the colonists were prepared to be!

A great highlight of the book is a chapter profiling three ‘African prophets of modernity’, a clergyman, a doctor and a philosopher, all from the nineteenth century, who sought to blend modernity with indigenous elements. However, they were dismissed by the colonists as out of character for an African, and even having a pathological desire to be like Europeans, which was against nature. Africa finds itself where it is today, Taiwo says, not because there is something inherently primitive in the African consciousness, but because African people were obstructed from creativity and self-governance at every point by the colonists.

Taiwo’s concluding comments offer a way forward and like these ‘African prophets’ he believes that while modernity is good for Africa, it must be done in an African way. He says, “even if it were possible for the rest of the world to be like the West, that would be desirable only if it is the case that the ways of life that are enjoined by modernity and realized in some parts of the West are the best life for humans or are the best possible. They are neither.” He argues that capitalism is not the only logical economic structure for a modern society. He doesn’t really offer an alternative, but he says he hopes that recovering modernity from its association with colonialism and the west will open up this discussion. Perhaps most importantly for those of us who are western, he makes a call similar to what the Mission as Transformation movement is pursuing. That call is for westerners to discontinue ‘their love affair with their own voices and dare to listen to those of others whose agency they have hitherto treated with levity, contempt even.’

Categories: Tanzania Uncategorized Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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