In the 1990s, millions of Americans went about their lives believing that they were truly changing the world. This is because these Americans donated to the Children of the Nations fund. They were told on television that for only 25 cents, a child in Africa could be fed. And however much good this movement committed to, this was always the extent of the public’s generosity: Americans were never forced to consider if 25 cents of charity was enough. They were never forced to adopt meaningful change, such as adopting new language or ideas surrounding colonialism and its role in Africa.
Sydella Blatch explains, in a study, the many ways that African nations innovated and grew separately from colonialism. An excerpt from her work indicates how, when it came to medicine, “African nations such as Egypt, Nigeria, and South Africa were developing complex medical procedures and medicine. Historians found evidence of the use of salicylic, or Aspirin, for pain long before any western nations used it. African societies predated Europe when it came to brain surgery, amputations, filling dental cavities, treating bullet wounds, and the list goes on.”
Concerning astronomy, the article continues, “The Dogon people of Mali amassed a wealth of detailed astronomical observations. Many of their discoveries were so advanced that some modern scholars credit their discoveries instead to space aliens or unknown European travelers, even though the Dogon culture is steeped in ceremonial tradition centered on several space events. The Dogon knew of Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s moons, and the Sirius star system.”
These are just a few examples of how African developments and successes were overshadowed by their European counterparts. This phenomenon is known today as Eurocentrism.
By placing European colonialism at the center of Africa’s historical narrative, the people of Africa’s unique history, culture, and heritage are often overlooked. For example, a paper written by Ihediwa Chimee (entitled “African Historiography and the Challenges of European Periodization: A Historical Comment”) states, “European authors had assailed and even doubted Africa’s historical heritage; one even went as far as to say, ‘Africa had no history prior to European exploration and colonization, that there is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness’, her past ‘the unedifying gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe’ (Trevor-Roper, 1963: 871).”
The analysis goes on, “Even Hegel, in an apparent attempt to besmirch Africa, once asserted that ‘Africa is no historical part of the world; it has no movement or development to exhibit’ (Hegel: 1956, 99, The Philosophy of History).”
Such Eurocentrism erases Africa’s history. European colonialism only lasted about 400 years, compared to 150,000 years of African history before that. Colonialism is too often treated as the entirety of African history. By ignoring this problem, we choose to reduce African history to the recollection of the Europeans that colonized it.
Additionally, Euro-centrism can become a self-reinforcing problem. By portraying Africa in a Eurocentric light, reporters, journalists, and academics are trained to think of African issues from a purely Western perspective. These reporters, journalists, and academics produce Eurocentric work about Africa, perpetuating the problem.
Not only does such Eurocentrism present academic and historical problems, but it also raises practical ones. Perhaps the most significant harm of Eurocentrism is that it demeans Africa. In an age in which Africans and people of African descent are struggling to overcome false stereotypes, portraying the history of their home continent as simply a place to be easily exploited is counterproductive. In this vein, it is possible to trace a direct link from African colonial determinist rhetoric to racism.
In a 2015 paper, Allyson Tadjer expands upon the racism that is directly linked to colonialism. Tadjer writes, “In the decades following the First World War … a generation of French artists and intellectuals would turn to the ‘exotic black other’ … blackness remained evocative of primitivism, but primitivism now positively constituted an ‘antidote to a stifling and civilizing society.’” This is the association made using colonialist language: that the colonists represent civilization and the host countries represent “primitivism.” This is a manifestation of colonial determinism fully realized as racism.
In addition to inciting racial violence, colonial determinism is a tool that multinational corporations (MNCs) use to justify and empower their hold over Africa's natural resources.
A study from the York St. John University found in 2017 that the “colonial language and methodologies of doing business created the postcolonial Africa where indigenous ways of doing business, its language, methods, theories, and strategies, were submerged within the European practices.” It is because we choose to conform to the colonial language that Africa struggles to meet Eurocentric, “manufactured” stigma, or risks which don’t actually harm businesses.
It’s true, by standards set in Western countries, that Africa’s economic grievances seem legitimate. But this is what MNCs show in order to deter competition. In reality, despite domestic African economies being in decline, these same countries host some of the biggest corporations in the history of economic globalization. MNCs continue to take advantage of African industries under the guise of it being a poor venture by adopting “a combination of risk and loss aversion strategies at the expense of fundamental corporate socially-responsible practices.”
In short, the issue can be condensed to multinational corporations monopolizing African markets while perpetuating socially constructed “risks” to drive away the competition.
Unfortunately, this problem isn’t just reserved for for-profit organizations. WE Charity is an organization that focuses on aiding countries in the global south through donations and missions. Despite what the organization advertises on its website, WE Charity appears to be sending a large sum of the money it raised to other domestic companies and corporate organizations.
In 2018, WE Charity spent $5.8 million on domestic programming and $6 million to WE Charity Canada. Only $8.5 million collectively went out to the countries they were claiming to support. In 2019, U.S. tax filings showed that WE Charity spent $7.6 million on domestic programs and $18.8 million on “grants and other assistance to foreign organizations.” $10.8 million of those dollars went to WE Charity Canada.
The WE Charity program illustrates more problems with voluntourism, where young volunteers are paid to travel overseas to these countries to physically participate in the charity. Several African countries have called to ban the practice.
In response to the WE Charity pushing volunteer work into Uganda, Rosebell Kagumire, a Ugandan writer, states how many of the volunteers come to these countries and infantilize the problems faced by its people. She states that they are, “high on white supremacy. ME to WE’s brand of voluntourism positions ways of ‘saving’ and ‘helping’ people at the expense of more sophisticated development approaches that foster partnership, sustainability, long-term support, and capacity building.”
This is what happens when we allow colonial determinism language to manifest into superficial charity programs. Rather than investing in any actual aid or driving international investment, charities such as these frame certain countries as undesirable for business and in need of charity.
Social stigma and corporate exploitation are one issue. It becomes a completely different problem once other countries start to play a role in this disenfranchisement.
Superpowers are the playground bullies of the world. No one is capable of challenging their power, and as a result, these countries feel entitled to do whatever they want without serious repercussions. If this wasn’t enough, Western nations, particularly the United States and Britain, are actively mismanaging their power.
In 2017, Britain held an enormous amount of power in Libya following the assassination of their leader. The UK’s failure bled into a circular issue where the mismanagement of aid led to more dependency from African countries who have the resources to be self-sustainable but ultimately fail due to their revenue being stolen by Western corporations. This is the story of how African nations come to be completely dependent on superpowers. And if you thought colonialism was something that doesn’t happen anymore, perhaps this will help you see otherwise.
Western powers, in addition to removing themselves from this toxic relationship, must change the discourse surrounding Africa. Independence was never a choice for these people. The state of their nations is a part of an ongoing phenomenon of colonialism. As such, our language surrounding these countries is largely misrepresentative.
The average American citizen, and even intellectuals, look down upon the continent of Africa with pity. Even though it is because of countries like ours, we infantilize these African nations reducing their problems to simple issues of poverty and weak government. But the issue runs much deeper than what our colonial language may permit you to know. Perhaps the changes made by revising the discourse are mainly cultural, but I assure you: If we started treating African countries with the respect they deserve, if we choose to see the issue, not from a first-world perspective, but from their viewpoint, and if we stopped treating this continent as some far-off desolate place, we can really begin to make a difference.
To conclude, an excerpt from Odile Goerg: “Colonial authorities saw themselves as protectors of individuals unable to exercise critical judgment and in need of guidance.”
Our infantilization of Africa is what leads to these consequences. It doesn't matter how many countries European nations have invaded. We cannot allow their language to persist in our discourse nor can we permit the penetration of neo-colonialism. It infantilizes the issues faced by its people and continues the cycle of exploitation. We all need to do our part to fix this problem and move the world into a better future.
Editor's note: If you would like to dig deeper into the issues discussed in this article, the author has provided a list of citations used in this piece for further reading.