Thursday, December 6, 2012

On Colonialism

    I think that movies play a huge part in the colonization of the minds of Africans.  Since they are very young, the majority of African children's exposure to white people, is through movies.  I have coined this idea the "Indiana Jones Complex."  So what they see, for their entire childhood, is an incredibly glorified and unrealistic representation of white people.  American movies are very common here in restaurants and on the street and they are translated into the local languages  (sometimes they are Indian movies that are dubbed into English and then again into Luganda and it's just one guy reading the vocal parts for all the actors.  It's really chaotic).  I see huge groups of kids gathered around TVs on my street and I've noticed that most of the western movies I see are action movies and romantic comedies (which are the worst as far as making white people look way more awesome than they are).  Lots of Nick Cage.  I wish there was a way to get them to watch historical documentaries on the many horrible failures and abuses of power that white people have exhibited throughout history.  Instead they see Vin Diesel kicking some (African or South American) drug cartel in the crotch.   As they get older, they start to become aware that these are movies and not reality, but I think it is still engraved in their subconscious.  I notice it on taxis when the conductors give me a better seat (often resulting in the discomfort of other Ugandan taxi riders), or when I get service before a Ugandan that was waiting longer than I was.  I notice it with the Mukono artivists, when they are arguing and talking over each other, but as soon as I speak up, they get quiet and listen and take what I say as fact.  It is an unwarranted power that can easily be misused and do damage.  At our In Service Training, my PCV friend, Matt told us a pretty interesting method to combat this “Muzungu is always right” mentality among youths.  The idea is to make outrageous proposals like, "let’s make cell phones and sell them as an income generating activity!"  And the act really excited about it and start taking steps to make it happen: “Alright guys, I’m going to go to Kampala and get some computer chips we can use and we’ll put the casings together with plastic.  Does anyone know a place where we can make plastic cell phone cases?  No?  We’ll just have to design a way to melt down old plastic and reform it…” etc.  You keep pushing until someone finally musters up the nerve to tell you that it is a stupid idea!  The idea is to both encourage Ugandan youth to be assertive and confident and to show that white people are not always right.  He said he doesn't even tell them that he knew it was a terrible idea all along.  It’s kind of a crazy way of making the point, but it’s better than any other suggestions I've heard.  
    I read an article called "Hair Imperialism" and it discussed something that had confused me up to that point: What's with the huge obsession with artificial hair here?  It talked about the huge amount of energy and money that is put into making African women have hair that looks like white people (and smells like baby powder).  Almost all women here have one kind of artificial hair or another.  I'll see a 16 year old with an identical hairstyle as a 45 year old woman.  It's another perfect example of a colonizing of the minds of African women and it is self-perpetuating in that having this fake white person hair is socially encouraged among African women and can even be an advantage in getting a good job.  
    Another observation/theory that I've developed is about why Ugandans (Africans and really, any culture located around the equator) seem to naturally have a very different work tendency than western society.  It occurred to me when I was thinking about that old folk tale (maybe you're familiar with it) in which there are 2 squirrels and one of them spends his summer playing and enjoying living in the moment, while the other is gathering nuts and preparing a home for the winter.  When winter comes, the first squirrel isn't prepared and the second one is happy and warm in his home.  I forget how the story ends or even why I was thinking about it, but it made me realize that this story would make no sense to people who have no experience with seasons.  It got me thinking about the west (more realistically, the north) and how their society has always, by necessity, been a society of preparation and looking forward (planning for winter).  Compare that to a society with very similar climate year-round and some of the most fertile soil on this planet.  Whenever they need food, they just plant it and it grows in a very short amount of time.  Historically, this society’s needs have always been met without having to plan too much into the future.  My theory is that this mentality lead European nations to the various revolutions (industrial, agricultural and technological) and places on the equator never had a need to develop in such a way.
  So (whether or not the reasons above are actually accurate) we are now living in a world where these western revolutions have really taken off and created a global economy that is very focused on planning ahead, maximizing profits, competing to stay on top, etc. This global system is has no room for societies that don't compete or plan strategically.  And this system is showing no signs that it's going away any time soon.  
    I think the overarching question that is most relevant to the challenges today is:  How do we get Africa on board with this seemingly permanent system that is very unsympathetic to traditional African ways of doing things without destroying their identities, heritage and culture?  This is an infinitely complex topic and one that needs to addressed before we can move forward with the whole idea of "development."  In an ideal world, I think that the best thing would be to let Africa work it out without the "help" of muzungu.  They seemed to be doing alright before we showed up anyways.  But unfortunately, a global economy doesn't allow for that.
  The people making the decisions on how to combat these problems (and fully believing that they are doing a great service) are of the mentality that we can just dump a ton of money and resources into Africa and train them to be western and wear suits and ties and have fake western hairstyles and everything will work out.  These are people who are never on the ground level to see the effects of their actions.  They sit at desks in big cities and look at numbers and papers that are so far removed from the people that they represent and are intended to help.  
  The other big issue is if we are doing more harm than good in our efforts.  Are we creating a foreign aid dependent society?  I think the answer is yes.  But how do we create a society that doesn't depend on handouts while also getting them up to speed and able to compete and be successful in the global economy?  I DON'T KNOW!!!!

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