An old school-friend of mine, affectionately known as Aitch, has a theory that poor governance in former colonies is due to a condition he describes as ‘self-hate’. He believes that the lack of development, high debt, unemployment, lack of quality education for the masses and other negatives have persisted because we have internalised the dehumanising aspects of slavery and colonialism, and use it against each other to maintain our place in the pecking order of the societies we live in.
The idea keeps reappearing in the email chat we call ‘Fortis 78’, coined from our high school’s motto and the year we all graduated. And, although I didn’t agree necessarily with everything Aitch was saying, it got me thinking about all the issues facing African people throughout the world and wondering why they persist. I thought about Ferguson and the protests in Baltimore; then I pondered on the problems in my homeland Jamaica, across the Caribbean, and here in Nigeria and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa; and finally, I thought about my own experiences, wherever I’ve lived, worked and travelled.
As I mulled over this complex mess of history, current affairs and observations, I was forced to confront some uncomfortable truths. As much as we excel individually, in virtually every field of endeavour, we do not appear to do well collectively and consistently. Our post-colonial history bears this out and often it is painful to watch. Recent events in South Africa are the most brutal example of this lack of unity, but mostly it passes unnoticed, due to its subtlety and familiarity. A cursory glance at most former colonies shows that the ruling classes tend to occupy the void left by the departing colonisers, even as they appear to offer upward mobility to the formerly oppressed.
As a child in Jamaica, I wondered why our household helper had to use the back door while everyone else came through the front. I remember asking my grandmother why she kept a separate glass, plate and fork for Watchie the gardener, even though we shared the family’s utensils with other guests. Patiently, she explained it in terms of customs and habit, something she had grown used to as a child, but I sensed her discomfort once she had to articulate it to a suspicious child. Many other similar issues could be explained away by differences in class, education and upbringing, but some nagging doubts remained. The most consistently noticeable differences between ‘them’ and ‘us’ was their darker complexions and their positions in the ‘servant class’ formerly occupied by slaves.
As I questioned these remnants of our past, one of the best things that ever happened to me was Kingston College, founded in 1925 to educate young men from the less privileged sections of Jamaican society. There I found kinship with boys from uptown to downtown, all struggling to get the grades, make the sports teams and pass the final exams. In this environment, the brightest and most hardworking succeeded, regardless of family background. And we were brothers; every last African, Chinese, Indian or European-looking one of us, with every possible mixture in-between. Not surprisingly, KC gave many of us a springboard to success and a bond that endures more than 35 years later; but we were among the few lucky enough to attend an elite school.
Jamaican politicians like to compare our island home with Singapore, because we were similar in terms of size and population, and became independent nations around the same time. We had been through slavery, while they had less natural resources. However, they have prospered beyond our wildest dreams, for one simple reason – they made education and training their number one priority, and it made them immensely attractive to sophisticated investors. We have lagged behind; the result being poverty, crime and a lack of opportunity for the majority of the population. The brightest and most talented emigrate to North America, creating a brain-drain that impacts on leadership in business, politics and education.
This is the crux of Aitch’s theory; that our failure to give every young person a first-class education is rooted in self-hate – a contempt for the masses of African descent. If our children only go to the best high schools, why wouldn’t we ensure that every child has the same opportunity? If our workers had first-class vocational and professional training, surely the world’s top companies in biotech, pharma, telecoms, software, aerospace and other lucrative industries would beat a path to our developing economies.
Living in Africa has opened my eyes to other aspects of the self-hate phenomenon; areas that I previously thought were legacies of slavery only. One glaring example of this is the negative self-image that most Nigerian women have of themselves. Current estimates indicate that over 70% use skin-lightening products as part of their ‘beauty’ routine, oblivious to the damaging effect on their bodies and self-esteem. The story with hair is not much different, with most feeling that they do not look beautiful without the hair of an Indian, Chinese or Brazilian woman on their heads – even if it looks like a bird’s nest or what Jamaicans call ‘coconut brush’, the fibrous husk of a dry coconut.
Anyone who travels to Nigeria will notice the complete lack of respect that the average Nigerian has for his fellow citizens. Whether you are a customer in a supermarket, airline passenger or restaurant patron, customer service is appalling. There’s no malice, just a complete lack of concern for your time, comfort or value for money. It is completely normal to be kept waiting several hours for a flight, without an explanation, apology or even an announcement. If the only flight is cancelled – good luck, you’re on your own. Often, when I’m introduced to business associates, my usual response of “Hi, I’m Michael,” is never enough – my friend or colleague has to explain my position and professional status. This always triggers a second, more enthusiastic greeting, now accompanied by a two-hand shake, a bow or curtsey. This may look comical but it conceals a sad reality: you are nobody unless you are an ‘oga’.
And, finally, to our beleaguered cousins in the USA, exporting their infamous fashion of ‘sagging’ trousers to our young Black males who think it looks cool to imitate the garb of prisoners who are forbidden to wear a belt, just in case they commit suicide. They have taught a whole generation to call each other ‘nigga’, either with affection (my nigga) or disdain (them niggas), while all the time trying to convince us that they have ‘reclaimed’ the term from the racist slave master or latter-day redneck. They don’t seem to mind that the majority of their hip-hop music fans are now White; the very people they have forbidden to use the term ‘nigger’.
I hope I haven’t pulled you in too many different directions, following this thread that seems to run through so much of the post-slavery, post-colonial experience. I wanted to show how so many seemingly unconnected things are actually deeply connected by our view of ourselves and each other. By all indications, we have some way to go before we can claim self-love and real affection for each other; or that we really want the best for each other and that we value the contribution that each person has to make.
You probably won’t agree with everything that has been said, however, I’m hoping that you will think about these issues a little bit more than usual. Next time you are in front of a mirror, look at yourself – your skin, lips, nose and hair. Do you love what you see – made in God’s image – or do you need to make some changes? What about the people around you? Do you give them as much respect as your boss, a celebrity or prominent member of society? Do you treat their children like your own?
Perhaps this notion of self-hate is a figment of Aitch’s quite impressive imagination. Maybe his relentless pursuit of this argument has persuaded me against my better judgement. Maybe.