WHAT ACTUALLY IS CIVILIZATION?—IS IT ANOTHER LIFE FROM THE WEST?


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Kayode Taiwo Olla

A close literary-inclined friend texted me about a month ago and I’ve kept the message. I just went through it now again and it got me wanting to write something about it. What she actually texted me was this in exact words:

What actually is civilization? Is it a life, that must come from outside, as in England or America? Thinkin’, my friend. Readin Roots in the sky, Akin Adesokan.

I smiled when I got that and paused to ponder too. I replied in a lengthy text after I had immersed myself in the thought as well. So, apart from playfully asking her to be my teacher too once she finishes the book, pending the time I’ll get to read the book—my response to the thoughtful questions is what I now felt to put down at length here, too. It was worthwhile for my friend and me sharing ideas about the way we felt about the term civilization as pertained to Africa, then looked at from another perspective. What actually is civilization? Is it a life, that must come from outside, as in England or America?

Now ‘Western civilization’ as it pertains to Africa and as the term is often used in respect to her, actually unfolded to me upon more closer look and deeper consideration a part of history, including literary history, too, of the ‘Empire upon which the sun never sets’, to use their famous slogan. I am talking of the then ever-expanding British empire in history there, where this stated. To use another very famous slogan of that embodies the particular period as well as its very essence and sensibilities, that stuff ‘civilization’ comes across often times than not as a variant of the historical condescending, patronizing phrase: ‘the White Man’s burden’. Now, you perchance have an idea of what I’m driving at. I am talking about the colonial ideology which in its very essence was racist and Eurocentric, yet subtly and very efficiently takes on the patronizing sense of ‘duty’ of civilizing lesser Africa, the lesser race of humans. Hence, in the words of the famous pro-colonial-ideology poem by Rudyard Kipling, it is the ‘White man’s burden’ to ‘serve [their] captives’ need… / [their] new-caught, sullen peoples, / Half-devil and half-child.’ Now, this is where this idea of civilization was coming from. There!

Perhaps, it’ll just be good to read the whole poem—for the simple African boy or girl who thinks so simply of what this civilization entails. The fact is there was, and still is in its multifaceted manifestations, a doze of Eurocentric condescension to it.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Send forth the best ye breed–
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild–
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain
To seek another’s profit,
And work another’s gain.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
The savage wars of peace–
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to naught.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
No tawdry rule of kings,
But toil of serf and sweeper–
The tale of common things.
The ports ye shall not enter,
The roads ye shall not tread,
Go make them with your living,
And mark them with your dead.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard–
The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah, slowly!) toward the light
“Why brought he us from bondage,
Our loved Egyptian night?”

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Ye dare not stoop to less–
Nor call too loud on Freedom
To cloak your weariness;
By all ye cry or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent, sullen peoples
Shall weigh your gods and you.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Have done with childish days–
The lightly proferred laurel,
The easy, ungrudged praise.
Comes now, to search your manhood
Through all the thankless years
Cold, edged with dear-bought wisdom,
The judgment of your peers.

[Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The White Man’s Burden]

Now, man, there is no gainsaying that Western culture, added a lot to African peoples in terms of literacy, science and technology, and formal education. If not I wouldn’t be typing this now on my laptop and in letters and alphabets of the English language. I wouldn’t have gone to the university and bagged a degree in Literature in English. I wouldn’t have written two literary works of themes, settings and tropes rooted in the interface and interplay between the past and contemporary Africa but via the literacy provided by and medium of the English language—though of Yorùbá too, my ethnic language and culture. If then, of a truth I would have been a fool deceiving myself, babbling about nothing! But that is not actually the question, is that? It is not: Do we not receive these things from the Western Culture? And are we not all the whole lot better for it? To which my answer will always be a resounding, unequivocal Yes! That we must know and must admit with all thanks. But then, the question is, rather: Are these to be termed Civilization? Really, wait a minute—are they? Or what the Whites had called it to you? Were these we received what define us as civilized—prior to which we have been ignoble barbarians?

Had African peoples not their own monarchical and military administrations in pre-colonial times? There own ethnic nations, their own sovereign empires? Had they not their own trade, their own technologies? Did they not, in fact, invent, mine ores and manufacture—and in fact at the time had the ancient Borno Kingdom of today’s Nigeria transacted trade (not merely slaves) with the Portuguese? Exported camel hides, cash crops and the like through the northern deserts. The pre-colonial Sokoto Caliphate had in fact long standing of trade with the Portuguese in Nigeria since around the periods of the 19th century. Where do you want to place the Benin brass smith and dexterous ivory works, sculpture and expensive palatial luxury of the Old Benin Kingdom? Of which the first Portuguese traders reported in their travel accounts to be a type of an orderly, sophisticated and aesthetically-advanced kingdom. What of the pre-colonial Ibadan military and republican administration led by the Balogun and with a detailed and particular form of transition; or of the Old y monarchical government with a very particular form of legislative checks-and-balances by the ymesi and quite detailed record-keeping of rightful heirs of the throne within the royal families?

Then, who defines civilization—and un-civilization? Is it the West? So that Western education means ‘Man, you’re civilized!’ Perhaps, it means so. But does lack of it and the whole bulk of the things we add from overseas, makes him uncivilized! My answer is, Not necessarily! Man, not necessarily! The fact of the civilized-uncivilized by a Western standard will only reveal a more stunning fact of something called the Manichean opposition that is an inherent feature of the Ethnocentrism in recent times. It is a concept whereby the West is placed as standard and other nations, cultures, customs etc. measured against it. You’ll see its manifestations everywhere. It is essentially—and subtly, racist. And many modern folks here too naïvely gulps the idea in and accepts it for a standard.

Here are some manifestations of what Edward Said had termed Manichean concept of binary opposition in his book Orientalism, criticizing the Eurocentric, racial classification of the White culture wherein they measure other cultures/civilization against themselves as standard in a Self-Others sort of classification. Edward Said was from the East but had had enough of that Euro-centric classification of things that shows racial condescension to every other thing or people that is not Western. So then, here we see them in use too every day, the Eurocentric Self-Other binary opposition: WHITE-COLOURED. DEVELOPED-UNDERDEVELOPED (which only in very modern times have that ‘Underdeveloped’ of the kinds of us been replaced with ‘Developing’, obviously because of the extent of the success the anti-racism campaigns everywhere have made in the world societies and their lexicology). Then, of course, WESTERN-EASTERN AND OTHERS. And CIVILIZED-UNCIVILIZED.

Finally, I think it is best for us to take the science and technology, formal education, Western ethics and so forth, that the Western culture had offered us and still pass on to the world through the media, movie industry, science and technology, in their bid to ‘civilize’ us—I think it is best when we take them and adopt the useful (as no culture whatsoever is an island), rather than adapt our whole selves to them as standards to which we must measure up to. Who says they are superior races in the first place? They said. They formulated, and propagated in literatures. And we continue to believe and act accordingly, rather subconsciously. I call that the politics and the poetics racial stratification.

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