As applied to non-Western societies, the term Westernization is almost always equated with modernization. It is important, however, to distinguish between the two, for modernization, considered as an overhauling of African societies, predates the incursion of the West on the continent. Before the Europeans, the most important agents of modernization in Africa were the Arabs, who, after their settlement in North Africa, introduced Islam into West Africa and thus set in motion a profound transformation of societies and cultures in the region. Similarly, the coastal peoples of East Africa were in touch with external civilizations long before the arrival of Europeans; the influence of the Arabs in this area has been as deep and durable as in West Africa. Internally, the Zulu leader Chaka's (1786–1828) conquests of and his creation of the Zulu nation out of diverse ethnicities over an extensive area in South Africa entailed a restructuring of their societies; the same can be said of Ashanti hegemony exercised over neighboring societies and peoples drawn into its sphere of imperial authority and cultural influence. In all these cases, what is involved is not merely a process of adjustment consequent upon conquest, but an extensive re-fashioning of the institutions and cultural practices of the societies affected in conformity with a new model of the world.
There is, however, a fundamental difference between these earlier processes of change and modernization as it is understood in the twenty-first century: that is, as the transition from an agrarian to an industrial-technological civilization. The origins of this process in the West and its global character constitute this civilization as a universal paradigm. It is in this sense that Westernization can be said to be synonymous with modernization in relation to the impact of the West on Africa.
The historical context of Westernization in Africa is the encounter with Europe, under the specific conditions of the Atlantic slave trade and the European colonial adventure, which was its logical extension. The forced acculturation of the black populations in the New World, already in full swing by the mid-eighteenth century, represents the first sustained assimilation of Western culture by Africans. It is significant to note the contribution that diaspora blacks were later to make to the process of Westernization in Africa, notably through their role in Christian evangelization and education.
The colonial factor was essential to the process of Westernization in Africa itself. The comprehensive reorganization of African societies in every sphere of life signaled a new dispensation that functioned as the comprehensive framework of the African experience under colonialism. The boundaries that resulted from the nineteenth century partition of Africa were determined without regard to antecedent institutions and cultures; the entities that emerged from partition represented a patchwork of administrative territories that in the twenty-first century have evolved into "modular states," each encompassing a diversity of languages and ethnicities. The colonial powers, especially the French and the Portuguese, undertook a systematic dismantling of indigenous institutions in order to establish colonial rule as the primary source of legitimacy in the territories they controlled. Moreover, they imposed new legal systems based upon European concepts of law, often at variance with indigenous legal systems and almost always with serious implications for such questions as property and inheritance.
A major effect of European colonialism was the progressive integration of Africa into the world capitalist system, within which Africa functioned primarily as a source of raw materials for Western industrial production. This required a total reorganization of African economic life, beginning with the introduction of the cash nexus and the imposition of taxation, which forced Africans into wage labor, a more intense and problematic variant of which was the migrant labor created by the mining industry in Southern Africa. Colonial economy also caused agriculture to be diverted toward the production of primary products and cash crops: cocoa, groundnut, palm oil, sisal, and so on. In the settler colonies—notably in Kenya and Rhodesia—the alienation of native land complicated the economic situation of the indigenous populations. The infrastructure undertaken by the colonial administrations was minimal, developed strictly as a function of the requirements of the new economy, which saw the rise of the colonial cities such as Dakar, Lagos, Nairobi, and Luanda. Urbanization led to rural exodus and the displacement of large segments of the population.
It is against this background of the disagregation of African societies and the destabilization of African life that the impact of Christianity has to be considered, for this has been the most important single factor in the process of Westernization in Africa. Western education, involving literacy and the mastery of a European language, became the condition for entry into the modern sector. For most of the colonial period, education was in the hands of the Christian missions, who sought not only to convert Africans but also to inculcate Western values. In West Africa, the assimilation of Western lifestyles was mediated by returnees from the diaspora—the West Indians, Brazilians, and Sierra Leoneans—whose education and skills enabled them to play an effective role in Christian evangelization and the nascent colonial civil service; their relatively privileged status enabled them to serve as a major reference group for indigenous Africans.
Christianity challenged traditional belief systems and promoted the diffusion of new ideas and modes of life; in particular, it sought to impose monogamy and the nuclear family as the norm. Romantic love and new conceptions of the self emerged, a development that was reinforced in the postwar period by the influence of the cinema and popular literature from the West. All over the continent throughout the colonial period, Africans were adopting new habits and acquiring new tastes derived from Western culture, often considered progressive in relation to traditional culture. This cultural revolution came to be associated with the new elite that was spawned by Christian education, an elite developed from an initial body of clerks, interpreters, and later, of teachers and lay preachers, expanding with time to include professionals, especially lawyers and doctors.
The ranks of the elite swelled with the establishment of the universities after World War II. Because they were linked at first with the metropolitan universities and staffed by Europeans, and the structure and content of the education they dispensed, they functioned essentially as outposts of Western culture, which thus proved a determining factor of modern cultural expression. This is attested by the dominance of Western-educated Africans, products of the new universities, in the genesis and evolution of a new literature written in the European languages, for which the forms and conventions of the metropolitan literatures have served as reference. Western cultural forms also provided expressive channels in other areas of aesthetic manifestation. This was most notable in music, where Western instruments such as the piano, the trumpet, and the guitar have been adopted by African artists to fashion a new musical idiom fusing indigenous and foreign modes, a creative syncretism that is forcefully demonstrated in African popular music, and that can be observed in other areas such as the visual arts.
The transformations provoked by the pressures of colonial rule in all spheres of life are sufficiently extensive and pervasive to qualify as the signs of a new modernity in Africa. In no area is the association of Westernization with modernization clearer than in the impact of science and technology on African experience and consciousness. Modern medicine has largely taken precedence over traditional methods in matters of health; ironically, the drastic reduction of infant mortality it has made possible has also complicated the demographic issues in Africa, with consequences for agriculture and social services. Although no major effort of industrialization took place during the colonial period, and there has been no significant development since, Western technology has long entered the lives of Africans through familiarity with manufactured products imported from the West.
As with other societies and cultures in the so-called Third World, the impact of Western civilization on Africa has occasioned a discontinuity in forms of life throughout the continent. This has led to a cultural dualism that often presents itself as a real dilemma in concrete, real-life situations. In other words, the African experience of modernity is fraught with tensions at every level of the communal and individual apprehension. African nationalism was predicated on the conjugation of nation-building and economic development as a means for the improvement in standards of living. Beyond these immediate objectives, it was concerned more fundamentally with the establishment of a new order informed by modern concepts of political life and behavior and by a rationality in conformity with a modern world outlook. The upheavals of the postindependence era have derived from the stresses arising from the quest for this ideal. It is thus fair to observe that the fundamental issue with which the contemporary societies of Africa are confronted is that of their full and orderly accession to modernity, that is, to a mode of collective organization based on the model of the liberal and democratic nation-state and of the industrial-technological civilization, a model that is associated with the West.
This is not to restrict Africans to a single model, nor to deny the capacity for adaptation manifested by African societies. There is an undeniable energy in the movement toward a new integration evident in the original forms of life and expression that have been evolved on the continent since the encounter with Europe. As Melville Herskovits and William Bascom have observed, "There is no African culture which has not been affected in some way by European contact, and there is none which has entirely given way before it" (p. 3).
Indeed, the significant fact about African cultural history is the convergence upon the indigenous tradition of the two external influences—the Arab-Islamic and the European-Christian—to which the continent has been exposed for well over a millennium. The values and lifestyles associated with these traditions have been assimilated and to a large extent indigenized on the continent. This observation provides a broader perspective on the phenomenon of Westernization in Africa, an observation made as early as the late nineteenth century by the great African cultural theorist Edward Wilmot Blyden and summed up in the late twentieth century by Ali Mazrui as "the triple heritage."
F. Abiola Irele
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