May 20, 2012

The Postcolonial

"The empire gave its colonies real, tangible benefits. Wherever the British ruled, they erected a light, relatively inexpensive form of government that was not corrupt, was stable, and was favourable to outside investors." Nick Llyod, defending the legacy of British colonialism 
"What saves us is efficiency - the devotion to efficiency." Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

The liberation has past. Independence still reigns but the moment of transition, and of struggle, age into the history books. Banners of protest have long been stored away, and anthems, fresh and vibrant as they were introduced, revert to droll phrases echoed by schoolchildren stationed around a flagpole in the dull morning light. The colony is no more, the commonwealth has dissipated, but what of the young nation state? What legacy has it inherited, and like any inheritor, what will it do with the spoils it has received?

"Postcolonial" is not merely a term to describe an epoch, a chapter in the history books of the future, but represents a contested terrain in academia, and a movement advocating more scholarship and thought into the space between the colony and the independent nation. "Postcolonial thinking is entanglement and concatenation, unveiled chiefly through its critique of identity and subjectivity" (Achille Mbembe, an interview).

From the point I'm standing at, I can see the postcolonial intersecting at two specific and crucial points which are also overlapping: education and language.


I see the school as much a postcolonial remnant. Often it is the only proof in rural areas of a government, with government clinics, in villages which retain mostly traditional systems of informal law and land ownership. Its devotion to order and obsession with cleanliness clearly reflect its origins as a civilizing and enculturing institution.

I'm fascinated with the use of order because it is so starkly contrasted with the organic and negotiated nature of the village. In the villages, houses are scattered randomly and architecture often prefers the circle, mostly in the creation of insakas, or roofed kitchen areas. School areas differ drastically, and long rectangular classroom blocks are arranged with the precision of a military establishment.

I want to rethink this idea of order when I finish reading Michel Foucault's "The Order of Things", a history of ordering and symbolism in the Western sciences. In Zambian schools, order is found in the organization of the desks or the intentional set up of the classroom, the progression of lessons according to strictly constructed lesson plans and the procedures of meetings. Order is a method in which the institution is reproduced across the country - how it is duplicated in form and format - and how new teachers are initiated into the order. Safety is in order; if procedures are followed, everything is well. Semantics are not argued over, per se, but interpretation and classification are major areas of debate.

A clinic worker enters the classroom. His topic of address is not any of the preventable diseases found in this part of the continent, but the cleanliness of the classroom. There are some peanut shells under the desks. He ends his speech with the call and response of a preacher: "Cleanliness is next to ..." - you know the rest.

Teachers arrive in class dressed very smartly. Ministry of Education officials visiting schools note the "professional appearance and attitude" of teachers in the classroom. Cleanliness and the appearance of cleanliness are not distinct, but identical attributes - not a signified and signifier, respectively, but both. In the same way, order does not symbolize logic or a rational organization of things, but exists as its own end, a free floating signifier. Perhaps this is the unintentional outcome within postcolonialism - appearances are taken on but the meanings underneath are lost. Maybe it's the nature of cultural borrowing, and is not exclusive to Africa or even the postcolonies. When Americans tattoo themselves with nonsensical Asian characters, it is similar: the desire to partake in something from a foreign system, and take it as one's own. I can't help seeing the context would have been different if China had colonized America, and its language left as a residue, rather than part of a globalized borrowing.


It's difficult to discuss language from my standpoint. The English language is partially the reason I'm here, am able to work in the community, and teach in the schools. However, I'm not an English teacher or have TEFL (TESOL, EFL, the acronyms are infinite) as any of my goals here, so I have at least some flexibility to analyze English as the lingua franca.

"Perhaps the most priceless asset of all was the English language itself, which gave a unity to the subcontinent that it had never known before and which is allowing India's people to do business around the world today with great success.
Indeed, it is indicative of this that in February 2011, a Dalit (formerly untouchable) community in Uttar Pradesh built a shrine to the goddess English, which they believe will help them learn the English language and climb out of their grinding poverty."
Nick Llyod, Is Britain to blame for many of the world's problems?  
Some see English as the best gift the British gave to Zambia, but there is the opposing argument that the language will eclipse local tongues, which will eventually, in the absence of use and documentation, fade away. Many African authors and poets write in the lingua franca to access wider (and Western) audiences.

In Zambia schools local languages are taught, but English is introduced around Grade Three, and often from Grade Seven it is used to lecture in all subjects, often at the expense of clarity and understanding. Only seven local languages are taught, although there are 73 total languages and dialects spoken in the country. The Lala used in my community mixes with Bemba and English, and I wonder if it will even be a distinct dialect in years to come. If I move a few hours south on the road, I'll encounter Wisa, another dialect not formally taught in schools. And if I travel north, and surreptiously cross the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the prominent Western language is French, but that's another story.

I see English filling in the grammatical holes of local language. In Bemba, to command someone to do something and command them not to do the same thing is only differentiated by inserting an i into the middle of the verb phrase, which is not always readily distinct while speaking:
mwikala (you sit down) and mwiikala (don't sit down)
So English has come in. Even small children will say not ukusenda or not ukulya (don't take, don't eat) to their smaller siblings.


The Zambia I live in is a hybrid culture - a site of pastiche, clash, and amalgam. The anthropologist's dream of an unknown tribe living in the bush untouched by Western influence, a tribe that could offer us untold lessons about ourselves and our history, is not the context I see here. And I find that notion a little insulting. I see a lot of borrowing and accommodation: everything borrowed is something changed, altered to fit in. Zambians as well as Americans make things their own. This type of ownership, and what is changed while other parts remain as a residue or legacy, fascinates me.

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