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Colonialism and Ideas

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An essay on western ideologies and colonialism
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Discuss the character and significance of Western ideologies about Africa in
relation to slavery and/or colonialism
The very term ‘the west’ represents an array of multifaceted ideas, values and
concepts. It is a historical construct that arose during the 16th century around the time
of the disintegration of feudalism and has evolved over the centuries to depict a
certain type of ‘civil’ society. The creation of the ‘west’ was the result of a precise set
of historical processes encompassing the realms of economics, politics, society and
culture. The ‘idea of the west’ brought forth many real affects in that it produced
knowledge and functioned as an organising factor in global power relations during the
period of colonialism.i The language of the west developed a certain structure of
thought and knowledge; it allowed the Europeans to characterize and class societies
into different categories. The categories used to divide the world, such as ‘Asian’ and
‘African’ roll off the tongue as if they are natural, definitive and practical terms.
Similarly religious, national and ethnic classifications can seem just as
uncontroversial in that they are often attached to specific attributes and claims. In this
sense, much of political and social conversation is made up of assertions such as
‘what Africans really feel…’ or ‘experience has taught Africans…’ii Communication
relies on organization which is in turn subject to generalizations, it is only when this
process comes to be racialized does it become problematic. In this context, these
terms can be used to sustain the threatening conceit that they refer to natural pre-
social and homogenous entities.
The ‘west’ provided a model of comparison. Alongside the ‘west’ came into being the
creation of ‘non-western’ societies. The uniqueness of the ‘west’ was to some extent
created through Europe’s contact with ‘the Other,’ it was in this context that these
relations assumed meaning. Essentially, the ‘West’s’ sense of identity was largely
owing to its recognition of difference from the rest of the world; the two thus become
related components in the same discourse. The idea of the ‘west’ creates a single
image that consolidates a number of different characteristics. It produces, using verbal
and visual language, a picture of what different cultures, societies, peoples and places
are like. The idea of the west also provides a criteria of evaluation against which other
societies are ranked. These societies are surrounded by powerful positive or negative
feelings. The west effectively projects itself onto the Other through splitting the self
and the world in separate ‘good’ and ‘bad’ entities. The language of the west is also
successful in producing a certain kind of knowledge about a subject and certain
attitudes towards it. The conceptual world of the Other was constructed as the
absolute opposite of everything which the West stood for, it was at the centre of
discourse of civilization, improvement, modernity and development in the west. The
world of the Other was the dark side; forgotten, subjected and denied.iii It is in this
way that western knowledge and ideas about Africa were shaped. In this essay I will
discuss the character and significance of western ideologies about Africa in relation to
colonialism, focusing predominantly on 19th century representations and ideas.
Western ideologies about Africa evolved constantly throughout the 18th to 20th
centuries. There were renewals and shifts in ideas about Africa from a range of
perspectives, from religion and mysticism to climate variations, scientific racism and
theories of biological difference. This ever-growing collection of knowledge about the
Other often sought to legitimize and justify colonialism. Ideas were based more on
relations of power rather than actual experiences of Africa; notions were often

reproduced, reinforced and then systematically incorporated into various western
schools of thoughts. Africa has traditionally been depicted as the ‘dark continent;’ a
stagnant expanse with no history, culture or civilization of its own. It is a fearsome
darkness plagued with superstition, ignorance and menace, a place occupied by dark-
skinned savage barbarians in desperate need of civilisation.
In Orientalism, Said asserts that the construction of the Other (in this case the
Africans) is not stimulated by any desire to represent loyally the reality of colonised
cultures and their people, instead it serves as a form of ideological control. Europe’s
fundamental lack of true knowledge and understanding of the Africans was reflected
in the contradictory images of the noble and ignoble savage. During the period of
colonisation little if any real effort was made to decipher the motives and thought
behind African practises. The majority of Western ideologies concerning Africa are
shown to be external; there was mention of strange cultural ceremonies and peculiar
social rituals but such acts were dismissed or more fittingly ‘explained’ in terms of
savage ‘ignorance.’iv During the 19th century a multitude of new attitudes and complex
cultural models were spread throughout Africa by colonialists. This led to the
fragmentation and break up of many culturally unified and religiously integrated
African societies.v Further the presence of this new culture and the transformations
they demanded contributed to the psychological trauma suffered by many natives.
Much was done to wipe out the traditions of African societies, to substitute their
language for the Europeans, to destroy their culture without giving them Europeans
own.vi The church of the foreigner for example, did not call the native to Gods way,
but to the way of the white man; his master. Africans were stripped of articulation.
The ideas about Africa were created by the west, for the west, with the purpose of
advancing the west and had little to do with the actual reality of the continent and its
occupants; they were free project onto Africa their own images, attitudes and values.
The French revolution unleashed the forces and ideas of Europe’s growing middle-
class, especially the principle of liberalism which provided the basis for government
insured freedoms to act, trade and prosper.vii From this, emerged a fervent nationalist
desire to compete with other European nations in the acquisition of resources and
power. There were many theories surrounding the European partition and ‘scramble’
for Africa during the 19th century, such include theories of global strategy, balance of
power, and the economic theory. Global theory states that the tariff war which took
place between the European nations was crucial, each nation wanted their share in
order to prevent a single nation from monopolizing much of the world; hence
protectionist power was an important driving measure. It has also been suggested that
the partition was a rational consequence of the ongoing exploitation of Africa for the
past three centuries. The change from slave to legitimate trade can also be seen as a
contributing factor.viii The theory of Marxism can also be used to explain colonialism
as it elevated both the status of the working class whilst increasing the power and
wealth of the middle class. The African was seen to be of a natural labouring class.
Jean-Paul Satre uses 19th century western values such as liberty and fraternity to
convey the sheer hypocrisy of Europe, he states it was an ‘…ideology of lies, a
perfect justification of pillage, it’s honeyed words, its justification of sensibility were
only alibis for our aggression’ and further ‘a racist humanism…the European has only
been able to become man through creating slaves and monsters.’ix
In the 19th century explorers such as Burton, Stanley and Livingstone produced

representations of Africa for Europeans, opening it up conceptually for their readers
as they opened it up economically for their governments; exploring was not only a
form of invasion or inspection, rather is was a determined effort of ‘in-scription’ as
Fabian asserts; ‘By putting regions on maps and native words on a list, explorers laid
the first and deepest, foundations of colonial power. By giving proof to the ‘scientific’
Nature of their enterprise they exercised power in a pure, subtle form- the power to
name, to describe, to classify.’x Writing, as an imprint and description, served as a tool
to establish control. The writings produced by these explorers simultaneously created
an Africa suitable for both imperial interests and a European readership riveted by
tales of exotic mysterious worlds conquered by European males. African travelling
accounts paradoxically included images of both the white man engulfed by a mass of
black savages and images of explorers alone in the darkest depths of Africa. These
expressions of solitude used to describe the explorations of Europeans who always
travelled amid a large number of Africans makes sense only if you view them in a
discourse which linguistically makes Africans absent by making them less than
human i.e. if you’re in a wilderness with wild animals you would consider yourself
alone, almost as if they are not there, or if they are their presence is invaluable. Such
an account would only be viable to a deeply racist European audience.xi Africa, in
these accounts, was portrayed as a land of disorder, eeriness and barbarity; in this
landscape the European stood as the sole representative of order, rationality and
civility. Furthermore, in the descriptions of the African landscapes, the presence of the
natives were often diminished; reports such as these portrayed a continent that was
rich in resources, vast in area and most importantly vacant; in essence it was a place
open for European imperialism. It was further suggested by some writers that it was
the Europeans moral duty to not let these resources go to waste. This was based on the
belief that Africans were incapable of ruling themselves let alone profiting from their
lands resources.xii
Victorian literature similarly participated in the formation and propagation of colonial
ideology by providing an indirect justification for colonialism. The language used to
describe Africa and Africans is important in that it shapes the way we perceive and
relate to them. The very terms ‘black’ and ‘white’ are explicitly racial in that they
refer to our most natural elements; our flesh and blood, hence theories of race and the
connotations of racial colour can be very dangerous. It creates fixed perceptions in our
mind due to the fact that race is fixed; unchangeable.xiii The idea of race was drawn
upon throughout the 19th century. The publication of Darwin’s ‘The Origin of Species’
in 1859 provided scientific support for the belief in the primacy of the European race;
a theme which had been incorporated continuously since the 17th century. Imperialism
could now be further justified by the process of ’natural selection.’ Darwin’s ideas
regarding evolution were exploited by Western intellectuals in the 1890’s who began
interpreting global events as a struggle among humans for social dominance; a
struggle that the Europeans were winning.xiv It allowed Africa to be transformed from
a geographical space into a temporal one; Africans were placed in the evolutionary
past by Imperialists in order to legitimize Europeans conquest. Other ideas such as the
affects of tropical climate were also developed during this period; this idea asserted
that the mental underdevelopment of the Africans was owing to climatic conditions.
Some believed the Africans had been permanently stunted by puberty and as a result
were destined to live as a ‘child-race.’ Race ideas about Africans suggested that the
relations Europeans should have with Africans should be similar to that of masters to
servants. This was deemed the only imaginable relation between two races of peoples

occupying such different mental and moral spaces.xv Further this relation was
conveyed by writers of the time as a burden for the white man, it was his duty (being
of the supreme race) to civilise these; ‘new caught, sullen peoples’ who were ‘half-
devil and half-child.’xvi
The evolutionary theory was significant for many reasons, both in the 19th century and
in the context of the modern world. In his novel King of the Castle, Gai Eaten writes
that the evolution theory has been ‘deeply penetrated into the substratum of human
thought.’ further ‘it shapes opinions and distorts judgement in almost every sphere…
(due to it becoming) a kind of unconscious and therefore unquestioned bias.’xvii The
argument here is that our beliefs and ideas on progress have been involuntarily
altered; we believe perhaps that each generation is likely to be a little wiser and as a
result we may render the beliefs and ideas of earlier generations as obsolete. Similarly
ideas on what constitutes human normality are adapting to the times. If we went back
in time, the physical features of the world, the mountains, sky and land would be the
same, but their meaning would be different to those of that generation. Only from our
present position can we see how limited the beliefs and ideas of previous times and
cultures were, Eaten continues; ‘how many avenues were left unexplored and how
many opportunities missed.’xviii In modern times it is easy to believe that we have
escaped the limitations of in human thinking and human vision, however this may not
be the case. Western ideas about Africa today, may be completely different compared
to what they may be a hundred years from now, when its knowledge comes from the
actual continent and its people rather than from intellectual outsiders; when perhaps
Africa has developed a completely autonomous structure of thought and action. Ideas
can change drastically though invention and discovery, as Fanon envisions and urges;
‘For Europe, for ourselves and for humanity, comrades, we must turn over a new leaf,
we must work out new concepts, and try to set afoot a new man’xix
During the 19th century, discourse on the noble savage also emerged. Such literary
texts argued that Africans were morally superior to Europeans as they lacked the
greed and lust for material goods. The noble savage became a means of expression for
wide-ranging critique of the over-refinement, religious hypocrisy and schism of social
rank that existed in the west. For Rousseau the ‘noble savage’ symbolized in some
respects, the ideal man; simple, self-effacing and living in the state of nature
unrestrained by laws, government, property or social divisions. Writers during the
Romantic period often expressed issues of morality surrounding colonialism. Blake
ardently questions the notions of sin and decency in the exclamation; ‘I am black, but
O! my soul is white’xx Romantic literature often drew upon the pastoral freedom of
the natives while condemning those responsible for their state of confinement and
subjugation. However, as positive as these representations were, they were often
patronizing and derogative. Africans are spoken of as if they have no individual
autonomy and in relation to Britain’s own corruption. Their violation, anger,
repression are rarely mentioned. Further these representations were also drawn upon
and used to justify the plundering of Africa’s resources. Africans have little interest
and material want for resources hence we are free to make use of them ourselves.
The Western ideas created about Africa were depraved, hollow and self-serving. They
were created in order to sustain and justify its possession of the land and the
enslavement of its peoples. Through the creation of a number of symbols, descriptions
and representations they were able to keep hold of their reign. The dark skin-colour

Africans possessed symbolized traits such as corruption, lewdness, barbarity and vice.
The native was shown to be inherently evil, he was the corrosive, deforming element.
The native has never known values, or morality rather he works to disfigure all forms
of beauty. Africans were often described in zoological terms, there is mention of the
‘breeding swarms’ of ‘gesticulations’ and ‘the stink of the natives quarter.’xxi The
African was always referred to in relation to his bestiary. Fanon describes the
colonialist representations of Africans as creatures whose ‘faces (are)bereft of
humanity…(a)mob without beginning or end, those children who seem to belong to
nobody, that laziness stretched in the sun…’xxii Such prevalent descriptive terms, he
asserts, are part of the colonial vocabulary. Similarly in Heart of Darkness, Conrad
describes the natives in terms of their brutishness ‘meagre breasts panted together, the
violently dilated nostrils quivered, the eyes stared stonily up hill…deathlike
indifference of unhappy savages.’xxiii These descriptions of Africans have a very real
effect on the psychology of the natives (and colonizers).
In ‘Black Skin, White Masks’ Fanon asserts that racialization project of colonialism
has created a sense of division and alienation in non-white peoples. He draws upon
Lacan’s mirror-stage of identity formation, which states that our perceptions of
ourselves are shaped largely on representations and images. The psychological
challenges this leads to is summarised by Fanon description of the stages one goes
through; ‘As I begin to recognise that the Negro is the symbol of sin, I catch myself
hating the Negro. But then I recognise that I am a Negro. There are two ways out of
this conflict. Either I ask others to pay no attention to my skin, or else I want them to
be aware of it. I try, then to find value for what is bad - since I have unthinkingly
conceded that the black man is the colour of evil,’ the only way to escape this
situation is to ‘reject the two terms that are equally unacceptable’ and ‘reach out for
the universal.’xxiv
Fanon in ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ analyses the effects of colonialism on the
colonised. In such societies, expressions of respect towards the established order often
created an atmosphere of submission amongst the exploited. Fanon describes the
recurrent physical and psychological processes, both internal and external to the
native that sustains colonialism by repressing revolt. This process begins with the
native viewing brutal acts against his kind, in this situation any kind of rebellion will
be met with death and this in turn reinforces the fear in the native and considerable
weakens him. The shame and fear he lives with render him no longer human; once
domesticated he is neither man nor animal. In this state representations are thrust upon
him, he is a lazy, indolent, sly and inherently sinful. These representations fuel ill
treatment towards the natives whose only weapon is the proof of their humanity. After
generations of butchery, the native beings to see himself as a weapon; his memory is
‘traumatized’ for life due to constant renewed aggression amongst his people. He sees
the hypocrisy and contradiction of the Europeans ideologies and seeks revenge.
Violence and unity is the only way out, they must form a resistance, only by shunning
colonialism in all shapes and forms can they regain their humanity and power.
Fundamentally, Africans can only be enslaved when they are completely beaten down
and sufficiently remorseful (ie. When Kunta Kinte in Roots finally accepted him new
name, Toby, as a result of being flogged and taunted, his conformity destroyed his
sense of self-worth.) Alternatively, one may betrays his fellow natives by becoming an
accomplice of the colonizer, which is caused by positive reinforcement.

In any case, Fanon argues that the direct oppression of the native is the cause of
madness, whether from his fervent envy of the settler and the desire to possess the
life, wealth and possessions of his oppressor, or the constant self-doubt, shame and
degradation he experiences. Fanon writes; ‘the systematic negation of the other person
and a furious determination to deny the other person all attributes of humanity…
forces the people it dominates to ask themselves the question constantly ’In reality,
who am I?’ Towards the middle of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Marlow for a moment
indulges in the idea the Africans were not in fact beasts; ‘…that was the worst of it -
the suspicion of their not being inhuman…the thought of your remote kinship with
this wild and passionate uproar.’xxv He doesn’t go further than this, the Africans are
still primitive and unequal, but for there to be a remote ‘kinship’ the natives would
have to be human. This idea was unnerving to its readers; if in any part they admitted
that they were human beings they would have to come to terms with their own
barbaric treatment towards them. From a psychological perspective, it is the natural
position to take to say that the evil being done if for the benefit of the Africans, it is a
necessary process in making them civil.

The aim of 19th century anthropologic presuppositions were to lay down the
foundation for more informational colonial sciences, this was achieved through
pedagogy, missions and applied anthropology. Through the creation of ideas about
Africa and Africans, processes were followed in order to change the state of the
Africans through different mediations. Such mediations sought to achieve in some
sense real results. The process for example of changing Africa’s primitiveness to
civilization could be achieved through conversion. Similarly it is possible for the evil
pagan to be transformed into the good Christian through their acceptance and practise
of Christianity. Through theological conversation their primitiveness would disappear.
It would restore Africa (a place symbolized as inherently sick) with health. Order and
Christian models of behaviours would be established; this would destroy the
deformity and corruption of Africans into a new breed of beings, it would elevate their
status. Some believed the Africans to be victimised by Satan and step by step process
would vindicate them. Language is important in accommodating and bringing about
this change. Western language constantly ridiculed and derived paganism; it was
shown to be the black side while transcendental Christianity was the white side, ie.
Foucault’s: system of oppositions; Good vs. Evil; God vs. Satan. This constant
derision, together with demonstration from Europeans could lead naturally to their
conformity. Africa was depicted as a moral abyss that Europeans could possible fall
into if they gave in to their own repressed animal instincts; the alluring darkness of
Africa was charged with sexual connotations. Missionaries often voiced their fears of
being converted to heathenism rather than converting the heathen to Christianity.
There was a perpetual western fear of ‘going native;’ and the possibility that societies
could regress and fall into this same degradation. The naked Africans often
symbolized the ‘child race’ who could only become civilized and transcend into an
adulthood through education. The savage beast would be transformed through
evolution into a fully fledged human being.xxvi
In conclusion Western ideologies about Africa were significant in that they sought to
justify and legitimise colonialism. Literary and visual representations played a major
role in shaping and solidifying the public perceptions of the Other. The mergence of
literary, scientific and religious doctrines gave the British public a widely formed
view of Africa and provided moral rationalisation for the conquest. These western

ideologies have also led to penetrating psychological effects in both the colonisers and
the colonised. These ideologies have created the ‘dark continent’ of Africa through
their all-encompassing nature. As Fanon states ‘language affords remarkable power,’
it is through language that the west was able to propagate a whole system of thought
which continues to effect the education, religion, language, literature and art of Africa.
Institutions in Africa are still embedded in western ideologies. It can be argued that
representations of Africa today are fundamentally the same in showing the continent
to be backwards, un-progressive and in desperate need of guidance and
‘development.’ In Hollywood blockbusters, the African landscape is still shown to be
a dark, mysterious continent occupied by uncivilised beings. Films such as Blood
Diamond, Shooting Dogs and Black Hawk Down show masses of killings and piles of
dead bodies. They manipulate events and propagate the message that Africans are still
very much primitive. Similar ideas are often reproduced in documentaries about the
Other. They are in charity adverts showing images of far-flung villages and famished
children. There is a sense of detachment and of understanding of what Africa really
stands for. The diversity of the continent, the dissimilarities in its peoples; their
ethnicity, religion, history and culture is often overlooked. There remains this inherent
sense of separateness from the continent; they are to be aided, provided for and even
still, exploited for labour and resources. It may even be that western ideologies are
unalterable in that their racist messages were propagated and believed to be true by
nations for many centuries. Post-colonial novels have tried to salvage the continents
history by first decolonising the study of Africa and giving Africans back their voice
and agency. The primary interest of the African novelist is to ‘put the record straight
and illuminate the threshold between past and present, thought and action, self and
Other, and Africa and the world.’xxvii

i Stuart Hall and Bram Gieben, Formations of Modernity, The West and the Rest; pg 276-7
ii K, Anderson. M, Damosh. S, Pile. N, Thrift. Handbook of Cultural Geography, Cultural geographies of
Racialisation; pg 300
iii Stuart Hall and Bram Gieben, Formations of Modernity, The West and the Rest; pg 314
iv Carlos Jacques, T. From Savages and Barbarians to Primitives, History and Theories; pg 213
v V.Y. Mudimbe. The Invention of Africa, Discourse of Power and Knowledge of Otherness; pg 17
vi Frantz Fanon; The Wretched of the Earth, pg 14
vii Donald R. Wright; The World and a Very Small Place in Africa; A History of Globalization in Niumi, The Gambia;
pg 130
viii G.N. Uzoigwe; ‘European Partition and conquest of Africa: An Overview’ pg. 26
ix Frantz Fanon; The Wretched of the Earth, pg 22
x Johannes Fabian; Language and Colonial Power: the appropriation of Swahili in the former Belgian Congo 1880-
1938
; pg 24
xi James Duncan, David Ley. Place/ Culture/ Representation, Sites of Representation; Place, time and the discourse of
the Other pg 49-52
xii James Duncan, David Ley. Place/ Culture/ Representation, Sites of Representation; Place, time and the discourse of
the Other pg 49-50
xiii K, Anderson. M, Damosh. S, Pile. N, Thrift. Handbook of Cultural Geography, Cultural geographies of
Racialisation; pg 301
xiv Donald R. Wright; The World and a Very Small Place in Africa; A History of Globalization in Niumi, The Gambia;
pg 130-32
xv James Duncan, David Ley. Place/ Culture/ Representation, Sites of Representation; Place, time and the discourse of
the Other pg 53
xvi Rudyard Kipling; from the poem; White Mans Burden
xvii Gai Eaten, King of the Castle, Knowledge and its Counterfeits pg 142
xviii Gai Eaten, King of the Castle, Unreal Cities; pg 142
xix Frantz Fanon; The Wretched of the Earth, pg 255
xx William Blake; from the poem Little Black Boy
xxi Frantz Fanon; The Wretched of the Earth, pg 33
xxii Frantz Fanon; The Wretched of the Earth, pg 33
xxiii Joseph Conrad; Heart of Darkness; pg 23
xxiv Frantz Fanon; Black Skin, White Masks; pg 197
xxv Joseph Conrad; Heart of Darkness; pg 51

xxvi V.Y. Mudimbe. The Invention of Africa; pg 53; Figure 2
xxvii Ayo Kehinde; notes from the article; Post-colonial African Literature and Counter-Discourse
Bibliography
Anderson, K. Damosh, M. Pile, S. Thrift, N. Handbook of Cultural Geography, Sage Publications Ltd; abridged edition
(20 Nov 2002)
Conrad, Joseph; Heart of Darkness. Penguin Classics; New Ed edition (25 Jan 2007)
Duncan, James. Ley, David. Place/ Culture/ Representation, Routledge; 1 edition (24 Jun 1993)
Eaton, Gai (Charles). King of the Castle. Choice and Responsibility in the Modern World, Bodley Head, 1977
Fabian, Johannes. Language and Colonial Power: the appropriation of Swahili in the former Belgian Congo 1880-
1938
; University of California Press; New Ed edition (1 Jul 1992)
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth, Penguin Classics; New Ed edition (6 Dec 2001)
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks; Avalon Travel Publishing; Reissue edition (27 Oct 2000)
Hall, Stuart. Gieben, Bram. Formations of Modernity, Polity Press; 1st. Edition edition (1 Nov 1992)
Jacques, Carlos T. From Savages and Barbarians to Primitives: Africa, Social Typologies, and History in Eighteenth-
Century French Philosophy; History and Theory, Volume 36, Number 2, May 1997 , pp. 190-215(26) Blackwell
publishing
Mudimbe, V.Y. The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy and the Order of Knowledge (African Systems of Thought)
Indiana University Press (1 May 1988)
Uzoigwe, Godfrey N. ‘European Partition and conquest of Africa: An Overview’ in A. Adu Boahen, Africa Under
Colonial Domination
1880-1935 London, Heinemann 1985
Wright, R Donald; The World and a Very Small Place in Africa; A History of Globalization in Niumi, The Gambia;
M.E. Sharpe; 2 edition (February 2004)
Link to article:
Kehinde, A. Post-colonial African Literature and Counter-Discourse;
http://www.codesria.org/Links/conferences/accra/Kehinde.pdf (accessed 11/12)

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