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ALMA Reviews Blog: Stages of Colonialism in Africa

Stages of Colonialism in Africa: From Occupation of Land to Occupation of Being

By: Hussein A. Bulhan

Published in December 2015 in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology.

Available at: https://doi.org/10.5964/jspp.v3i1.143 (link is external)

In this article, Hussein A. Bulhan discusses a different side of the colonial enterprise, viewing colonialism as the occupation not only of land but also of each colonised person, a condition that becomes a mechanism through which one perceives one’s existence in the world. The article is drawn from the author’s own scholarship (personal experience and reflection) and the limited academic resources available in the “peripheries” of the world where he lives and works – in Somali, Darfur and Sudan. Bulhan is nonetheless able to transcend such limitations and navigate the effects of colonialism beyond what is easily quantifiable. The author’s major themes are clearly laid out in the first five pages of his article, where he discusses the stages of colonialism and the ongoing intersection between colonialism and psychology in the form of metacolonialism, or coloniality. For a new reader of such a sensitive exploration, the article and the author’s methodological approach might appear flimsy or unorthodox, given Bulhan’s curiosity and frankness. However, with a nod to the works of the scholars who pioneered such work – particularly Frantz Fanon, the French psychiatrist who wrote extensively on the role of psychiatry and psychology in colonialism – it would be wiser to pay attention and read between the lines, feeling the author’s frustration at the misuse of these disciplines, which were meant to benefit individuals, not oppress them.  As Fanon focused on psychiatry, the author here focuses on psychology whilst drawing a linkage between psychiatry and psychology. 

In examining the history of psychology, Bulhan explores the relationship between psychology and colonialism and reveals how psychology contributed to justifying and bolstering oppression and colonialism in Africa. For him, the demise of classical colonialism, which began in 1957 with Ghana gaining independence and other African countries following suit in the 1960s and 1970s, was a critical turning point, when the ambition for freedom reached its peak. In those times, the African public found new inspiration in their own words and in those of their children, who were calling for the expulsion of the colonisers. However, whilst the colonisers did in fact leave the continent, they left behind countries unfit to govern themselves and with economies fully dependent on the countries of Europe. Bulhan regards the current situation as a neocolonial machine that continues to oppress its citizens for the benefit of former colonial empires and their allies. The material resources in Africa are being plundered for the benefit of the former colonisers. This has had tremendous consequences on the continent in terms of economic and infrastructural development. Beyond the outside economic domination over Africa, which is reminiscent of Hannah Arendt’s scholarship on the scramble for Africa, the author’s analysis further highlights the role of culture and psychology in perpetuating colonialism. To do this, he proposes a new way of conceptualising colonialism – metacolonialism – which he describes as: 

"a socio-political, economic, cultural, and psychological system that comes after, along with, or among the earlier stages of colonialism …. One can also define it as a colonial system that goes beyond in scope or behind in depth what classical colonialism and neocolonialism had achieved." (p. 244)

Such a line of thought is striking, given that the effects of colonialism in major public discourse are often weighed and validated in economic terms without regard for the psychological implication of colonialism on the colonised. With metacolonialism, the author delves deeper into the psychological implications and power dynamics of colonialism, which allow the colonisers to name and interpret the world and the self while suppressing the experiences and stories of the colonised. In Belhan’s words:

"The story of the colonized remains untold due to censorship and social amnesia enforced in crude or subtle ways. If writers of this story are not directly harassed, the media industry seldom publishes their alternative story; professional journals winnow it out; publishers reject manuscripts; and tenure review committees consider it a sign of radicalism or proof of idiosyncratic obsession to excavate a long-forgotten past too uncomfortable to recall. […] If one endeavors to tell the story of the colonized, the teller is from the start stuck neck deep or totally submerged in the maelstrom or disaster the colonizer had created. Not only does one wade in the dissimulated history and scholarship of the colonizer’s metacolonial systems of education, but also the world in which one lives—including institutions for which one works—contradict one’s story about the colonized." (p.245)

What Bulhan shows in this section of his paper is not only his frustration with academia but also the frustration of many who have tried to tell a different story, their story, as it affected them. For example, the issue of censorship raised by the author is not only peculiar to the colonial enterprise in Africa but also applies to any stories or truths that do not match the conventional narrative or that offend the listener’s vanity. Yet, when we censor the narrative of the speaker we also censor our own ability to exchange meaningful ideas about how we perceive the world around us (pp. 245–246). We limit our ability to think differently in a world that contains infinite complexities. Finally, Bulhan describes how psychology and its medical counterpart, psychiatry, contributed to colonialism, thus making it imperative to decolonise the psychological sciences. As the author recounts, during the colonial period, psychologists and psychiatrists embarked on racial comparisons to determine the size of the typical African brain. They concluded from a biased sample that Africans belonged to a lower evolutionary phase of human beings (p. 249). Africans were viewed as “lobotomised Europeans” or at least as neurotic Europeans (ibid.). 

Equally relevant is the fact that, after the classical colonial period, the psychological and psychiatric literature shifted from identifying Africans as subhuman to asserting alarming rates of mass depression and other psychiatric disorders, thereby trumpeting the predominant narrative that slaves were innately incapable of living independently or sanely without a white master (ibid.). Today, such notions are rarely found in psychiatric and psychological literature, as they have become more subtle and refined in theories and their application, the author argues. Richard C. Keller, who studied the history of medicine and the relationship of psychiatry with colonialism in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, reached a similar conclusion. Like Bulhan, Keller, in his book Colonial Madness: Psychiatry in French North Africa, explored the position of the mentally ill in nineteenth-century North Africa, the problem of institutionalised mental illness and the overuse of psychopathological language to describe the experience of an entire population. Both scholars are influenced by Frantz Fanon. 

While Bulhan raises critical points about the historical relationship between colonialism and psychology, there could be a deeper exploration of any potential positive contributions or efforts within the field to address the legacies of colonialism. Examples like Carl Jung, Viktor Frankl, Carl Rogers and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross would have helped show that not every psychologist or psychiatrist rejoices over the heinous legacy of the profession, be it colonialism or the imposition of the therapist’s view on the individual. This would provide a more nuanced understanding of the complex relationship between colonialism and psychology. Also, the issue of individual responsibility as opposed to institutional responsibility could have been pursued, as well as the limitations of decolonising psychological science; what does it mean, who is in the position to do it and what would be the practical implications? Addressing these points and offering strategies to overcome them would strengthen the argument and provide a more comprehensive analysis. 


Reviewed by: Ernest Chetachukwu Anudu

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