One can compile an endless list of the ills that colonization has generated within our society. One of these, which we seldom discuss, is the respectability associated with elitism. In our pre-colonial societies, respect was granted and maintained in various ways. In some, it was established through wealth measured in livestock, jewelry, or land; in others, it stemmed from familial or clan lineage, profession, and still in others, it was grounded in religious and spiritual foundations.
Colonization obliterated our traditional structures by imposing norms and social values alien to our culture. Overnight, respectability was gained and preserved based on conformity and allegiance to colonial culture. The more one speaks French or English like a colonizer, the more respected they are. The more one is adorned with degrees obtained from colonial schools, the more respected they are. The more one dresses, behaves, and thinks like the colonizers, the more respected they are.
In order to ascend the social ladder defined by the colonizers, many Africans made immense sacrifices, ultimately earning places – or even privileges – within the colonized society. Today, they struggle with decolonization, and one cannot blame them. They fear losing the titles, privileges, and honors earned through significant sacrifices by them and their parents. Consequently, they become staunch defenders of the colonial system, striving vehemently to warn us of the dangers of relinquishing colonial culture, colonial know-how, and colonial methodologies. They are panicked as they have not learned to be anything other than colonial products.
They struggle to accept what they perceive as persecution by the colonizers, interpreting it as animosity towards those who have managed to emulate the colonizers. They do not realize (since they have never questioned the colonial system) that decolonization and the liberation of peoples involve sacrifice. We all must be willing to forfeit certain privileges acquired through the pre-existing system. We must let go of colonial feudalism, the hierarchy of intellect and virtue. We must unlearn the colonial moral arrogance that belittles some, depriving them of respect, dignity, and freedom. I admit: this is a painstaking exercise, but not an impossible one. We must rid ourselves of the malevolence that compels us to exclaim when cornered: "Do you know who I am?" because we are nothing more, nor less, than humans. We are humans, with or without titles, with or without fortunes often built on the exploitation of others.
Human beings, in their selfishness and excessive pride, find it difficult to accept that they are the product of a series of injustices. Some benefit from it, others suffer. Benefiting from an unjust and inequitable system that keeps others in exploitation does not necessarily make us bad people. However, the refusal to acknowledge one's privileges and to shed them in order to make society more just and equitable makes us ignoble individuals. Charity would not be necessary if wealth were distributed fairly and shared.
Today, when those seen as pan-African activists denounce elitism, those who have always regarded themselves as elites and taken pride in it feel offended and persecuted. How can you live in a society where only a minority can think and decide for others without feeling discomfort or embarrassment? Your lack of disturbance over the power you hold is proof of your deceit. Colonization dehumanized us, perceiving us, the colonized peoples, as too savage to think for ourselves. Our colonizers needed to dehumanize us to justify their exploitation, because like us, as human beings, they possess a conscience. The only way they could live with themselves while committing such atrocities was by inventing our usefulness. Thus, within our societies, they established new rules of respectability and pitted us against each other, competing for a limited place as subaltern intellectuals in their artificial society created solely for us: the "savages"!
This is an invitation to those who consider themselves the elites of African society, those who believe they are above the masses and feel threatened by the demystification of the colonial system. Reclaim your humanity, shed the responsibility of thinking, deciding, and acting for us, the people. Elitism has no place in a society that aspires to freedom, and your privileges and fragile ego will eventually crumble, as they are built on sand and imaginary power.
Farida Bemba Nabourema,