There was uproar across many European capitals this past month at the announcement that the European Commission vice-president in charge of migration and skilled labour was now to be in charge of protecting the “European way of life.”
A friend joked that African politicians might soon dash off to Europe to benchmark the “European way of life.” This prompted me to research the arguments made by those against the idea. They argue that the existing “European way of life” doesn’t need protection as it actually means the freedom for individuals to choose their own way of life; Europeans do not need protection from external cultures; protecting the “European way of life” is a title co-opting the language of the political right, as there is no homogenous culture shared by Europeans and even if there was, it is not under threat and does not need protection and that really, what was seen as a threat to the “European way of life” — seeing as the office holder has been in charge of migration and skilled labour is — you guessed it, migrants.
All this at a time when Rwanda was in the news for receiving refugees from Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea who had been languishing in Libyan detention camps.
Rwanda has also just repealed laws left over from German and Belgian colonial rule era, designed with one central purpose to separate the races, particularly the white and black people, and to subjugate the latter. This means that until last month, there were laws in Rwanda allowing for official racial segregation and for the Catholic church to own huge tracts of land.
A perplexed magistrate in Kenya some years back, commenting over a person appearing before him charged with the offence of witchcraft said the law did not give a clear definition of witchcraft. He said the provisions were so ambiguous his own pen could be defined as a witchcraft tool. The witchcraft law, like many others, had been ingeniously designed to allow the colonial government to prosecute and ban several kinds of African cultural activity under the accusation of witchcraft.
Some colonial laws, designed to subjugate Africans still lurk in some African statutes. Some, like “being a rogue and vagabond” sound like the title of a Hollywood movie. Then there is the ironically named “being idle and disorderly.” All this would be funny if the laws didn’t carry prison terms and the people found guilty under them were not tragically so, always poor. These people suffer two more tragedies of appearing before an independent court to defend themselves against a colonial law.
The thoroughness of the colonial enterprise’s educational systems forms part of the reason post-independence governments are not getting rid of colonial laws.
The other is the replacement of racial segregation by class and the fact that some oppressed people often end up imitating the culture of the oppressor, desiring power over others.
It should be a requirement that every African student learns some basic facts about how much we are shaped by a system built on inequality and racism. Racism was entrenched by colonialism, particularly through the law and continues to work through, among others, the criminal justice system.
Apartheid, we may often forget, was one time law in South Africa.
Students should learn about the continuous entrenchment of structural injustices through the class system; learn another African language; learn life lessons such as were taught before colonialism such as knowing local names of at least 10 trees, five vegetables, 10 fruits and five shrubs and how to plant and nurture them.
Teaching students to understand why they do not know how to question what they think they know because there are gaps in history they have been taught will lead them into recognising stereotypical images of some cultures.
It will also lead them into challenging hateful beliefs leading to targeted violence such as understanding the importance of not only knowing why almost one million people were killed in the Rwandan Genocide Against the Tutsi but more importantly, why ordinary people were convinced it was okay to kill.
Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism, Mukami Kimathi: Mau Mau Freedom Fighter and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides. E-mail: [email protected]