Monday, February 27, 2017

Colonial Mentality and the Re-education of an Oxford Professor

By Biko Agozino

The Sun Newspaper in Lagos, Nigeria, recently reported that a Professorfrom Oxford University was invited to give the annual birthday lecture organized by the Pat Utomi Leadership Center. The topic was how to develop Lagos. The Governor of Lagos State and several deputy governors were in attendance. The Ooni of Ife came with a large delegation, all dressed in white, to hear a white man tell them how to develop the biggest mega city in Africa.

The governor of Lagos state commented publicly that he took detailed notes, up to four pages of notes, to make sure he did not miss the lessons in the august lecture. The Oxford professor got a standing ovation for telling them that the only way to develop Lagos was to decongest it by promoting public transportation. He told the audience that in Oxford, he rarely drove his car because there are adequate train services, public buses and taxis. Make we clap for am now, he done try.

Was this information what the governor of Lagos copied down verbatim to cover up to four pages of notes? What kind of student was the governor that he had to take notes about a lecture that was being videotaped for him to watch later if the Oxford Professor failed to give him handouts of the lecture notes? What were his teams of secretaries, assistants, advisers and commissioners doing when their boss was taking verbatim notes? This was probably ‘eye-service’ designed to curry favors for it is alleged that Babatunde Fashola was appointed as a minister by President Buhari because of his habit of taking copious notes whenever his Baba was speaking.

Did no one teach the governor that taking furious notes is an indication that you are not paying adequate attention to the lecture and that dividing your time between copy-copy and listening is an indication of lack of attention and critical thinking? If the governor was paying attention, he could have asked what the professor meant by decongestion in a city from which the previous governor ‘deported’ fellow citizens recently apparently to decongest it of so-called ‘beggars’?

All the ‘traditional rulers’, journalists and politicians who gave the professor a standing ovation probably also failed to listen critically in order to engage him in a debate after the lecture. Why would the professor who claimed to know Lagos very well because he had been visiting it for 30 years recommend decongestion as a development policy for a city bigger in population than many countries? How dare he compare Lagos with tiny Oxford with the suggestion that Oxford could be a model for Lagos traffic? The Professor could have been more convincing if he had compared Lagos with the even more crowded London that remains congested in spite of anti-immigration decongestion policies, trains, buses and taxis.

It appears that the only person doing some critical thinking was the alleged ‘thief’ who approached the professor on his way out and volunteered to carry his ‘heavy’ bag. With colonial mentality, the man handed over his bag to a total stranger, saying that he thought that the man was one of the entourage of the Ooni of Ife because he was dressed in white too. He should have perched on a sedan and allowed the natives to carry him shoulder high too as was the case in colonial days.

My guess is that in Oxford, no matter how heavy his bag may be, he would never think of letting anyone carry his bag for him out of respect for his fellow citizens and not out of fear of theft. I have been accused of not trusting my friends when I refuse to have them carry my bag but I always tell them that it is not a trust issue for the bag is frequently empty of valuables, it is a matter of respect for equal human beings. No UK newspaper would publish the picture of a man and call him a thief just because a professor accused him of stealing his bag unless the man is only called a suspect who remained innocent until proven guilty or he would sue for libel.

The first President of Nigeria, Nnamdi Azikiwe, reported in his autobiography, My Odyssey, that he learned a similar lesson when he landed in the US as a student and decided to go and thank the President of Storer College in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, for facilitating his admission. When he got to his house, he saw a ‘laborer’ cutting grass and told him that he came to see the president. The man asked why he wanted to see the college president. Zik was annoyed and asked the man why ‘a common laborer’ wanted to know what learned gentlemen were going to discuss? 

The man smiled and asked him to go into the house and wait for the president. He finished mowing the lawn, washed up and came out to see Zik who was embarrassed to know that it was the president who was mowing his own lawn. Zik told him that in Nigeria, even with elementary school education, he was not expected to do menial jobs. The man laughed and told him, ‘welcome to America’ where you mow your own lawn. Zik said that from that day, he did not feel too proud to clean toilets and sweep streets to earn money for his fees.

The alleged bag thief may have taught the Oxford Professor a lesson in colonialist condescension. I hope that his bag will be returned to him with his passport and his ‘soul’ that he said that he stored with his writings on the laptop. Will Nigerians learn the lesson by relying on indigenous knowledge systems to drive the development of their cities or to debate the expatriate experts?

I doubt it because colonial mentality remains the controlling system distorting our thoughts to the extent that if Pat Utomi had invited one of the intellectuals and traders who helped to develop Lagos to give the lecture, the kleptocrats would have shunned the event. Instead of decongesting Lagos, what if the teaming millions were seen as the human resources that they are and they are put to work the way it is done in the congested cities of China and India even while building more public infrastructures?

I learned my own lesson when I worked in the United Kingdom and shared an office with another lecturer. While I was away at an international conference, he claimed that his office desktop was stolen and he was allowed to use my office desktop until I returned. However, he told me, he found my office computer too slow so he decided to make it faster by deleting all the files I had stored on the hard drive. No kidding. Even if I fought with him, my writings had been erased but they were not my soul. What saved me was that I backed up almost every file. So I just shook my head at the colleague and went back to my writing without skipping a beat.

Many other colleagues expected me to engage that colleague in a fight but he was a colleague who had never published anything in 30 years of teaching and it would be a waste of my time to fight him for deleting my work. I simply forgave him and reminded him that we teach our students in research methods never to delete a file that they did not store on a computer that is shared with others.

The incident reminded me of the joke about the devil who challenged Jesus to a coding contest. The devil was fast but NEPA took lights at the end, driving him insane, while Jesus remained calm. When the lights came back, the devil had lost all the work he had done but Jesus was saving as he went along. The devil asked Jesus why he was smiling and Jesus wrote: Jesus Saves, and said, ‘I am the Light’.

Dr. Agozino is a Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies at Virginia Tech.


Oluwatoyin Vincent Adepoju said...

na wa

Odozi Obodo said...

No be small wa, na wa wa wa

chidi ugwu said...

Lack of self-belief is the greatest disservice the colonial legacy has done us.

Odozi Obodo said...

You are right Chidi and yet there are many of us who believe in our collective ability to thrive despite the odds.