When Forwards Means Backwards

(The Capuchin, Spring 1992, pp. 4-5)


Ireland was a British colony for about 750 years, from 1169 to 1922; Zambia was a British colony for 75 years, from 1889 to 1964. As a foreigner living in Zambia it’s not too difficult to stand back and have a somewhat detached view of the country and the processes taking place in it. For example, colonialism.

Colonialism is not just a political process by which one country comes to control and dominate another. It’s also a psychological process by which the conquerors insinuate the idea that they are a superior people; the other side of the same coin is that the colonized gradually come – usually unconsciously – to believe in their own inferiority. That belief acquires the status of an assumption, unconsciously shaping their outlook in every aspect of life.

Poor Self-Image

The effects of this process are evident to any expatriate living in Zambia. Zambians have a very poor self-image; they are burdened by a crippling sense of inferiority; they constantly belittle themselves, and uncritically accept Europe, especially Britain, as the standard by which everything should be judged. Europe is seen as “modern”, “up-to-date”, and so forth while everything African is dismissed as “old-fashioned” and “out-dated.” One example of this is the ceremony of the State opening of Parliament in Lusaka. It is imitation Westminster throughout, with the Honourable and Right Honourable Members of the House led in procession by the mace-bearer and followed by judges in powdered wigs and bemedalled and braided military officers. There is not a trace of Africa in any of it, and the more closely it resembles Westminster the better, as far as most Zambians are concerned.

Having lived outside of Ireland for over twenty years and returning to the country periodically on leave, I can see the same process at work in Ireland. In view of our longer period as a colony, ten times Zambia’s, the process has, it seems to me, taken root much more deeply. We also sell ourselves short; we belittle ourselves; no one is as quick to drag down an Irishman as another Irishman.

As examples of this, consider the fact that most Irish writers had to leave the country to win recognition; at home, they were suppressed. Or consider the way in which a good part of the Irish theatre has perpetuated the image of the stage Irishman, the irresponsible alcoholic lout who acts the buffoon for the amusement of the foreigner, and demeans his country in doing so. Or the way in which huge numbers of young Irish men and women see emigration as an automatic process, assuming without question that things will be better outside of Ireland than in it.

Christian faith

To return to Zambia for a moment. Like many other parts of Africa it is moving very slowly away from a tradition in which divorce, polygamy and casual sex were regarded as normal. The driving force behind this change is the Christian faith. In another area of life, the medical sphere, it is moving away from the tradition where the witch-doctor would kill or cure to order, in exchange for a fee. (When the killers and the curers part company, modern medicine begins.) And the driving force behind this change is the medical services which are largely the product of missionary endeavour.

Going backwards

In Ireland in the eighties there was great debate on the question of legalizing divorce. Though presented as a step forwards it was, in reality, a proposal that we step backwards to a past from which the Christian faith rescued us.

The same type of pressure was used in the abortion debate. It was implied that to oppose the ending of the prohibition on abortion was to be backward-looking, reactionary and ‘old-fashioned’ even though the truth of the situation is that the practice of abortion is what takes us back to the past when the medical profession would kill or cure to order, for a fee.

In both of these debates it was noticeable that those who advocated a change sometimes did so, not by reasonably arguing the case on its merits, but by playing on our national sense of inferiority, implying that the rest of the world would laugh at us if we didn’t change; we would be ‘old-fashioned’, ‘out-of-date’, ‘not in tune with Europe’ and so on.

The way forward

Paradoxically, it is in the Nationalist community in the North of Ireland that one finds people who are strong, firm and assured, unapologetic about themselves, unafraid to state their beliefs without looking for the approval of others, and quite unmoved by the ‘be modern and be with it’ type of pressure. There’s a lesson there for us in the South: if we wish to be respected by others, we must first respect ourselves. That, in turn, means that we know ourselves, and that we accept and assert ourselves with quiet confidence. Then indeed we will be a nation and no longer a colony.