Colonialism and Oppression in the African Diaspora
The Kenyan feminist and environmental activist, Wangari Maathai, explores the legacy of colonialism and oppression in her native country through her moving 2006 memoir, Unbowed. Maathai explains that over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Africa experienced a massive influx of white settlers. In an effort to solidify control over recently acquired colonies, many European powers had encouraged large numbers of their ethnically white citizens to make a new home on the African continent. As a result, thousands of native Africans were displaced. Maathai’s ancestors, the Kikuyu and Maasai peoples were among them. The majority of these forced dislocations took place in the highland regions. The rich soil and temperate climate of this area had proven attractive to native African peoples for centuries; and it seemed the new British settlers found it equally tempting. After most of the land’s original occupants were transported to the Rift Valley region of western Kenya, settlers began taking advantage of the highlands’ vast natural resources. The land was essentially ravaged as ancient forests were clear-cut in order to make room for agricultural plots. The introduction of the plantation system, with its non-native plant species, large-scale hunting, and systematic recruitment of Africans as field laborers, signaled the next phase in the oppression of native Africans (Maathai 6-9).
The situation became even more complex when the British colonial administration introduced a currency-based income tax system. For centuries, the Kenyan economy had largely rested on the exchange of livestock and other goods. With this in mind, it should come as little surprise that such a drastic shift put native Kenyans in a rather precarious position. Since nearly all “acceptable” currency rested in the hands of colonists, many Kenyans were forced to leave their reserves and work as hired hands on the farms of white settlers, essentially becoming squatters on their ancestral lands (13-14). Now landless and dependent on the good will of white colonists, these individuals were severely limited in their ability to make decisions concerning their interactions with each other and the environment.
As time passed, European domination drastically altered the African landscape – both physically and culturally. Traditional roles, practices, and beliefs were either completely subverted or modified to fall in line with European cultural ideals. Doubtlessly, this process of subjugation worked to the detriment of native populations throughout the continent. Even though all members of indigenous communities have suffered under this system, African women remain especially vulnerable to its harmful effects. As Mary Kolawole points out in her comprehensive work, Womanism and African Consciousness, these women must confront a set of oppressions unique to their position as both black Africans and...