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Hidden voices of Empire


Many people, and amongst their numbers are not a few educated Africans, think back with regret to the days when all that a man had to do was to cultivate his piece of land and to live on such friendly terms as were possible with his neighbours…Some of these people say, “We had enough to eat in those days and we were happy. Why not just let things remain as they were?”’

This extract from a 1953 issue of Uganda review reveals another attitude toward development – reluctance to abandon tradition in favour of a British way of life. This view was particularly well represented in rural areas.

As ER Watts notes in his article ‘Training for community leadership – a Western Nigeria experiment’, in the West African annual, 1958, ‘Rural people everywhere are noted for their conservatism and for a general contentment with their lot.’ There seem to be two reasons for this.


A set of images related to agriculture, published by the Central Office of Information in London, which suggests that older Africans learned British techniques from their childrenA set of images published by the Central Office of Information in London, which suggests that older Africans learned British techniques from their childrenAs one of the areas of development where traditions had the longest roots, we find that adherence to these traditions is most deeply entrenched in agriculture, which is of course primarily a rural activity.

Thus, Nigeria magazine describes without further comment ‘the inherent conservatism which made the African farmer suspicious of every new attempt to get him to improve his agricultural methods.’

This is further reflected in If you ask me… which published the question:

Why are the government always trying to make us grow new varieties of crops or different crops altogether when we have grown the same crops for generations and know that they are good?

Less European contact

The other reason that reluctance was more common in rural areas is that they had had less historical contact with colonisers than the cities and coastal trading towns: ‘In the protectorate there is nothing of that metropolitan outlook which characterises Freetown, nor Freetown’s assimilation of European ways’. 

Therefore, African contributor to the West African annual, Iya Abubakar, commented that ‘in some odd remote areas superstitions and conservatism still prevail and they are drawbacks to agricultural developments’. Abubakar demonstrates a keen local understanding of the connection between extended contact and ‘progress’, warning that:

The national life or culture of any peoples takes ages to grow into what it is and so it is calamitous to uproot it in a very short time and plant a new one in its stead. Grafting, rather than sowing, the new ideas will serve better in the long run. So to make it grow more successfully new ideas should be introduced gradually and should be linked to the old ones.

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