(Re)thinking Childhood in Colonial Africa

Children are the means by which societies reproduce themselves biologically and culturally. They are also a vehicle for illuminating larger socioeconomic and political phenomena. In the 19th and 20th centuries, children played a crucial role in the political, economic, and social life of African colonial states. Colonial officials made significant efforts to define and control African children. Not only did children represent a much-needed labour force, but they were also thought to embody the ideology and future of the colonial state. Yet, until recently, the role of children has been mainly ignored in the literature of colonial Africa. African children were merely mentioned in historical and anthropological accounts of colonialism (Aderinto, 2015; Diptee & Klein, 2010; Grier, 1994; Sharp, 2003) or were used as a metaphor to describe the whole continent (Cohen, 1970; Mavhunga, 2011).

Fouz, M. (2020, May 7). Côte d’Ivoire: Les enfants cachés de la France coloniale veulent être reconnus. [Illustration]. L’Express.

What does a certain representation – or omission – of children have to say about broader colonial ideologies? This article aims to shed light on the meaning of the African child during colonial times by critically examining how racialised ideas about Africa have contributed to shaping African childhood. More specifically, it delves into the discursive and visual representation of childhood as an object of interest produced in a particular period and a specific cultural framework. These representations of African childhood were further mobilised within educational structures to achieve colonial goals and enforce imperial ideologies.

Rearing the African Child during Colonialism

In the colonial period, all Africans were regarded as children. They were perceived as human beings “not fully grown, whose destiny had to be guided by the presumably more advanced states of Europe” (Cohen, 1970, p. 427). Africans were considered unable to self-govern and in need to be guided by Europeans. The Charter of the League of Nations claimed that “tutelage” by “advanced nations” is necessary for “people not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world” (Article 22). The relationship between colonizers and colonised was thus compared to that of mutual obligations and reciprocity between parents and children. The French colonial journal, l’Afrique française, for example, referred to the need to treat Africans as children, to teach them what their duties were, and how to respect the French authority (l’Afrique Française XI, 1901, cited in Cohen, 1970, p. 427). It is further suggested that to control the peuples enfants (child people), colonial administrators drew from pre-existing models of authority based on the parent-children relation in the metropoles and applied them to the colonies. Patterns of child-rearing and education were translated in the colonies by British and French middle-class men who carried with them the educational and family values of either the Victorian upper classes or the French bourgeoisie (Cohen, 1970, p. 428). In the Victorian home, children were perceived as inherently different from adults and thus were confined to their own world. In contrast, France was characterised by the emotional and physical closeness between the child and the parents (Ibid.). These two conceptions of the relationship between parents and children were further applied to the colonial states. British administrators tended to promote the separation between the colonisers and colonised, encouraging the latter to develop along their own lines. Meanwhile, French officials attempted to transform colonial societies into extensions of France through assimilation (Ibid.). Hence, the paternalist relationship between colonisers and colonised contributed to perpetuating the domination of the latter and confined them to a position of inferiority.

Othering Africa and Africains

A process of othering appears especially relevant in this context: the term was coined by Gayatri Spivak (1999) and refers to discursive practices and legal materials enacted by the colonisers to create the natives as the category of the other. Such categorisation was necessary for the colonisers and the colonial system to subjugate and control the other, as well as to stabilize itself. Mudimbe (1994) argues that the dichotomy between the imperial “subject” and the African “object” is firmly rooted in the collective imaginary and scholarly literature (1994, xii). Over time, the meaning associated with the category of Otherness has evolved, but the underlying assumption of difference did not. The construction of Africa as the Other made it possible to objectify Africans as inferior, primitive, and exotic.

FMM Graphic Studio (n.d.). Valentin-Yves Mudimbe, taking Africa out of the colonial gaze. [Photograph]. RFI

Furthermore, a focus on tradition rooted Africa in an ahistorical and timeless state prior to the colonial period: “Under such circumstances, Africans can only then assume the status and identity accorded to them by Europeans, and have no resource of classical cultural heritage from which to counter European racism” (Amadiume, 1997, p. 5). Such representations of Africa reinforced the racial logic of the imperial context and served to justify the colonial enterprise. In particular, visual representation of Africa and Africans largely contributed to reinforcing myths and stereotypes. In the movie Tarzan, for example, Africa is depicted according to the image of the savage child, stereotypical of primitivity (Mavhunga, 2011). Through the idea of the child, the whole continent is portrayed as primitive and uncivilised. Africa does not exist until being “found” by Western people and remains “primitive” until being “civilised” by the “West”(Ibid, p. 79). If all Africans were considered children who needed to be educated, actual children were mostly invisible. Census agents failed to count children or did not distinguish them from adults (Mcnee, 2004). Children’s voices and roles in society have been excluded from historical accounts. In the rare instances in which they are mentioned, they are represented through the lens of imperialism or used to illustrate Africa’s backwardness.

Unknown (1918). Tarzan of the Apes [Illustration]. Wikipedia.

Colonial Ideologies and Education

The African child also represented the colonial states’ future and ideologies. Colonial administrators needed the colonised subjects to acknowledge their status of racial inferiority and embrace the colonial ideology to legitimate the domination and exploitation of the colonial states. Beyond the exploitation of physical lands and resources, in fact, colonial rulers needed to dominate Africans’ minds and bodies and infuse Western ideas to maintain power and legitimize the extraction of the colonial subject’s labour forces (Mudimbe, 1988). In colonial times, education was an important tool of colonial power and social control (Zvogbo, 1994). According to Foucault, “any system of education is a political way of maintaining or modifying the appropriation of discourses, along with the knowledge and powers which they carry” (1972, p. 227). Importantly, one of the goals of the colonial educational system was to ensure the supply of the workforce and educate African children to take up subordinate roles: the curriculum was largely designed to prepare African children for the service, manufacturing, and agricultural sectors (Malisa & Missedja, 2019). Additionally, a small section of young Africans was educated to help in the administration of the colonies (Zvogbo, 1994). Besides the physical need for workers, colonial education was an important component of colonising the mind and transforming cultures and societies. Moral education aimed to produce a generation of Africans who would interiorize their position of service and inferiority. Education thus reinforced and reproduced racial structures (Malisa & Missedja, 2019).

British Information Services (n. d.). Young Africa goes to school [Illustration]. History of Knowledge

The colonial curriculum further aimed to replace elements of traditional African culture with Western culture. Through education, children were forced into learning the colonial culture, values, or language (Altbach & Kelly, 1978). The colonial educational system was detached from the pre-colonial culture and identity. Ngugi wa Thiong’o remarks in this context that language is not only a means of communication but also “a carrier of culture” (1986, p. 13). It embodies people’s values and identity. In colonial schools, the language of education was different from children’s native one. English (or French) became the official language that every student was required to use. Not only was it forbidden to speak another language, but the use of the native language was severely punished (Margulis & Nowakoski, 1996, p. 1). Colonialism imposed its control economically and militarily. Yet, “the most important area of domination was the mental universe of the colonized, the control, through culture, of how people perceived themselves and the world” (Ngugi, 1986, p. 16). As they were forced to see the world in a language of imposition, many children became alienated and estranged from their true, authentic selves. Through language, African children were compelled to attain new subjectivities, which expressed a commanding way to conceive the outside world and determine preferences and relations between their inner and outer world. Because the sense of personhood is partly formed while using languages (Budwig, 2000), colonial subjects did not remain the same as they communicate in the colonial language.


Multiple notions of childhood intersected through colonial Africa. Children were either completely ignored or perceived as a metaphor for Africa’s backwardness and futurity. Looking at African childhood helps understand broader colonial ideologies. An examination of the colonial policies regarding children reveals the economic purpose of assimilation while acknowledging the more paternalistic motives behind educational policies. Colonial rulers attempted to control Africans through assimilationist discourse as well as through the narrative infantilisation of all Africans. However, discourses on African children are usually foreign to children and to childhood taken as a phenomenological experience. Not only are they produced by adults, but they also remain embedded in dominant epistemological ethnocentrism. Mudimbe affirms that “African discourses [zero-degree discourses] have been silenced radically or, in most cases, converted by conquering Western discourses” (1994, xiv). How is it possible to talk about Africa, and African children, when the analytical discursive framework in which Africa is embedded remains deeply rooted in a Western system of understanding? Mudimbe suggests to “transcend the continuity and pervasiveness of an exoticist imagination and, at the same time, account for its conception” (Ibid 1994, xi). When writing about Africa, one should listen to African voices on their histories and cultures, while being reflexive to the heritage of the colonial library. One must be wary of generalising historical experiences of African children during the colonial era. A shift in focus from a Western representation of Africa to the investigation of the children’s own experiences provides insightful perspectives on the conditions of the colonised and the making of the African colonial state.

Bibliographical References

Aderinto, S. (2015). Children and Childhood in Colonial Nigerian Histories. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137492937

Altbach, P. and Kelly, G. (1978). Education and Colonialism. New York: Longman Inc. https://www.worldcat.org/title/education-and-the-colonial-experience/oclc/25819788

Amadiume, I. (1997). Re-inventing Africa: matriarchy, religion, and culture. London: New York: Zed Books. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/heb.04119.0001.001

Budwig, N. (2000). "Language, Practices and the Construction of Personhood" Theoretical Psychology 10 (6): 769-786. https://doi.org/10.1177/0959354300106004

Cohen, W. (1970). “The Colonized as Child: British and French Colonial Rule.” African Historical Studies 3 (2): 427-431. https://doi.org/10.2307/216227

Diptee, A. and Klein M. (2010). “African Childhoods and the Colonial Project.” Journal of Family History35 (1): 3-6. https://doi.org/10.1177/0363199009350880

Foucault, M. (1972). The Archeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language. New York: Pantheon. https://monoskop.org/images/9/90/Foucault_Michel_Archaeology_of_Knowledge.pdf

Grier, B. (1994). “Invisible Hands: The Political Economy of Child Labour in Colonial Zimbabwe, 1890-1930.” Journal of Southern African Studies 20 (1): 27-52. https://doi.org/10.1080/03057079408708385

Malisa, M. and Missedja, T. (2019). "Schooled for Servitude: The Education of African Children in British Colonies, 1910–1990" Genealogy 3 3: 40. https://doi.org/10.3390/genealogy3030040

Margulis, J. and Nowakosk, P. (1996). "Language." Web blog post. Postcolonial Studies Emory. Emory University. https://scholarblogs.emory.edu/postcolonialstudies/2014/06/21/language/

Mavhunga, C. (2011). “Inertia and Development Approaches to Africa: Towards African Mobilities.” Thresholds: 79-82. https://doi.org/10.1162/thld_a_00162

McNee, L. (2004). "The Langues of Childhood: The Discursive Construction of Childhood and Colonial Policy in French West Africa." African studies quarterly 7 (4): 1-32. https://sites.clas.ufl.edu/africanquarterly/files/McNee-Vol-7-Issue-4.pdf

Mudimbe, V. Y. (1988). The invention of Africa: gnosis, philosophy, and the order of knowledge. Bloomington, Indiana University Press.


Mudimbe, V.Y. (1994). The Idea of Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/1161323

Ngugi, T. (1986). Decolonising the mind: the politics of language in African literature. London: J. Currey. https://www.uibk.ac.at/anglistik/staff/davis/decolonising-the-mind.pdf

Sharp, L. (2003). “Laboring for the Colony and Nation: The Historicized Political Consciousness of Youth in Madagascar.” Critique of Anthropology 23 (1): 75-91. https://doi.org/10.1177/0308275X03023001813

Spivak, G. (1999). A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Harvard University Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvjsf541

Zvobgo, R. (1994). Colonialism and Education in Zimbabwe. Harare: Sapes.


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