Elizabeth Kumbong Amaazee – The Impact of Globalization on Fundamental Perceptions of Colours and Culture in African Societies

Nr. 18    Juni 2011 TRANS: Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften

Section | Sektion: Colours and Culture | Kulturfarben – Farbkulturen |
Couleurs des cultures – cultures des couleurs

The Impact of Globalization on Fundamental Perceptions of Colours and Culture in African Societies

Elizabeth Kumbong Amaazee (University of Buea, Cameroon) [BIO]

E-mail: amaazeeli@yahoo.com

 Konferenzdokumentation |  Conference publication



The cultural inheritance of a society significantly influences the general knowledge of its population. There is a functional relationship between colours, culture and the language spoken by people of the various societies around the world. With the advent of globalization, cultural paradigms are relegated to rural settings which are regarded as primitive. Identifying with aspects of one’s culture such as a loincloth, a sculpture or an artifact is likened to conservatism in certain urban societies which are considered modern and thus, void of any form of cultural manifestation. The phenomenon of being less conscious of one’s history, ancestors and origins is gradually gaining grounds as exhibiting qualities of awareness and enlightenment in urban societies. The need for communication in multicultural societies of different skin colours is fulfilled by the various types of languages, be it living, extinct, ancient, historic or constructed. As a result of globalization, it is not unusual to find people from other continents and of different ethnic backgrounds not found in Africa speaking languages of African origin such as Zulu in South Africa. Speakers of some languages are constantly reducing in number because these languages are considered unfashionable. Disregarding cultural structures, colours concepts and their importance in the development of knowledge will no doubt affect the very fabric of African culture.


Colour Perceptions in Modern Day Cameroon


Cameroon like most African countries has a complex history of colonization and colonial rule by western countries. The area of present-day Cameroon was integrated to French Equatorial Africa (AEF) during the „Scramble for Africa“ at the end of the 19th century. However, in 1911 France ceded parts of the territory to German Cameroon, known as Neukamerun (Middle Congo) as a result of the Agadir Crisis, and it became a German protectorate. The Germans later annexed the territory on 12 July 1884 and they called it Kamerun. During the First World War, Cameroon, as a German colony, fought on the side of Germany against the Allied forces. The war ended in Cameroon in February 1916 with the defeat of Germany. After the war, the League of Nations was formed with the objective of punishing the vanquished, thereby sanctioning Germany for causing the war and rewarding the victors. The League, mindful of Article 22 of its Covenant gave former German Cameroon to Britain and France as a mandated territory. Britain received one-fifth while France received four-fifth of the territory. This marked the end of German colonial rule in Cameroon and the beginning of British and French mandate in the country.

The joint British and French mandate in Cameroon (also known as the Condominium or Interregnum) failed in Cameroon due to differences in culture, language and method of administration. The French governed their portion of Cameroon as part (French Cameroon) of the French colonial empire although the territory retained its autonomy as a mandated territory of the League of Nations. Following World War II, each of the mandated territories was made a United Nations Trust Territory. The main consideration of French colonial policy in the territory was to transform the colonized people into French citizens through the policy of assimilation. To strengthen the French position, French Cameroonians had to learn the French culture and everything that was French. Britain on their part, divided the territory (later on called Southern Cameroons) into two parts for easy administration: a northern portion which was administered as one of the Provinces of the Eastern Region of Nigeria and the southern portion which was administered as part of West Cameroon. Indirect Rule was the main policy adopted by the British in tackling the problems that troubled their West Africa colonies. It was a system of local administration whereby traditional political institutions had to adapt to the requirements of modern units of administration. In other words, Indirect Rule was a system of governance under which “natural rulers” were given the opportunity to rule their subjects under the guidance of the British authorities.

Map of Cameroon over time

Cameroon over time   German Kamerun   British Cameroons   French Cameroun   Republic of Cameroon

The process of decolonization followed a struggle by many national independence movements in the colonies following the Second World War. On 1 January 1960, with UN Secretary General, Dag Hammarskjöld looking on, President Ahmadou Ahidjo declared French Cameroon an independent state under the name of the Republic of Cameroon with a green-red-yellow flag. Following this development and a number of other factors, a plebiscite was organized on 11 February 1961 on whether British Southern and Northern Cameroons should gain independence by joining either the Republic of Cameroon or Nigeria. British Northern Cameroons voted for integration with Nigeria while British Southern Cameroons voted for reunification with the Republic of Cameroon. 


The Post-colonial Era and Neocolonialism

Post-colonialism is a theory in philosophy, film, political sciences and literature which deals with the cultural legacy of colonial rule. Post-colonialism deals with cultural identity in colonized societies, referencing neocolonialism as the background for contemporary dilemmas of developing a national identity after colonial rule: the ways in which writers articulate and celebrate that identity (often reclaiming it from and maintaining strong connections with the colonizer); the ways in which the knowledge of the colonized (subordinated) people has been generated and used to serve the colonizer’s interests; and the ways in which the colonizer’s literature has justified colonialism via images of the colonized as a perpetually inferior people, society and culture.<

Neocolonialism is a term used by post-colonial critics of developed countries‘ involvement in the developing world. Writings within the theoretical framework of neocolonialism argue that existing or past international economic arrangements created by former colonial powers were or are used to maintain control of their former colonies after the colonial independence movements of the post-World War II period. The term neocolonialism can combine a critique of current actual colonialism (where some states continue administrating foreign territories and their populations in violation of United Nations resolutions) and a critique of the involvement of modern capitalist businesses in nations which were former colonies. Critics adherent to neocolonialism contend that multinational corporations continue to exploit the resources of post-colonial states, and that this economic control inherent to neocolonialism is akin to the classical, European colonialism practiced from the 16th to the 20th centuries. In broader usage, neocolonialism may simply refer to the involvement of powerful countries in the affairs of less powerful countries; this is especially relevant in modern Sub-Saharan Africa. In this sense, neocolonialism implies a form of contemporary economic imperialism by which powerful nations act like colonial powers of imperialism, actions which are likened to colonialism in a post-colonial world. Upon gaining Independence, some national leaders and opposition groups argued that their countries were being subjected to a new form of colonialism, waged by the former colonial powers and other developed nations.  The French Community and the later Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie are defined by critics as agents of French neocolonial influence, especially in Africa. While the main thrust of this claim is that the Francophonie organization is a front for French dominance of post-colonial nations, the relation with the French language is often more complex.

 “Francophonie is a neocolonial political machine, which only perpetuates our alienation, but the usage of French language does not mean that one is an agent of a foreign power, and I write in French to tell the French that I am not French”.
Kateb Yacine (1966)


Paternalistic neocolonialism

The term paternalistic neocolonialism involves the belief held by a neo-colonial power that their colonial subjects benefit from their occupation. Critics of neocolonialism, arguing that this is both exploitative and racist, contend this is merely a justification for continued political hegemony and economic exploitation of former colonies, and that such justifications are the modern reformulation of the Civilizing mission concepts of the 19th century. In fact, it was not until 1997 that the Cameroon history was introduced into the curricula of secondary schools and State universities in Cameroon.

 “In place of colonialism as the main instrument of imperialism we have today neo-colonialism. […] Neo-colonialism, like colonialism, is an attempt to export the social conflicts of the capitalist countries.”
Kwame Nkrumah: Neo-Colonialism, the Last Stage of Imperialism (1965)


The Dynamism of the Cultural Sphere

Edward Taylor defines culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, beliefs, arts, morals, law customs and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (Taylor [1871] 1958:1). In the words of Wallerstein (1991:159), it is “a way of summarizing the ways in which groups distinguish themselves from other groups. It represents what is shared within the group”.  This definition will not lead us to perceptions within a society as is a second connotation which “refers to the higher arts as opposed to popular or everyday practice” (ibid.: 159), the famous distinction between popular culture, on the one hand, and high culture, the “culture cultivée” of a literacy, artistic character (Morin 1994: 336-359). The concept of culture is a complex one. When not classified, this complexity may lead to confusion and result in misunderstanding of its place in an African society. In this light, there is need to dissociate the generic meanings which underpin the usages in Anthropology and popular understandings from the modernist delimitations of a field to which the concept is applied. The generic sense in which the concept of culture is used refers to collectively shared modes of life or the creative framing or redefinition of human life. This is the general understanding that underlies popular acceptations as an identity marker or widely shared modes of life which would differ from society to society, community to community, between social classes or according to social categories.

“The black colour is damnation.”
Richard Wright (1945)


The Specificity of Skin Colour within the Cultural Sphere

Cameroon, often referred to as Africa in miniature is the repository of a rich gamut of colourful and indigenous cultural and artistic traditions. It is equally the home of a rich post colonial history of creativity that has produced some of the most vibrant forms of music (Makossa, Assiko, Bikutsi, Meringue, Bend skin, etc) and outstanding names in literature. This not withstanding, Cameroonians are very Eurocentric and still view whites with a lot of respect and admiration. It is not uncommon to find Cameroonians, especially adolescents, who watch only foreign (western) television stations, listen only to foreign music (mostly American music e.g. Rap, Hip Hop and R&B), dress like American celebrities and copy the hairdo of their idols and role models. Even among fellow Cameroonians, light-skinned people are considered more beautiful than dark-skin people. This belief has led to an increase in the use of skin-lightening products by some Cameroonians in a bid to change their skin complexion and thus look more attractive. The consumers of these products, whether conscious or subconsciously, follow the dangerous edict on beauty by continuing to use those products. Advertisements of body lotions produced by Cameroonian cosmetic companies on billboards usually have the inscription «contient l’hydroquinone» (contains hydroquinone – a well known skin lightening chemical) boldly printed on the printout whereas research by The Lance Armstrong Foundation have proven extremely hazardous side effects of hydroquinone to human health, including a high risk of various cancers from many of its active ingredients, including mercury, and most importantly skin cancer, because of the lack of melanin that is the natural skin protection from the ultraviolet rays. These products have been banned in the U.S.A. due to the skin cancer risk and widely opposed by the public for triggering racial controversies, but their sale and demand in Cameroon and in other African countries continues to be widespread. Parents of some tribes in Cameroon, for instance the Bamilekes of the Western Region of Cameroon, are known to charge a higher sum of money as bride price for their daughters who are fair in complexion as compared to the sum of money they charge for their daughters who are black in complexion.


Skin lightening creams containing dangerous levels of hydroquinone

Product name Brand Hydroquinone Concentration Other information Maxi White S1 Lightening Cream Labo 9%   Gel – strong formula Farmax 9%   Body Clear Cream – Lightening Body Cream Picoas-ci 2.6%   Skin light, Super Lightening Body Lotion Rodis 5% Lotion smells of cocoa butter

Below is an advertisement for Ultra Bleach and Glow, a bleaching cream which also contains hydroquinone. Printed in Ebony magazine, September 1970.

An ad for Ultra Bleach and Glow, a bleaching cream that contains hydroquinone. Printed in Ebony magazine, September 1970

Ironically, whites usually spend time under the sun with the intention of getting tanned by the sun rays. When the skin of a white is sun-tanned, it looks brownish and gives the impression that the person recently returned from holidays. Whites use sunlight creams to protect their skin from sun burn because their level of melanin; a dark substance in the skin and hair that causes the skin to change colour when exposed to the sun’s light.


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Skin Colour and Religion

Before Christianity was introduced to Africa by missionaries from Europe and America in the 19th century, Africans worshipped idols and believed in many gods. Africans were made to understand that their traditions and believes, customs and traditional practices were barbaric and devilish. In Cameroon, the Basel missionaries who were white men violated a previously established protocol agreement between the two missionary bodies and decided to ‘purify’ the Native Baptist Church which was under the leadership of a Cameroonian, Pastor Joshua Dibundu. Such disagreements led to a split between the two missionary bodies in 1889. Due to the fact that Africans were the most part illiterate and could not read the Bible in foreign languages like English, French, Latin and Spanish, the Bible was translated into national languages (example of Mungaka and Duala in the North West and Littoral Regions of Cameroon respectively) with picture illustrations to teach Bible stories. Consequently, these illustrations degraded and demonized the black man. For instance, in Bible stories like the casting out of Lucifer (Satan) and other disobedient angels from heaven and the temptation of Jesus in the Wilderness, Satan was always painted as a frightful looking black man with a long tail and horns while God and Jesus Christ were painted as neatly dressed white men. Africans believe the church was used as a smoke-screen for the real intentions of the white man. “You are as black as Satan himself” or “You are as ugly as the last son of Satan” is a common insult among black skin Africans.

A Colorful Cartoon of a Biblical Man Stabbing a Demon with a Sword - Royalty Free Clipart Picture

Christianity was used by colonial masters to abolish certain practices which were considered ungodly. A typical example of such a practice in Cameroon is the sasswood poisoning which entailed giving a portion prepared with sasswood to anybody suspected of practicing witchcraft to drink. The thought was that anyone who drops dead after drinking the portion was guilty of practicing witchcraft and anyone who stays alive was not guilty. The missionaries held that the sasswood was poisonous anyway, so anyone who drank the portion was doomed for death, whether he/she was guilty of practicing witchcraft or not. Moreover, it came to the attention of the colonial masters that sasswood poisoning was being used by local authorities as a means of eliminating their enemies and detractors by falsely accusing them of practicing witchcraft.

“Black Demons are among the most dangerous demons you can face, and should never be underestimated. Their massive size is no illusion to put off adventurers: they truly are terrifying foes. Like other demons, they are weak against magical assaults.„;


“When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said „Let us pray.“ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.“
Desmond Tutu (1984)

Following outright criticisms and denunciations of such illustrations from anti-racism organizations and NGOs, Satan is painted as a red man in recent Bible illustrations to avoid demonizing any specific race or colour as seen in the colourful cartoon clip art picture below. 


Hair colour

The hair colour of Africans is generally black. Given their hair texture, especially those in sub-Saharan Africa, women have resorted to artificial hair and hair relaxers to ease the maintenance of their hair. These artificial hair, wig, pony tail and weave-ons come in various qualities and colours as seen in the pictures below.



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The demand for a particular hair colour is usually motivated by celebrities at home and abroad. The appearance of grey hair is considered as a sign of aging and people resort to hair dyes to camouflage grey hair. In another example thought to achieve the so-called „white look“, some Cameroonian women of all classes and ages dye their hair auburn (reddish-brown), golden brown, or blond and/or use synthetic weave-on hair of these colours. Some of the artificial hairs are more expensive than others depending on where they were produced and the quality. Artificial hair produced in Brazil for instance, is more expensive than those produced in Nigeria. Some of the synthetic hairs are attached to the hair using clips like the pony tails. Some are glued using glue specially made for that purpose, while others are sewn on braids made on hair (commonly known as “bakala”) using a needle and usually black thread. 


The Colonial Mentality

In 2010, sixteen (16) African countries celebrated 50 years of independence yet Africans in general appear to continue to maintain what Jon Royeca refers to as ‘Colonial Mentality’. These countries are Cameroon, Togo, Madagascar, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Somalia, Benin, Niger, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Chad, Central African (CAR), Republic, Congo, Gabon, Senegal, Mali, Nigeria and Mauritania. Colonial Mentality is a study by David, E.J.R. & Okazaki, S. (2006) with the example of Filipino Americans and a conceptual theory in Cultural anthropology that refers to institutionalized or systemic feelings of inferiority among some societies or peoples who have been subjected to colonialism, relative to the mores or values of the foreign powers which had previously subjugated them through colonization. The concept essentially refers to the acceptance, by the colonized, of the culture or doctrines of the colonizer as intrinsically more worthy or superior. Proponents of this concept argue that people, once subject to colonial or imperial rule, embrace physical and cultural differences between the foreigners and themselves, leading some to associate power and success with the foreigners‘ ways. This eventually leads to the foreigners‘ ways being regarded as the better way and being held in a higher esteem than previous indigenous ways. In much the same fashion, and with the same reasoning of better-ness, the colonized may over time equate the colonizers’ race or ethnicity itself as being responsible for their superiority. Cultural rejections of colonialism, such as the Negritude movement, initiated by Leopold Sedar Senghor, or simply the embracing of seemingly authentic local culture are then seen in a post colonial world as a necessary part of the struggle against domination. By the same reasoning, importation or continuation of cultural mores or elements from former colonial powers may be regarded as a form of Neocolonialism. In this light, Cameroonians still regard whites visiting or living in Cameroon with a lot of respect and admiration. When someone buys a product or pays for a service without bargaining the initial cost, it is generally said that he/she “pays like a white”. Cameroonians who are married to whites have a superiority complex vis-à-vis their fellow countrymen and women. With the advent of the internet, it has become a common phenomenon for Cameroonians, mostly youths, to go looking for white partners in chat rooms and other dating websites. Some girls go as far as taking naked pictures of themselves and posting them on the internet in a bid to find a white husband who would be attracted by their body features.

The Current Situation

The hope is to include culture and the arts into the curriculum, train teachers and associate innovations in pedagogy and the sciences. The question that comes to mind is how to integrate a wide diversity of cultures as are characteristic of Cameroon. In the new pedagogy, the idea of Cameroon’s unity in diversity would have to retain all its meaning both as a reality that is lived and that has to be reckoned with and as a political project. As such, the diversity of Cameroon’s cultures has to be taken not as an atomistic closure but in their trans-ethnicity (Yenshu Vubo 2006, 2009). As a political project, there is urgency for collective mutual recognition of the intrinsic ingenious character and beauty by each ethnic group of the culture and artistic creativity of the other. For now, each ethnic group seems to be extolling its own specificity implicitly in contradistinction to the other to which one’s group is indifferent. Beyond that there is a need for the State and all peoples to collectively appropriate the cultures and artistic creations of all and generate a collective awareness of this reality. For this to be possible there is a need for a reorientation of research and policy in that direction.

Africans are gradually coming to realize that their skin colour does not stop them from achieving what the white man has achieved especially with the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States of America on 4 November 2008. Following the example of black Americans, Africans are being encouraged to celebrate the black skin colour as unique. In a bid to make Africans understand that they must not change their skin colour to look beautiful, black beauty pageants are organized to encourage young girls to maintain their skin colour. An example of such a contest is the Face of Africa (FOA) where models selected from across the continent contest to jump-start a career in modeling, for a cash price, a modeling contract and chance to participate in the New York Fashion Week. The first ever edition was organized in the year 2009 and Oluchi Onweagba from Nigeria was the first winner.



It is important to note that culture manifests in multiple dimensions. It could explore the past as a reference point or tradition. It would also originate from the present where it is the manifestation of creativity or the inaugural point for a tradition. In this way it is a lived present that projects into the future. Culture thus would either be a dynamic or a stable system over generations. It is not therefore to be confined to folklore and vestiges of a supposed stagnant past which informs ensuing generations till eternity. In the same way, it is not confined to museums as vestiges of a glorious past or performance for the curiosity of modern or modernized man. Culture is therefore not a concept meant to separate the past from a present or modernized people from those who are still living according to the “ways of the ancestors” as our rural peoples are. Culture manifestation in the various ways examined above is an on-going creative process which is not invented and fixed forever. By affirming that it is not and should not be a fixation, we are paving the way or ensuring the opening for cultural creativity and its introduction into the modern African society in its own right.  



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  • David, E.J.R. & Okazaki, S. (2006a). Colonial Mentality: A review and recommendation for Filipino American psychology, Cultural Diversity & Ethnic Minority Psychology, 12(1), 1–16.
  • David, E.J.R., & Okazaki, S. (2006b). The Colonial Mentality Scale (CMS) for Filipino Americans: Scale construction and psychological implications, Journal of Counseling Psychology, 53 (2), 241–252.
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  • Taylor, E. Primitive Culture, New York: Harper Torch books, [1871] 1958.
  • Wallerstein, I. Culture in the World System. An interview, Social Identities, Vol. 7, No. 2, June 2001, pp.221–231.
  • Wright, R. Black Boy, New York, Harper & Brothers, 1945.
  • Yenshu Vubo, E. Tradition et Modernité au Cameroun: Autour de Transethnicité, Mémoire de l’Habilitation à Diriger des Recherches, Université de Franche-Comté, Besançon, 2009.


  1. www.wikipedia.com
  2. www.softsheen-carson.com
  3. www.alibaba.com/showroom/kanekalon-hair-weave-on
  4. www.google.com
  5. www.maxaus.com.au/elastaqp.htm
  6. www.arizonasun.com
  7. www.livestrong.com


 Inhalt | Table of Contents Nr. 18

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Elizabeth Kumbong Amaazee: The Impact of Globalization on Fundamental Perceptions of Colours and Culture in African Societies –
In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 18/2011.
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