It is a paradox of third world nationalism that the nation itself was more or less forged by colonial partition and then later become a force of emancipation for the colonized. In this sense, the nation must be understood as both a product of colonialism and a form of resistance to it. Nationalism, then, in this context, is the cultural practice of constructing a political (and moral) community that is self-determining, limited by territorial borders, and bound together by a shared language, a common history, and a culture (Anderson, 6). The problem with this for most third world peoples was that, within any given colonized territory, there were a wide variety of ethnic groups which each had their own distinct language, history, and culture (Howe, 110). What then, under these conditions, is the basis of nationhood?
The colonial encounter is undoubtedly the main force that served to forge a national identity among different ethnic groups. When Western Europe first spread its parasitic tentacles into the third world, disrupting the mode of life of even the most isolated tribes, at that moment, it began to impose a common experience of oppression and exploitation on every ethnicity in that geographic region (Prashad, 12). From this common experience, a nascent national history was born. The history of the colonized nation, then, began with the colonial encounter.
The West also forced the first national language on various colonized peoples, generally the language of the colonizer. To this day, most national languages in Latin America and Africa are those of their former colonial masters. Thus, French is the national language of Senegal and Niger, Spanish is the national language of Mexico and Argentina, and English is the national language of Ghana and Nigeria. That is not to say that native languages have been eradicated and replaced altogether with the colonizers language, but with few exceptions, these native tongues are not recognized or promoted by the national government. It is the colonizers language that is taught in the schools and spoken in government circles.
Even the culture of the West penetrated every colonized territory, tearing apart the native cultural matrix and relegating it to secondary status. Traditional beliefs, rituals, customs, values and norms were deemed to be “barbaric,” and when threatening of the colonial order, were violently suppressed (Fanon, 236). In turn, the “civilized” beliefs, rituals, customs, values, and norms of the colonizer were imposed on the colonized. A comprador class of natives was indoctrinated in the ways of the white man in order to help facilitate the oppression of their own people. These “civilized savages” became the intellectual and cultural agents of colonialism, imposing on the colonized the very culture of its oppressors (Rodney, 254-261; Fanon, 223). Thus emerged the first traces of a national culture, albeit an alien culture imposed on the colonized. It is in the struggle for national liberation that this alien culture undergoes a qualitative transformation, culminating in a synthesis of the remnants of traditional cultures, the progressive aspects of western culture, and the revolutionary culture created through this emancipatory struggle.