Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. 1980-1994. James Currey, UK & Hieinemann Kenya.

“In my view language was the most important vehicle through which that power fascinated and held the soul prisoner. The bullet was the means of the physical subjugation. Language was the means of the spiritual subjugation.”

This slim volume was and is important enough to go through many printings. Everything the author, a respected Kenyan scholar & writer, says is still relevant today. He pens with a vivid description of the role of a writer who must have a passion for truth and a rigorous analysis of reality – like a surgeon.

“Writers are the surgeons of the heart and souls of a community.”

Ngugi places himself right in the heart of the community and says, “…literary work, is not the result of an individual genius, but the result of a collective effort…the very words we use are a product of a collective history.”

He also places the language of African literature in the context of social forces – colonialism and “…imperialism continues to control the economy, politics and culture of Africa.” Sounds like Canada.

In this context Ngugi’s central thesis is that no one can write fully and honestly in the language of the oppressor. His education, like that of most English speaking Africans was totally based on the culture & literature of Britain. Many African writers defined themselves by their colonial language, English and also French and Portuguese. Few educated Africans looked to a renaissance of African cultures in any languages except those. Modern African writers accepted this as ‘fait accompli’. He challenges this as a too fatalistic conclusion and a betrayal of the richness of the many African languages and cultures.

He remembers the power and creativity of the stories of his childhood in Gikuyu, which had magic and beauty, based in the environment of the society. It presented a unique world view that was shattered by the enforced use of English as the language of formal education. Language, as his teachers well knew, is both a means of communication and a carrier of culture. As were First Nations’ children in Canada, Kenyan children were beaten for using their own language and not only that, but they were trained to inform on other children who also spoke the forbidden tongue. They “… were being taught the lucrative value of being a traitor to one’s immediate community.”

As Ngugi became a scholar and teacher he continued to accept English as the essential language of his creation and went to African conferences where participants enjoyed and lauded their fine English scholarship. He now says, “It is the final triumph of a system of domination when the dominated start singing its virtues.” Ultimately this educated class becomes the enabling cultural bourgeoisie of the new neocolonialism.

After recognizing this imperialism, he realizes that African languages and culture are still thriving and maintained by the peasantry from which the elites have become disconnected. Singers, storytellers and writers still flourished even if, as some were, they were jailed for the use of their own language. The issue of cultural workers creating in the context of their own society has reemerged after years of repression. Capitalism may have introduced technology and means, but these further consolidated its elitism and control of other cultures. The printing press could control whose work was published and originally Africans who were published wrote with biblical and positive colonial themes. Universities in Africa further strengthened these trends; students were schooled in European literature to the neglect of their own heritage.

It was jail that clarified the issue for Ngugi, after publishing in English; he grasped during incarceration the necessity to commit his creativity to a truly African novel. In fact in this book, he makes it clear that this is the last work he will write and publish in English Translation he welcomes, but the original work needs be in the language of its creator. Later when teaching, he also pursued the importance in schools and universities of the teaching and study of African languages. This became a vital role for the educated class in order to reconnect and situate themselves among their own people, the peasants and workers who could not read English. It seems straight forward, but it was truly an amazing new and bold transformation of scholarship only a few decades ago.

In 1978 he said, “Kenyan writers have no alternative but to return to the roots, return to the sources of their being in the rhythms of life and speech and language of the Kenyan masses if they are to rise to the great challenge of recreating in their poems, plays and novels, the epic grandeur of that history.”

Towards the end of this forceful and impassioned book he quotes another product of colonialism, the Guatemalan poet, Otto Rene Castillo, who asks intellectuals what they will answer when asked what they did when our nations dried out slowly, ‘like a sweet fire, small and lone’.

“What did you do when the poor
Suffered, when tenderness
And life
Burned out in them?”

In the end Ngugi says this is all part of and really about the struggle for liberation on all levels.

“Struggle makes history. Struggle makes us. In struggle is our history, our language and being.”

That is a good place to end a book and to begin a commitment we can all make to human and personal liberation.

Filed under Book Reviews, Ngugi wa Thiong’o