Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. “The Language of African Literature.” from Decolonising the Mind.

In this excerpt, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o makes the call to African writers to begin writing literature in their own languages, and to make sure that literature is connected to their people’s revolutionary struggles for liberation from their (neo)colonial contexts. Echoing Fanon, he claims that this amalgam makes writers most dangerous to colonial powers, when they begin to speak to the people rather than trying to gain cultural creedence in the colonizer’s language of a European tongue.

Broken into nine sections, he discusses the power of writing in African languages and the crippling nature of continuing to write in Euro-American languages (call this Afro-European literature, not African literature) while trying to decolonize through a mixture of personal memoir and theoretical treatise:

I: To discuss African literature, we need to understand the dual context of imperialism and resistance to imperialism, decolonization and self-determination. Ngugi puts language at the center of this contentious collision: “The choice of language and the use to which language is put is central to a people’s definition of themselves in relation to the natural and social environment, indeed in relation to the entire universe…writers who should have been mapping paths out of that linguistic encirclement [by colonialism] of their continent also came to be defined and to define themselves in terms of the language of imperialist imposition. Even at their most radical and pro-African position in their sentiments and articulation of problems they still took it as axiomatic that the renaissance of African cultures lay in the languages of Europe” (4-5).

II: He gives a personal example of this dynamic, which is reminiscent of Fanon’s critique of the early stage of the native intellectual. Ngugi refers to the 1962 African writers conference at Makerere University College in Kampala, Uganda: “A Conference of African Writers of English Expression.” Excluding writers who wrote in African tongues, it proceeded to discuss questions of what African literature is or could be, while accepting that it must be in English.  This cruel poisonous paradox is summed up this way: “The bullet was the means of the physical subjugation. Language was the means of the spiritual subjugation” (9).

III: Ngugi discusses his early childhood experience of language education. He contrasts his village lessons via stories in his native tongue, Gikuyu, wherein language was magical and powerful and musical. Then he speaks of school, wherein he was forced to learn English and witness as English was used to sort students into a pyramid hierarchy. No matter how smart you were, you didn’t continue if you couldn’t use English well. At the same time, you were banned from using your own language.

IV: This is Ngugi’s theoretical section on the “relationship of language to human experience, human culture, and the human perception of reality” (13). He first divides language into a “dual character: it is both a means of communication and a carrier of culture” (13). As communication, he divides it into 3 aspects: 1.”language of real life,” following Marx to denote basic relationships of labor and cooperation that form a community; 2. Speech – “imitates the language of real life…as a system of verbal signposts” (13-14)…speech is to humans-humans as the hand is to humans-nature in the language of real life; 3. Writing – “Imitates the spoken…representation of sounds with visual symbols.” (14). Ngugi notes that, in most societies, the written and the spoken are the same. They are in harmony. As such, Ngugi notes, language forms the “basis and process of evolving culture” (14). “Language as culture is the collective memory bank of a people’s experience in history. Culture is almost indistinguishable from the language that makes possible its genesis, growth, banking, articulation and indeed its transmission from one generation to the next” (15). Ngugi splits language-as-culture into three aspects: 1. Product of a particular history; 2. “Image-forming agent in the mind of a child” 3. Culture mediates through language in its spoken and written aspects.

V: In this section, Ngugi applies those insights above to the scene when an imperialist imposes a foreign language on children. First of all, they are seeking to dominate the language of real life, “to control people’s wealth” (16). To do so, they had to undervalue the home culture and elevate the “language of the coloniser” (16). This divorced the child from their home language in school, breaking the harmony between spoken and written. This–coupled with “cultural” language in its three aspects–is the vehicle of alienation. This reminded me of DuBois’ double-consciousness. Ngugi is showing us how it happens. At its apex, it creates native intellectuals such as Senghor or Achebe or Banda (in Malawi) who sing the praises of the colonizer’s language to the detriment of their own. It is the highest proof that the pogrom has accomplished its work, and explains a conference such as the one in 1962.

VI: Ngugi describes the fallout of this state of affairs in much the same way that Fanon does, though with what seems a greater compassion and level of clarity. Fanon seems to be writing with angst, whereas Ngugi is writing to describe the situation so that we can understand Fanon’s angst. What’s created here is a “literature of the petty-bourgeoisie born of the colonial schools and universities. This class ranges from the “comprador bourgeoisie” who want to sidle up with the imperialist powers to the “nationalistic or patriotic bourgeoisie” who wanted independence (20). This literature, though helping to create resistance, never connected with the people (this is where Fanon is apropos), and it leads the intellectuals to despair. But the language choice always signals the wrong audience. (GO BACK TO THIS SECTION and COMPARE WITH FANON).

VII: But the peasants continued to carry the home language, unapologetically, keeping it alive. They raised their own singers and writers. And some of the petty bourgeoisie joined them. And then even some who originally wrote in European languages came around, such as David Diop from Senegal and Obi Wali (who critiqued the 1962 conference in a polemical article the next year).

VIII: “What is the difference between a politician who says Africa cannot do without imperialism and the writer who says African cannot do without European languages?” (26). While we were haranguing enemies in European tongues, imperialists have continued to spout their lies in our native tongues (such as translating the Bible into all African languages). So, we’re losing the battle because we haven’t been fighting. And the literature that’s been created should be called Afro-European, not African.

IX: In this final section, he details his switch to writing in his mother-tongue of Gikuyu from 17 years writing in the Afro-European tradition. He was met with sadness and feelings of abandonment in academic circles, to which he replies:

“The very fact that what common sense dictates in the literary practice of other cultures [to write in your own spoken language] is being questioned in an African writer is a measure of how far imperialism has distorted the view of African realities. It has turned reality upside down: the abnormal is viewed as normal and the normal is viewed as abnormal. Africa actually enriches Europe: but Africa is made to believe that it needs Europe to rescue it from poverty. African’s natural and human resources continue to develop Europe and America: but Africa is made to feel grateful for aid from the same quarters that still sit on the back of the continent. Africa even produces intellectuals who now rationalise this upside-down way of looking at Africa” (28).

Writing in his own language, then, is hugely important to anti-imperial struggle. But only if that writing is also coupled with “carry[ing] the content of our people’s anti-imperialist struggles to liberate their productive forces from foreign control” (29).




~ by timrdoc on February 2, 2011.

5 Responses to “Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. “The Language of African Literature.” from Decolonising the Mind.”

  1. I am interested in how Ngugi’s literature in his own language has developed that language by pushing its linguistic boundairies or questioning traditional gender-roles embedded in heritage folk-tales and proverbs. If you have any examples from his works (particularly The Wizard of the Crow) I would be most grateful if you could communicate them with me. I am interested in how a language develops as well as reflects its community’s cultural reality via its literature.

  2. Please make copies available in Porto Novo Benin Republic

    • Hi Adeoti,

      I don’t currently have access to the full book, but I do have a copy of this introduction that I wrote about in .pdf form. Email me at timrdoc [at] gmail [dot] com if you’re interested. Let me know if this would be helpful.

  3. This article is awesome at the primary level to understand the history behind the preaching European languages across the second largest continent of the world. The point it amazes me is its discussion of the procedure of making European languages superior to those of African ones.

    thank u.

  4. This article is really worth enough to reveal how activist Ngugi wa Thiongo is! I just loved reading it.. thank u.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: