‘Every person, whether in Africa or Europe, has a right to their mother tongue or to the language of their culture’.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (b. 1938) is currently Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine. He is a prominent academic, post-colonial theorist, and writer from Kenya. He is a strong advocate for local African languages and has written novels and plays in Gĩkũyũ, a Bantu language spoken in Kenya – a country of over sixty languages.
Arrest and Jailing
In the 1970s he was jailed by the post-colonial Kenyan government for co-writing a play in an African language which suggested critical ideas that he had already expressed elsewhere in English. The play, Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want), was halted by the Government. Ngũgĩ, a University Professor of Literature, was put in a maximum security prison. Upon his release he fled Kenya under threat, and spent 2 decades in exile.
Colonialism and the Irish language
Ngũgĩ has pointed out that processes of colonialism by European powers occurred in many places, including in Ireland. He refers to how, by the end of the 16th century, the English had been unable to conquer Ireland. He points to 2 suggestions for addressing this situation – destruction of the native naming system and supressing the Irish language. The idea, he says, was to make the Irish ‘forget who they were’.
Decolonising the Mind
Decolonising the Mind is a book published by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o in 1986. It is an important work in advocating for linguistic decolonisation – reclaiming native languages where colonial languages have been imposed. While it isn’t possible to draw an equivalence between the effects of colonialism in Kenya and in Ireland, it is still interesting to consider the linguistic impact of colonialism in Kenya in the 20th century from an Irish perspective. There may be some lessons to be taken from this in terms of better understanding the mechanics of externally imposed language-shift policies, and attitudes to native languages in post-colonial societies.
The beginning of linguistic division for Africa: The Berlin Conference of 1884-1885
In Decolonising the Mind, the author suggests the genesis of linguistic conflict in Africa occurred with the Berlin Conference. Here, the capitalist powers of Europe divided up the vast African continent of many peoples, languages and cultures into various colonies. The cultural aspect of this saw the imposition of European languages so that the colonies eventually came to define themselves in terms of the languages of Europe [in much the same way as many people now like to define Ireland solely as ‘an English-speaking country’].
Language and Colonisation
He suggests that in all cases of colonialism, language is part of the process, supressing the native language and elevating the colonial one. He speaks of the Caribbean plantations where African languages were banned and people were hanged for speaking them. He says that, historically, you see the same attitudes regarding language in places as diverse as Canada, South America, Japan, New Zealand and Australia.
Colonial powers initially gain their control through violence. They must then move to quell any resistance through enculturation and the imposition of an education program. The bullet kills the physical body but, ‘Language was the means of the spiritual subjugation’.
In 1952, following a state of emergency being declared in Kenya, all schools were taken over by the colonial machine. English was imposed as the mode of education. ‘In Kenya, English became more than a language: it was the language, and all the others had to bow before it in deference’.
Humiliation at school
In Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s school, children caught speaking the local language were caned or punished by being made to wear a metal sign around their neck with inscriptions such as ‘I AM STUPID’ or ‘I AM A DONKEY’. The humiliation is intentionally dehumanising. The signs didn’t say ‘I BROKE THE RULES’ but instead implied idiocy on the part of the native language speaker. This is a cunning way to degrade the native language while elevating the colonial tongue.
Another tactic was to give a button to the first child caught speaking their native language. The child would pass on the button to the kids who were subsequently caught. At the end of the day, the person with the button would inform the teacher which child had given it to them, and so on. ‘Thus children were turned into witch-hunters and in the process were being taught the lucrative value of being a traitor to one’s immediate community’.
While the native language was being degraded, English was elevated in status. Students who demonstrated achievements in spoken or written English were celebrated with applause, praise and prizes.
Through the teaching of subjects such as history, geography and music, the Euro-centric worldview was reinforced. The culture and worldview being taught to the child through the colonial language is designed to rupture their sense of self, community and place.
Through primary and secondary school, the literary focus was on established English-language books while oral literature in Kenyan languages ceased. The effect seems to have been to create an Anglo-centric worldview alienated from the native identity.
The process for accessing Secondary School was through exams in 6 subjects – all taken through the medium of English. A failure in English meant a failure of the entire application, regardless of other results.
In adulthood, as an academic, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was involved in debates about what the education system should be like in post-colonial Kenya. The debate centred on whether the education system should continue to place the colonial language and culture at its core, or whether the priority should be to teach the student about their own culture and society first, and then broadening this out to East Africa, Africa, the Developing World and the Rest of the World. It is interesting to note the echoes of some of Pádraig Pearse’s ideas about the importance of an education system that first serves the native language, culture, identity, and society.
Language and Identity
Wa Thiong’o suggests that language is the major component of culture, and culture is important in the formation of worldview. In this way, language is central to identity and how we see ourselves. The imposition of an alien language confuses and distorts the identities of the colonial subject. Colonialism creates the absurd illusion that native languages are the sources of division, but that the colonial language is a unifying force.
Language and Values
For Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, language acts as a carrier of the history of the people who speak it. The colonial language carries the culture and values (and economic interests) of its nation. Language also plays a role in the images we have of ourselves individually and collectively. Furthermore, language encapsulates the worldview of the past and present speakers of the language. In this way language is the carrier of the ‘values by which we come to perceive ourselves and our place in the world.’
The ‘Cultural Bomb’ and languages
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o talks of the cultural bomb of imperialism that undermines the defiance of the oppressed people. He states that the cultural bomb destroys a people’s belief in their own languages, their culture, their native names, their heritage, their struggle with their oppressors, and their history.
They see their native past as a ‘wasteland’ and this ‘makes them want to identify with that which is furthest removed from themselves: for instance, with other peoples’ languages rather than their own’.
The colonised subject is alienated from their own language, culture and history and detached from their native identity. When the language of the coloniser is adopted, the colonised subject feels a greater pride and kinship with the culture, history and outlook carried by that language, rejecting their own. Literature from the region written in the colonial language is assigned the identity of indigenous literature, while the native literature is ignored.
For many, the colonial language is to be celebrated excessively and the native language compared unfavourably. Some will claim that the colonial language is actually native, or has been adapted to where it is almost native.
While occasional remorse may be expressed regarding the loss of the native language, colonialism introduces doubts about the merits of the home language. On the other hand, adoption of the foreign language is seen as a gift; its merits are never doubted and its utility is embraced. The colonial subject sees the move towards the imposed language in a fatalistic way. They are almost brainwashed into believing this is both progress and inevitable. The position of the new language is considered unassailable. It should not be challenged. At the same time the merits of the native language may regularly be called into question.
While the root of colonialism is always the control of wealth, for it to succeed following military conquest and political dictatorship, there must be control of the mental sphere of the people. The native culture, dance, art, orature, literature, education, religions, geography and history are belittled while the colonial language is deliberately elevated. In the Kenyan situation, literacy was introduced, but largely confined to those operating the colonial machine. Where publications were promoted, there could be censorship to control the content.
What is African literature?
In Decolonising the Mind, the author poses interesting questions around African national theatres and African literature. He asks ‘What is the difference between a politician who says Africa cannot do without imperialism and the writer who says Africa cannot do without European languages?’ He suggests that literature written in European languages by African writers is not African literature, it is Afro-European literature.
Ngũgĩ asks ‘How did we, as African writers, come to be so feeble towards the claims of our languages on us and so aggressive in our claims on other languages, particularly the languages of our colonization?’
Criticisms of Kenyan Independence
As mentioned above, a play co-written by Ngũgĩ resulted in him being put in jail. According to Decolonising the Mind, amongst other subjects, the play highlighted how, with independence, Kenya had moved from a colony with British interests to a neo-colony serving imperial interests from around the world. Social justice was not a priority, whereas capitalism was.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Decolonising the Mind challenges us to see the culture and the history that is carried by a language, and the subtle ways in which colonial languages continue to be exalted at the cost of native languages and native cultures. He prompts us to open our eyes to the normalisation of linguistic imperialism. Interestingly, his theories, experiences and observations are primarily based in Kenya, a country where English has nowhere near the dominant position it has in Ireland; and where the native languages are spoken by millions of people.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o reminds us of the rich value that is intrinsic in native culture and languages, and the role they play in identity and values. He suggests that for an individual to know all the languages of the world but not their own is enslavement. However, knowing ones native language and adding languages to this is empowerment.
wa Thiong’o, N. (1986). Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Woodbridge: James Curry
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s personal website:
Why Africans Hate Their Own Languages. Diaspora Connect: Ep. 23 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tnF6XdOh5HY
The Role of a Scholar in a Postcolonial World https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oz87K9l3y2s
Europe and the west must also be decolonised
-Article by Derek Hollingsworth, February 2022
Sincere thanks to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o for taking the time to read the draft and give it his endorsement. Thanks also to Vinnie Dillon and Paul O’Hara (Dublin)
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2 thoughts on “Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Language & ‘Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature’”
Go raibh míle maith agat 🙏
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Suimiúil..ba cheart do gach aon bhéarlóir Éireannnach é seo a léamh..very interesting..essential reading for all English-speaking Irish people
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