Books · Colonisation · Performance & Arts

Refusing the master’s tools

Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African LiteratureDecolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In this work Ngugi wa Thiong’o bids farewell to his practice of writing in English, adding that he hopes translation will enable him to continue to communicate with all. He then explains the passionate reasoning behind his belief in the use of African languages by African writers.

I have come to realise more and more that work, any work, even literary creative work, is not the result of an individual genius but the result of a collective effort

Taking as a founding principle that imperialism and its internal allies will never develop Africa, he critiques the notion that tribal conflict is the source of discord in Kenya and across the continent (invariables like biological nationality cannot be the true source of conflict, which would be eternal and unchanging if that were the case, he says). Rather, the divide and rule practices of colonialism are at the root of such conflict. He identifies two traditions of thought in Kenya: the imperialist tradition of the international bourgeoisie and ‘flag waving native ruling classes’ and subjugation of the people enforced by police boots, barbed wire, clergy & judiciary, supported by state intellectuals AND the resistance tradition of the working people/peasantry and ‘patriotic’ petty-bougeoisie/middle class including students and intellectuals, supporting all nationalities in the area against imperialist domination.

Imperialism is the monopolistic and parasitic rule of consolidated finance capital. The freedom for Western finance capital to go on stealing from the working people of the global south is maintained by conventional and nuclear weapons, but more importantly by ‘the cultural bomb’ that annihilates the self belief and solidarity of the people. Ngugi wa Thiong’o explains that language allows us to define ourselves in relation to our national and social environment:

our capacity to confront the world creatively is dependant on how those images [of nature and nurture formed by the dynamic process of history & culture reflecting each other] correspond or not to that reality, how they distort or clarify the reality of our struggles

He describes his experience of learning-through-storytelling alongside everyday communication and shared experience in his mother tongue, Gikuyu, and how the harmony of his learning life was broken in colonial schools, where speaking Gikuyu was punished while all achievement in English was rewarded and prioritised. Native languages are associated by colonial education with low status, humiliation, corporal punishment, stupidity and barbarism. For the African child in this context, thought itself takes the visible form of a foreign language, and thus she feels disassociated from her natural and social environment. Ngugi wa Thiong’o explains that culture is transmitted not through language in universality but in its particularity of a specific social/historical context. The way English is used in African countries is not the same as the way it is used in Scandinavian countries as a tool of communication, but as an instrument of control.

Literature written by Africans in European languages by anti-imperial petty bourgeois authors articulated resistance to racist European colonisation and drew on African cultures and histories to give that class self-confidence. This work armed uprisings inspired by political awakening and drew stamina and substance from proverbs and fables of the peasantry, helping struggles for independence. But, as neo-colonial/pro-imperial governments gained power this literature became disiullsioned and cynical. Its authors wanted to communicate with a working class/peasant (WC/P) audience but they were hampered by their use of Euro languages. They created WC/P characters who spoke English and projected their own evasive self-contemplation, existential anguish and crises of identity onto them, falsifying historical processes and realities.

While African authors were worrying about a crisis of identity in African literature and accepting (with some exceptions) the ‘fatalistic logic’ of linguistic Europeanization of African cultural output, the very neo-col rulers they were haranguing in their books were busy issuing ‘distortions, dictatorial directives, museum-type fossils paraded as African culture, feudalistic ideology, superstitions and lies’ in the languages of the WC/P! So the result of colonial education, as intended, is to cut off communication between petty-bourgeois intellectuals and their intended audience.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o delineates a minor tradition (praising its great talents such as Achebe, Armah etc and works) of Afro-European literature, which he says will last as long as neo-colonial rule. Since writing in Gikuyu he has been asked why he chose to do so by all kinds of people. Some academics have asked ‘why have you abandoned us?’ But Gikuyu is his mother tongue! This reversal of common sense relates directly to other upside-down (thanks Fela Kuti) logics of imperialism:

Africa enriches Europe, but Africa is made to believe that Europe needs to rescue it from poverty. Africa’s natural and human resources continue to develop Europe and America, but Africa is made to feel grateful for aid from those quarters that still sit on the back of the continent

I love the section on African theatre. Colonialism pretends there is no tradition of African theatre, but is it has a long and deep heritage in Kenya, where it was destroyed by the British (any free public gathering is dangeous to authoritarian domination). Part of this tradition was the concept of ’empty space’ among the people where theatre took place. Colonialism attempted to destroy this by confining that space in community halls, proscenium theatres and even in prisons and detainment camps where inmates were encouraged to produce neo-colonial and anti- Mau-Mau propaganda plays. Radio drama was also encouraged in which the African as clown was ridiculed: laugh at your own stupidity and simplicity, forget about all this freedom nonsense!

Anti-imperial petty-bourgeois writers tried to break from colonial control by taking control of the Kenyan National Theatre, touring productions of anti-colonial plays, but these were often hampered by the use of English and confinement within walls – this approach brings culture to the people rather than involving them in its creation. By contrast, his production of I Will Marry When I Want in Kamiriithu was defined and shaped by the decision to use Gikuyu, which forced a discussion with the peasants and factory workers about the use of language and about the language of theatre.

Perfection of an art form as a process with a shared history is, Nguigi wa Thiong’o points out, in opposition to the conventional secrecy of rehearsals culminating in a presentation intended to cause amazement and a sense of ‘wow, I couldn’t do that’. This approach is in keeping with alienating bourgeois education which is a process of weakening people, making them feel incapable, mystifying knowledge. It produces ‘a gallery of active stars and an undifferentiated mass of grateful admirers’. Those involved in the Kamiriithu project talked about how it made them feel valuable and integral, how it raised their awareness. The play’s license was withdrawn and its writer incarcerated…

Another example of the upside down logic of imperialism and capitalism generally is the possibility of development it offers and then makes impossible . The arrival of the printing press in Kenya was accompanied by the familiar rhetoric of spreading education and culture and dispelling African awe of nature and superstition, but with heavy censorship and careful selection it really pushed a message of subserviance via Christianity, and increased awe of the whip/gun-wielding master. Writing novels in a neo-colonial context meets several obstacles, one of which is that reality is often beyond satire in its grim absurdity. Another is the lack of libraries and book shops in rural areas and the corresponding excuse ‘the people are poor and illiterate so they don’t need libraries and bookshops’. Yet Ngugi’s first book in Gikuyu sold; it was read by literate community members aloud at gatherings, in bars, it was embraced. Build it and they will come…

Finally Ngugi wa Thiong’o addresses the question of relevance and the creation of appropriate education programs. He argues that orature, rooted in WC/P sources of anti-imperial resistance should be centred in Kenyan schooling. Historically, he points out, the great Western humanist authors like Shakespeare, Austen etc who provide incisive comment on bourgeois culture have been treated as if the only themes they dealt with were universal love, fear, birth, death etc. Western education, in my experience, has the same imbalance, universalising and depoliticising the personal, diminishing the particularity of history.

Many African writers have expressed concern to enrich Western literature by making African wisdom accessible and translatable – Ngugi asks why they do not centre the African tradition and seek to enrich that with riches from foreign cultures. He comments on the commitment fellow Kenyan authors expressed (in an advocacy document) not to replace English chavinism with national chauvinism, centring Kenyan orature and literature but including all African and diasporic writing, speaking of the need to introduce the Kenyan child to the world context of black experience. Latin American and Asian literatures would also be studied, with Euro-American not excluded but perhaps lowest in priority.

The search for new directions in language, literature, theatre poetry, fiction and scholarly studies in Africa is part and parcel of the overall struggles of African people against imperialism in its neo-colonial stage. It is part of that struggle for that world in which my health is not dependent on another’s leprosy, my cleanliness not on another’s maggot-ridden body, and my humanity not on the buried humanity of others

I loved reading this and agreed with it strongly, but I would like to write a few words in defence of contemporary African authors like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who write in English. I want to humbly suggest that the paths to decolonisation may be as many and various as the people in need of it (noting that the distinction between coloniser and colonised is blurred, not least by class conditions) and that the uses of literature are also many and various (noting that the distinction between creator and audience is blurred). Perhaps my colonisation and indoctrination into individualism is speaking, but it seems plausible that Ngugi’s Marxist conception of literature has some limitations? I look forward to reading more about this subject and how thought in the area has developed.

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