‘Why I Write In My Mother Tongue’

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Kenyan novelist, Ngugi Wa Thiong'o

The following article is reproduced courtesy of The Guardian newspaper of Nigeria and is written by Gregory Austin Nwakunor

THE reporter walked into Royal Banquet Hall of Hotel Presidential, Port Harcourt, during the second yearly Garden City Literary Festival held in Port Harcourt (September 23 to 27) expecting to hear Ngugi Wa Thiong’o pour his venom on the social structure. Well, that looked like it. And really, he was not disappointed. Not only in Ngugi’s dramatics, but his eloquent delivery of the paper titled, Language as Bridges: Building Network Against Linguistic Feudalism and Darwinism. His lyrical reflection of Africa’s dysfunction-and possibilities was gripping.

Since Ngugi was launched into literary consciousness in 1964 by the ‘infantile’ masterpiece, Weep Not Child, he has matured in his craft, growing from ‘singular’ to ‘plurimental’ heroism. His aesthetic canons have moved from the young, unexposed characters such as Njoroge, Wayaki and Mugo, who though considered a village hero, betrayed Kihika and the Mau Mau movement to characters such as Wanja and Abdulla, Kamiti and Nyawira, among others.

Just as his ‘Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986)’, in which he wrote, “The bullet was the means of physical subjugation. Language was a means of spiritual subjugation,” Ngugi pointed out, since English and other Europhone languages – French, Dutch, Portuguese – became the official language of education and communication in the continent, indigenous languages have become amputated.

“There’s something very wrong in saying to a human being, ‘let me cut off your legs and I will give you artificial ones, which will be perfect.’ I’m saying let us walk on our own two feet,” he reflected.

Ngugi, who questioned the gulf between African intellectuals and their audience, and resolved to write in his own tongue, Gikuyu, said linguistic and cultural feudalism is the view, consciously or unconsciously held, that some languages, between and even within nations, are of a higher order than others; that they constitute an aristocracy while others, in a descending order of being, occupy lesser positions, different degrees of minion age.

To him, one reason for this is the gulf between African and European languages; “between African literature, what is written in African languages, and Europhone African literature, that which is written in European languages.”

He said, “we keep knowledge from the majority of people by denying them knowledge in the language they use.”

According to him, “it has been brought about by a historical process. In my book, Decolonising the Mind, published in 1984, I told the story of my relationship to my mother tongue, Gikuyu, and my language of education, English. English was also the official language of the colonial state. I told how we used to be punished when we were caught speaking an African language in the school compound. We were humiliated by being made to carry a piece we called ‘Monitor’ around our necks, literally stating that we were stupid. Thus humiliation and negativity were attached to African languages in the learning process. A good performance in English on the other hand was greeted with acclaim. Two things were taking place in the cognitive process: positive affirmation of English as a means of intellectual production; and criminalisation of African languages as means of knowledge production. With English, went pride: with African languages, shame. For a long time I used to think that this was an African problem.”

He said, “the death of any language is the loss of knowledge contained in that language. The weakening of any language is the weakening of its knowledge-producing potential. It is a human loss. Each language, no matter how small, contains the best knowledge of its immediate environment: the plants and their properties, for instance. Language is the primary computer with a natural hard drive.”

The novelist said: “Many African states don’t have a national language policy in a multilingual situation, meaning African languages. Whatever we may say of colonial states, they, through literature bureaus, often came up with some sort of policies. Far from helping, some post-colonial governments have even shown active hostility to African languages. Governments have to create an enabling environment in terms of policies and resources.”

While saying that nothing is more important than life’s journey, he queries the idea of sending our children on the journey of life with instructions coded in European languages. “The colonialist may have wanted us to go astray, but why would we, an independent Africa, want our children to get lost? Or is it a case of the lost giving instructions on how to lose your way in life? Or he may have wanted to create the gulf of knowledge between the elite and the people. But why should we in Africa want to continue with deepening and widening the gulf?”

He added, “for the national, African and even global good, the prevailing power relationships of languages and cultures, has to be challenged and hopefully even shaken up. This was the motivation behind my books, Decolonizing the Mind, and also Re-Membering Africa.”

Ngugi thinks art is underestimated as a tool for change. Like flower, which is an expression of the entire plant, holding the seed of its future, art equally holds the seed of future Africa.

To this end, he said, “writers from marginalised cultures and languages had the duty and responsibility of making themselves visible in their languages. As I did not want to be saying do as I say but not as I do, I made the decision way back in 1978 to break with English as the primary means of my writing, particularly in fiction and drama. I have no regrets. I still believe that writers and other intellectuals have the duty to challenge and shake up linguistic feudalism and linguistic Darwinism, that hierarchical view of languages in theory and practice.”

In 1967, while lecturing at the University of Nairobi’s English Department, he pushed for it to be replaced by a literature department that would cover not just English Literature, but also the new African and world literature.

Eventually, he became frustrated that the main audience for his criticisms was the English-speaking middle classes, rather than the poor peasants and workers he looked to for a change in the society.

In the 70s, he started writing in his mother tongue, Gikuyu, helping the peasants to produce the now famous play, Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want), which he co-wrote with Ngugi wa Mirii.

His arrest and detention (without charge and in a maximum security prison) came only after he began to write in Gikuyu instead of English, thereby reaching a far greater number of ordinary Kenyans, a development that the authorities found threatening. While there, he wrote his first novel in Gikuyu, Devil on the cross, on toilet paper. He has written other novels in his mother tongue such as Matigari and Wizard of the Crow.

While lamenting the paucity of bookshops that sell African language books, said booksellers have to be willing to stock books written in African languages.

His words: “The publisher then is an integral part of any meaningful challenge to linguistic feudalism and linguistic Darwinism. I have written several works in Gikuyu. But this would have been impossible without the willingness of the East African Educational Publishers to invest resources and skills into the project.”

Ngugi also spoke on the importance of a good translator. He describes translators as the maker of bridges between languages.

“Translations have played an important role in the history of ideas. The much-talked about European renaissance would have been impossible without translations. Christianity and Islam and their spread all over the world have been enormously aided by the translations of the Bible and the Quran. Translations and translators can play an even bigger role in the African renaissance,” he retorted.

Already, at the International Centre for Writing and Translation at the University of California Irvine, everybody is made to realise that the primary audience is that of the language and culture that gave birth to them. It is only they, who can produce knowledge in their own languages for that audience defined by their access to that language, and then later, through translation and auto-translation, or by another person, open the works to audiences outside their original language community.

“To know one’s language, whatever that language is, and add others to it, is empowerment. But to know all the other languages while ignorant of one’s own is mental slavery. I hope that Africa will choose empowerment.”

BORN James Ngugi on January 5, 1938, in Kamiriithu, near Limuru in Kiambu district, he came of age during the Mau Mau War of Independence (1952-1962), which led to the end of British colonial rule. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in Uganda, at Makerere University College, and a master’s degree in Leeds, England. It was at Leeds that he met the late professor Ime Ikiddeh, who helped shape, his literary beliefs, and subsequently, need to embrace the local languages, as a means of literary communication. He returned to Kenya in 1967, becoming a lecturer in English Literature at the University of Nairobi.

He was a devout Christian, later rejecting the religion and changing his name, which he regarded as a sign of colonial influence, to Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

In 1977, Ngugi was imprisoned for a year, without trial. After an international campaign led by Amnesty International led to his release, the Moi Dictatorship banned him from taking jobs at the country’s colleges and universities. Ngugi’s works were also removed from all educational institutions. He was thus forced into exile in Britain (1982-1989) and then in the United States (1989-till date).

Some of his works include The Black Hermit (play), Weep Not Child, The River Between, Grain of Wheat, This Time Tomorrow (three plays, including the title play, The Reels, and The Wound in the Heart, Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture, and Politics, A Meeting in the Dark, Secret Lives, and Other Stories, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (with Micere Githae Mugo), Ngaahika ndeenda: Ithaako ria ngerekano (I Will Marry When I Want) (with Ngugi wa Mirii), Petals of Blood, Caitaani mutharaba-Ini (Devil on the Cross), Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary, Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to Repression in Neo-Colonial Kenya, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, Mother, Sing For Me, Matigari ma Njiruungi (translated into English by Wangui wa Goro), Njamba Nene’s Pistol (Bathitoora ya Njamba Nene), Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedom, Murogi was Kagogo (Wizard of the Crow), 2004, Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance, among others

2 responses to “‘Why I Write In My Mother Tongue’

  1. While I was living in the UK I had a friend from Ghana who told me in the eighties that she was punished at school and even at home for speaking her own language! And I also remember as a child speaking our own Jamaican dialect my mother used to chastise me and insist that I speak “properly”. Well thank God for the Honorable Louise Bennett Coverley (Miss Lou) who made it okay for us not only to speak, but also to write in our own patwa (patois) language.

    Ngugi Wa Thiong’o is Africa’s “Miss Lou” and I hope he is as successful in his endeavour as she was, although I am sure his is a more mammoth task, given the brainwashed narrow-mindedness of the African governments in general.

    Once again Tony, you have posted a most pertinent blog and I salute you.

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