Ngugi Lauds African Languages

(Ngugi wa Thiong’o)

Squatting in a maximum-security prison cell in Kenya in the 1970’s, Kenyan essayist, activist, scholar and teacher Ngugi wa Thiong’o penned his very first novel on toilet paper.   

It was written in Gikuyu, a language he grew up seeing, tasting, feeling, and owning in the hills and valleys of his homeland.

Standing no more than 5-foot-5, with graying wisps of hair at the crown of his head, Ngugi is a giant among giants. His frame doesn’t do justice to his larger-than-life iconic persona. He is the African world’s gift to language legitimacy, and he’s not backing down on his insistence that African languages hold the same importance as European languages on the continent of Africa and beyond.  

“African languages refused to die,” said Ngugi two decades ago in his seminal volume of essays entitled “Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature.” He was defying the often unspoken sentiment that African languages are secondary, and therefore on the verge of annihilation.

During his whirlwind trip to Washington, D.C. last week—which included an exclusive interview with The Informer—Ngugi was adamant about why African languages should take center stage.   

At a lecture sponsored by Howard University’s African Studies Department, Karibu Books, and TransAfrica Forum last Thursday, he said that Europe’s colonization of Africa was fueled by its attempt to “shred our base, while they secured theirs.” The apparent destruction of African languages and naming systems was the means of destabilizing the continent, said Ngugi. It has far-reaching implications even today.

Ngugi believes that when published materials from the continent are written in European languages, “you place it within a linguistic prison” in which the texts are not accessible to the people who matter most—Africans themselves.  To say that Ngugi’s insistence is revolutionary would be an understatement. With the exception of Ethiopia, whose official language is Amharic, the official languages of most African countries are the vestiges of colonial rule—Portuguese in the former Portuguese colonies, French in the former French colonies, and English in the former English colonies.

Although some countries have attempted to reconcile this disparity by adopting African languages as national languages—Senegal has Wolof and Kenya has Swahili—European languages still seem to carry more influence. Ngugi insists that officially evoking European languages perpetuates a system of dependency already evident in the manner in which Africa engages with the West.    

He is the only continental author to write exclusively in an African language, forcing publishing houses to figure out the logistics of translation. And they have. Ngugi’s books have been translated in over 30 other languages. “What Gikuyu can do, any other African language can do,” said Ngugi, inadvertently encouraging other African writers to follow his lead.

His belief is that texts should be written in the language in which they are conceived, developed, and rendered. European languages, he said, should be additions and not substitutes to the already large body of African linguistic diversity.
In 1969, Ngugi and other professors at the University of Nairobi in Kenya questioned the primacy of the English language and even called for a shut-down of the English Literature Department in favor of positioning Black Literature—and by extension African languages—at the center of intellectual thought. Thus began his activism on behalf of the struggles of Kenyans, and his increased ostracism from the political machinery. Thirty years ago, he openly criticized African authoritarian rule and economic dependency on Europe and his reward was exile.

Even today, the writer makes a point to step away from the language issue to scrutinize what he feels is of paramount concern to the continent of Africa—engaging with the West on equal footing. Ngugi believes that the West positioned itself as a giver and Africa as a beggar. “We must reject that conclusion altogether…The real crime is to refuse to stand up, the real aesthetic of resistance is to stand up, rise, and rise again.”

He says that Africa should not be a beggar considering its vast economic resources. “People are respected because of their strengths, not because of their weaknesses…We have got to put our house in order before we can expect anyone to take us seriously.”  This can be done through intra-continental travel, trade, and communication. “There has to be a greater, freer movement of goods, services, and people across our borders,” Ngugi stated.

Ngugi tested this notion in 2004 when he returned home after decades in exile. A distinguished professor of English and Comparative Literature and director of the International Center for Writing and Translation at the University of California at Irvine, Ngugi and his wife, Njeeri, went back to Kenya amidst a welcome fit for a prodigal son.    

“We are determined that we are not hounded by those who were so keen on keeping us out in the first place,” said Ngugi, alluding to the genesis of his forced migration from a homeland so prominent in the texts he weaves eloquently. Reflecting on the African Union’s proposed adoption of Swahili as its official language, Ngugi said that it was a step in the right direction, but he drew a cautionary line. “We shouldn’t go from English mono-lingualism to African mono-lingualism.” In other words, adopting Swahili should not negate the legitimacy of other African languages.   

Eschewing political correctness, Ngugi is an advocate of Ebonics, which, he believes, is evidence of African languages holding ground in the U.S. In the tradition of James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, Toni Morrison, and others, Ngugi says that African Americans were able to maintain cultural traditions in language formulation. To even begin to understand African American English, he argues, one must first study its roots.   

Those roots are planted firmly on African soil. While it has become common to observe a wry smirk on the faces of those who deride Ebonics as “bad” or “deviant” English, it is exactly here they stumble, failing to realize the power dynamics that lie beneath the debate. It is precisely here that Ngugi has contributed the most insightful observations.   

The relationship between power and language has undoubtedly been his strongest area of research. He stated emphatically, “As long as people persist in interpreting themselves through linguistic vehicles that are external to themselves, they are continuing in that ‘oppressive’ pattern.” To choose a language, he declares, is to choose a world.    

This analysis also sheds light on how African Americans sought to own the English language. While they may have been forced to adopt the words of the English-speaking community, total acquiescence was impossible. They would borrow words, package their delivery defiantly in their own cadences and intonations, and completely transform the meanings of some, such as “cool.”
Ngugi sees this as a natural act of resistance by a human community. “The struggle of African people in the ‘New World’,” he said, “takes the form of creating new languages. [Their] conditions of life also mean a struggle to construct the world in their own terms.”  Indeed, Ebonics has played a strong role in American culture. While mainstream America has shunned incorporating it into the academy, they’ve embraced it culturally as evidenced in its boasted cultural forums like hip-hop. “Hip-hop,” Ngugi said to The Informer, “is a lyrical based extension of Ebonics.”

And the buck doesn’t stop there. “Ebonics has had a major impact on the language of power,” he reminds us. According to Ngugi, American literary icons such as William Faulkner and Mark Twain generously used Ebonics in their texts. America’s denial of its impact and influence perhaps led Toni Morrison to charge it with “playing in the dark.”
Though a strong proponent of the new language African Americans created, Ngugi cautioned against embracing it exclusively. “Do not abandon Ebonics, but definitely learn the language of power,” he instructed. In a rapidly globalizing world, one must necessarily be multilingual.   

Ngugi looks forward to a world in which the communication between African Americans and Africans are conducted directly, not through the medium of European languages. He was pleasantly surprised to visit a community school in Michigan in which African Americans were speaking Ki-Swahili fluently with the same mannerisms of native Kenyans. “Black Americans should be learning African languages,” he stated resolutely in an interview with The Informer. “An African language of their choice would do more to integrate Diaspora Africans than anything else.”
A Ghanaian based in South Africa, Kwesi Kwaa Prah echoes this sentiment: “We need to disabuse ourselves of the idea that Africa is a Tower of Babel in which thousands of languages are spoken. The implication of the idea of Africa as a Tower of Babel is that there are too many languages for Africans to be able to work in their language, therefore they must work in colonial languages.”  

Like Ngugi, Prah is an African languages enthusiast. He currently serves as director of the Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society (CASAS) based in Cape Town, South Africa. According to Prah, the “Tower of Babel” myth preserves “the cultural and linguistic hegemony of colonially introduced languages in Africa.” The work Prah and his colleagues are doing at CASAS demystifies the notion that African languages are too innumerable to catalogue, study, and appreciate.

He lauds Ngugi for being a pioneer in the deconstruction of European language supremacy on the continent and within the Diaspora. Referring to his latest novel, “Wizard of the Crow,” Ngugi firmly believes that it will find a home in the consciousness of Black people because “they will find my books illuminate their experiences today.”

In “Wizard,” Aburiria is a fictional nation and it becomes a dystopia representing the all-too-real problems that many contemporary African nations faced in their post-independence societies. Ngugi said “post independent states have been headed by the wrong heads.”  

“Wizard” is also about love and the struggle between the material and spiritual as well. It illuminates the lives of average Africans attempting to control their destinies in the midst of dictatorships and neo-colonial deprivation. “The colonial experience is part of the experience of the modern world…It’s not a matter of sentiment, it’s historical fact,” said Ngugi, who believes that “Economic modernity is founded on what was taken from Africa” in the form of natural resources such as gold, timber, rubber, coltan, and cobalt.

Ngugi said in jest that “Wizard” has all the answers to the world’s existential questions. Perhaps it has hidden in its lyricism the answers to the African world’s most potent dilemmas. For example, one of the characters in “Wizard” is on a perpetual search around the world for the source of Black people’s power, and he finds eventually that it’s in unity. This is the key to moving forward for Africans on both sides of the Atlantic, asserted Ngugi. “We have been strongest in our heightened unity and weakest in our heightened disunity,” he told The Informer.  

Ngugi has a keen interest in consolidating the economic and political resources of “the two halves of Africa.” He says this can be achieved through African leaders extending dual citizenship to Africans of the Diaspora.

“You want to create bridges to the continent of Africa for Diaspora Africans to invest and visit” without impediments.  The first major tourist destination for African Americans should be the continent of Africa, said Ngugi. A special bond links Africans and African Americans, and though it has been frayed and stretched, hacked at, and even denied by some, it persists.

Responding to a question by The Informer concerning African/African American solidarity, Ngugi answered with the quiet detachment of an elder who has witnessed that bond strengthened through the efforts and labor of many, least of all, himself. “We’ve got a lot to learn from each other,” he said emphatically.  

(This article is reprinted with permission of The Washington Informer)

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