Who was Ngugi?


Ngugi wa Thiong, born in 1938 in the Kiambu district of the British ruled Kenya, grew up speaking the Gikuyu language. “The African people then belonged, not only to their large households but the entire wide community” Ngugi says. “Cooperation as the ultimate good in a community was a constant theme”, he says, mentioning the joy of storytelling and togetherness. Back then, the language of work was the same as the language of home, which could be assumed to create a sense of confidence without the hierarchy of languages and a sense of inferiority.

In school, Ngugi was introduced to English and unfolded new dimensions of imperialism and the language hierarchy that was imposed by the British people who colonized Africa. Gradually, English became “the Language” in Kenya. Carol Sicherman (1995) has expanded on the effect of a colonial education system on children in East Africa, “The Europeanizing of the students had long been a goal of educators in East Africa. Acting on the premise that European civilization is the highest known scheme of relationships, teachers who knew little of the African, his language and his mind, were given full authority over African boys and girls. This education produced young Africans ashamed of their own tribes, and very sensitive to European contempt.” With time, literature education began to be determined by the dominant language that also reinforced the dominance.

When questioned about why Ngugi started writing in Gikuyu, abandoning English, Ngugi points out how it was made to feel abnormal, writing in his own language. In his interview, Ngugi mentions that he was imprisoned by the then Kenyan Vice President, Daniel Arap Moi, for doing theatre of his work, “I Will Marry When I Want” in the local language of the Kmiriithu village to set up the Community Education and Cultural Centre in 1976, given a purpose of connecting to the people directly, The illogicality of this situation made him question the colonial system. In all colonial situations, `language hierarchy and suppression’ is a factor that contributes to the process of colonization majorly, which results in a breakdown of the culture, colonization of the mind and alienation from the roots. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kao7D04M1sA)

The very fact that what common sense dictates in the literary practice of other cultures 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 as abnormal. Africa, and all the other colonized countries, Ngugi says, benefitted and enriched Europe to a great extent but were made to believe that they needed Europe to rescue them from their backwardness and poverty.

Ngugi’s 1980 Gikuyu-language novel- Caitaani Mutharabaini (later translated as Devil on the Cross) was his first attempt at writing a novel in Gikuyu. Ngugi majorly points out that his decision of writing in Gikuyu acted as a part and parcel of the anti-imperialist struggles of Kenyan and African people. “I do not want to see Kenyan children growing up in that imperialist-imposed tradition of contempt for the tools of communication developed by their own communities and their history. I want them to transcend colonial alienation” says Ngugi.

In “I write what I like”, South African writer Steve Biko writes “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” Post colonialism is a term of periodisation which also theoretically refers to a critical way of understanding our own self in the contemporary post colonial times. The decolonized countries started seeing themselves from a Eurocentric perspective as Europe by 1914 colonized 85% of the Earth. Kenya became decolonized in 1963 and yet in 1986, Ngugi writes decolonizing the mind after almost 20 years as we come to see that the after effects of decolonization carried on in the context of education and culture.

Ngugi called Kenya a settlers’ colony in an interview with CGTN Africa, referring to the replacement of the core African culture with a hierarchical European mindset and culture that settled along with the colonists. Pointing out his concern about how the colonial trainings have made us look at our own languages as local and inferior to the other Global languages, He says, ”the languages like English, French, Spanish, etc. are globalised not because of their qualities but due to their history of imperialism.”  (Interview 1) The ‘Orientalist’ countries, as mentioned in his book ‘Jerusalem’ by Edward Said, faced arguments about their intellectual cultural representation being in contrast to the European countries which could be propagated as they had political and economic powers.

Ngugi said that the imposition of English language in his educational environment caused the pre-exisiting harmony of his linguistic lifeworld to be shattered, chiefly through enacting “a disassociation of sensibility” in his young mind. (Decolonizing, 16-17) An oppressor language inevitably carries racist and negative images of the conquered nation, particularly in its literature, and English is no exception, pointed out Ngugi in is essay, “Imperialism of Language” (Moving the Centre: The Struggle For Cultural Freedoms, 1993). Ngugi therefore decided, later in his life, to write in his mother tongue and to use what he believes as oral narrative strategies and authentic oral forms of the Gikuyu.

Ngugi himself has said that, “the biggest weapon wielded and actually daily unleashed by imperialism against the collective defiance is the cultural bomb. The effect of the cultural bomb is to annihilate people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves…” (Introduction, Decolonizing the mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, 1981) His fictional and critical writings are considered to be a way of defusing these bombs.


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