In exile, writing in Kikuyu. Banned in Kenya

Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, by Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, and London: James Currey, 1986. 114 pp. $10 and 4.95. Cut the Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong'o, and he bleeds politics. He is passionately committed to the egalitarian ideals of the 1950s Kenyan revolution against Great Britain -- a dedication well illustrated in this book of essays on cultural politics.

Ngugi's revolutionary fervor has not diluted his literary achievement. With five novels and many stories, essays, and plays to his credit, this African John Steinbeck is the first world-class literary author of East Africa and one of the most influential figures in pan-African culture. The main target of his political ire, here as always, is corruption in Africa among Western-influenced rulers and business leaders.

Of peasant stock, Ngugi excelled in the colonial schools in the '50s and later won international acclaim for his early writings. In the '60s, he did graduate study among leftist professors in Leeds, England, and his writing grew more outspoken about political oppression and economic exploitation in Africa.

This author has paid dearly for his boldness. After writing a popular but ``provocative'' play in 1977 (``I Will Marry When I Want''), he was banned from his professorship at the University of Nairobi and jailed without charge for nearly a year. More recently, he has been warned that he will be arrested again if he returns from self-exile in London. Yet even while away from his homeland, Ngugi continues to write and speak out. He remains an inspiration to younger African authors and an admired spokesman for indigenous culture and social justice.

``Decolonizing the Mind'' consists of four linked essays, three of which are revised from partially autobiographical talks Ngugi gave in Germany, New Zealand, and several African countries. In this book, the author examines his own and other Africans' attempts to escape distorting Western influences and makes an important announcement about the future of his writing career.

Foreign social domination was instituted in Africa, according to Ngugi, during colonial times, when the use of European languages was imposed on Africans through the schools and in government and business transactions. This ``cultural imperialism'' is now maintained indirectly, he asserts, as educated Africans use English, French, or Portuguese in their international contacts and with one another.

Expressing themselves in European languages and neglecting their mother tongues, more and more Africans adopt the foreign values and thinking of the former imperial rulers. Thus they fall victim to what Ngugi terms ``cultural alienation,'' begin to despise their own heritage, and unconsciously come to hate themselves as Africans.

From this point of view, African writers who, like Ngugi himself, have produced works in European languages and literary traditions have made themselves part of the problem. Although they have written many admirable examples of ``Afro-European literature,'' they have implicitly encouraged local readers to look away from their African roots; they have also made these works inaccessible to the common people of Africa, who speak no European tongues.

Ngugi's response in these essays is to announce that he will never write another book in English. From now on, Western readers will know him only through translations from his native Kikuyu or from the international African language, Swahili.

On the other hand, he will now be writing directly to most of his countrymen. And he hopes that translations of his future works into other African languages will help to establish on that continent ``the foundations of a truly national literature and culture, a truly national sensibility!''

The radical shift in this writer's career might have been anticipated. At the end of the '70s he turned wholly to Kikuyu in his creative writing, although he has continued to address a broader audience with political essays in English. By abandoning writing in English -- a real sacrifice for an author steeped in the literary tradition of England, Ngugi underscores his determination to help ``decolonize'' his own mind and those of his countrymen.

In his first essay here, ``The Language of African Literature,'' Ngugi relates his own education and career to the ongoing European domination of language and culture in Africa. Showing the waste of human potential by colonial prejudice, he recalls the typical case of a high school acquaintance who, with excellent marks in every field but English, was barred from university studies and ended up as a bus conductor.

Today, emphasis on European languages in Africa promotes social injustice in a different way, according to Ngugi. Since many progressive thinkers write in languages that cannot be understood by the masses, the latter are consequently left with the propaganda put out in African tongues by repressive and culturally backward rulers.

The second and third essays in this book treat the language of African theater and fiction, respectively -- both the general postcolonial situation and Ngugi's own slow gravitation from English to Kikuyu authorship. This novelist views the common people all over the world as the source of most important innovations, and this is certainly true of the changes in his own career.

After a local housewife nagged Ngugi to share the fruits of his education with the people of his village, he wrote his first Kikuyu play with extensive peasant collaboration and produced it with local, nonprofessional actors in a simple theater constructed by the villagers. When the radical content of ``I Will Marry When I Want'' became known, and lower-class Kenyans reacted too enthusiastically, the national government closed down the play, jailed the playwright, and eventually demolished the theater. Uncowed by such highhandedness, Ngugi became all the more determined to write for the common people in their own language. While in prison he secretly wrote an antigovernment novel in Kikuyu (``Devil on the Cross'') on toilet paper.

In the concluding essay, ``The Quest for Relevance,'' the novelist describes and defends the revolution among Kenya's educators in the late '60s and '70s that has led to increasing Africanization of literary studies there. Ngugi views the debates about language in Kenya as unfinished, since ``the language question cannot be solved outside of the larger arena of economics and politics. . . . The search for new directions in Africa is part and parcel of the overall struggles of African people against imperialism in its neocolonial stage.'' These are not the views of a dispassionate historian, and some readers will be put off by Ngugi's Marxist-inspired rhetoric (as well as by his occasionally unpolished writing style). But his insights are enlightening and his compassion affecting. These are the essays of an honest, ardent insider who opens to us his mind and heart while describing events that have utterly changed his life.

Ngugi is clearly determined not to let his troubles make him cynical or bitter. In fact, ``Decolonizing the Mind'' shows a broadening of his sympathies since his book of fiery political essays of last year, ``Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to Repression in Neo-Colonial Kenya.'' An independent socialist who long ago renounced his early Christianity because of conservatism in Kenya's churches, this author now makes friendly gestures toward capitalists and Christians alike who conduct themselves for the good of the African people. Perhaps the perspective of exile has helped him realize that not all can be hopeless in Kenya when his books continue to be published and praised there.

Ngugi seems particularly eager to assure English-language readers that, although he is forsaking them for the good of Africa, he bears them no ill will. He promises that his future works will still reach them in translation, and his introduction concludes with the hope that the ``issues in this book find echoes in your hearts.''

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