Ngugi wa Thiong’o: The Language of African Literature ~

Ngugi wa Thiong’o: The Language of African Literature ~


The following is mainly based on the first chapter of Ngugi’s “Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature” (1986):


Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a Kenyan writer, says that African writers should write in their mother tongues, not in the old colonial languages of English, French and Portuguese. He used to write in English, but now he mostly writes in Gikuyu.


In most of the world writers write in their mother tongue. That this point is even debated in Africa shows just how screwed up Africa has become by Europe and America.


The two main uses of language:


Language as communication: This is the “pass the salt” level of language. Language used to work together and get things done.

Language as culture: Language expresses and carries the culture of a people. It becomes the storehouse of its images, ideas, wisdom, experience and history. It ties you to your people, it becomes part of who you are. It shapes how you look at the world and yourself.

The trouble is, many Africans grew up as children in their mother tongue but received their higher education in a colonial language. Higher education is not just science and mathematics but also literature and philosophy and art – and therefore a certain way of looking at the world. In this case a Western, Eurocentric one.


This leads to colonial alienation:


You become “torn between two worlds”. You see yourself through the eyes of others. Your mother tongue, your people, their culture, all become a point of shame for you.

You are cut off from your people, which means you cannot help them break their chains, overthrow the neo-colonial order and free everyone.

Your people are cut off from you, robbed of your work and talent as you become part of a neo-colonial culture. You wind up either serving a foreign culture and its interests or, at best, sinking into bitterness and despair.

It is a cage that helps no one but Europeans and Americans.


Chinua Achebe, a Nigerian writer of English expression, disagrees:


Colonial language as lingua franca: It is often the only language that can reach the whole country, like English in Nigeria or Portuguese in Angola.

Africanization: European languages can be Africanized to serve African ideas and interests – something that Achebe himself does with English.

Ngugi says that Achebe and writers like him are only reaching the middle-class, not the masses. To overthrow the current order you need to reach the masses.

Achebe also keeps his English in a form that Europeans can easily understand. Why? Nigeria already has a thoroughly Africanized form of English which is widely known by the masses – Pidgin. Why not write in that?


Europeans understood that it was not enough to take over Africa with guns alone. They also needed to take over the minds of its people. They did that through English and French and Portuguese and the fine educations offered in those languages. Africa’s current condition shows that they have succeeded.


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