Decolonising the mind: the politics of language in African literature

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East African Publishers, 1994 - Africa - 114 pages
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Ngugi wa Thiong'o famously began his writing career writing in English (publishing under the name "James Ngugi"). He had considerable success, but eventually turned to writing in his mother tongue, Gikuyu (though he did translate and publish these later works in English too). Ngugi is among a handful of authors who have written successfully in more than one language -- Samuel Beckett and Vladimir Nabokov are among the few others -- but his reasons for doing so differ somewhat from those of other bilingual authors. Decolonising the Mind is both an explanation of how he came to write in Gikuyu, as well as an exhortation for African writers to embrace their native tongues in their art.
The foreign languages most African authors write in are the languages of the imperialists -- English, French, and Portuguese -- that were relatively recently imposed on them. (Ngugi doesn't consider Arabic in the same light, nor Swahili.) Ngugi makes a good case for the obvious point: that the relation of Africans to those imposed languages is a very different one from that which the same Africans have to the native languages they speak at home. Speaking and writing in the language of the colonisers will naturally be different than in the language one speaks while at play or with one's family. In addition, the language of the coloniser is often a truly foreign one: segments of society understand it badly, if at all, and so certain audiences can not be reached by works in these imposed languages. (The validity of some of these points has, however, diminished over the past decades, as literacy has spread and French, Portuguese, and especially English have established themselves as linguae francae across much of the continent.)
Ngugi rightly complains that an educational focus that embraced essentially only foreign works (not only foreign in language, but also in culture) was destructive:
Thus language and literature were taking us further and further from ourselves to other selves, from our world to other worlds.
Clearly there was (and probably still is) a need to create a literature that conveyed the true African experience -- from the perspective of the local, not the visitor or outsider. The local language is an integral part of conveying that experience, often because much of local tradition has been preserved in that language -- for example, in the songs and stories that have been passed down (the oral tradition -- orature -- that Ngugi values so highly).
In the second chapter of this book, "The Language of African Theatre", Ngugi describes his experiences at the Kamiriithu Community Education and Culture Centre, and the efforts to stage drama there -- in Gikuyu. Ngugi convincingly shows the benefits of working in the local language, and within local traditions, as the entire community works together to create and shape a play.
Ngugi's basic arguments are largely convincing, and his personal experiences, related to explain how he learned and changed his views, make the entire book an interesting read. Occasionally he does go overboard: in the end he maintains that it is:
manifestly absurd to talk of African poetry in English, French or Portuguese. Afro-European poetry, yes; but not to be confused with African poetry which is the poetry composed by Africans in African languages.
For new generations the language of the former imperialists has also become something different. Admittedly, too often it is the Westernized worldview found in music, television, and film -- but then the French complain about a similar cultural imperialism too. Ngugi is right to say that it is important to reach an audience in the language of its heritage, but one of the difficulties with that is that it is financially difficult to publish in local languages in Africa. The state of publishing is deplorable through much of the continent, and writers are drawn to English and French also because the audiences (and publishers) they want to reach are often Western ones


The Language of African Theatre
The Language of African Fiction
The Quest for Relevance

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