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Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and the Tyranny of Language

Chris Steele-Perkins/Magnum Photos
A boy writing on a blackboard in Lokichogio, Kenya, 2002

Thirty years after graduating from his missionary-run high school near Nairobi, the Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o had gained enough distance to reflect on the lasting effect of colonial education policy in Kenya. “Behind the cannon was the new school,” he wrote in Decolonising the Mind, the 1986 exposition on cultural imperialism in which he examined how the colonial classroom became a tool of psychological conquest in Africa and beyond. “Better than the cannon, it made the conquest permanent,” he wrote. “The cannon forces the body and the school fascinates the soul.”

The Alliance High School, which Ngũgĩ attended, was built in the 1920s and is now one of Kenya’s top-ranking schools. Like so many of the institutions that foreigners “gifted” to the colonies, it was seen by its founding patrons as a benevolent, civilizing instrument for Africans. It instructed in English; children who spoke in the local Gĩkũyũ tongue were beaten. English was the language of power, rationality, and intelligence; Gĩkũyũ, which Ngũgĩ would write in again only decades later, signified backwardness—an Africanness that, for the good of its carriers, had to be exorcized. A gun alone wouldn’t do the job; it needed, in Ngũgĩ’s words, to be “supplemented by the power of thought.” Decolonising the Mind, his attempt to examine how the mental space of colonized peoples came to be invaded and appropriated, is considered a seminal text on how language can be manipulated and pressed into the service of power.

The lectures that formed the basis of the book were delivered in Auckland in 1984, during that year’s Maori Language Week. I met with Ngũgĩ in May this year on his third trip to New Zealand, where we were both speaking at the Auckland Writers Festival. Clear-eyed and articulate at eighty, he recalled an encounter he had during those 1984 lectures that broadened his analysis of the relationship between language and power. A Maori woman had approached him soon after he left the podium. “You were not talking about Kenya,” she told him. “You were talking about us Maori people.” All the examples he had given were taken from Kenya or elsewhere in Africa, drawn from his teenage years in the Alliance High School and the creeping realization in the decades afterward of its insidious influence. “But she saw the Maori situation in it,” he told me. “The condition for acquiring the glory of English was the humiliation of African languages. This was the same in every colonial situation—in New Zealand, too.”

Long after he had left the Alliance High School, Ngũgĩ was struck by how little he and his cohort had noticed, let alone responded to, their socialization into a Western-oriented outlook. Nor had he appreciated what role the school played in conferring class markers in a community that before hadn’t known that stratification. The school and everything it taught—and refused to teach—was accepted, even venerated, by the community. “The language of power is English and that becomes internalized,” he explained. “You normalize the abnormal and the absurdities of colonialism, and turn them into a norm from which you operate. Then you don’t even think about it.”

Decolonising the Mind and his subsequent works, both fiction and nonfiction, set the Kenyan author apart as a forceful advocate of full decolonization—not only of the more visible political and economic sphere, but of the mind as well. He rued the fact that there were few African writers of international note producing work in their native languages, and accordingly struck out to publish only in Gĩkũyũ or Swahili. He believed that translation could be a bridge between cultures, but he also understood that each language, each dialect, had a distinct musicality that was lost in translation, and that would be forever lost were the language to die.

Others have echoed this lament. The Irish poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill has argued that contemporary Irish literature ought to rediscover its Gaelic origins. As she wrote in the New York Times in 1995:

Irish is a language of enormous elasticity and emotional sensitivity; of quick and hilarious banter and a welter of references both historical and mythological; it is an instrument of imaginative depth and scope, which has been tempered by the community for generations until it can pick up and sing out every hint of emotional modulation that can occur between people. Many international scholars rhapsodize that this speech of ragged peasants seems always on the point of bursting into poetry.

Yet the degradation of the vernacular in former colonies has had an impact on people far beyond the literary realm. Whether or not the British in Kenya truly believed in their civilizing discourse, the rise of English in place of the local tongue helped to deepen the colonial endeavor and fix its structures in place. That local languages were suppressed across all colonies, whether British or not, enabled the creation of a native class oriented toward their colonial overlords, and away from their own communities. In 1835, the influential Whig politician and historian Thomas Babington Macaulay argued that the British administration in India should stop supporting the publication of books in Sanskrit and Arabic. “We must at present do our best,” he wrote, “to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.”

Language was a less easily discernible weapon of divide and rule: wielded quietly, it helped create hierarchies within oppressed groups. It marked the truly colonized—those who had shaken off their old ways—as sophisticated, and left the rest to gaze upward at a newly-minted elite who had once stood at their side. The process would, Macaulay said, render this new class “by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.”

The now-infamous “Minute on Indian Education” that he circulated offered a glimpse of the arrogance that underpinned Britain’s language policies across its overseas protectorates. In speaking of the “orientalists” among the colonial elite “distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern tongues,” he declared: “I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.”

Like many of his contemporaries, he felt there was much the British could offer their subjects, but little they could learn from them. The vernacular spoken, like those who spoke it, was vulgar and primitive, a ball and chain on the advancement of human civilization. “What we spend on the Arabic and Sanscrit [sic] Colleges is not merely a dead loss to the cause of truth,” he went on. “It is bounty-money paid to raise up champions of error.”

That same ethos guided cultural assimilation processes elsewhere in the world. “Kill the Indian, and Save the Man,” a motto of the education system designed in the late nineteenth century to “Americanize” Native Americans, spoke to the same belief that non-Europeans needed first to be de-nativized before they could become fully human.

It was only following his arrest and imprisonment in 1977, fourteen years after Kenya won independence, that Ngũgĩ’s ideas about the enduring effects of linguistic imperialism began to develop. Already a well-known voice in African literature, he had staged a play that year in Gĩkũyũ, and shortly after was sent to a maximum security prison. A subsequent attempt in 1982 to resurrect his theatre group was thwarted by police, and Ngũgĩ spent the next two decades in exile, first in Britain and then the US. His play had been critical of the regime of Jomo Kenyatta, also a Gĩkũyũ; it depicted the leadership as inward-looking and elitist, far removed from the Kenyan peasantry whose interests it claimed to champion, and responsible for the acute economic inequalities that persisted long after independence. But, then again, the books he’d written before in English had similarly taken aim at postcolonial power-holders. Could it be that his crime, even long after Kenya had returned to indigenous rule, was to shun the English language? Had his jailers—among them, political leaders who had been the vanguard in the anticolonial struggle—taken up the mantle of linguistic authoritarianism from the same foreign power they had driven out? And did his use of the vernacular threaten the leadership by speaking directly to the masses not literate in English, thereby continuing the anticolonial struggle, in effect, après la lettre?

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Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Venice, Italy, April 5, 2018

“The African bourgeoisie that inherited the flag from the departing colonial powers was created within the cultural womb of imperialism,” Ngũgĩ wrote in Moving the Centre: The Struggle For Cultural Freedoms, a collection of essays published in 1993. “So even after they inherited the flag, their mental outlook, their attitudes toward their own societies, toward their own history, toward their own languages, toward everything national, tended to be foreign; they saw things through eyeglasses given them by their European bourgeois mentors.”

Frantz Fanon, who died three years before Ngũgĩ published his first book, had issued similar warnings. He foresaw, accurately, a bleak future for societies in which a post-independence middle class, now in power, had—through clientelism and the hoarding of wealth—widened the socioeconomic fissures opened by the colonial project, and was thus in the process becoming the native face of the imperial enterprise. “Seen through its eyes, its mission has nothing to do with transforming the nation,” Fanon wrote. “It consists, prosaically, of being the transmission line between the nation and a capitalism, rampant though camouflaged, which today puts on the masque of neo-colonialism.”

Much of the thinking today about the enduring effects of colonial rule is imbued with a sense that many once-colonized nations still feel a need to validate themselves in relation to the West. Macaulay and his contemporaries saw Western values and achievements as a gold standard to which the rest of the world should aspire, and the architects of colonial language policies, in particular, developed their curricula of control in accordance with that standpoint. Secondary school literature syllabuses in many of the elite African schools still tend to be front-loaded with works in English, because the English canon is still held aloft as the ideal. African writing thus becomes an appendix, and little space is given to studying the oral traditions that were once the primary medium for communicating stories.

A momentum has developed to counter this: cultural theorists working in the postcolonial Asian setting, for example, are advocating a stronger field of inter-Asian studies, while at the same time examining the many discreet ways in which power imbalances between onetime colonizer and colonized are quietly perpetuated today—through the act of literary translation, for example. Propelling this movement is the belief that as long as the West continues to be a, if not the, normative pole of comparison, decolonization will remain in a state of arrest. In Ngũgĩ’s eyes, those validation efforts persist, while the “transmission lines” that Fanon wrote of, whereby post-independence governments serve as intermediaries between Western business interests and exploitative local ventures, are still clearly intact. This speaks to the durability of the psychological component of imperial conquest, one that didn’t announce itself with cannon fire and could not be repelled by force.

Movements across Africa and elsewhere have advocated a revival of local languages in their countries’ literary output, while translation projects have sought to both expand the non-English audience for African writers, and to “return” African literature to its native soil. Jalada Africa offers a publishing platform for pan-African authors, often translating their work into a variety of languages, both English and vernacular African. A Senegalese project, Céytu, uses translation to counter the dominance of French-language books in a country where the majority tongue, Wolof, has a rich oral, but not written, culture. Some prominent writers, notably Salman Rushdie, have argued however that the advantages of writing for a billions-strong English-language audience outweigh the symbolic benefits of returning to native languages whose readership is comparatively smaller. Only a small proportion of African writers who have won international acclaim for works in English have followed Ngũgĩ’s lead and returned to writing in their mother tongues.

If, as Benedict Anderson wrote in Imagined Communities, shared languages have a cohesive effect, whereby “pasts are restored, fellowships are imagined, and futures dreamed,” then what role has the demise of native languages played in fueling the fragmentation of societies in former colonies? The manipulation of language was only one of a number of divide-and-rule strategies used by European powers across their myriad possessions; others, such as the politicization of ethnicity—through the creation of racial hierarchies by European race scientists, and the subsequent privileging of particular groups over others—have arguably contributed more directly to violent conflict decades after the end of colonial rule.

But those strategies have always worked symbiotically, as part of a package of control mechanisms. “To control a people’s culture,” Ngũgĩ wrote, “is to control their tools of self-definition in relationship to others.” Those levers of control were once in the hands of white administrators. Ngũgĩ’s vital contribution has been to illuminate, with great regret, how they are now pulled by some of the very people who once railed against that enterprise.