Last month, Kenya’s most celebrated literary icon, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, gave a series of lectures entitled Re-Membering Africa at the University of Nairobi. This was a historic moment, marking Ngugi’s first lecture in his homeland in nearly three decades, delivered at the very institution that stripped him of his professorship after he was detained without trial by the Jomo Kenyatta regime in 1977. It was this experience that eventually forced him to take the long road to self-imposed exile, first in Britain, then in the United States in 1982.
It has been nearly a quarter of a century since Ngugi left Kenya. In that time, various myths and misconceptions have grown up around him. Critics argue that his emphasis on promoting his native Gikuyu language is yet another manifestation of the tendency of Kenya’s largest tribe, the Kikuyu, to impose their hegemony on the country. Others feel that his arguments are from the old school of literary discourse, not in tune with the reality of a globalising, increasingly English-speaking world. Why, many Kenyans wonder, is our prodigal son advocating the use of an African language that people in the country of its origin are themselves discarding in favour of either the lingua franca — Kiswahili — or English?
Well, because, according to Ngugi, language is more than just a means of communication; it is the essence of our being, the very core of our soul as an African people, “the medium of our memories, the link between space and time, the basis of our dreams”.
Ngugi’s insistence on using his mother tongue as the principal medium of his writing is not simply a reaction against Anglicisation; it is more about resurrecting the African soul from centuries of slavery and colonialism that left it spiritually empty, economically disenfranchised and politically marginalised. Ngugi believes that when you erase a people’s language, you erase their memory. And people without memories are rudderless, unconnected to their own histories and culture, mimics who have placed their memories in a “psychic tomb” in the mistaken belief that if they master their coloniser’s language, they will own it.
Since he began writing in the 1960s, Ngugi has always resisted colonial labels and Christian doctrine. In 1976, he changed his name from James Ngugi to Ngugi wa Thiong’o. He stopped writing in English in 1981 after the publication of the highly acclaimed social critique, Decolonising the Mind, which he described as “my farewell to English as a vehicle for any of my writings”. Six years later, his novel, Matigari, written in Gikuyu, was published. His latest offering, Wizard of the Crow, or Murogi wa Kagogo, which he launched last month in Kenya, has been variously described as “a masterpiece”, “the crowning glory of his life” and “an epic farce” that pokes fun at the excesses and idiocies of dictatorships in Africa.
Ngugi is convinced that by adopting foreign languages lock, stock and barrel, Africans are committing a “linguicide”, which, in effect, has killed off their memories as a people, as a culture and as a society. Because erasure of memory is a condition for successful assimilation, the burial of African languages by Africans themselves ensured that the assimilation process into colonial culture was complete. Ngugi calls this phenomenon a “death wish” that occurs in societies which have never fully acknowledged their loss — like a trauma victim who resorts to drugs to kill the pain.
Because post-colonial Africa has never properly buried slavery or colonialism, it is committing psychic suicide by producing an entire class of African bourgeoisie who view their own languages as “shameful”, “inelegant”, “incapable of expressing scientific or intellectual thought”, and too crude to be exported to other lands. So they end up writing their stories in foreign languages, adding to the vast pool of literature written in English and French, rather than contributing to the growth of literature in African languages.
Ngugi is not promoting the use of African languages to the exclusion of others. On the contrary, he believes multilingual societies are better placed to deal with the complexities of this world. What he is against is the exclusive use of foreign languages on the continent, which has, in effect, made many previously multilingual societies in Africa proficient in only one language — and a foreign one (English or French) at that. He derides Kenyan parents for discouraging their children from speaking in their mother tongues, which, he says, has resulted in a linguistic famine in African societies.
As Ngugi departs for the University of California, where he is a distinguished professor of English and comparative literature, he leaves behind a bittersweet taste in the mouths of Kenyans like me, who feel that perhaps it is time for our native son to return home for good to help us understand what we did not understand when he left: that the battle for the survival of our languages, our culture and our memories is, in the final analysis, a battle for the survival of our souls.
Rasna Warah is a Nairobi-based writer and journalist