One does not need to elaborate on how historic a moment it is to be seated in front of legendary Kenyan writer and academic Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o as he talks about his work on decolonisation that spans more than 40 years. The revolutionary stood in front of us last week at the University of the Witwatersrand as we drank from his well of knowledge under the banner: Secure the base, decolonise the mind.
In a very simple, warm and insightful manner, Wa Thiong’o related how language had been used as a weapon by the British Empire to create and maintain dominance over indigenous cultures.
Clearly, his main aim was to remind us of the power we have to place value on our languages, which in turn allows us access to our history and cultures.
As a result of heavy rain in Johannesburg last Thursday, the professor arrived late for his talk. Using this window of time, members of the #FeesMustFall movement in the audience took the opportunity to sing and dance. It was spine-tingling, being where the crossroads of a powerful movement and a literary revolutionary meet.
But I could not carry that thought very far. I was seated next to a friend and as I expressed how beautiful it was that they were welcoming a “foreigner”, I remembered that her Nigerian partner, who lives in Pretoria, had not been able to make it, fearing harassment on the roads following the recent spike in xenophobic
The contrasting images of mob justice in the midst of silence, on the one hand, and the sheer joy and dancing to welcome Wa Thiong’o, on the other, were disappointing and confusing.
When Wa Thiong’o arrived, he traced the work of writer Peter Abrahams and hailed the black intellectual tradition in South Africa, mentioning Es’kia Mphahlele, Njabulo Ndebele, Sol Plaatje, Mazisi Kunene and many others. He lamented that their works did not feature as strongly as they should in the education curriculum.
A flaw that Wa Thiong’o and his contemporaries have been called out about has been their inability to be intersectional in how they represent women in their work and their lack of a gendered perspective on the decolonisation process.
This was raised by a leader in the #FeesMustFall movement, Sima-mkele Dlakavu, who is also a student of African literature at the university. Dlakavu noted that, although Wa Thiong’o had eulogised Abrahams, he had failed to mention author Miriam Tlali, who died in February. She’s best known for her book Muriel at Metropolitan (later titled Between Two Worlds), about the conditions under which women worked during apartheid.
But it was not clear whether Dlakavu was responding in her capacity as a student of African literature or as a leader of the #FeesMustFall movement. This is not to say she cannot inhabit both personae, but choosing to focus on her presence as a leader meant her response was not rooted in the literary perspective that Wa Thiong’o had spoken from. This did neither of them justice.
Dlakavu had the opportunity to accompany her argument with more nuanced and inclusive forms of fighting decolonisation, especially by arguing how language itself is exclusionary. But when it came to describing how to be inclusive, she mentioned the need to name, borrowing a Black Lives Matter hashtag — #SayHerName.
It is necessary that in the same way Wa Thiong’o makes a case for reducing the dominance of English, when making a case for intersectionality we should show how rejecting transgender bodies and erasing women works against decolonisation — especially through the black intellectual tradition that has been rendered largely invisibile.
Examples are abundant in the works of K Sello Duiker and Chris Abani that pivot around queer bodies in a postcolonial space, whereas academics such as Nonhlanhla Dlamini explore transgender bodies in the history of African cultures and the role of the English language in marginalising these bodies.
Reclaiming language is not only a liberation from dominance as black bodies, but is also about reclaiming selfhood and humanity in African languages themselves. These bodies exist in history, and it’s necessary to challenge the likes of Wa Thiong’o to understand the broader nature of alienation across the differing forms of identity that exist in the African narrative.