Decolonizing Ngugi wa Thiong’o ’s Mentality

Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Ngugi wa Thiong’o

By Field Ruwe

  Like Sir Mick “Phillip” Jagger of the of the Rolling Stones, Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o of the African Writers Series fame packs halls with nostalgic baby boomers and curious millennials. In the same way Jagger belts out “Sympathy for the Devil,” Ngugi gives an eloquent voice to “Devil on the Cross,” and often brings down the house and basks in plaudits, accolades, approbation, kudos, and standing ovations. Like Jagger, Ngugi too signs autographs, and poses for pictures with the fortunate. The following day, the septuagenarian Ngugi (born 1938), packs his bags, dusts off his 1967 social activist and cultural nationalist hat and sets off for the next venue.

For forty-six years, since he renounced English, and Christianity, and discarded his baptismal “colonial” James, he has been globetrotting like a superstar—some say like a prophet of doom. As recent as this month he arrived in Lusaka, Zambia and told an ebullient crowd that “the loss of African languages is one of the continent’s greatest tragedies.” On his way out, he offered no practical experimentation, no placebos, and left his audience grappling with issues of nationalism, tribalism, realism, modernism, advancement, and universality.

Where ever Ngugi has gone his message has been as ambiguous, his audience as muddied. While he succeeds in turning his faithful followers into anti-English cultural revolutionaries who reap their Christian names from their souls, he lamentably fails to show them how to replace English with hundreds of sub-Sahara African languages. Over the years, he has failed to create or identify African languages that can convey common cultural universality. He has failed in his own country of Kenya where he is the leading agent of literature and its foremost spokesman. The majority of urban Kenyans have resorted to using English much more than the once domineering Swahili. Wouldn’t we have rewarded him with great admiration had he turned Kenya into a role model?

Please don’t get me wrong, I hold Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o in high esteem. The history of African literature belongs to sages and laureates like him, Chinua Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi, Wole Sonyinka, Bessie Smith, Okot p’Bitek, David Rubadiri, Robert Serumaga, and other early African writers. Their attempt to recover African gnosis subjugated by colonialism is highly commendable. I have read most of Ngugi’s masterful and timeless works including “The River Between,” “Weep, not Child,” “A Grain of Wheat,” and “Petals of Blood.” Indeed, his themes take us through the ages of the anti-colonial struggle, independence, neo-colonialism, and are part of our rich historiography.

But while I fully support Ngugi’s postulation that African literature should be written in indigenous languages, I resent his foreboding ideology of stifling the English language in favor of the incontestable African languages. His insistence on this matter exposes him as self-serving, disingenuous, and contradictory, no offense meant. He has been trying to cut off the hand that feeds him with a blunt knife. Here is why I say so; Ngugi is who is today because of the books he has written in English. Over the years he has raked tons of money (if not in millions of dollars) in royalties from his English books. He knows pretty well that there is no credible publisher in the world that will accept his Gikuyu manuscripts that cater to one ethnic group of mainly the indigent. In fact, he was forced to write his latest book “Dreams in Time of War: A childhood Memoir (2010) in English, breaking his 1986 vow!

It was in 1986 that Ngugi abandoned English for his native language of Gikuyu and announced that his book “Decolonizing the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature” was his farewell to English as a vehicle for any of his writings. “From now on it is Gikuyu and Kiswahili all the way,” he wrote. He argued that “Literature written by Africans in European languages…can only be termed Afro-European literature.” Ngugi was echoing the words of Cameroonian Obiajunwa Wali, who in 1963, insisted that “the whole uncritical acceptance of English and French as the inevitable medium for educated African writing is misdirected, and has no chance of advancing African literature and culture.”

Wali’s quest failed. Ngugi’s is destined for failure as well. Reason: because he has failed to stake his soul for the African languages. In other words, he is not fully committed to it. His supposedly passionate and poignant desire to suppress English and create African languages that portray “the true image of Africa” is in variance with his duties as Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine. He can’t have it both ways; he can’t continue to disclaim the English language while at the same time teach it in American universities and gain from it. It is this hypocritical stance that has made it difficult for our distinguished scribe to retrieve a single African language from the rubble of colonial pillage. His stratagem lends less credence and boggles the minds of many a literati.

Let me say this; Ngugi’s rejection of English is personal. It is based on his experience as a young Kikuyu exposed to European education in colonial Kenya at the height of the Mau Mau rebellion during which he lost a brother. According to him the colonial system “produced the kind of education which nurtured subservice, self-hatred, and mutual suspicion, and resulted in a people dislocated from their culture.”

If Ngugi wanted us to come with him, he should have begun to create a community of African languages twenty-seven years ago, in 1986, when he vehemently renounced the transmission of African literature through the English language. To set a good example, Ngugi, who commands a lot of respect, should have become the first African scholar to discard English in its entirety. He should have faithfully and wholly embraced his native language Gikuyu. What I mean is Gikuyu should have become the language of his daily life.

In Lusaka for instance, he should have addressed his audience in Gikuyu and use an interpreter to convey the message in the fashion of Vladimir Putin, and not resort to the language he repudiates and condemns. Further, Ngugi should have displayed the books he has written specifically in Gikuyu since 1986. As far as I know there are none. He has translated all of them into English to reach a wider audience and for the purpose of generating an income.

The afore-stated is the reason Ngugi’s idea of dialectal exclusivism of writing in English has put him in conflict with many of his literary contemporaries. Achebe wrote: “for me there is no other choice. I have been given this [English] language and I intend to use it.” He stated that his choice to write in English “served to widen reader’s access to literature across regional and national boundaries, and did not limit texts to localized ethnic groups.” Achebe concluded: “I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience.” He also had a message for future writers—the millennials: “aim at fashioning out an English which is at once universal and able to carry his [your] peculiar experience.”

Ngugi is twenty-seven years late. This is 2013. As the aficionado of African literature, he should continue where Achebe left off. He should help our post-colonial African thinkers to fashion an English compatible with the status quo. He should encourage them to use as much English as possible to spread and show our mastery of African literature. Gone are the days when the African writer wrote about himself as a herd-boy in poetry, drama or fiction. Our children should be free to portray the images of modern Africa in English just like Ngugi’s son Mukoma is doing. Mukoma who today is Assistant Professor of English at Cornell University is a successful poet, and novelist. Why can’t Ngugi afford our children the same opportunity? He can be assured that our languages will not become extinct if he allows our young thinkers to use English and then translate their texts in their respective language and not vice versa. To lend a deaf ear is to be a prophet of doom who gathers no moss.

 Field Ruwe is a US-based Zambian media practitioner, historian, and author. He is a PhD candidate at George Fox University and serves as an adjunct professor (lecturer) in Boston.

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26 Responses to "Decolonizing Ngugi wa Thiong’o ’s Mentality"

  1. Muntu Na Muntu  September 25, 2013 at 09:00

    I started following FIELD RUWE when I first read his article entitled “You lazy, intellectual African scum!”. And I now find it hard that he is a bit too critical on the Professor who seems to be a bearer of the anti-colonialism message which has remained in the software that drives the ‘muntu’. Well, much as Prof NGUNGI Wa is also being too critical over the what seems the official languages, there is need for persons of Field RUWE type to look at the larger area of their philosophy before they heavily criticise each other. Other it only shows that unless it is RUWE who says it, shall it be correct. In Zambia, English should not be replaced and only the thinking needs to be adjusted. Swahili is a foiled attempt.

  2. Kalamazo  September 25, 2013 at 08:15

    But where z my comment bwana editor?

  3. Zimbwi  September 24, 2013 at 23:18

    Ruwe’s life is littered with Napoleon complex is an informal termdescribing an alleged type of psychological phenomenon which is said to exist in persons, usually men, of short stature. It is characterized by overly-aggressive or domineering social behaviour, and carries the implication that such behaviour is compensatory for the subjects’ stature. The term is also used more generally to describe people who are driven by a perceived handicap to overcompensate in other aspects of their lives. The issue is not what Ngungi said but what Ruwe perceived. If you notice Ruwe is always attacking men he perceives to be tall. Before you attack Ngingi for his ideas, just how man Zambian western educated PhD holders (Prof Luo) have written extensively in English or vernacular languages to advance Zambian or Africa ideas?

  4. do do  September 24, 2013 at 19:36

    What is hypocritical in Ruwe’s article if I may ask? To me its a master-piece!

  5. Simon Mwale  September 24, 2013 at 15:23

    Spot on ‘Captain’ Field Ruwe!

  6. The thinker.  September 24, 2013 at 14:11

    Ngogi has forgotten the role of languages and should be reminded that language is a tool of communication.He has clevery used english to tell african stories and still uses it to air his divergent views.His opinion is warped and he knows it.

  7. J J  September 24, 2013 at 13:11

    He has just gone mad. English and French are established global languages, period!

    • DEMOCRAT  September 25, 2013 at 01:29

      It is you who has gone mad. When Ngugi Wa Thiogo was in Zambia, he pointed it in black and white that he was not encouraging to renounce the use of English, but he is against discarding our local languages in preference for foreign ones. He encouraged that apart from using English or french, an African must also know one or more local languages as a symbol of national identity. And that is normality.

  8. Hope Nyambe  September 24, 2013 at 12:54

    Embracing our cultures and local languages should not equate to discarding other cultures and languages such as English that are deemed as foreign.Both the local and foreign cultural spheres can co-exist in harmony. Humanity is at a time when we are celebrating the gift of diversity, and not the admonition of our differences, language included

  9. Kaponya  September 24, 2013 at 12:48

    Ngugi is an hypocrite criticising the use of a language in the very language. Even the suggestion that he should have used Giyuku and an interpreter to interpret in to English does not hold; because it defeats the whole purpose then he would have confirmed that without English we would not have been able to communicate. I agree with Achebe and to some extent Mandela encouraged the oppressed South Africans to learn Afrikaans to use to their advantage. Better you’re able to hear and understand what the oppressor is planning.

  10. sae  September 24, 2013 at 12:31

    I think the real hypocrite is Field Ruwe. What’s wrong with anything Ngugi has done. Yes, he wants to read a wider audience in other languages, so what? He should be able to write in any language HE wants, and similarly his writing should be allowed to be translated into other languages. This is a long and just self-serving article written by someone with personal issues against Ngugi. Grow up.

    • Mugaiwa  September 24, 2013 at 17:17

      Are you serious?? You think you can do away with English? Every pilot is required to speak english, think about that! Just think about it why it is like that. Just think about it if all pilots where speaking their mother tongue what kind of confusion that would cause. Just think of it that everyone in the world would only converse in their mother tongue, think how backward this world would have been. Think global not your village while you are at it! Ngugi is pranking you and you are taking it. He is what he is because he learnt English, he knows the language so well I can bet you a thousand times he is even better at English than a lot of people in England, and including yourself. So what is personal here is that you should grow out of personalizing every article Ruwe writes just because of your personal hate for him which you will deny when confronted about it.

    • Truth Seeker  September 24, 2013 at 19:43

      Read the article again? He has broken his vow, He has written in English after vowing not to! His native Gikuyu (Kikuyu ) is spoken by only 20% of Kenyans! No other country

  11. Preacherman  September 24, 2013 at 12:30

    English is a medium of communication. James does not want to use English, let him use Ginglish. After all I use Nyanglish and Kamimbya can use Songlish and the big boss Benglish.

  12. Supernova  September 24, 2013 at 12:08

    This is what Winter kabimba flanked by the education minister Dr John Phiri announced months ago that our children will start learning in local languages. Kabimba said English is a colonial and a tool of oppression. It follows that Ngugi’s coming may have PF’s blessings.

    • wawa  September 24, 2013 at 18:45

      mate the organisation that organised Ngugi’s lecture in Lusaka has connections to Wynter Kabimba!

  13. Conservative  September 24, 2013 at 11:25

    I am between Ruwe and Ngungi’s thoughts.I strongly believe in my tradition.I think languages identifies who we are and i cannot imagine our languages to be swallowed by English.That would be sad.One thing we should all understand that English language was imposed on Africans so as to show dominance by racist whites.

    I admire South Africa which has embraced its major languages as official language.People are free to speak their mother tongues even at work place.As for me and my family,when home its piure mother tongue cause am proud of my language.

    • do do  September 24, 2013 at 19:29

      Good for you (and Winter).

  14. Ruth  September 24, 2013 at 10:54

    I was at Pamodzi when ZNBC DG chibamba took the mic and told the distinguished Professor, ‘Your message has come late, your generation that has been passionate about this message is fading and there is no one ready to take over in view of modern realities. If it is pure sentimentalism, we will embrace your message but we will also embrace English because it takes us where money is’.

  15. Analysit  September 24, 2013 at 10:37

    Ruwe is Professor indeed, what he has said is CORRECT just as correct as what Chinua Achebe said. James Ngugi to me is a hypocrite I do not have respect for. There is a war within himself and he is in a surrender situation. Between Ruwe & James Ngugi I find Ruwe on the right path & urge agreement with him. Mukoma Ngugi his son is also on the right path.

  16. Sir Jeff  September 24, 2013 at 10:18

    This is the hypocrisy Socrates was against! I think when someone gets more educated n rich, they become unreasonable. I think this is what we need to work on as Africans to avoid stagnation. We need to accept that we were beatn clean by the whites n we need to find a way foward but in tandem with their advanced reasoning. Does james Ngugi tell me that he is gonna go back to wearing animal skins? I think he must go to hell if that is his idea coz even us as Zambians we’re at pains to see our kids failing to communicate becos of different languages.Even if we encouraged local languages, how does Ngugi think our kids r gonna learn key courses in the country cos nothing has been done since the end of colonialism? Let him show the way so we can follow

  17. Dr. Makasa Kasonde (Private Citizen)  September 24, 2013 at 09:36

    Using English in African Literature implies translating from African Languages in the first place. This is pretending and pretending is not sustaibale. It is a paasing phase, like a fantasy. Therefore, it folows that translating Decolonizing the Mind from Kikuyu to English is also possible. In actual fact, that is easier than the other way round.

  18. the easterner  September 24, 2013 at 09:09

    Good articulation Ruwe.If this hypocrite was given a chance to choose one language to be used throughout Africa he would choose his own mother tongue.

  19. impartial observer  September 24, 2013 at 08:54

    Field Ruwe, you’re great! I salute you. Ngungi is 27 years late, he’s self-serving, like Julius Nyerere who himself very good English but confined his people to the non-universal Swahili which took them nowhere! Now Tanzanians have woken up and are blaming their founding father for delaying their English progression. Zambia must not be fooled by the nonsense from the pit of hell that’s coming from Ngungi.

  20. A cobra afraid of bald heads  September 24, 2013 at 08:46

    I think it is Bessie Head and not Bessie Smith who was an american blues singer.

  21. Chansa  September 24, 2013 at 06:58

    In fact one of his books, Decolonizing the Mind is used at Fordham University in New York. If this book had been written in Kikuyu, it never would have made it in the school’s African-American Dept. a good read.

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