Decolonisation and Language Emancipation Just Destroy, Destroy, Destroy

2019 Nyeri, Kenya: Kenya's freedom fighters against British colonial rule called "Mau Mau" commemorated the execution of their leader Dedan Kimathi on February 18, 1957.
2019 Nyeri, Kenya: Kenya's freedom fighters against British colonial rule called "Mau Mau" commemorated the execution of their leader Dedan Kimathi on February 18, 1957. | Photo (detail): Billy Mutai © picture alliance/ZUMA Press

“There is a lot of violence associated with speaking African languages”: an interview with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, probably Kenya's most famous novelist, who writes all his works on Gĩkũyũ .

When Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o returned to Limuru after his first term at Alliance High School, his mother’s home, and the village surrounding it, were gone – reduced to rubble. The British had declared a state of emergency, suspending civil rights for all Kenyans, and relocated the population to nearby Kamĩrĩthũ, where women and children were left to rebuild their lives. The men were largely absent. Many had been sent to concentration camps; others were hiding in the mountains, fighting (like Ngũgĩ’s older brother) with the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, the Mau Mau. It was 1955.

In 1976, a woman knocked on Ngũgĩ’s door. She wanted him – a successful novelist; chairman of the Literature Department at the University of Nairobi – to help revitalize a crumbling youth center in Kamĩrĩthũ. He accepted, and within a year, it was transformed. Run on a democratic decision-making basis, the center hosted adult literacy classes, among other services. Ngũgĩ, acting as chairman of its cultural committee, co-wrote a play, which was edited and performed by a cast of peasants and factory workers. Thousands packed the open-air theater to hear the play’s condemnation of a corrupt national elite that sold Kenya out after its independence.

On November 16, 1977, the play’s license was revoked. Two weeks later, the Kenyan police arrested Ngũgĩ. They took him to Kamĩtĩ Maximum Security Prison, where he remained for over a year. It became clear that he had been put there, not for criticizing the post-colonial government, but for addressing that critique to a working-class Gĩkũyũ-speaking audience. The path ahead was clear: he would write – surreptitiously and on prison-issued toilet paper – the first modern novel in Gĩkũyũ.

When Devil on the Cross was released, it reached a wide audience, both literate and illiterate, since the book was frequently read aloud: in homes, on factory grounds, in buses, even in bars. All of Ngũgĩ’s creative writings, ever since, have been in Gĩkũyũ.

Today he is a professor of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine, where he also directs the International Center for Writing and Translation. Anthony Audi spoke with him in his office, surrounded by books.
Could you tell me about your experience growing up in Kenya? How did the colonial education system alienate you, or attempt to alienate you, from your culture?

In a way this is what I talk about in my book Decolonizing the Mind. I talk about the politics of language, but I talk about my own experiences in Kenya, going to school, and having to see the English language replacing my language, my mother tongue Gĩkũyũ, as the dominant language in my intellectual formation.

What initially I found disturbing, thinking it was just related to Africa, was the corporal punishment of children caught speaking African languages in the school compound.

What initially I found disturbing, thinking it was just related to Africa, was the corporal punishment of children caught speaking African languages in the school compound. This was very common. It was very violent. There’s a lot of violence associated with speaking African languages. And I wrote about this in Decolonizing the Mind. Since then, I have found that this is common to all situations of the dominating and the dominated – to all colonial situations. It happened in Scotland. It happened in Wales: when kids were caught speaking Welsh in the school compound, they were humiliated, and made to carry little placards around their necks saying, “Welsh not.” I found the same with Native Americans. And Pacific people – Maori people – were  treated in exactly the same way. The languages of power must be planted on the graveyard of other languages. 

The languages of power must be planted on the graveyard of other languages.

The erasure of a language is also the erasure of what that language contains.

Yes, the history, the knowledge systems and many other things.  Look at Popol Vuh, by the Maya people. When the Spanish conquered America, they got the writing system of the Maya people and just burned it! When you come to think about it, it’s the most incredible phenomenon. All the books written in Maya language were erased – just like that! Not even curiosity of first knowing what they contain would hold them back. Just destroy, destroy, destroy. What they destroyed was the history, and the entire knowledge system contained in those languages.
Many writers described the logic behind this erasure. You quote Edmund Spenser, for example.

Spenser is a good example of this, because he published the book, A View of the Present State of Ireland, in 1586. The two interlocutors are very explicit in terms of how they see language as a means of conquest. They ask themselves, how come for so many years we have not begun to conquer the Irish? And they come up with means of erasure of Irish memory, language, and naming systems. They talk very derisively, saying: “Oh, just get rid of the Macs and Oes and they’ll soon forget who they are!” It’s very fascinating to read.
Another example is when Captain Pratt founded a school for Native American kids. They were removed from their parents, or their community, and taken to that school to be re-programmed. The first thing they got on arrival were English names. The second, of course, was the erasure of their languages and the imposition of English on them. Captain Pratt, this was in 1893, was later to argue that the reason why he founded the school was to “kill the Indian and save the man.”

The French talk about creating a psychological bond between the colonized and Paris, so that even if they become independent, that bond of language and culture will tie them to Paris. It’s very explicit.
The efforts of organized brainwashing can, on many levels, be successful.

Yes, oh my god, they are successful! They are very, very successful, because over a period, you have internalized and normalized these things. You come to assume, without thinking, that the language of power is inherently more intelligible, more of a language, than the other languages. Or you make others think that the language of power is the only language through which you can express complex thought, and that you cannot do this in the other languages; you can only crack jokes in them and so on, but otherwise, the real language is the dominant language. It works! It’s like permanent injury to the brain. It’s like a cancer in the brain.

Education has an effect on the mind. It creates a colony of the mind. And the colony of the mind is harder to erase. The colony of the economy, one can see it more clearly.

The colony of political power, I can see. But the colony of the mind, it’s invisible. It normalizes how you do things.
It was a long process for you to start writing in Gĩkũyũ.

I thought about the language issue over many years – it always bothered me somehow or other. But in reality, it’s not until I was put in a maximum security prison in 1977, 78, that I began thinking and acting on the language issue. I wrote a play, with others, called I’ll Marry When I Want, in Gĩkũyũ, my mother tongue – this was in 1976. It was performed by the villagers, by regular folk, and we thought we were doing a very good thing. But the government reacted by banning the play and putting me in prison. The fact that I was put in prison by an African government for writing in an African language – that was the discord that really disturbed me in prison. And I thought, there’s something wrong, how did we get to this? This was very important for me – a kind of shock treatment.
In Something Torn and New, you look to Renaissance Europe as a precedent for how languages can revive themselves.

Go no further than Italy, with Dante. Latin was the dominant language, and he started writing in the Tuscan language, the vernacular. And one of his fellow poets came to Dante, and told him, if you continue writing in Tuscan, you’ll soon be lost to immortality, you’ll soon be forgotten. And Dante replies in Latin – to show that he can write in Latin as well as anybody – that his Tuscan language is like a ewe – the female of a sheep – whose udder is full of milk. He says, let me first of all milk this udder, then I’ll come to you. So, the same arguments that we have today were used against Dante!

Many English writers struggled for the acceptance of English by the elite of the time. The man who translated the Bible worked against the tide of conventional wisdom – about English not being able to express holiness, not being able to express intelligence, or science. All these writers of the time had to explain why they were using their little language as opposed to Latin. Why Descartes was writing philosophy in French, as opposed to Latin. In the introduction to one of his books, he explains, this is why I am doing it – because the common wisdom at the time was that Latin was the only way by which you could express scientific knowledge or philosophy.
When you look at the landscape today, do you feel like the infrastructure is being built to develop African languages and literature?

No! That is the problem. That is what I am fighting against, even today. I do anything I can. Because it’s very easy to accept abnormality as the norm, and act upon it. And then the policies perpetuate abnormality.