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Decolonising the Mind
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
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- The Politics of Language in African Literature
- The essays collected in this volume were previously presented and published elsewhere
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B : important arguments, fairly well presented, but too ideologically coloured
See our review for fuller assessment.
|New Statesman||.||8/8/1986||Adewale Maja-Pearce|
From the Reviews:
- "Ngugi's presentation of the case suffers from a romaticiziation of the peasantry. It is as if African culture is an exclusively peasant affair. (...) This misleading bit of Marxist hagiography aside, Ngugi's book remains invaluable as an African intellectuals account of his withdrawal from the Eurocentric culture of the neo-colonial state in which he was nurtured." - Chinweizu, Times Literary Supplement
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Ngugi wa Thiong'o famously began his writing career writing in English (publishing under the name "James Ngugi"). He had considerable success, but eventually turned to writing in his mother tongue, Gikuyu (though he did translate and publish these later works in English too). Ngugi is among a handful of authors who have written successfully in more than one language -- Samuel Beckett and Vladimir Nabokov are among the few others -- but his reasons for doing so differ somewhat from those of other bilingual authors. Decolonising the Mind is both an explanation of how he came to write in Gikuyu, as well as an exhortation for African writers to embrace their native tongues in their art.
The foreign languages most African authors write in are the languages of the imperialists -- English, French, and Portuguese -- that were relatively recently imposed on them. (Ngugi doesn't consider Arabic in the same light, nor Swahili.) Ngugi makes a good case for the obvious point: that the relation of Africans to those imposed languages is a very different one from that which the same Africans have to the native languages they speak at home. Speaking and writing in the language of the colonisers will naturally be different than in the language one speaks while at play or with one's family. In addition, the language of the coloniser is often a truly foreign one: segments of society understand it badly, if at all, and so certain audiences can not be reached by works in these imposed languages. (The validity of some of these points has, however, diminished over the past decades, as literacy has spread and French, Portuguese, and especially English have established themselves as linguae francae across much of the continent.)
Ngugi rightly complains that an educational focus that embraced essentially only foreign works (not only foreign in language, but also in culture) was destructive:
Thus language and literature were taking us further and further from ourselves to other selves, from our world to other worlds.Clearly there was (and probably still is) a need to create a literature that conveyed the true African experience -- from the perspective of the local, not the visitor or outsider. The local language is an integral part of conveying that experience, often because much of local tradition has been preserved in that language -- for example, in the songs and stories that have been passed down (the oral tradition -- orature -- that Ngugi values so highly).
In the second chapter of this book, "The Language of African Theatre", Ngugi describes his experiences at the Kamiriithu Community Education and Culture Centre, and the efforts to stage drama there -- in Gikuyu. Ngugi convincingly shows the benefits of working in the local language, and within local traditions, as the entire community works together to create and shape a play.
Ngugi's basic arguments are largely convincing, and his personal experiences, related to explain how he learned and changed his views, make the entire book an interesting read. Occasionally he does go overboard: in the end he maintains that it is:
manifestly absurd to talk of African poetry in English, French or Portuguese. Afro-European poetry, yes; but not to be confused with African poetry which is the poetry composed by Africans in African languages.For new generations the language of the former imperialists has also become something different. Admittedly, too often it is the Westernized worldview found in music, television, and film -- but then the French complain about a similar cultural imperialism too. Ngugi is right to say that it is important to reach an audience in the language of its heritage, but one of the difficulties with that is that it is financially difficult to publish in local languages in Africa. The state of publishing is deplorable through much of the continent, and writers are drawn to English and French also because the audiences (and publishers) they want to reach are often Western ones.
We at the complete review are always terribly disappointed by how difficult it is to find any books by African authors originally written in an African language. There are a few, but they are very few. (Similarly, it is very difficult to find books originally written in Hindi or other Indian languages, while there are dozens of "Indian" authors who write in English.) Ngugi is to be lauded for his efforts in this area, and for his willingness to stand up for what he believes. Would that more followed his example.
Among the problems with Decolonising the Mind is its political and ideological slant. He writes of "two mutually opposed forces in Africa today: an imperialist tradition on one hand, and a resistance tradition on the other." Imperialism for him continues after the colonial period: it is "the rule of consolidated finance capital". Ngugi's worldview here is still profoundly Marxist, and one has to question how useful this simple division -- imperialism versus resistance -- is at the beginning of the 21st century. (Curiously he chooses to see the class struggle as universal, never considering that it too might be an imperialist fiction imposed on Africa despite not fitting African tradition, culture, or history.)
The book also focusses on art-with-a-purpose: be it pedagogic or political or helping preserve traditions or forge identities, all the literature he considers serves a purpose. The simple beauty of art isn't at issue for him -- in part, no doubt, because he does not want to admit that politically incorrect art (of any stripe or colour -- even art with say a blatantly imperialist message) might still have some value.
Decolonising the Mind is an interesting, if occasionally too heated (and too simplistic) work. It addresses significant issues, and Ngugi's presentation is consistently engaging. Though aspects are already dated, it can still serve as the basis for fruitful discussion of a subject that continues to be of interest.
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Links:Decolonising the Mind: Reviews: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o: Other books by Ngugi wa Thiong'o under review: Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Kenyan author (James) Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o was born in 1938.
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Summary: Thiong’o’s “Decolonising the Mind”
Kenyan-born Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s 1986 book Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature can be thought of, in part, as a continuation of Martinique-born Frantz Fanon’s earlier anti-colonial book, Black Skin, White Masks (1952). Each of these books can be considered both colonial and post-colonial, colonial because they examine the effects of teaching colonial children foreign (European) languages/cultures at the expense of native languages/cultures, and post-colonial because they both argue that these effects are detrimental to the colonized regions.
Thiong’o’s general argument in this selection isthat a national culture must include that nation’s literature expressed in that nation’s native language. In other words, Thiong’o argues that the English (Spanish/French/Portuguese/etc.) language ought not to be the language of education and culture in areas where it was used as an implement of colonial domination. He opens this selection by arguing “the language of African literature cannot be discussed meaningfully outside the context of those social forces which have made it both an issue demanding our attention and a problem calling for a resolution” (1126). “Those social forces” can be understood as colonialism and the desires and struggles of African people to reclaim their economies, politics, and cultures from the colonial chokehold. Thiong’o traces his interest in the discussion of the language of African literature through his childhood education in Kenya and his participation in a number of conferences on the subject, including his participation at the 1962 conference “A Conference of African Writers of English Expression.” He explains that only African writers who had published in English were eligible to participate in the conference which had as its initial point of inquiry, the question “what is African literature?” (1128). Considering this question in light of his English education and with the benefit of 26 years, Thiong’o explains why African literature must not be conceived of in European (or other non-native) languages. Thiong’o argues, “language was the means of spiritual subjugation” of the colonized by the colonizers and therefore cannot express the inherent African-ness that an African literature must express (1130).
In explaining how language was used for spiritual subjugation, Thiong’o looks to his own education. He describes Gikuyu as the language for his peasant family’s communication with each other, with the community at large, and as their means to share culture, namely through orature. As a child growing up in this community, his language remained unified until he went to school and was taught to elevate English language and to devalue Gikuyu. Thiong’o argues that language “is both a means of communication and a carrier of culture” (1133). Each of these characteristics has three aspects. Language as communication is 1) the language of real life, 2) speech which mediates human relations, and 3) written language which imitates speech. Language as a carrier of culture is 1) “a product and reflection of human beings communicating with one another in the very struggle to create wealth and control it,” 2) “an image-forming agent in the mind of a child,” and 3) the transmitter of “those images of the world and reality…through a specific language” (1134). Until his English education, Thiong’o claims these six aspects were harmonious in his native Gikuyu.
Thiong’o argues that colonialism’s real goal was “to control…the entire realm of the language of real life” (1135). To do so, colonial powers consciously elevated English and consciously devalued Gikuyu. In school, Thiong’o (and other similarly educated children) were taught to use English exclusively, but this language could never adequately express the experience of a Kenyan child since it developed to express the experience of the English. English as language of communication for Kenyans thus failed to allow full communication. English as language of culture also failed Kenyans because “the colonial child was made to see the world and where he stands in it as seen and defined by or reflected in the culture of imposition” (1136). English literature, even at its most innocuous, taught as reflecting universal humanism, reflected that “universal” humanism from a specifically English position. Even when texts were translated into English, the literature was Euro-centric and the resulting education was alienating. Because English literature, even when written by Africans, cannot express African culture (because culture is inextricably tied to its native language), an African literature must be written in African languages.
Thiong’o states that English literature syllabi at African universities were almost identical in their coverage of the English cannon and inclusion of ancient and modern European drama. Although Thiong’o writes specifically about African colonies, given the scope of European colonialism and the formulaic language subjugation, I believe his argument is applicable to other areas of colonialism, including the Caribbean. Saint Lucian-born Derek Walcott’s Omeros comes to mind as an illustration for Thiong’o’s argument. Written almost completely in English, Omeros is loosely based on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and is set on St. Lucia, an island with a long history of colonial rule vacillating between French and British rule.
Looking at the first review on the back of my copy of Omeros, it seems that part of its critical acclaim is due to Walcott’s ability to imitate the great European and British literary tradition. Michael Heyward of The Washington Post Book World writes that “what justifies the title of Omeros is a sense of unbridled imaginative scope, that feeling of amplitude and sensuous inclusion which we find in Homer…Lucretius…Shakespeare…or Whitman...which Walcott can summon as much as any poet now living” (Walcott back cover). This reviewer seems to find Walcott’s (and perhaps any poet’s) talent lies in his ability to summon other canonized writers. This way of valuing a text seems similar to the way Thiong’o describes the colonial system culling of the educated colonized by valuing, above all else, a student’s mastery of English language.
Although Walcott’s poem is mostly written in English, he does slip into French occasionally. In these instances, the French is presented, and then a translation from the French into English is presented within the poetic structure. It seems that in these instances, the French may be closer to what is being expressed than is the English. This is fascinating to me as both languages are European, non-native Caribbean languages. Analyzing this language use in light of Thiong’o’s essay, it seems that, somehow, French is closer to the culture than English. Despite its critical acclaim, perhaps Walcott’s poem is an example of what Thiong’o wants to avoid in terms of developing an African literature.
Thiong’o, Ngugi wa. “Decolonising the Mind.” 1986. Literary Theory: An Anthology. 2nd Ed. Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004. 1126-1150. Print.
Walcott, Derek. Omeros. New York: Noonday Press-Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990. Print.