I will elsewhere share some thoughts on the book Decolonizing the Mind
but for now I will simply share some excerpts from the first chapter The language of African Literature
. I am from the Caribbean and I find such relevance in his words to our own context and not surprisingly due to the commonalities of history and current relation to the White world. Ngugi Wa Thiongo : Some Excerpts from Decolonizing the Mind
The following excerpts come from the first chapter of Ngugi's book entitled The Language of African Literature
All parentheses are mine unless otherwise specified.
“We therefore learnt to value words for the meanings and nuances. Language was not a mere string of words. It had a suggestive power well beyond the immediate and lexical meaning. Our appreciation of the suggestive magical power of language was reinforced by the games we played with words through riddles, proverbs, transposition of syllables, or through nonsensical but musically arranged words...the language of our evening teach-ins, and the language of our immediate and wider community, and the language of our work in the fields were one.
“And then I went to school, a colonial school, and this harmony was broken. The language of my education was no longer the language of my culture.”
“In Kenya, English became more than a language: it became the language, and all the others had to bow before it in deference.
“Thus one of the most humiliating experiences was to be caught speaking Gikuyu in the vicinity of the school. The culprit was given corporal punishment ...or was made to carry a metal plate around the neck with inscriptions such as I AM STUPID or I AM A DONKEY.”
“Thus children were turned into witch-hunters and in the process were being taught the lucrative value of being a traitor to one’s immediate community.”
“The attitude to English was the exact opposite...English became the measure of intelligence and ability in the arts, the sciences, and all the other branches of learning. English became the main determinant of a child’s progress up the ladder of formal education.”
“Literary education was now determined by the dominant language while also reinforcing that dominance. Orature (oral literature) in Kenyan languages stopped. In primary school I now read simplified Dickens and Stevenson alongside Rider Haggard...
Thus language and literature were taking us further and further from ourselves to other selves, from our world to other worlds.”
“...the capacity to speak, the capacity to order sounds in a manner that makes for mutual comprehension between human beings is universal. This is the universality of language, a quality specific to human beings. It corresponds to the universality of the struggle against nature and that between human beings. But the particularity of sounds, the words, the word order into phrases and sentences, and the specific manner, or laws, of their ordering is what distinguishes one language from another. Thus a specific culture is not transmitted through language in its universality but in its particularity as the language of a specific community with a specific history. Written literature and orature are the main means by which a particular language transmits the images of the world contained in the culture it carries.
“Language as communication and as culture are then products of each other. Communication creates culture: culture is a means of communication. Language carries culture and culture carries, particularly through orature and literature, the entire body of values by which we come to perceive ourselves and our place in the world.”
“Since the new language as a means of communication was a product of and was reflecting the ‘real language of life’ elsewhere, it could never as spoken or written properly reflect or imitate the real life of that community.”
“Learning, for a colonial child, became a cerebral activity and not an emotionally felt experience.”
“For the colonial child, the harmony existing between the three aspects of language as communication was irrevocably broken. This resulted in the disassociation of the sensibility of that child from his natural and social environment, what we might call colonial alienation. The alienation became reinforced in the teaching of history, georgraphy, music, where bourgeoisie Europe was always the centre of the universe.
“This disassociation, divorce, or alienation from the immediate environment becomes clearer when you look at colonial language as a carrier of culture.”
“Since culture is a product of the history of a people which it in turn reflects, the child was now being exposed exclusively to a culture that was a product of a world external to himself. He was being made to stand outside himself to look at himself.”
“Since culture does not just reflect the world in images but actually, through those very images, conditions the colonial child to see that world in a certain way, 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 the language of imposition.”
“From the point of view of alienation, that is of seeing oneself as if one was another self, it does not matter that the imported literature carried the great humanist tradition of the best of Shakespeare, Goethe, Balzac....The location of this great mirror of imagination was necessarily Europe and its history and culture and the rest of the universe was seen from that centre.”
“In history books and popular commentaries on Africa, too much has been made of the supposed differences in the policies of the various colonial powers, the British indirect rule (or pragmatism of the British and their lack of a cultural programme!) and the French and the Portuguese conscious programme of cultural assimilation. These are a matter of detail and emphasis.”
“It is the final triumph of a system of domination when the dominated start singing its virtues.”
“It (the petty bourgeoisie) ranged from that section which looked forward to a permanent alliance with imperialism in which it played the role of intermediary between the bourgeoisie of the western metropolis and the people of the colonies...I have described as the comprador bourgeoisie – to that section which saw the future in terms of a vigorous independent national economy in African capitalism or in some kind of socialism, what I shall here call the nationalistic or patriotic bourgeoisie. This literature by Africans in European languages was specifically that of the nationalistic bourgeoisie in its creators, its thematic concerns and its consumption.”
“Internationally, the literature(nationalistic bourgeoisie)helped this class, which in politics, business, and education, was assuming leadership of the countries newly emergent from colonialism, or of those struggling to so emerge, to explain to the world: Africa had a past and a culture of dignity and human complexity.”
“So initially this literature (nationalistic bourgeoisie)- in the post war world of national democratic revolutionary anti-colonial liberation in China and India, armed uprising in Kenya and Algeria...was part of a great anti-colonial and anti-imperialist upheaval in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean islands. It was inspired by the general political awakening; it drew its stamina and even form from the peasantry: their proverbs, fables, stories, riddles and wise sayings. It was shot through with optimism. But later, when the comprador section assumed political ascendency and strengthened rather than weakened economic links with imperialism in what was clearly a neo-colonial arrangement, this literature became more and more critical, cynical, disillusioned, bitter and denunciatory in tone. It was almost unanimous in it portrayal, with varying degrees of detail, emphasis, and clarity of vision, of the post-independence betrayal of hope.”-Pg 21
“Its (nationalistic bourgeoisie literature) greatest weakness still lay where it has always been, in its audience – the petty-bourgeoisie readership automatically assumed by the very choice of language. Because of its indeterminate economic position between many contending classes, the petty-bourgoisie develops a vacillating psychological make-up...It can be swept to revolutionary activity by the masses at a time of revolutionary tide; or be driven to silence, fear cynicism, withdrawal into self-contemplation, existential anguish, or to collaboration with the powers-that-be at times of reactionary tides...This very lack of identity in its psychological make-up as a class was reflected in the very literature it produced...In literature as in politics it spoke as if its identity or the crisis of its own identity was that of the society as a whole.” (bold mine) –pg 22
“The peasantry saw no contradiction between speaking their own mother-tongues and belonging to a larger national or continental geography. They saw no antagonistic contradiction between belonging to their immediate nationality, to their multinational state along the Berlin-drawn boundaries and to Africa as a whole.”-Pg 23
“...when the peasantry and working class were compelled by necessity or history to adopt the language of the master, they Africanised it without any respect for its ancestry shown by Senghor and Achebe, so totally as to have created new African languages, like Krio in Sierra Leone or Pidgin in Nigeria, that owed their identities to the syntax and rhythms of languages. All these languages were kept alive in the daily speech, in the ceremonies, in political struggles, above all in the rich store of orature –proverbs, stories, poems, and riddles.” –pg 23
“While we were busy haranguing the ruling circles in a language which automatically excluded the participation of the peasantry and the working class in the debate, imperialist culture and African reactionary forces had a field day: the Christian bible is available in unlimited quantities in even the tiniest African language. The comprador ruling cliques are also quite happy to have the peasantry and the working all to themselves: distortions, dictatorial directives, decrees, museum-type fossils paraded as African culture, feudalistic ideologies, superstition, lies, all these backward elements and more are communicated to the African masses in their own languages without any challenges from those with alternative visions of tomorrow who have deliberately cocooned themselves in English, French, and Portuguese. It is ironic that the most reactionary African politician, the one who believed in selling African to Europe is often a master of African languages; that the most zealous European missionary believed in rescuing Africa from itself, even from the paganism of its languages, were nevertheless masters of African languages, which the often reduced to writing. The European missionary believed too much in his mission of conquest not to communicate it in the languages most readily available to the people: the African writer believes too much in ‘African Literature’ to write it in those ethnic, divisive and under-developed languages of the peasantry!”-pg26
“The very fact that what common sense dictates in the literary practice in the literary practice of other cultures is being questioned in an African writer is a measure of how far imperialism has distorted the view of African realities.”-pg 27-28
“Africa actually enriches Europe: but Africa is made to believe that it needs Europe to rescue it from poverty. Africa’s natural and human resources continue to develop Europe and America: but Africa is made to feel grateful for aid from the same quarters that still sit on the back of the continent. Africa even produces intellectuals who now rationalise this upside-down way of looking at Africa.” –pg 28
“I believe that my writing in Gikuyu language, a Kenyan language, an African language, is part and parcel of anti-imperialist struggles of Kenyan and African peoples.”-pg 28
“We who went through the school system were meant to graduate with a hatred of the people and the culture and the values of the language of our daily humiliation and punishment.”-pg 28
“Colonial alienation takes two interlinked forms: an active (or passive) distancing of oneself from the reality around; and an active (or passive) identification with that which is most external to one’s environment. It starts with a deliberate disassociation of the language of conceptualisation, of thinking, of formal education of mental development, from the language of daily interaction in the home and in the community. It is like separating the mind from the body so that they are occupying two unrelated linguistic spheres in the same person. On a larger social scale it is like producing a society of bodiless heads and headless bodies.-pg 28
“But writing in our languages per se- although a necessary first step in the correct direction -will not itself bring about a renaissance in African cultures if that literature does not carry the content of our people’s anti-imperialist struggles to liberate their productive forces from foreign control; the content of the need for unity among the workers and peasants of all the nationalities in their struggles to control the wealth and peasants of all the nationalities in their struggle to control the wealth they produce and to free it from internal and external parasites.”-pg 29
“...writers in African languages should reconnect themselves to the revolutionary traditions of an organised peasantry and working class in Africa in their struggle to defeat imperialism and create a higher system of democracy and socialism in alliance with all the other people of the world. Unity in that struggle would ensure unity in our multi-lingual diversity. It would reveal the real links that bind the people of Africa to the peoples of Asia, South America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, Canada and the U.S.A.” –pg 30
“A democratic participation of people in the shaping of their own lives or in discussing their own lives in languages that allow for mutual comprehension is seen as being dangerous to the good government of a country and its institutions. African languages addressing themselves to the lives of the people become the enemy of a neo-colonial state.” –pg 30
I will share some excerpts from other sections of the book in more time however for those who may be interested in further views of Ngugi can check out his lectures on www.youtube.com
- Moving the Center
- Planting African Memory - The Role of the scholar