[lg policy] Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and the Tyranny of Language

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Mon Aug 6 10:51:42 EDT 2018

 Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and the Tyranny of Language
Francis Wade <https://www.nybooks.com/contributors/francis-wade/>
Steele-Perkins/Magnum Photos
A boy writing on a blackboard in Lokichogio, Kenya, 2002

Thirty years after graduating from his missionary-run high school near
Nairobi, the Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o had gained enough distance to
reflect on the lasting effect of colonial education policy in Kenya.
“Behind the cannon was the new school,” he wrote in *Decolonising the Mind*,
the 1986 exposition on cultural imperialism in which he examined how the
colonial classroom became a tool of psychological conquest in Africa and
beyond. “Better than the cannon, it made the conquest permanent,” he wrote.
“The cannon forces the body and the school fascinates the soul.”

The Alliance High School, which Ngũgĩ attended, was built in the 1920s and
is now one of Kenya’s top-ranking schools. Like so many of the institutions
that foreigners “gifted” to the colonies, it was seen by its founding
patrons as a benevolent, civilizing instrument for Africans. It instructed
in English; children who spoke in the local Gĩkũyũ tongue were beaten.
English was the language of power, rationality, and intelligence; Gĩkũyũ,
which Ngũgĩ would write in again only decades later, signified
backwardness—an African*ness* that, for the good of its carriers, had to be
exorcized. A gun alone wouldn’t do the job; it needed, in Ngũgĩ’s words, to
be “supplemented by the power of thought.” *Decolonising the Mind, *his
attempt to examine how the mental space of colonized peoples came to be
invaded and appropriated, is considered a seminal text on how language can
be manipulated and pressed into the service of power.

The lectures that formed the basis of the book were delivered in Auckland
in 1984, during that year’s Maori Language Week. I met with Ngũgĩ in May
this year on his third trip to New Zealand, where we were both speaking at
the Auckland Writers Festival. Clear-eyed and articulate at eighty, he
recalled an encounter he had during those 1984 lectures that broadened his
analysis of the relationship between language and power. A Maori woman had
approached him soon after he left the podium. “You were not talking about
Kenya,” she told him. “You were talking about us Maori people.” All the
examples he had given were taken from Kenya or elsewhere in Africa, drawn
from his teenage years in the Alliance High School and the creeping
realization in the decades afterward of its insidious influence. “But she
saw the Maori situation in it,” he told me. “The condition for acquiring
the glory of English was the humiliation of African languages. This was the
same in every colonial situation—in New Zealand, too.”

Long after he had left the Alliance High School, Ngũgĩ was struck by how
little he and his cohort had noticed, let alone responded to, their
socialization into a Western-oriented outlook. Nor had he appreciated what
role the school played in conferring class markers in a community that
before hadn’t known that stratification. The school and everything it
taught—and refused to teach—was accepted, even venerated, by the community.
“The language of power is English and that becomes internalized,” he
explained. “You normalize the abnormal and the absurdities of colonialism,
and turn them into a norm from which you operate. Then you don’t even think
about it.”

*Decolonising the Mind* and his subsequent works, both fiction and
nonfiction, set the Kenyan author apart as a forceful advocate of *full*
decolonization—not only of the more visible political and economic sphere,
but of the mind as well. He rued the fact that there were few African
writers of international note producing work in their native languages, and
accordingly struck out to publish only in Gĩkũyũ or Swahili. He believed
that translation could be a bridge between cultures, but he also understood
that each language, each dialect, had a distinct musicality that was lost
in translation, and that would be forever lost were the language to die.

Others have echoed this lament. The Irish poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill has
argued that contemporary Irish literature ought to rediscover its Gaelic
origins. As she wrote
in the *New York Times* in 1995:

Irish is a language of enormous elasticity and emotional sensitivity; of
quick and hilarious banter and a welter of references both historical and
mythological; it is an instrument of imaginative depth and scope, which has
been tempered by the community for generations until it can pick up and
sing out every hint of emotional modulation that can occur between people.
Many international scholars rhapsodize that this speech of ragged peasants
seems always on the point of bursting into poetry.

Yet the degradation of the vernacular in former colonies has had an impact
on people far beyond the literary realm. Whether or not the British in
Kenya truly believed in their civilizing discourse, the rise of English in
place of the local tongue helped to deepen the colonial endeavor and fix
its structures in place. That local languages were suppressed across all
colonies, whether British or not, enabled the creation of a native class
oriented toward their colonial overlords, and away from their own
communities. In 1835, the influential Whig politician and historian Thomas
Babington Macaulay argued that the British administration in India should
stop supporting the publication of books in Sanskrit and Arabic. “We must
at present do our best,” he wrote, “to form a class who may be interpreters
between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in
blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in

Language was a less easily discernible weapon of divide and rule: wielded
quietly, it helped create hierarchies within oppressed groups. It marked
the *truly* colonized—those who had shaken off their old ways—as
sophisticated, and left the rest to gaze upward at a newly-minted elite who
had once stood at their side. The process would, Macaulay said, render this
new class “by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great
mass of the population.”

The now-infamous “Minute on Indian Education” that he circulated offered a
glimpse of the arrogance that underpinned Britain’s language policies
across its overseas protectorates. In speaking of the “orientalists” among
the colonial elite “distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern
tongues,” he declared: “I have never found one among them who could deny
that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native
literature of India and Arabia.”

Like many of his contemporaries, he felt there was much the British could
offer their subjects, but little they could learn from them. The vernacular
spoken, like those who spoke it, was vulgar and primitive, a ball and chain
on the advancement of human civilization. “What we spend on the Arabic and
Sanscrit [sic] Colleges is not merely a dead loss to the cause of truth,”
he went on. “It is bounty-money paid to raise up champions of error.”

That same ethos guided cultural assimilation processes elsewhere in the
world. “Kill the Indian, and Save the Man,” a motto of the education system
designed in the late nineteenth century to “Americanize” Native Americans,
spoke to the same belief that non-Europeans needed first to be de-nativized
before they could become fully human.

It was only following his arrest and imprisonment in 1977, fourteen years
after Kenya won independence, that Ngũgĩ’s ideas about the enduring effects
of linguistic imperialism began to develop. Already a well-known voice in
African literature, he had staged a play that year in Gĩkũyũ, and shortly
after was sent to a maximum security prison. A subsequent attempt in 1982
to resurrect his theatre group was thwarted by police, and Ngũgĩ spent the
next two decades in exile, first in Britain and then the US. His play had
been critical of the regime of Jomo Kenyatta, also a Gĩkũyũ; it depicted
the leadership as inward-looking and elitist, far removed from the Kenyan
peasantry whose interests it claimed to champion, and responsible for the
acute economic inequalities that persisted long after independence. But,
then again, the books he’d written before in English had similarly taken
aim at postcolonial power-holders. Could it be that his crime, even long
after Kenya had returned to indigenous rule, was to shun the English
language? Had his jailers—among them, political leaders who had been the
vanguard in the anticolonial struggle—taken up the mantle of linguistic
authoritarianism from the same foreign power they had driven out? And did
his use of the vernacular threaten the leadership by speaking directly to
the masses not literate in English, thereby continuing the anticolonial
struggle, in effect, *après la lettre*?
Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Venice, Italy, April 5, 2018

“The African bourgeoisie that inherited the flag from the departing
colonial powers was created within the cultural womb of imperialism,” Ngũgĩ
wrote in *Moving the Centre: The Struggle For Cultural Freedoms*, a
collection of essays published in 1993. “So even after they inherited the
flag, their mental outlook, their attitudes toward their own societies,
toward their own history, toward their own languages, toward everything
national, tended to be foreign; they saw things through eyeglasses given
them by their European bourgeois mentors.”

Frantz Fanon, who died three years before Ngũgĩ published his first book,
had issued similar warnings. He foresaw, accurately, a bleak future for
societies in which a post-independence middle class, now in power,
had—through clientelism and the hoarding of wealth—widened the
socioeconomic fissures opened by the colonial project, and was thus in the
process becoming the native face of the imperial enterprise. “Seen through
its eyes, its mission has nothing to do with transforming the nation,”
Fanon wrote. “It consists, prosaically, of being the transmission line
between the nation and a capitalism, rampant though camouflaged, which
today puts on the masque of neo-colonialism.”

Much of the thinking today about the enduring effects of colonial rule is
imbued with a sense that many once-colonized nations still feel a need to
validate themselves in relation to the West. Macaulay and his
contemporaries saw Western values and achievements as a gold standard to
which the rest of the world should aspire, and the architects of colonial
language policies, in particular, developed their curricula of control in
accordance with that standpoint. Secondary school literature syllabuses in
many of the elite African schools still tend to be front-loaded with works
in English, because the English canon is still held aloft as the ideal.
African writing thus becomes an appendix, and little space is given to
studying the oral traditions that were once the primary medium for
communicating stories.

A momentum has developed to counter this: cultural theorists working in the
postcolonial Asian setting, for example, are advocating
<https://journals.openedition.org/chinaperspectives/6214> a stronger field
of *inter*-Asian studies, while at the same time examining the many
discreet ways in which power imbalances between onetime colonizer and
colonized are quietly perpetuated today—through the act of literary
translation <https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520074514/siting-translation>,
for example. Propelling this movement
is the belief that as long as the West continues to be a, if not *the*,
normative pole of comparison, decolonization will remain in a state of
arrest. In Ngũgĩ’s eyes, those validation efforts persist, while the
“transmission lines” that Fanon wrote of, whereby post-independence
governments serve as intermediaries between Western business interests and
exploitative local ventures, are still clearly intact. This speaks to the
durability of the psychological component of imperial conquest, one that
didn’t announce itself with cannon fire and could not be repelled by force.

Movements across Africa and elsewhere have advocated a revival of local
languages in their countries’ literary output, while translation projects
have sought to both expand the non-English audience for African writers,
and to “return” African literature to its native soil. Jalada Africa
<https://jaladaafrica.org/> offers a publishing platform for pan-African
authors, often translating their work into a variety of languages, both
English and vernacular African. A Senegalese project, Céytu
<http://www.chinafrica.cn/Africa/201707/t20170714_800100380.html>, uses
translation to counter the dominance of French-language books in a country
where the majority tongue, Wolof, has a rich oral, but not written,
culture. Some prominent writers, notably Salman Rushdie, have argued
however that the advantages of writing for a billions-strong
English-language audience outweigh the symbolic benefits of returning to
native languages whose readership is comparatively smaller. Only a small
proportion of African writers who have won international acclaim for works
in English have followed Ngũgĩ’s lead and returned to writing in their
mother tongues.

If, as Benedict Anderson wrote in *Imagined Communities*, shared languages
have a cohesive effect, whereby “pasts are restored, fellowships are
imagined, and futures dreamed,” then what role has the demise of native
languages played in fueling the fragmentation of societies in former
colonies? The manipulation of language was only one of a number of
divide-and-rule strategies used by European powers across their myriad
possessions; others, such as the politicization of ethnicity—through the
creation of racial hierarchies by European race scientists, and the
subsequent privileging of particular groups over others—have arguably
contributed more directly to violent conflict decades after the end of
colonial rule.

But those strategies have always worked symbiotically, as part of a package
of control mechanisms. “To control a people’s culture,” Ngũgĩ wrote, “is to
control their tools of self-definition in relationship to others.” Those
levers of control were once in the hands of white administrators. Ngũgĩ’s
vital contribution has been to illuminate, with great regret, how they are
now pulled by some of the very people who once railed against that


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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