Just like the title, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, the essay emphasises how to free oneself from the hegemony of the colonial language.
Thiong’o is well known Kenyan writer known for his plethora of literature be it in his mother tongue, Gikuyu/Kikuyu or in English, although he eventually gave up on the latter to embrace the former and in this essay, he describes his journey to that point and clearly states how one should decolonise our minds from all predominant colonial thoughts.
The book has four parts:
- The Language of African Literature
- The Language of African Theatre
- The Language of African Fiction
- The Quest for Relevance.
Most of his main arguments are presented within the first book. So what are his main arguments?
Firstly, that the English and other European languages are considered far more prestigious than any African language. These languages are considered to be the best way to even express oneself and one’s experiences of being an African through literature.
Secondly, it is these very languages that are prioritized in the education system of Kenya such that the children learn to respect them and mock their own mother tongues. Thus, he says that language becomes a tool of ideology for the colonising forces to impose its rule and its soft power.
Thirdly, he supplements this point by stating in chapter IV of part 1 that language “has a dual character: it is both a means of communication and a carrier of culture.” With this, he goes on to say that with the erasing of local languages, the cultures that those languages possess also vanishes and its place is taken by an alien culture through an alien language be it French or English of Portuguese.
He also uses his own experiences and anecdotes to explain these concepts further. In the other parts as well, he clearly delineates how he shifted from the colonial languages to his own mother tongue while also talking about the general movement of the Kenyan people towards the same.
In the second part, The Language of African Theatre, he gives a lengthy albeit an excellent example from one of his plays, Ngaahika Ndeenda (I will marry when I want), to showcase how language is indeed a carrier of culture.
Apart from such examples being strewn throughout the book, Thiong’o also talks about the debate over what constitutes African literature and is also sharply critical of Achebe and other writers who have chosen to write in different colonial languages.
However one crucial question remains. How do we decolonise our minds?
For Thiong’o, it can be addressed through the change in education systems, accepting your own mother tongues and other local spoken languages in Africa over the colonial ones and to establish a thriving African literature that is written in one’s own language and not a colonial one.
Food for thought:
Can we all do the same? Majority of the countries do speak in English and use English as a form of governance and communication as well. It can be tricky when it is a global language and the idea that it is more prestigious is prevalent even today.
What we can obviously do is however, maybe not abandon it completely, but not treat our own languages with scorn. We must all also watch, read and speak in our own languages, cultivate an atmosphere that allows for free and fair communication without any discrimination and allowing a vibrant establishment of art and literature in all languages.
This may sound ideal, but even in India, these discussions are quite pertinent and the issue of whether to write in English or local languages was something that all authors in the post-Independence era grappled with. My own mother tongue is not as good as my spoken and written English. Thus, I feel that we as well should always try to read be it newspapers or poems or stories or novels in our own languages no matter how hard that may be.
What do you think about this idea? Comment below!
READ MORE and LEARN MORE:
- Read one of his recent interviews where he discusses the issues presented above: https://www.thenation.com/article/language-is-a-war-zone-a-conversation-with-ngugi-wa-thiongo/
- Check out the range of books he has written in the link below:
- One of his earliest works is Weep Not, Child. Read the Guest Post on that novel here!
- Check out Thiong’o’s recommendations of must-read African novels:
This also features the novel, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie. Read my review of that book here.