During the fall of 2011, I took Introduction to African Literature with Dr. Pat Alden. During this course, we read numerous texts from Nigerian, Kenyan and Zimbabwean writers and we learned more than just the plot of the stories, but their connection to reality. We had many discussions about the Western perception of the African continent as a dark, primitive landmass that needed to be colonized and transformed to be like “us.” In one of my earlier posts, I mentioned the Kenyan writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and his text Decolonization of the Mind. I want to discuss more of this piece and its relevance to my research. Ngugi emphasizes language as a means of self-conception. To write in a native tongue is a necessary step to defining cultural identity separate from colonial exploitation. This is where English becomes problematic. English was the language of the colonizers for both Kenya and Tanzania. Does this contribute to a blindness of voice, as Ngugi believes?–(see earlier post for video with interview) Colonists brought the books that taught the colonized this language, thus imposing on them a new means of communication and ultimately a new culture. This is where Ngugi’s concept of “decolonizing the mind” comes into play. Yet, is this possible?
When it comes to writing, which language do Kenyan or Tanzanian writers use? Ngugi asks, how can the the African experience be expressed properly in another language? The reason I wanted to reflect back on Ngugi is relating to last week’s passing of Chinua Achebe, one of the greatest writers of all time. Achebe was a Nigerian writer, who held different views regarding writing in English compared to the Kenyan writer, Ngugi. Of course, one must consider the different colonial experiences Nigerians had versus Kenyans and how that ultimately affected language and writing. When Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart, he wanted his work to reach a Western audience, hence his use of English. This mentality of using English portrays the idea that colonial languages are also the languages of the intellectually elites. Ngugi provides us with a different perspective. Ngugi is not saying to not use English, but to avoid considering English the superior language. How can you reach the common people in literature of their languages if you are using the language of the elite? This is almost what I would call a certain control of minds or control of ideas–if you are using English and the rural Kenyan or Tanzanian only understands a miniscule amount, but would be able to converse or write in Swahili or even their mother tongues.
While doing some research, I came across the Tanzanian writer, intellect and poet, Shaaban Bin Roberts, who is known as the “Father of Swahili.” According to the article (link below), there is no recognition of him. How can someone be known as the Father of Swahili not have any national recognition? Moreover, his texts or poems are not easily available or readily published, thus making him this “forgotten hero.” This is where the power of English comes into the equation.
Using English signifies wealth and intelligence, thus Swahili or other languages are left to the poor and common people. So what message is sent when African writers write about Africa in English? The cases of Ngugi and Roberts (who has an English last name, ironically) illustrate two different approaches. On the one hand, Ngugi realizes the importance of using Swahili, while also writing in English. Yet, Ngugi is a bit more complex. He is an educated Kenyan who’s journey is quite interesting. He abandoned his English novels to write in Swahili and Gikuyu while also creating a political play that led to his arrest. Eventually, Ngugi and his family fled to the U.S. This is where his transformation and emphasis on “decolonizing” the mind really took hold. He stressed the importance of destroying any lingering ties to colonialism through the creation of an authentic African literature.
On the other hand, Shaaban bin Roberts was this figure-head of Swahili and created texts and poems in that language (which are now hard to find or even remembered/taught in school). This is what I would consider an authentic African literature, yet it is not widely accessible. Indeed, power and who has the power is the driving force for the existences of these types of literature. Not only does the notion of imperialism mean physically taking over a space, but it also involves the taking over of a mind–in this case, English taking over the minds of non-native English speakers.
Language is power.