Decluttering My Mind According to Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature was a book I was instantly attracted to! An old book, but one I never laid my hands on. I have always been an admirer of Ngugi wa Thiong’o as evidenced by me calling my son, Ngugi!

However, having gotten hold of the book through Amazon in March 2010, I read only a few pages before activities crowded the book out of my reading schedule. But not before I had sufficiently gotten a grasp of the subject matter. If anything, it made me want to write in my local language! The only writing in my language is the Holy Bible and a few pamphlets written by Christian missionaries from America and Germany. Recently, a clergyman had started writing some materials to stimulate interest in the language but he died before we could do any collaborative work.

Ngugi’s ideas were not new to me when I started reading Decolonising the Mind. Having developed interest in literature at secondary school, I read about the change from James Ngugi to Ngugi wa Thiong’o. That was very instrumental in my own change from Lynn Zakama to Kabura Zakama! The Lynn has crept back in as a silent middle name but the admiration for Ngugi’s ideas has not changed.

Very early this morning (Wednesday, 8 February 2012), I had at last finished reading Decolonising the Mind and I am certainly the better for it!

From the book, I learnt that Ngugi has been referred to as a communist and I will not dwell on that. What I cannot easily give up is the idea/concept of the African Novel as opposed to the Euro-African Novel. I agree with him completely here.

The theme of the book is what the author has been passionately involved in for decades. I am not a good reviewer, but I can summarise what I have gained from reading the book. First, that education, and that which is from the perspective of imperialists and neo-colonialists, has been conceived as a ticket to an elitist club (what Ngugi would call, petit bourgeoisie). I like the concept the author uses when he discusses theatre as a ‘part of the general bourgeois education system which practises education as a process of weakening people, of making them feel they cannot do this or that…(p56).’ According to Ngugi, ‘education as a process of alienation produces a gallery of active stars and an undifferentiated mass of grateful admirers (p57).’ The idea I get here is that the learning that liberates the poor and the disenfranchised will not be the formal classroom type (sometimes imperialist) but a community-based and learner-generated type where the learner is supported to participate in the development of the learning materials and to experience the learning process. In this regard, the Kamiriithu practice, which the author described in details ‘was part of education as a process of demystifying knowledge and hence reality (p57).’ The author sees theatre and film as ‘the ideal means for breaking through the barriers of illiteracy’ and it must ‘involve more than one person and indeed a fixed location or premises (p71).’ I agree! I have used this approach even in my professional work.

My second gain from Decolonising the Mind is that Africa needs to develop her own lens in order to look at the world. This may mean we need to view the world through our literature and our history. We need to evolve our own viewpoint so that we can look at others. The author does not say that we should isolate ourselves or embrace only ours, but that we interact with others based on who we are. We cannot see ourselves through the ideas or eyes of others. The author believes, and I agree, that we cannot study literature through Shakespeare or Milton but through our oral literature. Having gotten a grasp of our orature, we can then understand Shakespeare and writers from other climes.

My third gain is that Africa can develop its own viewpoint through its literature. The basis for this the author argues is a return to writing in our local languages. Writing in the African languages and a communication between these languages will form the basis for the emergence of the African Novel. The author then identifies those upon whom the future of the African Novel depends to include a willing writer who is ready to invest time and talent in African languages, a willing translator of writings from one African language to another, a willing publisher and a willing and widening readership. Ngugi was willing and he found a willing publisher and the rest is history as the cliché goes. He also identifies Afro-European poetry as opposed to African poetry ‘which is the poetry composed by Africans in African languages (p87).’

There are challenges to the achievement of the ideas presented by the author in Decolonising the Mind. There are those opposed to these ideas referred to by the author as ‘defenders of imperialist and neo-colonial culture (p104).’ The colonial system and their inheritors perpetuate the status quo where education is seen as an entry into a certain class and where information and knowledge would not be accessible to the poor.  Secondly, when it comes to relevance and identification, biases and class struggles are manifested among critics. Again, when a certain kind of education bestows stardom on people, they would rather maintain the status quo as against a learning that liberates all!

A third challenge would be the capacity of African writers to write in African languages. Apart from the fact that there are literally hundreds of languages in Africa (many of which are dying), African writers grow up without learning the national languages in Africa. Which African writer is willing (or even able) to write in an African language? Who will read such a writer? Where will the translator be found to facilitate that communication between the African languages that the author wants to see happening? The ideas expounded by the author must be widely accepted by all in order to see this happening. In Nigeria, I understand the National Education Policy stipulates that local languages should be taught in the primary schools in communities but this is not happening. Among some elites there is even a disdain for the mother tongue!

Decolonising the Mind is an old book and the ideas therein perhaps forgotten if not mocked by some. But to me, it is the encouragement I need to start writing in my mother tongue. Do I have the capacity? Will I find readers? Will this writing be translated? I don’t know but I am not deterred!

 

Credits:
Title of Book:   Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature
 

Author:

 

Ngugi wa Thiong’o

 

Publisher:

 

James Currey (Oxford), EAEP (Nairobi), Heinemann (Portsmouth, NH)

 

Year of Publication:

 

1986

 

Number of Pages:

 

114 (including introductions and index)

 

Price:

 

Not stated

 

 

 

 

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One thought on “Decluttering My Mind According to Ngugi wa Thiong’o

  1. I’m really looking forward to getting to this one myself, having a similar story of picking it up and then being distracted. Will come back to your review when I finish it!

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