Ngugi wa Thiong’o: We have normalised negativity towards African languages

Professor Ngugi wa Thiong'o speaks to editors in Nairobi on February 6, 2019. PHOTO | WANJIKU MAINA

What you need to know:

  • People have been conditioned to have a certain attitude towards their language and the language of the conqueror.
  • The three-language policy will help children master language and produce proud children who can communicate with the world

I was visiting a certain school sometime back and found the pupils out on tea break. Suddenly, a commotion broke out right at the centre of the play area.

“Teacher, this one is speak Kiswahili. Little Ken is speak Kiswahili!” a little girl screamed as she pointed an accusing finger at a small boy.

“No Tasha…No…,” Little Ken protested, his face masked with terror.

“Yes, you said ‘twende tukacheze’, I heard you,” Tasha retorted as she shrugged out of a smelly old sack. She handed it over to little Ken and ordered, “Wear the sack.”

The commotion caught the teacher’s attention and she intervened, “Tasha, what is going on? Why is Ken crying?”

“Teacher, he speak (sic) Kiswahili. Tell him to take the sack,” Tasha said firmly.

The teacher admonished Ken for breaking the school’s language policy. She then helped him put on the sack amidst the other children’s giggles.

Tasha’s improper grammar went unnoticed; Ken’s audacity to use Kiswahili was the bigger fish to fry.

Later on my way home, I couldn’t help but muse at the familiarity of what I had just witnessed.


In my day, we were expected to speak in English four days a week – Monday to Thursday. Breaking this rule earned you a spot on the disciplinary list of the teacher on duty. In addition, one was forced to walk around with a stinking horn round the neck until they spotted another rule breaker.

I vividly recall one of my classmates, Benja, who slipped and spoke mother tongue within the earshot of our English teacher. 

We all froze as the teacher turned sharply to poor Benja who was trembling like a leaf.

“Bejamin! Come here right away. Is that Engrich? You dare speak mother tongue…” 

The thrashing he received for not speaking in ‘Egrich’ remains eked in my memory to date.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o's new book written in Gikuyu. PHOTO | WANJIKU MAINA


Celebrated author Ngugi wa Thiong’o recently came back home ahead of the official launch of his latest novel, Kenda Muiyuru: Rugano rwa Gikuyu na Mumbi (loosely translated to Ten: The Story of Gikuyu and Mumbi).

At 81, Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o remains passionately committed to inspiring people to embrace their African heritage.

Besides the launch, Prof came back home with a strong message that has seen him make headlines across various leading publications in the country: A call to Kenyans to embrace their mother tongue.

“It is not that African people hate their languages. No. It was programmed that way as part of the colonisation process. The first thing to go after military conquest was the language of the conquered.

“People have been conditioned to have a certain attitude towards their language and the language of the conqueror. As editors, we have a task to spin this perception of the African languages,” he said while addressing members of the Kenya Editors Guild at a breakfast meeting in Nairobi.

Prof went ahead to praise the government for introducing the competency based curriculum that includes mother tongue at lower primary level, saying that language is an important part of cultural identity.

Although a lot of things still need to be fine-tuned in order to teach mother tongue effectively, such as training teachers of mother tongue as well as stocking libraries with adequate learning resources, re-introduction of mother tongue, according to Ngugi, is a step in the right direction.

“If you know all the languages of the world but you do not know your mother tongue, that is mental enslavement. But if you know the language of your culture and add all these other languages, that is empowerment.

“What we are looking for is empowerment. This is why I am advocating strongly for a 3-language policy not only in Kenya but the entire Africa: mother tongue for every child; Kiswahili for every child and English for that child. Thereafter they can add many more languages, including other African languages.”

Back to the incident of children being punished for speaking in their mother tongue, Ngugi did not mince his words in condemning the act. He proposed that the government ought to make it illegal for anyone to beat up a child on account of speaking in their mother tongue.

A look inside Ngugi wa Thiong'o's new book. PHOTO | WANJIKU MAINA


“Here are two examples among many: Welsh children, when caught speaking Welsh language within the school compound, were made to carry a little note tied around their neck that read ‘Welsh not’ and were humiliated and mocked. In New Zealand, the Maori children were beaten until they bled when caught speaking Maori language. It is a pattern where you associate humiliation, negativity and pain to a colonised language.  “Automatically people internalise that negativity and it becomes a form of trauma. A child gets punished, punished for speaking the first language that they can speak. Then the trauma is normalised and inherited.”

He noted that beating an African child for speaking an African language is traumatic and child abuse.

In fact, the government ought to make that illegal, Ngugi added.

“When a French person goes to study English, they are not asked to first of all abandon their French! It is only in a colonised situation where corporal punishment comes to play.

This has nothing to do with the learning of the language but rather a conditioning technique to have a certain attitude towards the language.

“It is not necessary to give up one language in order to learn another; from an educational point of view there is no correlation between the two. In fact, if you know one language you are more likely to adapt and learn many other languages,” Ngugi argued.

He added that those of us who are dismissive of our cultural languages have no real reason for doing so.


“If you ask the children who have inherited these attitudes for instance why they think Luhya is not intellectual, they cannot tell you why. They might try to rationalise and say it is not academic or it is tribal but they cannot explain why because the negativity became normalised, internalised and then inherited.

“If your language brings a sense of trauma and shame, what about the language which reminds you of your language? You hate it even more. We are now calling a foreign language, the national language.”

The three-language policy will help children master language and produce proud children who can communicate with the world, Ngugi said.

“Not finding their grandmother dying and they cannot even help them. They have the knowledge of medicine but they cannot tell their grandmother about it. Unless they get an interpreter.”

As part of his efforts to promote a mental shift on the perception of African languages, Ngugi will launch his latest novel, Kenda Muiyuru: Rugano rwa Gikuyu na Mumbi at the Kenya National Theatre on February 11, 2019.

The novel is written in Gikuyu with eye-catching graphics that carry the promise of an enjoyable read.

It has been published by East African Education Publishers, a firm famed for promoting books authored in African languages.