Queries over Ngugi’s appeal to save African languages, culture

The cover of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s new book. Photos/COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • Indigenous languages can destroy just as much as they can restore continent

The arrival of Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s new book in Kenyan bookshops will allow his fans and critics to engage with his new thoughts.

Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance is an impassioned appeal for the preservation of African languages and cultures.

Readers will find the proposals and arguments in the book familiar, as some of the chapters are part of the lectures Prof Ngugi gave at the University of Nairobi in 2004 and 2007.

Other sections were presented at Harvard University, Makerere University, University of Dar-es-Salaam and the University of Cape Town.

Writing and Translation

Prof Ngugi is currently Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature and Director of the International Centre for Writing and Translation at the University of California, Irvine.

A sensitive African novelist and playwright, Prof Ngugi is best known outside Africa for his essays on language and colonialism.

In the lectures, he painstakingly reminds us of the horrors of colonialism. The images he creates are stark, exposing colonialism as a form of systematic cultural and economic violence against the colonised.

He draws examples from the Irish experience as well to show colonialism as involving merciless destruction of indigenous cultures. He views the use of indigenous languages to stage an African renaissance as the only way out of the continent’s alienation.

“To starve or kill a language is to starve and kill a people’s memory bank,” Prof Ngugi declares. “And it is equally true that to impose a language is to impose the weight of experience it carries and its conception of self and otherness – indeed, the weight of its memory, which includes religion and education.”

Their origin

The book was released in February, apparently to mark this year’s Black History Month. It exhorts African-Americans to learn at least one African language in order to reconnect meaningfully with the continent of their origin.

Prof Ngugi concedes that Africa is made up of different ethnic groups. Thus, it would be difficult to communicate beyond ethnic and national boundaries using our discrete indigenous languages. Writing in local languages might appear commercially impractical because the audience would be limited to the author’s ethnic group.

However, noting that classical works have reached other nations through translation and that translation powered renaissance in early modern Europe, Prof Ngugi argues for translation among and across Africa’s indigenous languages.

“Translation is the language of languages, a language through which all languages can talk to one another,” he says.

It should be noted that the kind of dialogue that Ngugi encourages has so far been conducted mainly through English. For example, Tanzanian playwright Amandina Lihamba translates Sembene Ousmane’s Wolof story Mandabi (The Money-Order) into a Swahili play, Hawala ya Fedha, through her reading of Sembene’s work in English because Wolof is inaccessible to her.

Admirers of Prof Ngugi’s theory of language have the duty to develop a systematic theory of translation among African languages. Do we assimilate the texts from other African cultures into our own, as translators of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (Shujaa Okonwko) and Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (Wema Hawajazaliwa) into Kiswahili have tried to do?

Or do we, to use Lawrence Venuti’s term, “foreignise” the translations by retaining the idiosyncrasies of the cultures from which those texts come?

Glaring contradictions

Unfortunately, unlike Prof Ngugi’s creative works, his essays are defined by glaring contradictions. The obvious contradiction is the fact that he promotes African languages using English in the Western academy, a space of sterility that has not managed to revive its own Latin.

Stand-up comedians Kihenjo, Wang’uru, Kianangi and Machang’i have a greater chance of promoting indigenous languages than an American-based intellectual writing in English.

Another major weakness is that Prof Ngugi speaks about local literatures in the abstract. The most strongly argued parts of the book focus on the misrepresentations of Africa by Europeans, rather than on Africans’ self-affirmation through the use of their languages. 

In Prof Ngugi’s creative works, hope for African nations sometimes resides in characters such as Gatuiria who do not fully understand their own languages. Using a gamut of textual styles, his novels portray the variety of language use in an African society.

Even in his Kikuyu novels, his narrators and the most admirable characters use a hybrid discourse in which various languages at the characters’ disposal blend beautifully to capture the rhythms of everyday speech.

However, in his essays Ngugi is so sentimentally committed to notions of pure African languages that he risks destroying his legacy by spending too much time protesting against colonialism and the West rather than promoting African languages and dialogue between languages through translation.

Protest Novel

As I have been telling the man in my mirror every morning these days, protest against Western hegemony when one is based in the West is an exercise in futility.

In Everybody’s Protest Novel (1949), James Baldwin warned black writers in America that writing works of protest results in “confusion, dishonesty, panic’’.

In the essay, seen by some as a personal attack on Richard Wright (whose work Prof Ngugi seems to admire in Writers in Politics), Baldwin argued that by prioritising protest, black writers would be “trapped and immobilised in the sunlit prison of the American dream’’.

In Prof Ngugi’s earlier writing, there is little attempt to analyse specific works of art beyond mentioning them in passing. Writers in Politics (1981) and Decolonising the Mind (1986) are notorious for misspelling indigenous African writers’ names, including, Shaaban bin Robert’s name, and misquoting and paraphrasing their works in a way that reduces their subtlety to glib statements to help Prof Ngugi win an argument in favour of the development of indigenous languages.

In the current book, Ngugi attempts to read a poem originally written in Kikuyu. But a close reading of Kamoji Wachira’s poem Thagana Therera (Tana River Flow) would have revealed the poem’s many contradictions, its condescension towards women and its ethnic chauvinism.

In praising the poem as an “epic,” Prof Ngugi seems not to see that there can be nonsense written in an African language.

Cleansing the land

Though written by an environmentalist, the poem sublimates soil erosion into a metaphor of cleansing the land. In effect it privileges primordial ignorance in its search for tribal essence.

As if this is not enough, the masculinist pseudo-epic sees the communities living downstream as deserving of the dirt the river is presented as washing away from Kikuyuland.

The high point in the tragedy of Prof Ngugi’s advocacy for indigenous languages is found in the fact that he did not read that so-called epic in Kikuyu. Instead, he relies on Wachira’s unpublished English translation.

He accidentally reveals the identity of the author who published the poem in Prof Ngugi’s journal Mutiiri under the name K.K. Gitiiri – a supposedly more quintessential Kikuyu name that connotes soil and ownership of all the land through which “Thagana” flows.

While I support the preservation of African cultures, we must ask intellectuals to stop playing with African languages from their safe havens in the West. African languages can kill and destroy as much as they can re-member and restore the continent.

We should promote them responsibly, exposing them to unsentimental critique to reveal the chauvinistic dirt they carry in their vocabulary. We should encourage not writing in African languages, but writing only sense in those languages.