Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Ngugi wa Thiong’o with broadcaster Jack Oyoo Sylvester during a Kenya Editor’s Guild breakfast meeting at the Sarova Stanley on February 6, 2019 where he unveiled the book ‘Kenda Muiyuru’ published by East African Educational Publishers.

| File | Nation Media Group

Has Ngugi wa Thiong’o reneged on his pledge to support Kiswahili?

What you need to know:

  • Due to Ngugi’s immense success in what he has been preaching, he has attracted both admirers and ‘enemies’ in equal measure.
  • Since 1980s, Ngugi has kept this promise, although he has only been churning out creative works in Gikuyu and none in Kiswahili.

Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o is arguably Kenya's most revered literary scholar, writer, essayist, translator, language, and cultural crusader. His ideology, is anchored on the lamentations of the problematic centre which can be traced back to the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) – in a poem titled ‘The Second Coming’. William Butler Yeats is considered to be one of the greatest poets of the 20th century.

The Irish poet wrote: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/,The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world..”

Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o's ideology of shifting or moving the centre can be said to be an answer to William Butler Yeats’s or lamentations about the ‘problematic centre’. Literary critics agree that Ngugi’s solution is very simple – yet radical and revolutionary.

Due to Ngugi’s immense success in what he has been preaching, professing and crusading for very many decades, he has attracted both admirers and ‘enemies’ in equal measure. To paraphrase the late Sudanese scholar - Dr Dunstan Wai, who coined the terms – ‘Mazruiphilia’ and ‘Mazruiphobia’, Ngugi wa Thiong’o may have equally experienced ‘Ngugiphilia’ and ‘Ngugiphobia’. These terms simply mean that over the years, few literary critics – if any, have anything dispassionate to say about both Ali Alamin Mazrui and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. The two scholars have been vilified and adored.

Not so long ago, in these pages, for example, Prof Henry Indangasi of the University of Nairobi, wrote a series of articles belittling and purporting to set the record straight about the role of Ngugi, Owuor Anyumba Taban Lo Liyong among other scholars in creation of the Literature Department at the institution.

Ngugi wa Thiongo’s ideology

While most of Ngugi wa Thiong’os writings are about colonisation, decolonisation, cultural and language imperialism, Ali Alamin Mazrui’s writings are triangulated on what he called ‘a triple heritage’. In ‘a triple heritage’, Mazrui Looks at the history, geography, and culture of Africa, assesses native, Arab, and Western influences, and discusses sports, religion, government, and social issues in Africa.

Although I admire Ngugi wa Thiongo’s ideology of ‘moving the centre’, I have sometimes noted some inconsistencies, gaps and or contradictions in his crusade of rooting for the recognition of African languages. In his collection of essays, Decolonising the Mind:The Politics of Language in African Literature (James Carrey), Ngugi wa Thiong’o writes: “This Book, Decolonizing the Mind, is my farewell to English as a vehicle for any of my (creative) writings. From now on, it is Gikuyu and Kiswahili all the way.”

Since 1980s, Ngugi has kept this promise, although he has only been churning out creative works in Gikuyu and none in Kiswahili. Whenever Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o gets an opportunity - particularly in the international arena to root for an African language, more often than not, the writer ‘favours’ his native Gikuyu.

For instance, when he was awarded the Catalonia International Prize, for his daring and distinguished literary work and defense of African languages in 2020, he gave his acceptance speech in Gikuyu. I expected the writer to give his speech in Kiswahili – because by doing so, he would not have gone against his promise in Decolonizing the Mind : “From now on, it is Gikuyu and Kiswahili all the way.”

Another instance where Ngugi wa Thiong’o pledged more royalty to Gikuyu instead of Kiswahili was in the 1990s when New York University wanted to offer him a job. One of the conditions that the writer gave the institution before accepting the offer was that he be allowed to publish a journal in Gikuyu – Mutiiri.

Giving Gikuyu first priority

Prof Ngugi wa Thing’o is said to have ‘blatantly’ rejected Prof Ali Mazrui’s suggestion to make Mutiiri a bi-lingual journal - Gikuyu and Kiswahili. Prof Mazrui argues that although there is an unfounded belief that sometimes Kiswahili stifles other local languages, the publication of Mutiiri in the two languages was a good opportunity for Kiswahili to help Gikuyu to prosper. Mazrui says that Ngugi never quite agreed with him.

In webinar organized by Swahili Heritage Trust, Mombasa on June 22, 2021, to mark Kiswahili Day, Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o gave a speech entitled ‘Kiswahili :Urithi Wetu Afrika (Kiswahili: Our Arican Heritage). The scholar observed: “After the publication of my book – Decolonizing the Mind in 1986, I was invited by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) to talk about the topic: Is English the Global Language? I wrote my lecture in Gikuyu – my m(o)ther tongue but read it in English.”

“The listeners were surprised when I said that English is not fit to be a world (read global) language but Kiswahili is the best candidate in that position.”

It is clear that once again, although Ngugi wa Thiong’o purports to support Kiswahili, he gives Gikuyu the first priority when he gets opportunity to push the agenda of African languages.

It may be argued that Kiswahili does not need Ngugi wa Thiong’o's effort to assert its position in Kenya, East Africa and the world. However, the scholar is a brand that is respected across the world. He should therefore not renege in his promise on promoting Kiswahili whenever he gets any opportunities in the global arena.

Enock Matundura, translator of Moses series (Oxford University Press) teaches Kiswahili literature at Chuka University. [email protected]

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