Literature and Language in Ngugi wa Thiongo’s Perspective | Rehan Baloch

Literature and Language in Ngugi wa Thiongo’s Perspective

Rehan Baloch

Ngugi Wa Thiong’o was born on January 5, 1938, in Limuru, Kenya. He is also known by his British pen name, James Thiong’o Ngugi, in some parts of the world. He rejected the British gifted name because he believed that his native name carried the traditions, culture, and values of his nation and his country, while the English names given by the European exploiters were nothing but a conspiracy to degrade his native culture and nomenclature. Furthermore, Ngugi studied economics, which he left later and opted for a bachelor’s in English literature at Makerere University, Uganda, in 1963. Later, he graduated from Leeds University, Yorkshire, England. He started his teaching career as a lecturer at  University College in Nairobi, Kenya. He remained senior lecturer and chairman of the Department of English Literature at the University of Nairobi from 1972 to 1977.

Ngugi Wa Thiong’o is the author of many novels and plays and is a critical writer of literature and language from the oppressor and oppressed perspective. His first novel, Weep, Not Child, is a prizewinning book that portrays the story of a Kikkuya family during Kenya’s Independence Movement and the Mau Mau rebellion. His other novels, A Grain of Wheat (1967),The River Between (1967), Petals of Blood (1977) and Devil on the Cross (1980), written in Kikuyu and English, portray the struggle of Kenyan people against the European oppression in social, economical and cultural forms. He is the author of many plays, including The Trial of Deedan Keemathi, and the co-author of I Will Marry When I Want, whose other author included Ngugi wa Mirri. Ngugi wa Thiong’o was arrested and detained without trial for one year by the Kenyan Government for writing ‘I will marry when I want’ that attacks the tactics of the Kenyan elite directly supported by the European imperialist and capitalist system that aims at exploiting the economical structure of the country. Ngugi’s other books, mainly recorded lectures and essays, are namely Homecoming (1972), Writers in Politics (1981), Barrel of a Pen (1983), Moving the Center (1993), and Penpoints, Gunpoints and Dreams (1998), which discuss the role of literature and politics. His book, Decolonising the Mind, is a masterpiece that focuses on the importance and role of language for oppressed people. He has also published three books in the 21st century about his childhood, Mau Mau’s resistance against the British occupation of Kenya, and his years at Makerere University. In the meantime, he is a Comparative Literature and English professor at the University of California, Irvine.

In his notes, The Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci says the revolutions likely to occur in the 20th and 21st centuries are all cultural revolutions. The crux of his notebooks, The Culture Hegemony, is about how the oppressor degrades and hijacks the history and culture of the natives and introduces his own culture in order to create divisions among the oppressed and rule them easily. In order for the oppressed people, he says, the intellectuals of the native class that are conscious of the people and their positions in their land and the world need to launch two wars at the same time to regain their identity and survive the notorious tactics of the oppressor. These include the war of movement and the war of position. However, Ngugi wa Thiong’o says history witnesses the evidence of the past that it has always been possible for the exploiter to rule the people through killings and with the point of a gun, but it is never proved that the exploiter has been successful in completely taking control of war of position which means taking control of the culture of the oppressed. A part of people has always remained conscious of this episode and has remained the change agent against the oppression of the oppressor. Undoubtedly, the oppressor always tries to abrogate the history and culture of the oppressed, just as the British did in Kenya, but there is always some force, just like Mau Mau and their native literature did in Kenya, against British oppression.

In order to understand and absorb the concepts of the culture and literature that play an important role for a nation or a community and that bind that society on the basis of literature, we must understand the base. A community is formed from the concept of Hegalian Civil Society, which starts trading with each other inside that community for the benefit of individuals. This community is formed on the structure of economical production. In order to survive in the community, the individuals begin trading with each other for their own profits. To control the economic production of this community, a political structure is formed to control the flow of the production and inputs and outputs of the people. This political structure for regulating the economic production and control of the people introduces institutions such as education, law, and media. Since this dialectical formation of economical and political structure is based on values and beliefs, these beliefs and values form the basis of culture. This culture is the guiding force of that community in society. Since these values and beliefs are formed on the basis of the economic production and the political structure that regulates this production, in a sense, whoever regulates the production controls the culture and values of the people. Such was the case in Kenya, which got independence from the British in 1963 but remained a neo-colony under an elite economic class supported by the British imperialists. Educational institutions, media and courts were controlled by the class educated and influenced by the British imperialists. As a result, Kenya was indirectly controlled by the foreigners that ruled Kenya comfortably from Europe.

One of the key factors notably in controlling Kenya and Kenyan people, Ngugi notes, is literature and language. He quotes, “Literature is the most subtle weapon for controlling people because it works through influencing emotions, the imagination, and the consciousness of a people”. The literature and the curriculum of educational institutions are concerning because the literature taught and the language in which the literature is taught influence the minds of the students and youth who are the agents of change and the hub of consciousness. For this purpose, Ngugi wa Thiong’o raises four main issues concerning the literature and educational institutions:

  • The relevance and adequacy of the present education system: Whose vision is it?
  • The decision-making personnel: Who should determine how and what we should teach in schools?
  • The teaching staff: Recruits nationals or settlers?
  • Approaches to literature: On whose side are we?

The fourth question is very important because choosing whose side we are on leads us to the answer to the first three questions. There are two opposing aesthetics; the aesthetic of oppression and the aesthetic of the human struggle for total liberation. This leads us to the writers and the readers of a colonized people. Ngugi notes and concludes that there is no neutrality in a colonized land. One is either on this or that side of the line. Choosing to stay silent, trying to maintain one’s self and his family, and working to settle for a status quo decides one is on the side of that line that oppresses and maintains his power over the oppressed. A colonized audience of readers must engage with literature that teaches him his identity and his survival in order to know what position he stands on his native land and the world surrounding him. Such readers will then be able enough to grasp the idea of the hegemony that the state has been maintaining through ideas and with the pinpoint of a gun on his nation.

Ngugi divides the writers into two main categories; the writers who assume that society is static or are simply fatalistic and they believe that whatever is unto them is something divine or because they have sinned in a religious perspective or that their society will change gradually and the writers that are conscious of their state and stand for change, these writers believe change is only possible when people including their own selves stand up against the oppressor and pay them whatever is being offered. However, there are writers in between who stay confused and end up with a conclusion that satisfies them for a short time. These writers are confused with the two antagonistic forces and end up believing that humanism is a possible solution, which is, of course, nothing but a myth. Other than these features of writers, the writer plays an important role in shaping and bringing consciousness to his people the way a politician is influential to an audience since both the writer and the politician trade in words. However, a writer is very influential because the writer imagines and shares his catharsis and shows the people a reflection of society. This is beautifully phrased by Shakespeare, who calls a writer’s imaginative literature a mirror unto nature, a reflection of society.

History witnesses that writers have belonged to both categories because there have been writers who were writers for writers and writers for the people. Okigbo is such an example who was a poet for only poets; he chose to stay silent and remained neutral, which is not possible, who, however, died yet for the Biafran secessionist cause. Other writers chose to write for their people, for their national cause and showed the oppression of the oppressor through their writings. The long list of these writers includes Chinua Achebe, Gabriel Okara,Frantz Fanon, Ngugi, etc. Chinua Achebe notes that in a colonized land, it is impossible for an individual to remain neutral and more impossible for a writer to stay silent. Thus he quotes for the politics of Africa, ”It is clear to me that an African creative writer who tries to avoid the big social and political issues of contemporary Africa will end up being completely irrelevant like that absurd man in the proverb who leaves his house burning to pursue a rate from the flames”. It is true because any literature is useless unless it is committed to the values of a people. Writers from colonized land are bound to show the atrocities and the dominant and dominated relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed. These writings are for the people controlled by the ideas of the intellectuals created by the state to intact his hegemony easily. There are very influential benefits of these writings since these writings, on the one hand, create literature for the colonized nation. On the other, these writings are counter writings of the literature that the oppressor uses to create a class of his own intellectuals on the colonized land. Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Johnson are some of the writers who have contributed to the emerging feel of empirical spirit in their writings for Europe. Take, for example, Shakespeare, who is widely taught in the literature department throughout the world’s educational institutions. We see that Shakespeare is an influential writer for the promotion of Europe’s expansion throughout the world. Let us take the example of Caliban in Shakespeare’s Tempest in the 17th century. This is an era in which Europe has occupied only a small portion of the world. Prospero occupies the land of Caliban and reminds him that he gave Caliban the language he speaks:

When thou didst not, savage,Know thine own meaningbut would gabble like A thing most brutish, I endowed thy purposes With word that made them known.

Prospero calls Caliban’s language mere gabble. Prospero answers:           

You taught me language; and my profit on ‘t Is, I know how to curse: the red plague rid you, For learning me your language.        

Shakespeare gives much more energy to Caliban to suppress Prosperous and Savage; the word he uses then gets used in Europe for the rapist, lazy, stupid and cannibalistic. The main Caliban is a character of FRIDAY in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. This is a conversation between Friday and Crusoe, the narrator. And it is again language that dominates the conversation. When this is taught by teachers, the students are never told that Friday has a language. When Friday speaks, Crusoe does not understand, yet, says he was pleased to listen to Friday. And thus Crusoe speaks:

            “In a little time, I began to speak to him and teach him to speak to me; and first I made him know that his name was Friday, which was the day I saved his life…l likewise taught him to say Master, and then let him know that was to be my name.”

Since this is the 18th Century and Europe has occupied a greater portion of the globe, Defoe also does not give Friday the language of revolt. Such literature is taught worldwide for the European domination in the world, and to tackle such literature of the dominant, the dominated must create his own literature, which should be based on facts and an image of the society in the real figures. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, during his teaching in African universities and colleges, felt that the people of Africa were being taught a literature that was creating views for the people erroneously and with a literature they do not relate to. It is necessary for a nation to study its own literature in order to know its history, culture, values and beliefs before relating itself to the literature of the world produced intentionally to divert the minds of the oppressed.

Furthermore, one of the greatest issues for the colonial people is language. Language, on the one hand, is the tool of communication, and on the other hand, it is the carrier of culture. And no doubt, culture is education, and education is culture. It is basically the identity of a nation. It is metaphorically defined by Ngugi as ”Culture has rightly been said to be to society what a flower is to a plant. What is important about a flower is not just its beauty. A flower is the carrier of the seeds for new plants, the bearer of the future of that species of plants”. It must be remembered that culture can be material and abstract as well. What we are talking about here is abstract culture. It is the abstract culture that carries the values and beliefs, and oral traditions of a nation. Ngugi’s book ‘Decolonising the Mind‘ explores how the politics of language is used to degrade the language of the native and promote the language of the oppressor by the oppressor. Language in educational institutions, along with its own curriculum, is used by the oppressor to control the people’s ideas. Ngugi said that when the native people were caught speaking in their own language, they were punished and they were forced to call themselves donkey and uncivilized since they spoke the language of the uncivilized. Since the younger generation of the nation is taught the language of an outsider when they do not know the language of their own, they forget their values and traditions, which are contained in their own native language. Thus, it becomes easy for the oppressor to maintain his hegemony on this generation and create desires in them, which Fanon calls an ‘Incurable desire for permanent identification with West”. Because their history is not taught, their values and traditions are forged, and they are replaced with the traditions and values of the oppressor contained in his language, this class will be a class that will always support the suppression and oppression of their own natives. It is not easy to call them oppressors, but their involvement leads us to the most famous word used in the colonial lands known as ‘Collaborationist”. In this respect, writers from the colonized land must also keep in mind the fact that the literature they produce should be in their own native language. Ngugi was a writer in English, and then he realized that the literature that he was producing was for his own people but in the language of the oppressor. What these writers, including him (Ngugi later switched writing to his own language), do is they are enriching the literature of the West. Such an example is Joseph Conrad. Joseph Conrad is basically Polish, and he was also fluent in his own native language, but he chose to write in English, and he ended up contributing an important aspect of English Literature. His ‘Heart of Darkness’ has been widely taught in the English literature department worldwide since it was written in English and for the appraisal of European imperialism. What Ngugi says about English, is not studying English for no reason, but he has this long desire for the colonized people to understand and know their own languages in the first place, and then they can learn any language they wish to. The main reason English is taught worldwide and has become a medium for people to communicate in educational institutions is making Europe the center of enlightenment. This is the promotion of Eurocentrism. This basically aims for all the people in every corner of the world to think like Europeans and the West. The way English has become a language of the world, every nation and every language should be on the availability of the universe. Ngugi emphasizes learning languages in a democratic encounter which is impossible in a colonized land. So, it is necessary for a nation to learn the language of its native land and enrich it with its own literature and promote it just the way the West did with the English. To sum up, literature and language are two strong weapons of a nation that are used by the oppressor to control a colonized people on one hand and on the other hand, the oppressed people can use their own literature and language to bring consciousness to their people. ‘Man is not ruled by force only; he is also ruled by ideas as well,’ says Gramsci. These ideas are contained in literature and spread through a language. In the 21st century, it is a curse for a nation that does not speak its own language and studies literature that is not at all related to him anyway. A nation, it is necessary, must enrich its own literature to stand in this capitalist structure of the world. It is not wrong to study literature that is not one’s own, but it is very important for a colonized person to know himself to understand the position he stands on in the oppressive structure of the colonizer and the world. A colonized people need not stay neutral, for there is no neutrality; either one is on this side or on that side of the line. History is evidence of the past revolutions that a nation that does not work on its own literature and languages falls backward and remains fatalistic for its whole life. It is also evidence of the revolutions that have worked on their literature and languages and are known today throughout the world. Ngugi, of Kenya, is a name that is remembered by the colonizer and the colonized people in the world because of his contribution to his own literature and his own language.

Share to