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Decolonising the Mind


In his book ‘Decolonising the Mind’, Ngugi wa Thiong’o (2006) gives the false impression that decolonising one’s mind is simply a matter of proudly speaking and writing in indigenous African languages. Given Africa’s history of colonisation, it is understandable why Ngugi would argue along these lines. However, Africa’s history of colonisation does not make Ngugi’s argument valid. 

Ngugi argues that he wrote the book to criticise the ‘Afro-European or Euroafrican’ choice of linguistic praxis – that is, to critique black Africans who choose to express themselves in any of the colonial languages (e.g. English and French). The rationale behind such a criticism is to lament a neo-colonial situation which has meant that the Western World once again steals Africa’s talents; only this time with Africans themselves voluntarily and willingly facilitating the thieving, writes Ngugi. To prove that he takes his project seriously, Ngugi explains that Decolonising the Mind "is my farewell to English as a vehicle for any of my writings. From now on it is Gikuyu and Kiswahili all the way."

I understand where Ngugi is coming from. Colonisation brought with it all sorts of oppressions, and it was also able to achieve the division of people into contesting groups based on language, culture, race and class. Consequently, those who were most linguistically oppressed, for example, tended to see this oppression as paramount, while, simultaneously, neglecting to view the colonial oppression in its entirety. As a novelist who began his career writing in English instead of writing in Gikuyu or Kiswahili – indigenous African languages, this might have caused Ngugi to be sensitive to the question of African languages. Thus, according to Ngugi (1991), the language issue is "the key, not the only one, but definitely a very, very important key to the decolonisation process." 

It is understandable that a novelist would be sensitive to linguistic issues, however, for those of us who want to comment on post-colonial reality, it is important that we conceptualise a post-colonial theory that does not foreground our experiences to the point whereby our experiences distort our understanding of the world.

So, rather than focusing on language, the cornerstone of my argument in this essay is that what should inform a decolonisation process is the vision of socio-economic institutions that we believe will bring about an egalitarian society. Only in an egalitarian society can diversity of languages and cultures be truly valued and cherished.

My point is this, it is a truism that the colonial project devalued and marginalised African languages. However, the process of decolonising one’s mind ought to be more than just speaking and being proud of African languages. At its very core, the project to decolonise people’s minds ought to be about empowering people with intellectual tools that broadly and intelligently explain reality, and, in addition, it needs to be a project that informs people’s understanding of their place in the world.

Also, it should be pointed out that it is possible for one to proudly express oneself in an African language, while at the same time, subscribing to oppressive interpretations of reality (i.e. authoritarianism, sexism, classism and elitism). Radical activists, academics, and writers ought to talk about a decolonisation process that involves a fundamental societal transformation – as far as class, race and gender relations are concerned.

Language is also important; however, if our goal is to raise consciousness so that people will understand the root of their oppression, focusing on language will not compel us to come up with solutions to deal effectively with the system.  In the end, what is needed is a theory that can help us relate sensibly to post-colonial reality. It is in this spirit that I explore some of the theoretical pitfalls that Ngugi falls into in his discussion of decolonisation of the mind.

ANALYSIS

Language

Ngugi (2006) argues that the biggest weapon unleashed daily by imperialism against the collective resistance of the post-colonial masses is the ‘cultural bomb’. My understanding is different to Ngugi’s. To me, the cultural bomb is part and parcel of the larger neo-colonial project. The neo-colonial project consists of multifaceted socio-economic strands, and to single out one as the ‘biggest bomb’ is to miss the point. What we ought to strive for is to understand and to deal with the neo-colonial creature as a whole.

Ngugi does have a point, however, when he explains that the effect of the cultural bomb is to annihilate a people’s beliefs in their names, languages and heritage. Be that as it may, I am of the opinion that in a truly democratic society, an individual would choose his/her own language of preference, and cultural community rather than have elders or other guardians of heritage define their choice for them. Hence, in an egalitarian society, questions such as the ones that Ngugi grapples with in his ‘Decolonising the Mind’ would be utterly irrelevant and trivial. To illustrate my point, Ngugi, for example, asks: "Why, we may ask, should an African writer, or any writer, become so obsessed by taking his mother-tongue to enrich other tongues? (p. 8)"

One of the reasons that compelled Ngugi to pay attention to linguistic oppression was the fact that in colonial Kenya, English became "more than a language: it was the language, and all the others had to bow before it in deference. (p. 11)". According to Ngugi, any achievement in spoken or written English was rewarded, and English became the measure of intelligence.

A language is a mere tool; it can be used to advance any kind of agenda. In colonial Africa, as Ngugi writes, English was used to advance the colonial project which was based on white supremacist thinking. Consequently, all things originating from the West became a symbol of enlightenment and progress; while all things associated with Africa were seen as primitive and inferior. White colonisers used this racist logic to justify slavery, exploitation and mass-murder of Africans.  Thus many colonialists saw themselves as being on a mission to civilise ungrateful  Africans.

The people who designed the colonial agenda understood that the racist ideology was necessary to carry out the economic plunder and exploitation of Africa. And that understanding gave the colonial project the momentum it needed.

So, it is imperative that post-colonial thinkers who are concerned with a decolonisation project understand and talk about the colonisation project in its entirety. To single out the linguistic aspect of the colonisation project as the most oppressive is misleading at best; and counter-effective at worst.

Writers

Ngugi writes that since the ‘Conference of African Writers of English Expression’, which was held in 1962, African writers who practise their craft in English have given the world a unique literature – and that literature has "consolidated itself into a tradition with companion studies and a scholarly industry."  He adds that right from the start it was the literature of the petty bourgeoisie originating from colonial schools and universities. "It could not be otherwise, given the linguistic medium of its message (p.20)."

It is true that schools and universities exist to maintain the status quo. After all, under oppressive systems, such as colonialism and capitalism, the main function of schools and universities is to produce workers.  Hence, under capitalism and colonialism, schools will tend to train and socialise students to accept and to maintain the social order. And, this social goal of education is achieved regardless of whatever language schools use to instruct their students.

For example, in a capitalist economy, the structure of social relations in schools reproduces the capitalist work environment (Gintis, 1997). According to Gintis, the school environment does not encourage any interest on the part of students in acquiring knowledge, but rather compels students to be fixated on their grades. The student then becomes unmotivated by either the process or product of his activities. Students learn to operate in an alienated educational environment in which rewards — i.e. grades, class standing, and the threat of failure, are what count the most. 

This structural analysis of education is applicable to post/colonial education system as well. So, instead of using language to assess in whose interest a particular education system serves, we ought to employ a structural analysis which explains the social role of education far more than language analysis.

The post-colonial literature

Ngugi argues that the unique literature that African novelists who write in European languages gave to the world, expressed the hopes and frustrations of the new ruling class. He points out that this literature helped explain to the world that Africa had a past and a culture of dignity.  Moreover, this literature gave the new ruling class confidence with which to confront the racist bigotry of Europe; and "this confidence manifested in the tone of the writing, its sharp critique of European bourgeois civilisation, its implications, particular in its negritude mould…(p.21)."

However, when the new ruling class strengthened, rather than weakened, the economic dependence with imperialism, this literature became critical, cynical, disillusioned and bitter, writes Ngugi. Consequently, instead of viewing Africa as one mass of historically wronged blackness, these writers attempted some sort of evaluation of neo-colonial societies. But, this evaluation was done within the confines of the languages of Europe, and according to Ngugi, this limited the effectiveness of its criticism, simply because the audience it was directed to could not access it due to language barriers.  

Here I agree with Ngugi. One’s language must match one’s intended audience. Where I disagree with Ngugi is when he attempts to make sense of this new class of writers. For example, Ngugi writes that this new class of African writers has historically tended to oscillate between the new ruling class and the working class. Thus, this class’ lack of identity in its social and psychological make-up is reflected in the literature it produces. Ngugi further explains that by avoiding dealing with the language issue, this literature wears ‘false robes of identity’. And, in wanting to deal with its uncomfortable situation, some of the writers from this class ‘over-insist’ that European languages are African languages – "…by trying to Africanise English or French usage…(p. 22)." 

Firstly, this new class of writers and intellectuals that Ngugi argues has no social and psychological make-up, does have a social and psychological make-up. Secondly, to understand this class’ identity, its politics and its social and psychological make-up, one must employ a structural analysis of this class genesis.

Through education, this class was socialised to guard and maintain the colonial status quo. However, the authoritarian and white supremacist based colonial education produced its own rebels – the Negritude come to mind here. It did this almost automatically simply because of its racist curriculum. And these rebels, just like Ngugi focuses on language, tended to narrowly focus on fighting the racism and Eurocentrism they had to deal with on a daily basis. Since this class of intellectuals was generally economically privileged compared to the rest of the working class in the colony; naturally, they understood the stumbling block to their economic and social freedom through race. Hence their support of nationalistic movements who led the decolonisation project in the 1960s. 

Similarly, the criticism that this class of intellectuals make of post-colonial government should be understood by employing a structural analysis. I like to call this class a ‘coordinator class’. The main characteristics of the coordinator class in a colonial state are that: this class has antagonistic relations with both the colonialist and the colonised masses of the people. And in a post-colonial state, this class has antagonistic relations with both the new black ruling class and the working class.

Generally, the coordinator class’ criticism of the post-colonial government is ‘liberalish’ in content and form. It is quite content with the privileges, high social status and prestige it receives as a social class, but is disturbed by massive poverty that exist side-by-side with its class privilege. And, so, it criticise the government for not doing more to uplift the poor, but at the same time defend its class privileges ruthlessly.

It is not a mistake that the coordinator class employs a language that is not accessible to the working class to criticise the government. The criticism, after all, is meant for the ruling class ears and for other members of the coordinator class. And that has nothing to do with people being linguistically colonised, but rather reveals the kind of politics that this coordinator class subscribes to. It shows that this coordinator class is not interested in working class politics, let alone a working class revolution. It is happy with its class privilege; but believes that poverty levels ought to be reduced a little.

Ngugi arrested

In December 1977, Ngugi was arrested by Kenyan authorities and detained without trial for the whole of 1978. Ngugi writes that this experience compelled him to write a novel "in the very language which had been the basis of my incarceration."

When one looks closely at the factors surrounding Ngugi’s ban from the University of Nairobi, his arrests and why he was forced to go into exile, one finds that it is unlikely that he was arrested for expressing himself in an African language.  Rather, the authorities might have felt that Ngugi was threatening the social order by spreading ‘dangerous ideas’ among the poor, and so they attempted to silence him by detaining him without trial.

For example, just before being detained without trial, Ngugi was part of the Kamiriithu Community Education and Cultural Centre which had organised a play called Ngaahika Ndeenda. Written and performed in an indigenous African language, the play tells a story of working class people in post-colonial Kenya. According to Ngugi, the play drew heavily on the Kenyan history of the struggle for land and freedom. Basically, "…it showed the transition of Kenya from a colony with the British interests being dominant, to a neo-colony with the doors open to wider imperialism interests from Japan to America (p. 44)."

The show was a success. People came from afar to see it – raining or not. Ngugi writes that people could identify with the characters, and that the language of the play became part of the people’s daily vocabulary and frame of reference.

Seeing the success of the show and fearing what it could potentially lead to, the Kenyan government banned any public performance of the show in November 1977. Fifteen days later, Ngugi was arrested and detained without trial.

To get a full picture of what was at play here one has to take into consideration the state of global politics and economy at the time. The 1973 oil crisis and the subsequent slowdown of growth in the global economy had a devastatingly negative impact on Africa (Currey , 1998). For example, about half of the countries in Africa experienced negative per capita growth rates between 1973 and 1980. Also, there was a sharp deceleration in manufacturing growth, which fell to 3 percent per annum for Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).

According to Currey, to survive these hard times, many Sub-Saharan African countries used loans accessed through international bank lending.  That led to a situation whereby the short-term lending to Sub-Saharan African countries rose from $2.5 billion in 1976 to $22.6 billion in 1980; furthermore, the  "net new long-term borrowing by SSA from all sources rose from $3 billion in 1976 to $11.5 billion in 1980," writes Currey. Kenya was among the countries which were considered to be major borrowers of these funds.

With so much at stake, the international financial institutions and the Kenyan government did not want a ‘rabble rouser’ going around telling people that the new ruling class which was supposed to roll out a radical decolonisation project was actually implementing a neo-colonial agenda –  financed by big capital. And so, the Kenyan government clamped down on what it perceived to be a threat to social order. It arrested and forced Ngugi into exile and outlawed the Kamiriithu Cummunity Education and Cultural Centre (KCECC) – and while at it, banned all theatre activities in Kamiriithu area.

It seems to me that what the Kenyan government was most afraid of were political ideas expressed in the KCECC theatre more than the language that was used to express those ideas. It is true that the fact that the language used to express those ideas was accessible to working class people made the show popular among working class people.

What I take out of this is that language was used as a tool to build consciousness and to spread political ideas, but the real threat to the powers that be were the ideas used to raise consciousness. The Kenyan government was quite happy to allow people from the Kamiriithu Community to speak their indigenous African language until they wanted to discuss politics and the economic direction the country was taking. That was their real transgression as far as the state was concerned. Had they used a different language or even a European language, the state would have still clamped down on them.

And that is the issue here.

Conclusion

What should the process of decolonising the mind entail in the 21st century? For me that process ought to be informed by the logic that attaining a truly decolonised society does not mean we will be free of our past and colonial influence. Furthermore, the decolonisation process should be based on the premise that individuals have a right to freely choose which language they want to express themselves in or which culture they want to belong to without some self-appointed guardians of heritage dictating what is best for people.

Most importantly, decolonising the mind needs to be informed and shaped by the logic and values of alternative political and economic system that we would like to replace the current neo-colonial system with. If people want African languages respected, then we ought to think about alternative social and cultural institutions that can help bring about a society that appreciates and encourages diversity in all its forms.

If Pan-Africanism or black Marxism did not deliver us to a decolonised, egalitarian society in the 1960s, then we need to approach the subject with a different set of intellectual tools. Last year, I wrote an article entitled ‘Life after colonialism’(see: http://www.zcomm.org/zspace/commentaries/3218 ) in which I argued that for those who are concerned about decolonisation and post-colonial societies, we ought to include, or at least, consider Parecon (http://www.zmag.org/zparecon/pareconlac.htm ) in our debates.

Through this essay, I would like to reiterate that point. 

 

References:

Albert, M. (2004). Thought dreams: Radical theory for the 21st Century. Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing.

Albert, M. (2006). Realising hope: Life beyond capitalism. Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishing.

Bowles, S. & Gintis, H. (1976). Schooling in capitalist America: Educational reform and the contradictions of economic life. New York: Basic Books.

Currey, J. (1998). African development in a comparative perspective. New Jersey: Africa World Press.

Jussawalla, F. (1991). The Language of Struggle. Transition, 54,  pp. 142-154. 

 Gintis, H. (1971). Education, technology, and the characteristics of worker productivity. The American Economic Review, 61, 266-279.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o. (2006). Decolonising the mind: The politics of language in African literature. London: James Currey; Portsmouth: Heinemann.

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