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On Literature, Literally!

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o – the world-famous Kenyan writer, playwright and academic – has become the voice of those African people who are not able to tell their own stories in their own languages. Thiong’o experienced the brutality of the colonial rulers in his country many decades ago. And that experience encouraged him to tell the story of oppressed African people! In many of his publications, he clearly mentioned that Kenyan leaders had established a dictatorial and corrupt political system after the colonial masters left the country. Thiong’o had to spend many days in jail and to leave his country for openly criticising the ruling class. He started writing in ‘Gikuyu’ language after realising the real character of the rulers, as Thiong’o thought that the use of ‘English’ language would not help him come closer to his countrymen. The author has not only concentrated on the history of Africa, but also on dreams and dreads of the younger generation. Today, he is not only a representative of Africa, but of the entire world! He slowly emerges as a unique compass that guides people to return to their mother-tongues.

In his publication ‘Decolonising the Mind’ (Heinemann Educational, 1986), Thiong’o wrote that Independence is not enough, and decolonisation of a former colony is also important. According to the author, the most crucial thing is to get rid of the colonial mentality left by the foreign rulers. Thiong’o stated that countries, like Kenya, needs to rediscover their own history lost because of years of oppression. And for that, the oppressed people would have to sensitise their countrymen about the reality through mother-tongues. Indeed, it’s a difficult job, as the oppressed people have to reject the idea of modernity as described by the West (especially Europe) in order to get success! Thiong’o tried his best to discover the African sensibilities and voices following his own path. It is to be noted that the literature, written in English or French, has always tried to portray the African people as contemptible. At the same time, the English and French literatures have also glorified the Western value system. Thiong’o, like Chinua Achebe of Nigeria, is yet to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature…


Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Thiong’o published his first three novels in English under the name ‘James Ngugi’. It is to be noted that his ‘Weep Not, Child’ (1964) was the first English novel to be published by an East African. The novel was about the effects of the ‘Mau Mau’ uprising (1952-1960) on the lives of ordinary people, and on one family in particular. When the British colonial rulers crushed the armed uprising, many Kenyan villages were destroyed and thousands of people were killed. In Weep Not, Child, Thiong’o wrote that the most effective weapon of colonial powers is to stop the use of popular names in their colonies. He opposed the British rulers’ decision to use Christian names, instead of local community names and to send Kenyans to different countries as slaves. Later, Thiong’o decided to use his original name, and not the pseudo name (James Ngugi). In Gikuyu, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o means Ngũgĩ, the son of Thiong’o!
Thiong’o started writing novels in Gikuyu in 1977, as he wanted to reach to the hearts of his countrymen through his creations. Nearly a decade ago (in 1968), he urged the Nairobi University to scrap the Department of English Literature and to establish a Department for teaching African languages and linguistics! The move had triggered a worldwide controversy, as Thiong’o raised an important question: Why it should be mandatory for the students of linguistics to study English language and literature? According to Thiong’o, it was unfortunate that (only) those, who had backed the colonial domination (in a way), and enriched English literature with their creations, were honoured with ‘Best Author’ awards… The Kenyan writer argued that there are so many languages in the world, and each of them has produced quality literature!

Once, Thiong’o attended a literary conference in New York. Speaking at the event, an Italian writer said that the Italian language was not like the Bantu languages, which had just two-three words… As Thiong’o’s language Gikuyu belongs to the Bantu family, he felt insulted! According to Thiong’o, it is unfortunate that a person from Europe, with no idea about the depth and richness of African languages, made loose comments at an international conference. And, soon after his arrival in Nairobi (post that conference), he urged his friends not to create African literary works in European languages. He made it clear that the Africans should decide who would enjoy their literature, stressing that the African languages should be a part of the Modern Literature!
Thiong’o set up an Open Air Theatre in Kamiriithu Village in 1977 and staged his landmark play ‘Ngaahika Ndeenda’ (or ‘I Will Marry When I Want’, co-written with Ngugi wa Mirii). The controversial play, which covered post-colonial themes of class struggle, poverty, gender, culture, religion, modernity versus tradition, marriage and family, was a commercial success! However, the theatre was shut down by the authoritarian Kenyan regime six weeks after its opening. Daniel arap Moi, the then Vice President of Kenya, ordered the Police to detain Thiong’o. He was subsequently imprisoned for over a year…

While in jail, Thiong’o used toilet papers to write his first novel in Gikuyu – ‘Caitaani Mutharaba-Ini’ (or ‘Devil on the Cross’, 1980) – which focused mainly on the politically challenging role of international money and culture in Kenya! Although he was released from the jail after Amnesty International’s intervention, he took shelter in the US after being harassed by the Kenyan government… He worked as a Visiting Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Yale University during his stay in the US. Thiong’o also wrote a number of political articles in the US, where he spent 22 years.

He returned to Kenya only after the fall of President Daniel arap Moi in 2002. Moi was not just an individual, but (for him) a Symbol of a Rotten System! It was seen that miscreants attacked the residence of Thiong’o and humiliated the author. Even, they sexually harassed his wife, Njeeri… It was then that the author decided to leave Kenya forever!
During his visit to India in February 2018, Thiong’o told actor-director (with Jana Natya Manch) Sudhanva Deshpande that how a storyteller could declare a war against Authoritarianism! His last novel ‘Mũrogi wa Kagogo’ (or ‘Wizard of the Crow’, 2004) brings the dual lenses of fantasy and satire, to bear upon the legacy of colonialism not only as it is perpetuated by a native dictatorship, but also as it is ingrained in an ostensibly decolonised culture itself…

Thiong’o, who writes in his mother-tongue, reaches the global community through translation. His books have reportedly been translated in more than 30 languages. He has decided not to write in the language of the rulers! He has taught us how to respect all the languages. It is hence, Thiong’o should not (it is felt) be considered as a Kenyan national, but as a Global Citizen, with immense Self-Assertion, with a genuine respect for his Roots!

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