Wednesday, 05 December 2018 18:14

Decolonising the mind: the life and work of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

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Decolonising the mind: the life and work of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Jenny Farrell celebrates the life and work of the African Marxist writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.

Ngũgĩ turned 80 this year. He was born into colonial Kenya in 1938 and witnessed in his youth the Mau Mau War of Independence, which ended in1962.

Ngũgĩ has written prolifically. His first major novel Weep Not Child was published in 1964, followed by The River Between and A Grain of Wheat in 1967. Arguably his most famous (non-fiction) book is Decolonising the Mind, about the constructive role language in national culture, history, and identity.

In 1967, Ngũgĩ became lecturer in English Literature at the University of Nairobi, where he taught until 1977. Here, he campaigned for the change of name from English to simply Literature department, to reflect a change of focus from English to world literature, with African and third world literatures at the centre. The text On the Abolition of the English Department became one of many challenging the colonial inheritance:

If there is need for a ‘study of the historic continuity of a single culture’, why can’t this be African? Why can’t African literature be at the centre so that we can view other cultures in relationship to it?

The year 1977 was a dramatic turning point in Ngũgĩ’s life. His novel Petals of Blood was published, depicting neo-colonial Kenya uncompromisingly. The same year Ngũgĩ co-authored the savagely critical play, Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want), performed open-air with actors drawn from the workers and peasants of the village.

The play’s presentation of the inequalities and injustices of Kenyan society, and its identification with the cause of ordinary Kenyans, led to Ngũgĩ’s imprisonment without charge at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison on December 31, 1977. During his incarceration, Ngũgĩ decided to abandon English and start writing in his native Gikuyu. He writes about his experiences in his memoir, Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary (1982). In it, Ngũgĩ relates a signal act of resistance: his writing of Caitani Mutharabaini (1981) on prison toilet paper - translated into English as Devil on the Cross (1982).

The reclaiming of African languages as keepers of memory, of African history, became central to Ngũgĩ’s postcolonial struggle. He comments in relation to the slave trade:

The first thing that happened to African people [in the Americas] was forced loss of language and names.


Ninety percent of Africa’s resources are consumed in the west. But somehow the vocabulary has turned it the other way around – it’s the West that ‘helps’ Africa. A few things are returned and they call it ‘aid’.

Amnesty International successfully campaigned for Ngũgĩ’s release a year later, in December 1978. But he had become intolerable to the Moi dictatorship (1978-2002). A plot to kill him forced Ngũgĩ into exile, first in Britain (1982 –1989), and then the U.S. (1989-2002). There were also actual attempts on his life.

His novel, Matigari (1986) describes a man who, having survived the war for independence, hopes for a new and peaceful future. He finds his people still dispossessed and his corrupted land ruled by misery and fear. Hilariously, Dictator Moi, believing the novel’s main character to be an actual person, issued an arrest warrant for him!

Ngũgĩ continued to write prolifically. In 2006 the English translation of the Gikuyu language novel, Murogi wa Kagog, Wizard of the Crow, was published.

This epic comic novel set in the fictitious African “Free Republic” of Aburĩria, scathingly details the corruption, brutality and self-negation of neocolonial African dictatorship. Similarities with Kenya are not accidental, yet its scope encompasses more. It outlines the experience of the African continent in the 20th century, the slavery of its peoples, the colonial legacy as feeding into the neocolonial present:

…the Ruler’s rise to power had something to do with his alliance with the colonial state and the white forces behind it. (…) his friends in the West needed him to assume the mantle of the leader of Africa and the Third World, for Aburĩria was of strategic importance to the West’s containment of Soviet global domination. The Ruler accused the Socialist Party of forming one link in the chain of the Soviet ambitions. Aburĩria did not fight Western colonialism in order to end up under Eastern Communist colonialism, he declared (…) It is said that in only a month he mowed down a million Aburĩrian Communists, rendering the Ruler the African leader most respected by the West …

The leader of the underground resistance movement is a woman, Nyawĩra, who from the start emphasises a class analysis of society and the need and possibility of change. This courageous person finds a partner in Kamĩtĩ, whose opposition to the status quo grows over time as he gets to know and love her.

He brings to the relationship a tremendous amount of humour, a willingness to hide, heal and mock by impersonating a witch doctor, as well as knowledge of the medicinal properties of African plants. Together they forge the main positive and hope-giving force in the novel. They are supported by other brave people in the community, including some who grow into this role, some who change sides and those who do not betray. The most heroic among those resisting the many manifestations of the regime are women, who are shown to oppose and overcome domestic violence and other controlling relationships.

It is absolutely clear that Ngũgĩ cannot conceive of true African liberation without that of women – they are instrumental in bringing this about. Their emancipation is intrinsic to the liberation and freedom of their country. In fact, a women’s court to punish perpetrators of domestic violence is established as part of the Movement for the Voice of the People.

Nyawĩra puts this in Marxist terms:

I believe that black has been oppressed by white; female by male; peasant by landlord; and worker by capital. It follows from this that the black female worker and peasant is most the oppressed. She is oppressed on account of her colour like all black people in the world; she is oppressed on account of her gender like all women in the world; and she is exploited and oppressed on account of her class like all workers and peasants in the world. Three burdens she has to carry. Those who want to fight for the people in the nation and in the world must struggle for the unity and rights of the working class in their own country; fight against all discriminations based on race, ethnicity, color, and belief systems; they must struggle against all gender-based inequalities and therefore fight for the rights of women in the home, the family, the nation, and the world ….

Throughout this satirical novel the West’s involvement with the corrupt regimes in Africa is highlighted, here in particular with the Global Bank, from which they hope to secure an enormous loan, which in turn will lead to unparalleled austerity. However, the country’s political instability ultimately prevents this. When the country’s autocracy begins to crumble, the West plans a military coup.

Yet, Ngũgĩ rejects Western journalists’ favourite image of Africa:

they believed that a news story from Africa without pictures of people dying from wretched poverty, famine, or ethnic warfare could not possibly be interesting to their audience back home.

He underlines the humanity of the people above all and Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere is referred to positively in this novel. Nyawĩra and Kamĩtĩ’s ability to laugh together at the absurdity of the regime is in itself a sign of their strength, courage and moral high ground. By rejecting the generalised Western media African stereotype, Ngũgĩ enables the reader to draw parallels to other dictatorships around the world, mentioning those of Marcos, Pinochet and Apartheid South Africa at the very end of the book.

One of the most memorable moments in the novel is when one of the characters on the government side becomes afflicted by a psychological condition that makes him want to become white. Kamĩtĩ, as Wizard of the Cow, manages to ‘cure’ him by demonstrating that white is not white and he could easily end up a homeless white ex-colonial, after having renounced his name and language, in an ironic self-imposed re-play of the fate of the slaves. Ngũgĩ’s point is not just satirical, but also poignant in the careerist’s willingness to negate himself.

Although the government men are corrupt, superstitious and paranoid as well as willing to kill indiscriminately for personal gain, they are not beyond grasping where all this will ultimately lead to:

The Global Bank and the Global Ministry of Finance are clearly looking to privatise countries nations, and states. They argue that the modern world was created by private capital. (…) What private capital did then it can do again: own and reshape the Third World in the image of the West (…) The world will become one corporate globe divided into the incorporating and the incorporated. We should volunteer Aburĩria to be the first to be wholly managed by private capital, to become the first voluntary corporate colony, a corporony, the first of the new global order.

What is distilled in these quotes is written into the fabric of the novel, from where it inscribes itself indelibly into the reader’s imagination and becomes much more. The text is enriched with African fable-telling and humour. And one thing is made perfectly clear: there is no magic. It is a hilarious, exciting and brilliant read – it is a masterpiece.

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