Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Living Legacy

By Alex Park

In his memoir of a career spent in the Kenyan resistance against British rule, Warhiu Itote describes a scene in Burma during World War II, where, during a conversation with a black American soldier, he became of aware of his mental condition as a colonial subject for the first time. “Some of you will believe it when you’re told that the white way of life, the white religions, everything white is the best thing for Africans to believe in and follow,” the soldier asked to the future general’s astonishment. “Then who will be willing to fight for your freedom?” Itote, like so many other Kenyans of the time, realized then that he was unwittingly suffering from a colonization of the mind.

On Wednesday, Macalester hosted one of Africa’s great intellectual liberators.
Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, the 69-year-old champion of African self-identity, was among the first in the post-colonial era to suggest that African writers should speak their own languages, tell their own stories, and honor oral traditions as much as the West honored its classics-and to be taken seriously for it.

Born in Kenya, Ngugi attended undergraduate school at Makerere University in Uganda. As a writer, he championed the Kenyan post-colonial experience in a series of widely-acclaimed English language novels.

Yet at the time Ngugi was building a reputation as an influential thinker, an independent Africa was well in the midst of a crisis of legitimacy. Colonialism had almost entirely eroded, but in its place, the new leadership had come short of the expectations of everyone except the most cynical foreign observers.

In the earlier part of the 1960s, leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lamumba and Gamal Abdel Nasser were the Ahmadinejad’s and Chavez’s of their day. They made broad claims about the inevitability of African unity, the impervious strength of African socialism, and a soon-to-come day of reckoning for the Western governments that had kept them down until then. Praised at home and ridiculed by Western governments, they were all but gone within half a generation, their plans for progress and unity failing to materialize.

By 1968, Lumumba’s Congolese dream had long given way to Mobuto’s selfish and blood-laced nightmare. Egypt’s Nasser had been humiliated in the Six Day War, and despite Nkrumah’s insistence that his nation of Ghana-the first black African state to gain independence-would become the envy of the world, it had come under the spell of power, pushing his dream of modernization at the cost of alienating core supporters and causing instability. He was dispelled in a CIA-backed coup.

Even Malcolm X, perhaps the most respected Pan-Africanist of his day, had been dead for three years, shot in cold blood by his former allies in the Nation of Islam, the fulfillment of what had earlier appeared to be paranoid delusions of conspiracy against him.

The old colonizers rejoiced in their vindication.

In attempting to govern itself, Africa had proven that it was capable of governing no one. Africa, they said, could have nothing that was not spoon fed to it by the Western hand.

So it was a shock that year, but resfreshingly so, when Ngugi co-authored “On the Abolition of the English Department.” The essay called plainly for the elimination of the University of Nairobi’s English Department, where he was a professor at the time and where literature of the African Diaspora took a subordinate position to other English language works.

Instead he proposed that a new comprehensive Department of Literature, in which African novels and oral traditions would be placed at the center of teaching and research.

Despite originating as an inter-departmental memorandum, the piece would become part of the basis for the emerging post-colonial school of thought, within which countless scholars would debate and consider the future possibilities of African identity after colonialism.

Even as it was plagued with war and tyranny, Africa, Ngugi proposed, would still have its day.

In the end, it came back to language. Language was where the colonizers of the past had intersected the African experience at its neurological front and conscripted it, changed it, adopting it to the Western mindset at the cost of Africa’s own imaginative possibility.

In 1977, Ngugi published “Petals of Blood,” his third and last book in the English language and co-authored the play “I?Will Marry When I?Want.” The ideas expressed in either accused the Kenyan government of allowing for allowing for the continued subordination of the country to the West. For this challenge, Ngugi was sent to prison without charge, wherein his greatest realization would take place.

“My own decolonization took the form of saying, ‘Wait a minute. The Gikuyu language, an African language, is a language as any other language,'” he told The Mac Weekly in an interview on Wednesday.

It’s hard to believe, but 30 years ago, that was a radical premise.