His Defiance: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and the Struggle for an Independent African Literature

These words cannot just exist in a vacuum; they provoke reactions that demand political change.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was born 5 January, 1938 in Limuru, Kenya and is a perennial favourite for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Ngũgĩ is at the forefront of a war of resistance regarding the use of language that has spanned many decades. He advocates that African writers write in their mother tongues, because he understands how integral language is to a culture and its identity. Since African literature is mostly written in languages of the minority, the language of the colonizers, Ngũgĩ asserts that this choice stifles the imagination of Africans and their propensity to be creative.

Nearly fifty years ago, Ngũgĩ wrote his first novel, Weep Not, Child (1964), the first written in English by an Eastern African. Ngaahika Ndeenda (1977), translated as I Will Marry When I Want, was co-written with Ngũgĩ wa Mirii. It is a play that depicts the injustices and excesses of post-colonial Kenya. It was acted by “non-intellectuals” in an open-air theater at the Kamirithu Educational and Cultural Center, Limuru. Ngũgĩ’s Gikuyu play sought to bring the theatre closer to the masses and encourage the audience to interact with the play. The play appealed to a wide audience and, because of the resultant reaction by people, the Kenyan government threw Ngũgĩ in prison for a year.

While in prison, Ngũgĩ abandoned English as a literary language and committed to writing only in Gikuyu. He wrote Caitani Mutharaba-ini (translated into English as Devil on the Cross) on toilet paper while in prison. It is a satire about Kenyan kleptocracy and a powerful critique of capitalism. Six passengers traveling in a matatu from Nairobi to Ilmorog (a fictional place) try to define the truth of their own reality. They are on their way to the feast of the devil to compete for the title of the greatest crook of all. The main character of Caitani Mutharaba-ini is a young woman named Wariinga who is exploited by her boss, a businessman, and jilted by her boyfriend. She later realizes that her struggles are deeply rooted in the problems of the larger society which relates to how Western capitalism influences her country.  She eventually becomes a mechanic and a spokesperson for workers.

Matagari (1986), translated into English in 1989 by Wangui wa Goro, is a political novel told in the form of a parable. The main character, Matagari, teams up with a prostitute, orphan, and worker and forms a resistance group called Matagari ma Njirũũngi, which means The Patriots Who Survived the Bullet. Matagari is disappointed by the political situation in his newly independent country, which remains unnamed in the novel but is implied to be Kenya. The masses were oppressed by fellow countrymen who came to power after the colonialists. Matagri travels through this unnamed country asking the question, “Where is truth and justice?” He asks this question to incite an uprising that will overthrow a corrupt and dysfunctional government.

Mũrogi was Kagogo (2004), or Wizard of the Crow in the author’s own 2008 English translation, is set in a fictional African country, the Free Republic of Aburiria, which is ruled by a despot. The novel is a satire of an African dictatorship and its sycophant ministers. The ruler’s main adversaries are a young couple, Kamiti and Nyawiri. Kamiti is an unemployed youth who is born to a line of seers. He opens shop and dispenses therapeutic sorcery to people, giving them the power to crush their enemies. Nyawiri, his girlfriend, is a radical and women’s rights activist who heads a movement called Voice of the People. Mũrogi was Kagogo is an affirmation of Ngũgĩ ’s belief in the people’s power to resist.

Some of his non-fiction works include Homecoming (1972), Writers in Politics (1981), Barrel of a Pen (1983), Moving the Centre (1993), and Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams (1998). Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986) is a series of lectures discussing culture and the use of language in literature by African writers. Another of his best known and critically acclaimed plays is The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (1976), co-written with Micere Githae Mugo; it is a re-imagination of events leading to the trial and death of a freedom fighter using Gikuyu songs and dances. Ngũgĩ’s books have been translated into more than thirty languages, and they continue to be the subject of books and dissertations.

Ngũgĩ sees himself as a language warrior fighting for weaker languages marginalized due to the inequalities of power that exist between languages globally. He also fights against the general acceptance that African literature is literature in English, as the literature of Africa predates the arrival of white people in Africa. It is archived in oral histories, memories, and indigenous languages.

Ngũgĩ has no problem with writing in English, he sees it as increasing the capacity of the language and acknowledges the contribution of writers writing in English. What he pushes against is the loss of a people’s collective memory. He explains this in an interview published in The Nation: “But the leap that I don’t agree with is that somehow you are advancing the other languages or that English is becoming an African language. Africa has got its own languages. It’s on the African intellectuals to make this case, because it is the intellectuals who are responsible for advancing their language. When an intellectual abandons it to write in another language, it leaves his language with one less mind.”

Writing in Gikuyu forces multilateral interactions between a language, the society, and literature. The deliberate decision to write in Gikuyu before translating his work into English is a reversal of the norm in that he shifts power to the original Gikuyu version. Works written in Gikuyu connect better with his audience, the masses, communicating with them in the language of their daily lives. These words cannot just exist in a vacuum; they provoke reactions that demand political change. Most of Ngũgĩ ’s work is spurred by Kenyan politics and is in direct confrontation with despotic regimes.

Ngũgĩ is a social critic who is unrelenting in discussing the continent’s present woes by challenging its histories and future. He asserts that African knowledge should stop being filtered through European languages and that Africa cannot be visible through the languages of others. In his book Secure the Base: Making Africa Visible in the Globe (2016), he declares that a united Africa will be empowered to make equal cultural exchanges with other cultures of the world when it is in contact with a stable living base—the masses. It is the only way African languages can be exchanged with other languages in the world and exist on an equal standing.

In a continent where over two thousand languages are spoken but writers mostly write in the languages of the colonizers, the translation of African literature into African languages is an exception rather than the norm. This creates an unfortunate situation in which a huge chunk of the African population is cut off from an immediate cultural and linguistic conversation. Ngũgĩ connects the African past, present, and future by casting his eyes on the continuing effects of colonialism and how the language of the colonizer makes indigenous languages subservient to it, as he articulates in his interview with The Nation: “I realized that when I looked at the history of colonialism, the colonizer not only imposes his language, but he denigrates and represses the languages of the colonized. So, the condition of learning English was the unlearning of our language, which continued into the postcolonial era . . . So wherever you look at modern colonialism, the acquisition of the language of the colonizer was based on the death of the languages of the colonized.”

In an NPR interview, he describes the loss of African languages as one of the continent’s greatest tragedies. Language is a keeper of a people’s collective memories. We have a greater tragedy on our hands when writers lack a connection to their traditional linguistic systems and intellectuals are cut from their collective memory and history. “Language and literature took us away from ourselves to other selves and our world to other worlds.” Ngũgĩ argues that studies in English and other European languages mean that educated Africans can no longer communicate with their communities or even their families, “The messenger . . . becomes a prisoner. He never returns . . . because he stays within the language of his captivity.”

Ngũgĩ’s enduring rallying cry has led Jalada Africa, a Pan African writers’ collective, to curate a translation issue in which Ngũgĩ’s fable “Ituĩka Rĩa Mũrũngarũ: Kana Kĩrĩa Gĩtũmaga Andũ Mathiĩ Marũngiĩ” (“The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright”) was translated into thirty languages, making it the most translated short story in the history of African writing. Most of the languages were African.

As a Distinguished Professor of English and comparative literature and the Director of the International Centre of Writing and Translation at the University of Irvine, Ngũgĩ continues to write. On advisement from his wife Njeeri to record his memories and life for his grandchildren, Ngũgĩ published three memoirs: the elegiac Dreams in a Time of War (2010), In the House of the Interpreter (2012), and Birth of a Dream Weaver (2016). It is certain that Ngũgĩ will continue to champion the promotion and preservation of African languages as well as the memories and histories they archive. As a scholar and social critic, his essays will frame discourses on bridging the power inequality between languages of the colonized and colonizers, as well as start a renaissance in writing literature in African languages. His work will continue to shift our views, decolonize our minds, and mobilize our actions. And hopefully, his illustrious career and legacy will one day be crowned with a well-deserved Nobel.

Photo credit: Daniel A. Anderson.

Olufunke Ogundimu is an Editor at Large (Nigeria) for Asymptote. She holds degrees from the University of Lagos and the MFA International Programme in fiction from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She is on the 2018 Caine Prize for African Writing shortlist, and her work has been published in Red Rock Review, New Orleans Review, Transition Magazine, Johannesburg Review of Books, and is forthcoming in the 2019 Pushcart Prize anthology. She is currently working on a historical novel and a short story collection.

Read more about African literature from the Asymptote blog: