Deconstructing the Ngugi wa Thiong'o mind

Sunday July 09 2023

Renowned Kenyan author Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o. PHOTO | FILE


A few weeks ago, The Guardian published a lenghty article after a Kenyan journalist, Carey Baraka, spent three days with literary giant Ngugi wa Thiong'o at his home in the suburbs of California, in the US.

Predictably, almost all the fuss on social media was about the impending divorce of the Kenyan literature icon from Mary Njeeri, his wife of three decades, and his benign medical condition in the US.

This is not the time, nor the space, to either delve or attempt to dissect those issues — but the octogenarian author of worldwide renown did raise some remarkable language issues that have, remarkably, gone on for too long.

First, Prof Ngugi dismissed not just Kenyan Sheng, and its urban "Engsh" counterpart, but also Nigerian pidgin (and all creole languages in the Commonwealth) as ''normalised abnormality''.

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For decades, Ngugi has been dismissive of any tongue that merges a European and a local language, as Sheng does Kiswahili and English, claiming it is the colonised trying to claim the coloniser’s language, and therefore, in his words, ''becomes a local version of (lingual) enslavement''.


Let us put this thought within the time frame of The Great Man, and the context of our time.

Ngugi was born in 1938, at a time when the "ruling" political party in Kenya's Central province was the KCA (Kikuyu Central Association) led by the likes of Harry Thuku, and with its most Anglophilic member Jomo Kenyatta in faraway England as he penned Facing Mount Kenya.

Ngugi’s teenage sensibilities, by his own admission, were shaped by the colonialists' brutal war on the Mau Mau, which he viewed as a battle against his Agikuyu people, and in later years after his "dalliance with Alliance," arrived at a romantic, albeit ethnocentric view on his ethnic language (Gikuyu), and later other mother tongues, as the carrier of all that is intellectually pure and free, and true to the African soul.

As the Kenya African National Union (Kanu) versus Kenya African Democratic Union (Kadu) row raged on in the Lancaster House conferences [in which Kenya's constitution and independence were negotiated between 1960 and 1963] in Great Britain — becoming smaller by the day with every other African country breaking away from its colonial yoke — language wars were raging across the continent.

There was resistance by the likes of Nigerian author Obi Wali against "elitist" playwrights like Wole Soyinka, as the former declared that ''African literature can only be written in African languages''.

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Whereas Matunda Nyanchama of Nsiema Press, who publishes books in English and Ekegusii, agrees that Ngugi’s is a noble cause, he said ''we can't be merely linguistic purists trying to hold back the incoming tides of major global language domination."

Adipo Sidang, the author of Parliament of Owls, couldn’t care about some of Ngugi's recent language self-promotional antics, such as procuring the services of the Jalada literary magazine ''to boast about having the most translated tale in the world''. Ngugi's The Upright Revolution is said to be translated into more than 30 languages.

Indeed, Ngugi is in a privileged place, where he can exoticise the mother-tongue literature debate, as Prof Shaul Bassi of the CaFoscari University in Venice admitted.

"We invited him here about 10 years ago," said Bassi in a discussion. Bassi is a specialist in most English bards, like Shakespeare, who gave so much to the English language.

Former ambassador to Kenya, Dr Mokhtar Ghambou, who was a student of Ngugi in Yale in 1989, appreciates the literature icon for his ''decolonising the mind'' theory, but still thinks Ngugi may be mistaking the tools (language) for the substance (culture).

In other words, away from the propaganda of linguistic purism, someone with a perfect soul and mind understanding of their Pan-Africanism, for example, can express it in perfect English to undermine foreign mindsets, and be the mockingbird to the makers of stereotypical trope.

My issue is with the code of modern languages that Ngugi fallaciously calls a ''normalised abnormality''. What would really be abnormal is if languages stayed in a perfect state, spoken as pure English, Kiswahili, Kikuyu or Ekegusii, et cetera.

The French we hear spoken in Paris isn’t the same one your ear will catch in a street in Casablanca, or on a train in Montreal.

Spoken language, especially, becomes a code of argot, slang flung into jargon, a pidgin, a creole lingua, our ever-evolving Engsh, now mainstreamed into every online advertisement seeking to sell anything to Gen Z or millennials.

Ngugi, 85, left Kenya four decades ago, to return in 2004, and even then, for a brief homecoming.

The year he left, 1983, was when Sheng was at its infancy in Kenya, — with its 'fathe' and 'mathe' basics — as the matatu culture took a hold in the Nairobi's Eastlands.

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By the time Ngugi returned to Kenya, as a mid-sexagenarian, Sheng had become the lingua franca of the zeitgeist of a whole post-August 1982 coup generation, the same coup that forced Ngugi into self-exile.

The language of the millennials, or the normalised reality, as to call it an abnormality is really quite an absurdity.

After all, English itself started as an Anglo-Saxon tongue, and in 15 centuries, sucked in Germanic, Norse, Romanic, Celtic, Latinate, French, Indian and even several Swahili words.

Prof Abdulrazak Gurnah, whose Nobel Prize for Literature win in 2021 made Ngugi win very unlikely accolades from book lovers, had this to say on the language debate in an interview last October with this writer: “Language is not a canteen where one careens off to pick up a lingo off the menu and choose to cook a book, just so you can serve ‘mother tongue’ to a specific selection of your customers. Just write well in the language you best know."

Unesco estimates that 3,000 of the world’s 6,500 languages are going to go extinct by the end of the century.

Of the remaining 3,500, only 1,200 will still be spoken in three centuries’ time, with the Big Six being English, Chinese, French, Hindi, Spanish and Kiswahili, with German a possible survivor of this extinction.