Without our own language, our experiences are lost, so are we

Friday September 18 2020

Kenyan literature writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o (right) claps during the launch of his book 'Wirute Gikuyu Kiega' at Kirinyaga University on February 14, 2019. He has urged Kenyans to embrace their mother tongue as a way of strengthening their culture. PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI | NMG


Debates on whether or not Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o will finally take home the Nobel Prize for Literature — expected to be announced in the first week of October — usually begin to heat up at around this time of the year.

The name Ngugi wa Thiong’o is so often mentioned in the same breath as the elusive Nobel that last year BBC’s pidgin service headlined its announcement for the 2019 winner of the Nobel for Literature, not on the winner, but on Ngugi.

“Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s failure to win 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature shock pipo” the headline solemnly announced, followed by an explanation detailing why “pipo” were shocked. “Dis go be di 9th time di 81-year-old author don dey miss di ogbonge Nobel Literature prize, since 2010 wey dem don dey nominate am for di prize.” The 2019 and 2018 winners were only mentioned in the fifth sentence “na Polish author, Olga Tokarczuk and Austria’s Peter Handke.”

This week, people are talking about Ngugi, the illustrious son of Africa again. The Catalan government awarded Ngugi the 31st Catalonia International Prize, its most prestigious award. The intense debate, particularly in Kenya, has been on the merits and demerits of Ngugi’s use of his mother tongue, Gikuyu, in his acceptance speech.

The prize acknowledged Ngugi’s renowned advocacy for indigenous languages.

Like Ngugi, I am a great supporter of mother tongues. In November 2019 I wrote in The EastAfrican Speaking mother tongue won’t bring down the Tower of Babel of a Zimbabwean colleague, Munesa, who began teaching himself to speak his mother tongue by watching movies as he sought answers for questions his children asked about culture. In the process, Munesa became conscious of how much a person’s intergenerational roots and cultural heritage such as proverbs and taboos are carried by language. He has made a lot of progress and is now writing a children’s book to teach his language.


I also engaged my Pan African WhatsApp group on whether it was only in Kenya where the use of the “monto” was predominant. Monto was, in our younger days, a wooden slab students caught speaking their mother tongues in school had to carry around all day.

It turned out that virtually every African country has a variation of the monto. This practice is mostly in favour of the language of the coloniser which is not only examined in schools but opens up several windows of opportunities. In August last year, I wrote of the unbelievably tragic story of two Kenyan brothers, 14 and 16 years old who ended up in court for beating a prefect to death. The prefect had caught the 14-year-old speaking his mother tongue, which was against the school rules, and promised not only to report him but also to ensure he was punished.

How did we develop this affinity to our colonial languages at the expense of our mother tongues? Do we not see how conditioned we are as post colonials when an African can go to Britain or France for two months and come back speaking with a British or French accent yet live in India for 10 years and still retain a mother tongue accent?

How is it that even those who speak different African languages, in addition to their mother tongues, do not pick up the accent of that other African language they speak like happens with colonial languages? Why are those with colonial accents considered fashionable?

Ngugi’s classic Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature helped me examine ways systems of oppression are instituted and maintained through colonial language as a weapon eroding the mother tongue. Ngugi calls the mother tongue “a collective memory bank of a people’s experience of history.”

I agree with the good professor that imperialism makes its victims ashamed of their history, systems of beliefs, colour of their skin and languages.

Languages that have survived for thousands of years are disappearing. The 2019 census gave the number of El-Molo people of Kenya, whose language is disappearing as they now speak Samburu, as numbering only 1,104. The disappearance of a language means the end of a very potent way to tell stories, share knowledge, pass memory from generation to generation, compose music, communicate in gestures, and maintain indigenous identity and dignity.

Rwanda and Burundi provide good language examples in speaking Kinyarwanda and Kirundi but also speak French and English. This means each language has its own defined space.

How I wish we could assign resources to save languages as much as we do for animals and plants facing extinction!

Although the language Ngugi spoke, Gikuyu, is nowhere near extinction, making a case for indigenous languages has been the standard of his long literary career.

May the man of letters bring home to Africa the Nobel for Literature in 2020!