Accomplished Kenyan writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o delivered a public lecture at Wits University, South Africa on Thursday at the university’s National Institute for Humanities and Social Science. Thiong’o is one of the most distinguished African writers alive.
The seminal Kenyan writer delivered a profound lecture, discussing the relationship between culture, language and colonisation, arguing that during colonial conquest, the systematic obliteration of African languages has had the same effect on the mind of Africans, in the same manner the colonial sword did to the African body.
Thiong’o argued that Africans should continue pushing for their respective governments to include their languages in learning institutions to preserve the social, cultural and linguistic heritage.
A leading figure in postcolonial studies, Thiongo’s works: his fiction and prose is greatly respected and taught all over the world, and the writer has inspired many writers across the world.
Across Africa, Ngugi’s books continue to be an integral part of the literature syllabus. His book Decolonising the Mind, which was published in 1986, is widely considered his most important work, which has immensely contributed to the discourse on post-colonialism.
Years ago, Thiong’o gave up using the English language and has since committed to writing in African indigenous languages, a radical and controversial decision. During the public lecture, Thiong’o argued that language is at the centre of decolonisation, and warned that, “Use English but don’t let English use you”. Thiong’o also argued that having knowledge of English without knowledge of your mother tongue is akin to enslavement.
While Decolonising the Mind could be regarded as Thiong’o magnum opus, Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance (2009) is another masterpiece, an important work, which explores various critical issues, from Africa’s historical, economic, and cultural fragmentation by slavery, colonialism, and globalization.
A review of Something Torn and New notes: “Throughout this tragic history, a constant and irrepressible force was Europhonism: the replacement of native names, languages, and identities with European ones. The result was the dismemberment of African Seeking to remember language in order to revitalize it, Ngugi’s quest is for wholeness. Wide-ranging, erudite, and hopeful, Something Torn and New is a cri de coeur to save Africa’s cultural future”.
In his public lecture at Wits University, Thiong’o further explores one of his foremost concerns, the critical importance of language to culture, and explores how African indigenous languages have continued to be sidelined over the years. Thiong’o noted that, African languages have often been associated with shame and subjugation while English is associated with sophistication and Science.
In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon argues that “to speak a language is to take on a world, a culture”. The quote resonates with the central ideas of Thiong’o’s public lecture, when he advocates for Africans to make a conscious effort to speak among themselves in their indigenous languages.
In the lecture, Thiong’o reiterated the importance of learning the mother tongue and local cultural histories and ended by saying “if you know your mother tongue and add it with all other languages, that is empowerment”.