The power of language
Internationally acclaimed writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o wields words to broaden perspectives and write history
By Lisa Fung
Ngugi wa Thiong'o knows firsthand the power of language and what it means when it is taken away.
"For the first few years in school in Kenya, I was taught in the Gikuyu language. English was taught as a subject, not as a means of instruction, recalls Ngugi, a University of California, Irvine Distinguished Professor of English and comparative literature. There was a dramatic change when the African schools, where we were taught in our mother tongues, were banned by the British and were taken over by the colonial government. This was in 1952 because of the Mau Mau war, waged against the British by The Kenya Land and Freedom Army."
Fourteen years after Kenyan independence, Ngugi was arrested in 1977 for writing, once again in Gikuyu. While it was not uncommon for the colonial state to imprison writers who wrote in African languages, ironically now it was the African government that imprisoned a writer for writing in his mother tongue.
For Ngugi, the year in prison was the beginning of his lifelong journey of studying, challenging, documenting and analyzing the role of languages in society.
An award-winning author and founding director of UCI’s International Center for Writing and Translation, Ngugi is a UCI Medalist and recipient of 13 honorary doctorates from African, European, American and New Zealand universities. He is widely seen as a potential Nobel Prize winner. His more than three dozen books, plays, poetry and essays have been translated into more than 30 languages. In 2018, former President Barack Obama included Ngugi's 1967 novel A Grain of Wheat (Heinemann, 1967), set in the wake of the Mau Mau uprising, on his summer reading list, calling it "a compelling story of how the transformative events of history weigh on individual lives and relationships."
From the time he was a child, growing up in rural Kenya, Ngugi recognized the importance of words. He grew up surrounded by an oral tradition of storytelling and tells of his awakening to the magic of stories in his memoir, Dreams in a Time of War.
"I come from a large family - I had four mothers and one father - and we lived in the same compound. We used to meet at each of our mother’s houses for storytelling in the evening," he says.
At the age of nine, Ngugi finally had a chance to attend school. “My mother, Wanjiku, could not read or write,” he says, “but she’s the one who sent me to school. I inherited the dream of education from her.”
Unlike in the U.S. or modern Kenya, school was then not guaranteed. To get there, Ngugi had to travel several miles each way on foot.
Reading and writing in Gikuyu opened up a world to Ngugi that he could not have imagined. At first, the only book available to him in that language was an old copy of a translation of the Old Testament, a hand-me-down from an older half-brother. "I read those stories in the Old Testament over and over again. They were very beautiful, indeed. And dramatic. And terrifying, at the same time," he recalls, smiling at the memory. "Imagine for a child how magical it is to read, say, of Jonah swallowed by a fish and stuck in its belly all through the sea until he is vomited out onto an island. The stories in the Old Testament are in the spirit of magic realism."
The Kenya of Ngugi's youth was a British settler colony, which impacted every aspect of the country, including its culture, land ownership, religion and government. And eventually, its languages.
"I think the British colonial state realized that the African-run schools, where African languages were used, were also very nationalistic," Ngugi says. "During those years of being taught in Gikuyu, I learned about South Africa, I learned of people like Shaka of the Zulu people; ancient Ethiopian and Egyptian civilizations. But in 1952, the same schools were taken over by the colonial state, and the language position changed." The colonial state thought that African-run schools teaching in African languages were fueling anti-colonial ideologies and histories.
During his second year as an undergraduate in Makerere University College in Kampala, Uganda, he had penned his first novel, The River Between, with the second, Weep Not Child, and numerous short stories and plays and journalistic pieces following in fast succession – all written in English. The English language was used as an instrument of colonial oppression, but it also opened new intellectual doors to Ngugi.
"All of the books I read were in English," he says, citing Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Dickens and others. Even African writers like Peter Abrahams of South Africa or Chinua Achebe of Nigeria were writing in English, he says, “so I didn’t think twice about it – English all the way.”
As Kenya gained its independence in 1963, Ngugi earned his degree from Makerere, and he continued his studies at University of Leeds in England. Ngugi tells of this literary awakening in his 2016 memoir, Birth of a Dream Weaver.
His political leanings began to emerge more publicly in the '60s, as an undergraduate through his weekly newspaper column "As I See It” for Kenya’s Nation newspaper.
“I had been thinking about languages for a long time, even when I was a student at Makerere," he says. "In my weekly column, I wrote on many subjects and language is one that kept on coming up."
After Leeds, now with three novels already published, Ngugi began teaching English literature at the University of Nairobi, where he remained a professor for a decade, and published his fourth novel, Petals of Blood, and Homecoming, a book of essays.
Ngugi's life took a dramatic turn when, in 1977, he co-authored with Ngugi wa Mirii the post-colonial class-struggle play “Ngaahika Ndeenda,” or “I will Marry When I Want,” which was written in Gikuyu and performed with local villagers. Ironically, the African-run Kenyan government stopped the play and arrested Ngugi. He was imprisoned at a maximum-security prison in Nairobi.
He was allowed to criticize the Kenyan government in English, “but why did an African government put me in prison when I wrote a play in Gikuyu to be performed by ordinary men and women in the village? Why? An African government putting me in prison for writing in an African language?”
While behind bars, Ngugi began to focus more intently on how language can define cultural identity, and he committed to writing again in Gikuyu. It was during this time that he famously penned his novel, Caitaani Mutharabaini, on prison-issued toilet paper. The novel was later translated as Devil on the Cross (Penguin Classics, 2017).
“The toilet paper we were given was not the kind you find on television. Ours was much harder than that one,” he recalls. "It's meant to punish prisoners, the toilet paper. But it was very good writing material."
In addition to writing surreptitiously, the challenge, Ngugi says, was forcing his mind to think not in English, as he had long been trained, but back in his mother tongue. “It's very difficult to write because I had two language signals competing in my head; my mind was used to English and now I was forcing it to formulate thought in Gikuyu. “Some words describing certain concepts didn’t come easily. I would often get stuck, and the English word would literally knock at the door of my mind, saying, ‘I’m here, I’m waiting for you,’” he says, laughing.
It was challenging, but it also kept him focused. “I was struggling with words instead of struggling with prison conditions,” he says, noting that many of the prison guards spoke Gikuyu and would debate the meaning of words with him. “The prison guards became my language teachers, and unwittingly helped me in my subversive ways. I have described this drama of the language battle for my mind, in the memoir Wrestling with the Devil.”
After his release from prison, Ngugi left his country amid threats of violence and death. He settled in London for a time before taking a position at Yale in 1989, later joining the NYU faculty and teaching comparative literature and performance studies there for a decade. Then came an invitation from UCI, which was looking to launch the International Center for Writing and Translation. They needed a director.
“Everyone knew by then about my interest in the language issue. I’d already published Decolonising the Mind about the unequal power relationship between languages, and here they had offered me the chance to come and head a center where we would do nothing but talk about languages,” he says. “That’s how I came to UCI, and I've loved it very, very much. I have published ten books since joining UCI in 2002.”
The center provided an opportunity for Ngugi to gather speakers from around the world to discuss language issues. He is passionate about one in particular.
“We’ve been socialized into not thinking how destructive it is for non-English speakers to be forced to use English. They are made to acquire English on the condition that they give up their mother tongue,” he says. “That’s what colonialism does with languages. It’s not a question of English or French – they are languages like any other, and they can be used by anybody for good or bad. But having to give up one’s mother tongue, in order to master these colonial languages, is what is bad. This is how I sum it up: If you know all the languages of the world, and you don’t know your mother tongue or the language of your culture, that is enslavement. But if you know your mother tongue or the language of your culture and add to it all the languages of the world, that is empowerment.”
In every knowledge system, he says, you start with that you have, what’s around you, and you add to it what is progressively further from you. “The new additions may help you look at what you already have, differently, he says. “It’s a dialectical process where the new knowledge adds to the old knowledge, and the new knowledge acquired as a result of that interaction helps you in newer positions and also in how you look at the older positions.”
That process, he says, became the organizing principle for the center, which started by bringing writers in Native American languages, including Hawaiian writers. The critical theory book he wrote, called Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing (Columbia University Press, 2014), was a development of the principles guiding the ICWT.
As he studied colonization around the world, Ngugi recognized a pattern: the marginalization of native languages by the colonizing powers. It wasn't just happening in Africa. It was everywhere. “I’ve looked at African languages, the Native American languages, Maori languages in New Zealand and native languages in Australia, and the pattern is the same, whatever the colonizing power,” he says. "There must be something about language that makes the colonizing powers go at it first. They demonize it and even punish students when they are caught speaking their mother tongue. The whole idea of punishing physically a child – whether it's a Native American, a Maori or a Gikuyu person - it's horrible. It is child abuse."
To explain in more simple and familiar terms, he compares languages to musical instruments. Each instrument has its own musicality. The sound of piano is always different from that of the violin or the guitar, for example.
"You cannot say that the musicality of the piano is the only valid musicality, so let us destroy all other instruments, like the violin, the guitar, and live only with the piano. It's exactly the same with each language," he says. "No language can reproduce the musicality of another, any more than a piano can reproduce the musicality of a guitar, or the other way around. But they can play the same melody."
At 83, Ngugi continues to experiment with his writing, most recently releasing his first epic novel in Gikuyu, Kenda Muiyuru: Ruano rwa Gikuyu na Mumbi, in English, The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gikuyu and Mumbi (The New Press, 2020), which tells the origin story of Kenya's Gikuyu people. The inspiration came to him during an outing not far from his home in Irvine.
"I was sitting at Crystal Cove, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, when the myth of the origin of Gikuyu breezed literally into my mind," he says.
Ngugi says he struggled to capture the spirit of the musicality of the Gikuyu language in the translation of the original into The Perfect Nine. The epic focuses on the ten daughters of Gikuyu and Mumbi, the original mother and father of the Gikuyu people, and their suitors who hail from all parts of the African continent. “That is probably why some reviewers have compared it to Homer. This is my first attempt at an epic,” he says. “In the English translation, I’m trying to use the musicality of English language to capture the spirit of the musicality of the Gikuyu language.”
The timing of the book’s release unintentionally coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic. In the tale, the 99 suitors for the daughters must complete tasks to win the hands of the young women. One of the tasks is to find a cure for one daughter, whose legs aren’t fully developed. The cure is a hair from the middle of the tongue of an invisible man-eating ogre.
“You don’t know [the ogre’s] size, its color, its location – it just attacks. I wrote that before Coronavirus. It's not a prophecy I’m very proud of,” he says with a laugh.
Ngugi recently shared his book with healthcare workers at Fresenius Medical Care, where he receives treatment for his kidneys. When he returned for a checkup, one nurse sought him out, book in hand, to share passages of The Perfect Nine that he liked.
“This came from his heart, I could tell that,” Ngugi says. "There's a prize that awaits nearly every writer. It’s very democratic; it's available to virtually every writer. I call it the 'Nobel of the Heart"