Can English adequately express the postcolonial experience in Africa?
An essay I wrote in 2018 for an MA: English Literature program
In 1986, Kenyan author and decolonial activist, Ngugi wa Thiong’o wrote a book publicising his ‘farewell to the English language as a vehicle of [his] writings of plays, novels and short stories’ (Ngugi, 1994). In this text, Decolonising the Mind, Ngugi argues for a reversion to one’s mother tongue, in his case Gikuyu, for a number of reasons: to authentically express one’s lived experience; to speak directly to and with one’s kinsmen; to decentralise and alienate the European languages that were used as means to unwrite African history. His resentment for ‘the unassailable position of English in our literature’ has been met with equal ambivalence from such African authors as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, and can be read within the breadth of Otok p’Bitek. However, Ngugi’s denunciation of English and uptake of Gikuyu and Kiswahili has not been free from dispute. In this essay, I seek to posit what Ngugi might argue to be the fundamental right to use one’s native language against the possible consequences of such a choice and consider the extent to which language can be reclaimed.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature
In this text, Ngugi highlights the use of English as ‘the official vehicle…to colonial elitedom’ (Ngugi, 1994, 12), or a tool used by the British to deny the colonised people access to their communities, histories and cultures. Charting his own experience of English education, he describes the three fold process:
- On one level, forcing a new language onto the people frustrates the ways in which they can communicate within the market place. Being unable to form connections in one’s native language frames mutual cooperation within the confines of the foreign language. It therefore takes the power of production out of the hands of the worker and into the hands of the imperialist.
- Language is a means to create and forge community and family bonds. Imposing a foreign language creates a rift within this realm because the new language cannot adequately express these relationships or enable a facile communication.
- Language is a means to understand ourselves in relation to the local and the global. By forcing a new language onto the people, one is forced to understand one’s self through the language and lens of the foreigner and therefore view one’s self as foreign or ‘other’.
Ngugi’s polemic argues that the enforcement of English in Kenyan life was an act of war on the mind. He contends ‘its most important area of domination was the mental universe of the colonised, the control, through culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world’ (Ngugi, 1994, 13). He thus maintains that writing in African languages is dissenting by default.
The case for African languages
An immediate critique can be made here with regard to his substitution of Gikuyu for all tribal languages; a criticism he is seemingly quick to deflect. He mentions in his Introduction,
The study of the African realities has for too long been seen in terms of tribes…This misleading stock interpretation of the African realities has been polarised by the western media which likes to deflect people from seeing that imperialism is still the root cause of many problems in Africa.
He further charges unnamed African intellectuals for ‘fall[ing] victim’ to the same misnomer, which he contends is a product of colonial rewriting (Ngugi, 1994, 1).
Ngugi’s position on English shares a level of ideological and practical support. Obiajunwa Wali argues that the African experience can only be effectively expressed through the native languages and the avoidance of their use due to ‘the multiplicity of African languages, the limitation of audiences to small patches of tribal groups’ does not make the European languages adequate substitutes (Chantal, 2007, 37). Chinua Achebe, though choosing to write in English, expresses a similar sentiment explaining that the West African writer ‘often finds himself describing situations and modes of thought which have no direct equivalent in the English way of life’ (Zabus, 38). The result is an approximation, which can lead to the creation of a new form of indigenised English on the one hand, or an equally derivative form of English (a critique famously made by Jean-Paul Sartre with reference to the use of French by Francophone authors).
However, there are practicalities that may stand as obstacles to the impact that Ngugi wishes to generate by writing in Kikuyu. Chantal Zabus in The African Palimpsest points out that ‘both practices assume the existence of a target audience that is literate in these African languages’, which, using a case study on Nigeria, may be propagated but lack implementation in education (Ngugi, 41). In addition, Ngugi himself warns that ‘the state of translation in African languages is underdeveloped’ and ‘few publishers are willing to invest money in good quality books in African languages’ (Ngugi, 41). While he is able to expand his global reach through his own translations into English, the state of translation into other African languages might hinder his attempt to reach the ‘peasant/worker audiences’.
Wole Soyinka suggests a third solution: to adopt Kiswahili as a pan-African language. His reasons are similar to Ngugi, ‘there has always been a resentment…that I have to express myself…[in] a language that belongs to the conqueror’ (Soyinka, 1992, 94–5). He posits Swahili to avoid the toxic debate of which local (Nigerian) language to use and argues that Swahili is spoken across regions and therefore would foster a pan-African identity. Speaking in a post-Biafran War context, Soyinka contends that to use a local language would only further enmity between the tribes and lead to ‘another civil war’ (a debate Ngugi seems keen to suppress with his opening Introduction). Although Soyinka can implement the change on an individual level, the role of Swahili in Africa will primarily depend on its uptake at the state level. Thus, in its current position, the use of English would have a greater reach that Swahili.
The nativist implications of choosing a tribal language
There remain, however, inherent contradictions in Ngugi’s position on the use of native language. While Ngugi appears to be presenting a belligerent decolonising agenda aiming for equality, there are those who would argue that his point of view conforms to the very conventions it is attempting to deny by placing language (and therefore race) at the centre of constructions of identity. If English was used as a means to subjugate the colonised, a reversion back to native language, and a disavowal of English, falls into the dangers of ‘reactionary nativism’, which Patrick Colm Hogan argues ‘is a rejection of colonial racist ideology which presupposes the acceptance of that ideology’ (Hogan, 1994, 110). In other words, to flip an ideology into its exact opposite does not do away with its original ills but conversely acts to fortify them since the the old ideology remains at the centre of the revision. To reformulate the language of domination into one’s native language is therefore simply an act of romantic nativism; constructing a nostalgic ideal of the past that recreates the same rules of domination but under a different mask. Ngugi’s renunciation of English in opposition to colonisation could be viewed as an antagonistic reaction to the dominance of English which therefore reaffirms colonial expectations that all actions must take place in relation to English. Nativism additionally plays into the mindset of existing racist ideologies, thus rather than trying to divert critics away from such stereotypes, it simply allows for their reinforcement. As seen in the Introduction to Decolonising the Mind, Ngugi’s predilection for ascribing most ills of African politics to issues of colonisation already seems to fall prey to such romantic nativism and rejects any nuance and criticism of prevailing indigenous politics, be those related to ancestry, gender or tribe.
Kwame Anthony Appiah in a chapter entitled ‘Topologies of Nativism’ further argues that nativist thought and a search for authenticity in African literature is flawed by default given the very nature of intellectual criticism (Appiah, 2007, 246). He states that the term ‘“Third World intellectual” is a contradiction in terms; precisely because …intellectuals from the Third World are a product of the historical encounter with the West’. Discussing approaches to literary analysis, Appiah argues that emphasis should be placed on ‘productive modes of reading’ rather than a ‘search for Mr Right’. He maintains
If one believes that the kinds of cultural inferiority complexes represented in the attitudes of many African students need to be exorcised, then the teaching of literature in the westernized academy in Africa will require an approach that does three crucial things: first, identify accurately the situation of the modern African text as a product of the colonial encounter…; second, stress that continuities between precolonial forms of cultural production and contemporary ones are nevertheless genuine…; third, challenge directly the assumption of the cultural superiority of the West, both by undermining the aestheticized conceptions of value that it presupposes, and by distinguishing sharply between a domain of technological skill in which…comparisons of efficiency are possible, and a domain of value in which such comparisons are by no means so unproblematic. (Appiah, 247)
Appiah’s thinking seems in line with Hogan’s in that both point to the problems of romanticising a precolonial era as such thinking is both reductive and proves ineffective at unravelling the structures it aims to criticise. In addition, Appiah emphasises the inextricable link between Western education and thought, so attempts to undo such learning in the name of decolonisation become redundant. Rather than trying to eradicate the coloniser from education, Appiah argues that the role of the coloniser should be acknowledged but not form the basis of all criticism. What should be problematised is the notion of ‘value’ which, though measurable, is ‘the product of certain institutional practices’ which privilege Europe.
Appiah, therefore, might take aim at Ngugi’s repudiation of English as a tool of colonial subjugation. He might argue that while the language of communication may change, thought will remain dominated by Western education and by the history that placed/places the Westerner as revered. Ngugi’s argument therefore is merely aesthetic, superficial, and not delving into the heart of the crisis in African literature: the inferiority complex that forces the African to always feel subordinate. Attempts at decolonising should not try to veer as far away from Western practice as possible because they will only provide ‘a thin skin of legitimacy to stretch over existing practices’ (Appiah, 246). He, like Hogan, argues that when the Other ‘seek to fashion themselves as the (image of the) Other. We run the risk of an ersatz exoticism, like the tourist trinkets in the Gifte Shoppes of Lagos or Nairobi’ (Appiah, 247). Rather, the African reader and writer must, inevitably, acknowledge that his/her ‘specifically African identity began as the product of the European gaze’ and questions should be raised over how to move away from this position of subservience (Appiah, 249).
This task remains difficult because of the manner in which thought and value place Europe on a pedestal. However he also maintains that ‘to forget Europe is to suppress the agon of history…to conceal the startling violence that sustains the dominion of culture’ (Appiah, 250). Ngugi, with his reproach of English, is in danger of ‘concealing the startling violence’ of (neo-)colonialism and therefore does little provide a valuable critique of existing conditions.
The case for Pan-Africanism
What of the solution posited by Soyinka that Swahili become the language of Pan-Africa? Would Ngugi avoid nativist implications had he suggested he use only Swahili, spoken across borders in East Africa?
On the surface, Pan-Africanism may seem at odds with nativist ideology. Firstly, it defies national boundaries drawn by European powers at the Berlin Conference in 1884 and therefore offers an ideology of togetherness rather than separatism. Secondly, Pan-Africanism subconsciously acknowledges and attempts to avoid the issue of tribal conflict and therefore does not idealise (precolonial) Africa. Thirdly, pan-Africanism places Africa at the centre which constructs an ‘African gaze’.
In reality, however, the difference between Pan-Africanism and nationalistic nativism lies in the scope of its geographic boundaries. Pan-Africanism was formed as a movement to oppose colonial rule but created largely outside of Africa itself. Michael Onyebuchi Eze argues, ‘Pan Africanism emerged as an agency of restoration of African subjectivity as well as challenging the intellectual roots of colonial historicity’ (Eze, 2013, 664). Conceived through former slaves and pronounced by intellectuals from the West Indies and Africa, Pan-Africanism demanded freedom from colonialism and maintained that Africa remained the true homeland of the black people. In a letter written to W.E.B Dubois, then secretary general of Ligue de défense de la race négre, Tiémoho Garan Kouyaté articulates the agenda of the Pan-Africanist movement
The aim of our ligue is the political, economic, moral and intellectual emancipation of the whole of the Negro race … The cardinal point lies in the unification of the world Negro movement …We think that the reason why our race suffers so much is that it is dominated, above all politically, by the other races (Eze, 665).
Pan-Africanism, then, was a movement in opposition to racism. Its aim was to emancipate the black people, both within and outside of Africa — an enfranchisement that could only be won through the freedom of the continent and therefore a reimagining of blackness.
This ideology thus remains nativist in its conception. The notion of Pan-Africanism as defined above essentialises Africa into ‘blackness’ and becomes synonymous with race rather than geographic region. While avoiding tribal conflict, this manner of thinking remains problematic because it excludes from its narrative the Arabic speaking nations of Africa and leaves ambiguous the place of the generations of Asians who had inhabited the continent, some of whom would participate in independence movements. Likewise, while trying to place Africa at the centre, the movement’s primary aim was to oppose the dominance of white Europe by reclaiming the European conception of Africa. As argued above, this romanticising of a former culture does not do away with the issues of racism, but rather reinforces the concept that behaviour is the product of race and both are not the result of environmental conditions.
Ngugi’s debate shares many similarities to this Pan-Africanist ideology. By reverting to Gikuyu or Swahili, Ngugi endeavours to revive an authentic African literature that remains free from the oppressive shackles of Europe. In order to give Africa an equal and legitimate platform in which to present its art-form, room must be made for literature in indigenous languages.
However the pluralism that Ngugi attempts to create through his propagation of native languages is limited by the adversarial relationship that he necessitates between Africa and Britain. Rather than encouraging duality or hybridity, Kadiatu Kanneh asserts in her book, African Identities: Pan-Africanisms and Black Identities that according to Ngugi ‘Africa can exist only as what is (claimed to be) different from, outside or against Europe’ (Kanneh, 1998). Conversely then, ‘Ngugi’s struggle to claim a place for African literatures in a longed-for world centred on a multiplicity of different cultures is as much an argument for retaining the tension of those boundaries which create Africa’s otherness — without which the refusal of Western incursion cannot take place — as it is an argument for communication’. Ngugi objects to the coercive control that was colonisation by attempting to exorcise the language of control. But this frame of reference accepts that Europe and English still remain at the centre of thought, therefore resistance must speak to them in order to speak against them. Furthermore, Ngugi inadvertently reinforces notions of belonging and otherness with his argument of dichotomy, an argument centred around definitions of inclusion and exclusion.
Kanneh, much like Appiah, argues that ‘Ngugi’s rejection of European languages in the name of African literary decolonisation becomes replaced here with the rejection not of the English language, nor of the values of English literary criticism per se — but of the hypocritical or ignorant application of these values to African literatures’ (Kanneh, 38). The question of ‘value’, the manner in which a text is judged and understood both from within and without, surfaces again as the main threat to the advancement of African literature. Viewed in this light, Ngugi’s rejection of European languages serves as a warning against superficial literature that appeals to the ideals of literary criticism merely for the sake of recognition (by Europe).
The case for ‘strategic essentialism’
A term coined by Gayatri Spivak, ‘strategic essentialism’ could be used here to defend Ngugi’s desire to create a future that focuses on what existed in the past. Spivak argues for a ‘strategic use of positivist essentialism in a scrupulously political interest’ (Koddenbrock, 2013). In other words, there may be a justified necessity to create a simplified solidarity amongst minority groups based on gender, race etc as a means to challenge imperialism even though individuals within these groups may hold differing ideas. While criteria for recruitment may establish a kind of unified segmentation, this essentialism can be utilised to appeal for political action. However, Spivak warns that the consciousness ‘can never be continuous with the sub-altern’s situational and uneven entry into the political…hegemony as the content of an after-the-fact description’ (Koddenbrock, 29). Thus this essentialist thinking only has relevance for political purpose and should not be understood as the general situation of the subaltern.
In response to criticism that presents Ngugi’s arguments as nativist, Ngugi may contend that instead of aiming to recreate a nostalgic past, his vision attempts to create plurality (the use of native languages) in an area that has been dominated by singularity (the use of English) due to the process of colonisation. It is essential, therefore, that he look backwards to his native language to build a future landscape that empowers his people. Rather than seeking to expel those who do not speak Gikuyu or Swahili from his arena, his decolonising strategy is to unify those of Gikuyu descent to demand their voices be heard. Furthermore, Ngugi’s lack of compromise in Decolonising the Mind may be strategically necessary in order to create an impact in a field that had been legitimised only through the use of English.
Although meritorious, this essentialist philosophy can be easily used to condone politics of exclusion. Even Spivak herself has retracted the term for she argues that the ‘essentialism’ has been emphasised over the ‘strategic’. She highlights that there comes a point at which ‘essentializing strategies have become traps, as opposed to having strategic and necessary positive effects’. In an interview with Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, Spivak asserts, ‘It was meant to signal that while huge intragroup differences may exist, it is important to strategically bring forward a simplified ‘essentialised’ group identity. I took it back because it becomes a formula to follow and justify everything and anything.' (Brohi, 2014) Political elites can, and have, commandeered this mode of thought to elevate particular categories of belonging. In two examples, Idi Amin in 1970s Uganda expelled those of Asian origin in the name of ethnic cleansing, while Robert Mugabe, with similar ideology, redistributed land owned by white farmers to poorer black farmers (Karombo, 2017). Despite the Marxist underpinnings of Ngugi’s argument that seek to repudiate the neo-colonialism of the West, it appears his choice of using Gikuyu and Kiswahili leave him open to exploitation by and animosity from tribal groups, especially considering the lack of translation infrastructure currently present in Kenya and Africa in general. Furthermore, his fierce rejection of English can be interpreted as a simplistic denial of the West.
Ngugi’s position as a member of the Kikuyu tribe adds further friction to his argument given the Kikuyu’s role in the ‘Mau Mau’ and Kenya’s independence movement. The ‘Mau Mau’ rebels, largely constituting of Kikuyu peasant farmers angry at the loss of their tribal land and subsequent poverty formed an army to attack white settler land and economic ownership. Violent protest by the ‘Mau Mau’ followed by military suppression by the British eventually led to the installation of Kikuyu leader, Jomo Kenyatta, as President of Kenya after independence, who John Newsinger argues propped up ‘a labor movement subordinate to the petty bourgeois nationalist politicians, a labor movement that accepted restrictions from the Kenyatta regime that would have provoked strikes and rioting if imposed by the old colonial authorities’ (Newsinger, 1981, 184). Furthermore, in an attempt to both suppress the ‘Mau Mau’ uprising and appease the Kikuyu who formed its crux, the British government relaxed restriction on land ownership and cultivation by black African farmers by the end of the 1950s which meant, ‘a growing number of other Kikuyu were given a stake in the status quo’. John Newsinger testifies, ‘Between 1955 and 1964 the recorded value of output from African smallholdings rose from £5.2 million to £14 million. The Kikuyu gentry were the main beneficiaries of this remarkable increase’ (Newsinger, 178). Without providing a basis for antagonism towards the Kikuyu, the relatively privileged financial and political position of the tribe in relation to other Kenyan tribes post-independence calls into question Ngugi’s romantic belief that the revival of Gikuyu will encourage the revival of other tribal languages. These politics of class which are now strongly tied to tribal politics are not discussed by Ngugi in Decolonising the Mind and leads him to further scrutiny by tribal groups who may feel removed from Ngugi’s position.
The case for English
Perhaps an argument surprisingly more dissenting than that of Ngugi’s could be that of Achebe’s. As mentioned above, Achebe has often made a case for the use of English as an African language. However, he opposes the dominance of colonial English by advocating for what can be inferred as an ‘Africanised’ version. He maintains,
My answer to the question Can an African ever learn English well enough to be able to use it effectively in creative writing? is certainly yes. If on the other hand you ask Can he ever learn to use it like a native speaker? I should say, I hope not. (Chow, 2014, 35)
Through this statement, Achebe acknowledges the position that English holds as the language of schooling since colonisation, therefore the language of written communication. However, Achebe also abandons the notion of an assumed superior level of learnedness as possessed by the coloniser. Rey Chow, in her text, Not Like a Native Speaker, argues that ‘Achebe is signalling another kind of crossing, this time from the colonial school into a world in which the givenness of, say, English and French may simply be the point of departure rather than the final destination of a newly configured scene of languaging’ (Chow, 38). In other words, although English has been ‘given’ to the African people, the language can be appropriated from that which is alien into that which becomes local — for example, Nigerian pigeon English. Furthermore, in his declaration, ‘I hope not’, Achebe makes clear his anti-colonial stance by refusing to accept the imperial dominance of the English, while avoiding a reactionary nativist position that aspires to look backwards in order to fight the present.
Furthermore, rather than focusing on what makes African writing inherently African, Achebe seems more concerned with the continent’s literary future, acknowledging that the novel’s heritage is European. However, while he accepts some conventions — in this case, English as the language of communication — he seems at the same time to be objecting to the concept of ‘value’ as discussed by Appiah. His defiance against the notion of ‘native speaker’ — a term that places language application on a hierarchy — suggests that Achebe believes the novel should not be judged according to European standards but attest to existing conditions in the countries from and for which they are speaking.
In Decolonising the Mind, Ngugi argues that decolonisation in literature can only take place through a disavowal of English. He contends that the language was used by the British as a tool of oppression and therefore one must revert to his or her native language to dismantle this system of dominance.
However, Ngugi’s nostalgia for a precolonial era leads him to nativist criticism, whereby attempts at decolonising actually reinforce existing systems of oppression. While Ngugi might be demanding an agenda that marginalises Europe, his ideology, in effect, places European thought at the centre of criticism. The solution Ngugi posits merely places a new language over existing practices and therefore does little to undo the power dynamics at play.
Contrary to Ngugi’s argument, there may be a place for English in the role of decolonisation, as suggested by Achebe. Whereas Standard English has maintained its dominance over written communication, the solution to issues of imperialism and colonialism could be to write in indigenised forms of English that speak to and for the audience they are aimed at.
Chantal Zabus ‘Glottopolitics and Diglossia in West Africa’ in The African Palimpsest 2nd edn (New York: Rodopi, 2007) pp. 13–50
‘Chinua Achebe’ in Talking with African Writers ed by Jane Wilkinson (London: James Currey Ltd, 1992) pp. 47–59
Daniel Kunene ‘African-Language Literature: Tragedy and Hope’ in African Literature: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory ed by Tejumola Olaniyan and Ato Quayson (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007) pp. 315–322
John Newsinger, ‘Revolt and Repression in Kenya: The “Mau Mau” Rebellion, 1952–1960’, Science and Society, 45 (1981) 159–185
Kadiatu Kanneh, African Identities: Pan-Africanisms and Black Identities, April 1998 <https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.library.qmul.ac.uk/lib/gmul-ebooks/reader.action?docID=165188&ppg=1> [accessed 21 December 2018]
Kai Koddenbrock, ‘Strategic Essentialism and the Possibilities of Critique in Peacebuilding’, in Relational Sensibility and the ‘Turn to the Local’: Prospects for the Future of Peacebuilding, ed. by Wren Chadwick, Tobias Debiel and Frank Gadinger (2013) <http://www.academia.edu/5786148/Strategic_essentialism_and_the_possibilities_of_critique_in_peacebuilding> [accessed 26 December 2018]
Kwame Anthony Appiah ‘Topolgies of Nativism’ in African Literature: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory ed by Tejumola Olaniyan and Ato Quayson (Blackwell Publishing: Oxford, 2007), pp.242–250
Michael Onyebuchi Eze, ‘Pan Africanism: A Brief Intellectual History’ History Compass, 11 (2013) 663–674
Nazish Brohi, ‘Herald exclusive: In conversation with Gayatri Spivak’, Dawn, (23 December 2014) <https://www.dawn.com/news/1152482> [accessed 28 December 2018]
Ngugi wa Thiong’o Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (London: James Curry Ltd, 1994)
Ngugi wa Thiong’o Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture and Politics (London: Heinemann, 1972)
Patrick Colm Hogan, ‘Mimeticism, Reactionary Nativism, and the Possibility of Postcolonial Identity in Derek Walcott’s “Dream on Monkey Mountain”’, Research in African Literatures, 25 (1994), 103–119
Rey Chow, Not Like a Native Speaker: On Languaging as a Postcolonial Experience, ( New York: Columbia University Press, 2014)
Tawanda Karombo, ‘Zimbabwe’s white farmers will get compensation — but they’re not getting land back’, Quartz Africa, (9 December 2017) <https://qz.com/africa/1152276/zimbabwes-white-farmers-kicked-out-by-mugabe-will-be-compensated-by-mnangagwa/> [accessed 30 December 2018]
‘Wole Soyinka’ in Talking with African Writers ed by Jane Wilkinson (London: James Currey Ltd, 1992) pp. 91–108