• He's been recognised for advocating review of language practices to embrace local tongues
This weekend, Kenya’s internationally acclaimed writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o turns 82. He was born around Limuru in 1938 on January 5. He remains one of the most prolific and versatile voices of African literature and what is nowadays called international literature.
Over a span of half a century, the Makerere-educated alumnus of Alliance High School has carved a coveted place for himself and his country on the global atlas of literature and theatre. He started writing as an undergraduate student in Uganda in 1962 and has never stopped. In 1977, he underwent a linguistic baptism of fire and embraced his native language of Gikuyu as his chief literary medium.
He took up the debate on language in African literature and has ably and consistently promoted the agenda for linguistic decolonisation and cultural nationalism through his speeches, lectures, essays and creative imagination. The language debate in African literature originated in 1962 in Makerere University at the famous Conference of African Writers of English Expression.
It is here that it all started with the Afrophonic and Afrocentric views in favour of local languages as mediums of literary expression, articulated by a young Nigerian scholar, Obiajunwa Wali. He presented them in his paper entitled, The Dead End of African Literature. The paper is widely read and easily available online.
Ngugi later picked the baton from Obi Wali. He is currently a distinguished professor of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine, from where he remains a strident advocate for marginal and minor languages of the world in the context of decolonisation and globalisation.
In recent years, the writer has been a strong proponent of what he terms as “the problematic interaction between dominant languages and marginalised ones”.
In 1986, he published a collection of essays articulating his ideology and philosophy of language entitled, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of African Languages. The book is a widely read text across the world and the disciplines. It remains one of the pillars of his worldview as an author, an African and a philosopher of the Arts.
Last year, basing their reflections on the same book, a German committee awarded him the Erich Maria Remarque Peace Prize 2019. This further underscores the relevance not of the book only but of his general ideas on the nexus between language and identity in contemporary society.
His own son Mukoma wa Ngugi is a distinguished novelist and professor of literature, following on the indelible footpath of his father and his generation of African writers. He is based at the Northwestern University, USA.
Recently, writing at LitHub, a worthy platform of literary adumbration, Mukoma has pointed out that “the work of linguistic decolonisation cannot be done by writers alone”. It is important to recognise that language is the base of culture and society.
In order for us to build healthier societies and reinvigorate our cultures, we need to address our language policies and practices in a progressive manner. 2020 offers us a brand new page on which to write the future not only of Gikuyu but all the languages of our rich country and its literatures.
The writer teaches Literature and Theatre at Kenyatta University