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LANGUAGE WORRIOR

Ngugi Wa Thiong’o feted by Catalan government

Facing heart surgery at the time, he felt appreciated on his journey back to the land of the living

In Summary

• He was recognised for championing African traditions, culture and languages

Ngugi wa Thiong'o poses with his new book.
Ngugi wa Thiong'o poses with his new book.
Image: Moses Mwangi

Renowned novelist and essayist Prof Ngugi Wa Thiong’o was feted by the Catalan government for the 31st Catalonia International Prize, known as Premi Internacional Catalunya.

Ngugi made his acceptance speech in the Kikuyu dialect, disclosing that he was bedridden and had just undergone heart surgery at a hospital in California, when he received the good news in December 2019.

"Just before they took me to the operating room, I wrote a will. While I was physically helpless and contemplating my testament, this award made me feel celebrated and appreciated on my journey back to the land of the living," he said.

 
 

He was recognised for his achievements in literature and his push for the preservation of African traditions, culture and languages.

Ngugi added that the award brought together Kikuyu and Catalan cultures and all the African and global indigenous languages that are oppressed by the domineering languages in the world.

He said the world we live in is governed by a system of oppression, where the majority exploit the minority.

"A world where a small group of people are carried by the majority the same way the head is carried by the rest of the body," he said.

"That is to say, the joys of a few people come from the tears of the public, and the riches of 10 millionaires is built on the backs of 100 million people."

In his speech, Ngugi said he is a believer that all languages, even those spoken by a small group of people, should be protected and nurtured.

"Many languages are as important as oxygen. They give life. I am receiving this because I am a language warrior," he said.

He then gave a story of his illiterate mother, who made sure he went to school.

Prof wa Thiong’o apologised for having used the language of her oppressors (English) when he started writing.

 
 

"Mother Wanjiku? Wherever your soul rests, I beg you to forgive me for all the years I had abandoned the tongue you gave me at birth, the language through which you sang me lullabies and told me stories that thrilled the heart," he said.

"I have come back home. I embrace my mother tongue. The prodigal son is back."

His speech was concluded with a Kikuyu folk song. He then dedicated the award to his mother and all the language warriors of the world.

Others who have received the award incude Bishop Desmond Tutu, activist Malala Yousafzai, novelist Haruki Murakami and philosopher Karl Popper.