Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, a Kenyan writer and professor of Literature, prides himself in writing in his native-tongue of Gikuyu to articulate social issues in Africa, specifically during the time of British-rule in Kenya. In his own quest of seeking truth and asking important questions, he knew that revolution could only come through his right of using the language he grew up speaking with those within his own community.
Thiong’o grew up in a large peasant family and saw the British settle throughout his country. As he experienced the changes that would come with the settlers, he started to write in opposition to the issues within Kenya and within Africa. His writings would eventually have him exiled and imprisoned.
As a student of literature, I became quickly attached to the story of Thiong’o. For me, his story is the story of many Black and Brown individuals across the world. In the search for truth, important questions must be asked. In the asking of these questions, we have to look at ourselves and center our narratives. In the case of Thiong’o, his writings became a weapon for disrupting social-norms. In using his weapon of choice, he began to question his use of English as being the vehicle for his message. He understood the importance of Afro-European Literature and why many African writers wrote in the language of their colonizers (French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, etc). However, he knew that his message had to be delivered with a purely African language. He didn’t want to fight through the double-consciousness that accompanied his writing through the English language. He wanted to use his native-tongue to connect with other Africans that spoke Gikuyu.
For Thiong’o, language is life. Language is an embodiment of a culture that is specific to a people. If a people are stripped of their language, they are stripped of their culture. In being stripped of one’s culture, you are without the very thing that gives you community- a sense of belonging. In using his native tongue, he can preserve his community.
In writing Gikuyu, he knew his writings or his messages could be heard and read by those within his community. In revolting against a system that dehumanizes a people, he wanted to reach the very community that nurtured his very life as a boy and as a man.
In reflecting on Thiong’o, it is vital that we preserve our language(s) in the face of imperialism. We must not be afraid to speak our tongues. In speaking and clinging to our cultures, we are centering our own narratives. In centering our narratives, we are creating and sustaining visibility.
For Thiong’o, revolution must be fought on the front lines. Revolution starts with our own conviction to seeking truth and liberation.
Will you be bold enough to stand alone? Will you be bold enough to center your narrative? Will you be bold enough to go against the grain and persist in your truth?
In the words of Thiong’o, “A writer who tries to communicate the message of revolutionary unity and hope in the languages of the people becomes a subversive character…A democratic participation of the people in the shaping of their own lives or in discussing their own lives in languages that allow for mutual comprehension is seen as being dangerous to the good government of a country and its institutions”
You must not be afraid to be subversive.
You must disrupt.
You must stand up to social injustices.
Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (London, Nairobi, Portsmouth, 1986), pp.26-30