Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature

ISBN: 0852555016
ISBN 13: 9780852555019
By: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

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African Literature Favorites Language Linguistics Nonfiction Politics Postcolonial Postcolonialism Theory To Read

About this book

Ngugi describes this book as 'a summary of some of the issues in which I have been passionately involved for the last twenty years of my practice in fiction, theatre, criticism and in teaching of literature.' East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda): EAEP

Reader's Thoughts


In this work Ngugi wa Thiong'o bids farewell to his practice of writing in English, adding that he hopes translation will enable him to continue to communicate with all. He then explains the passionate reasoning behind his belief in the use of African languages by African writers.I have come to realise more and more that work, any work, even literary creative work, is not the result of an individual genius but the result of a collective effortTaking as a founding principle that imperialism and its internal allies will never develop Africa, he critiques the notion that tribal conflict is the source of discord in Kenya and across the continent (invariables like biological nationality cannot be the true source of conflict, which would be eternal and unchanging if that were the case, he says). Rather, the divide and rule practices of colonialism are at the root of such conflict. He identifies two traditions of thought in Kenya: the imperialist tradition of the international bourgeoisie and 'flag waving native ruling classes' and subjugation of the people enforced by police boots, barbed wire, clergy & judiciary, supported by state intellectuals AND the resistance tradition of the working people/peasantry and 'patriotic' petty-bougeoisie/middle class including students and intellectuals, supporting all nationalities in the area against imperialist domination.Imperialism is the monopolistic and parasitic rule of consolidated finance capital. The freedom for Western finance capital to go on stealing from the working people of the global south is maintained by conventional and nuclear weapons, but more importantly by 'the cultural bomb' that annihilates the self belief and solidarity of the people. Ngugi wa Thiong'o explains that language allows us to define ourselves in relation to our national and social environment: our capacity to confront the world creatively is dependant on how those images [of nature and nurture formed by the dynamic process of history & culture reflecting each other] correspond or not to that reality, how they distort or clarify the reality of our strugglesHe describes his experience of learning-through-storytelling alongside everyday communication and shared experience in his mother tongue, Gikuyu, and how the harmony of his learning life was broken in colonial schools, where speaking Gikuyu was punished while all achievement in English was rewarded and prioritised. Native languages are associated by colonial education with low status, humiliation, corporal punishment, stupidity and barbarism. For the African child in this context, thought itself takes the visible form of a foreign language, and thus she feels disassociated from her natural and social environment. Ngugi wa Thiong'o explains that culture is transmitted not through language in universality but in its particularity of a specific social/historical context. The way English is used in African countries is not the same as the way it is used in Scandinavian countries as a tool of communication, but as an instrument of control.Literature written by Africans in European languages by anti-imperial petty bourgeois authors articulated resistance to racist European colonisation and drew on African cultures and histories to give that class self-confidence. This work armed uprisings inspired by political awakening and drew stamina and substance from proverbs and fables of the peasantry, helping struggles for independence. But, as neo-colonial/pro-imperial governments gained power this literature became disiullsioned and cynical. Its authors wanted to communicate with a working class/peasant (WC/P) audience but they were hampered by their use of Euro languages. They created WC/P characters who spoke English and projected their own evasive self-contemplation, existential anguish and crises of identity onto them, falsifying historical processes and realities.While African authors were worrying about a crisis of identity in African literature and accepting (with some exceptions) the 'fatalistic logic' of linguistic Europeanization of African cultural output, the very neo-col rulers they were haranguing in their books were busy issuing 'distortions, dictatorial directives, museum-type fossils paraded as African culture, feudalistic ideology, superstitions and lies' in the languages of the WC/P! So the result of colonial education, as intended, is to cut off communication between petty-bourgeois intellectuals and their intended audience.Ngugi wa Thiong'o delineates a minor tradition (praising its great talents such as Achebe, Armah etc and works) of Afro-European literature, which he says will last as long as neo-colonial rule. Since writing in Gikuyu he has been asked why he chose to do so by all kinds of people. Some academics have asked 'why have you abandoned us?' But Gikuyu is his mother tongue! This reversal of common sense relates directly to other upside-down (thanks Fela Kuti) logics of imperialism: Africa enriches Europe, but Africa is made to believe that Europe needs to rescue it from poverty. Africa's natural and human resources continue to develop Europe and America, but Africa is made to feel grateful for aid from those quarters that still sit on the back of the continent I love the section on African theatre. Colonialism pretends there is no tradition of African theatre, but is it has a long and deep heritage in Kenya, where it was destroyed by the British (any free public gathering is dangeous to authoritarian domination). Part of this tradition was the concept of 'empty space' among the people where theatre took place. Colonialism attempted to destroy this by confining that space in community halls, proscenium theatres and even in prisons and detainment camps where inmates were encouraged to produce neo-colonial and anti- Mau-Mau propaganda plays. Radio drama was also encouraged in which the African as clown was ridiculed: laugh at your own stupidity and simplicity, forget about all this freedom nonsense! Anti-imperial petty-bourgeois writers tried to break from colonial control by taking control of the Kenyan National Theatre, touring productions of anti-colonial plays, but these were often hampered by the use of English and confinement within walls - this approach brings culture to the people rather than involving them in its creation. By contrast, his production of I Will Marry When I Want in Kamiriithu was defined and shaped by the decision to use Gikuyu, which forced a discussion with the peasants and factory workers about the use of language and about the language of theatre.Perfection of an art form as a process with a shared history is, Nguigi wa Thiong'o points out, in opposition to the conventional secrecy of rehearsals culminating in a presentation intended to cause amazement and a sense of 'wow, I couldn't do that'. This approach is in keeping with alienating bourgeois education which is a process of weakening people, making them feel incapable, mystifying knowledge. It produces 'a gallery of active stars and an undifferentiated mass of grateful admirers'. Those involved in the Kamiriithu project talked about how it made them feel valuable and integral, how it raised their awareness. The play's license was withdrawn and its writer incarcerated...Another example of the upside down logic of imperialism and capitalism generally is the possibility of development it offers and then makes impossible . The arrival of the printing press in Kenya was accompanied by the familiar rhetoric of spreading education and culture and dispelling African awe of nature and superstition, but with heavy censorship and careful selection it really pushed a message of subserviance via Christianity, and increased awe of the whip/gun-wielding master. Writing novels in a neo-colonial context meets several obstacles, one of which is that reality is often beyond satire in its grim absurdity. Another is the lack of libraries and book shops in rural areas and the corresponding excuse 'the people are poor and illiterate so they don't need libraries and bookshops'. Yet Ngugi's first book in Gikuyu sold; it was read by literate community members aloud at gatherings, in bars, it was embraced. Build it and they will come...Finally Ngugi wa Thiong'o addresses the question of relevance and the creation of appropriate education programs. He argues that orature, rooted in WC/P sources of anti-imperial resistance should be centred in Kenyan schooling. Historically, he points out, the great Western humanist authors like Shakespeare, Austen etc who provide incisive comment on bourgeois culture have been treated as if the only themes they dealt with were universal love, fear, birth, death etc. Western education, in my experience, has the same imbalance, universalising and depoliticising the personal, diminishing the particularity of history.Many African writers have expressed concern to enrich Western literature by making African wisdom accessible and translatable - Ngugi asks why they do not centre the African tradition and seek to enrich that with riches from foreign cultures. He comments on the commitment fellow Kenyan authors expressed (in an advocacy document) not to replace English chavinism with national chauvinism, centring Kenyan orature and literature but including all African and diasporic writing, speaking of the need to introduce the Kenyan child to the world context of black experience. Latin American and Asian literatures would also be studied, with Euro-American not excluded but perhaps lowest in priority.The search for new directions in language, literature, theatre poetry, fiction and scholarly studies in Africa is part and parcel of the overall struggles of African people against imperialism in its neo-colonial stage. It is part of that struggle for that world in which my health is not dependent on another's leprosy, my cleanliness not on another's maggot-ridden body, and my humanity not on the buried humanity of othersI loved reading this and agreed with it strongly, but I would like to write a few words in defence of contemporary African authors like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who write in English. I want to humbly suggest that the paths to decolonisation may be as many and various as the people in need of it (noting that the distinction between coloniser and colonised is blurred, not least by class conditions) and that the uses of literature are also many and various (noting that the distinction between creator and audience is blurred). Perhaps my colonisation and indoctrination into individualism is speaking, but it seems plausible that Ngugi's Marxist conception of literature has some limitations? I look forward to reading more about this subject and how thought in the area has developed.


Decolonizing the Mind is integral, I think, to understanding anti-colonialist struggles. The western world understands colonialism in terms of the most visible aspects of a nation, namely its leadership. People fail to recognize the long-term effects of colonialism such as widespread poverty. Decolonizing the Mind reminds us of another of these aftereffects, specifically, the domination of language by the Western World. In a sense, the language barrier has enabled social apartheid where legal separation was considered anachronistic. By dominating African languages, and asserting the superiority of European ones over them, Western nations did (and African administrations still do) perpetuate a system where educated whites rise to the highest social strata while native Africans are resigned to the working classes and peasantry. This domination of language has effectively prevented any native African from rising into intellectual ranks, because, as Ngũgĩ puts it, the use European languages splits African soul in two, forcing him to relinquish his roots if he wishes to climb the social ladder.

Steven Salaita

I'm not as high on this volume as many of my colleagues. Ngugi is a fantastic writer and thinker, no doubt, but I just can't get over his continued writing in English after he swore it off so famously here.

Ananda Esteva

Everyone should read this!

Darshan Elena

this book changed my outlook on life and its possibilities. without a doubt, this is one of the most transformative books ever written. i wish it were standard reading for students, alongside of or instead of shakespeare.

Brotha Nameless

I love this book! The brotha breaks it down on the importance for Afrikans to write & publish in their own languages. A very important piece in edutainment as resistance as well.

Allie Reznik

A memoir/manual, in many ways, for "national, democratic, and human liberation." Absolutely love.

Jessica Jang Jang

I just love Ngugi, period.

K. Euler

Thiong'o begins this book with a statement: "This book, Decolonising the Mind, is my farewell to English as a vehicle for any of my writings. From now on it is Gikuyu and Kiswahili all the way" (xiv). This book forces its readers to become aware--or even simply to be reminded--of the politics of language. Even the simple act of writing within the context of a neocolonial world carries political significance. His examples are many and varied but tend to hone in on the issue of language in educational systems. It advocates a return to pre-colonial languages as using colonial languages implies an implicit acceptance of the colonial culture. However, he is not against the act of translation into English or other European tongues, just opposed to the idea that African writers must be forced to write in those tongues to be published or read. He simply exults a return to the pre-colonial languages. After all, "Values are the basis of a people's identity, their sense of particularity as members of the human race. All this is carried by language" (15).


I took a class with this author. He's extremely intelligent and presents an interesting argument about the politics of language. In this critical theory text, he addresses the way the colonial process works on the cultural level (as opposed to the material, political, or even physical level). He encourages the use of African languages (rather than the language of former colonizers) in African literature. He also explains how his personal experiences informed his opinions on the politics of language, which I found interesting and rather persuasive.



Hannah Spencer

A must-read for those interested in not being ignorant. Also a must-read for writers of colonized peoples, duh.


God bless this man. Wow. Real review to come.

Jay Traub

It is interesting and thoughtful book. I think this is a valuable book for a language teacher to read, especially one who is teaching the language in a foreign country and even more important for a person teaching a foreign language in an African country.


Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o's 'Decolonising the Mind' is certainly a seminal text, not just as regards to the study of African literature, as opposed to Afro-European literature, but as regards to other concerns as well, such as the politics of language, education, drama in a post-colonial state and so on, that have since become standard discussions in the study of post-colonial theory and novels. However, there were some points that I did not agree with (which is usually the result when an author tends to be too critical), and some that I was personally inspired by (the authenticity of Ngũgĩ's arguments), although I will refrain myself from summarising any part of the novel since a reviewer has already done an excellent job at doing just that. In many ways, 'Decolonising the Mind' is itself a summary of another of Ngũgĩ's work, 'Writers in Politics: A Re-engagement with Issues of Literature and Society'. I do believe that Ngũgĩ, overall, did write a heartfelt and an outstanding commentary concerning the many conflicting situations and aspects that emerge in his analysis. This book is a must-read for any English literature student, and should be included among other works by writers such as Fanon, Achebe and so on.Most of the points Ngũgĩ discusses I can personally relate to, since Malta was also the site of struggle from a colonialist power for the majority of its history, arguably all of it. As a result, the Maltese language was considered to be an inferior language, 'La lingua della cucina', in comparison with Italian, and, later on, with English. The language question that arose in the early years of the twentieth-century in Malta consisted of whether the study of English or of Italian was the most beneficial to Maltese students, the Maltese language being opportunistically 'black-listed' in the heated, sometimes ridiculous, debates that took place in Maltese parliaments. However, as things stand today, English and Maltese complement each other, and the Maltese language has never been so alive. 'Decolonising the Mind', in the variety of issues that it tackles, is more relevant today than ever, especially as regards to post-colonial theory. As it is not riddled with Jargonese, it is an enjoyable read in its own right.

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