Language and Colonialism: The Language of African Literature

Ngugi wa Thiongo in his essay “Language of African Literature”, exhorts to resurrect all African languages in order to reclaim native cultures that belong to the peasant and working class as a strategy against the cultural imperialism of Europe and America. For this he asks the African writers who use English, French and other European languages as their media of expression, to renounce this tradition and displace it with the kaleidoscopic cultures of native languages.

Though a powerful and urgent proposition there are certain drawbacks in it, one of them being his total un-observance of gender inequality both with in a pre–colonial culture/language and in the context of colonialism and neo-colonialism. Another drawback in his proposition is that he doesn’t find it necessary to represent Africa in English once Africa is free from neo-colonialism and attains self-sufficiency in it s economic, political, social and cultural realms. He refuses to see that even if Africa attains political and economical freedom, Europe and America can continue to represent Africa in lines of “geniuses of racism” as a Rider Haggard or a Nicholas Monsarrat .There for an absolute of his proposition will take away from Africa the vantage point from which it could “confront the racist bigotry of Europe” in its own languages.

Ngugi begins his argument by questioning the conceptualization of African writers who use English as their medium, specifically of those, who had gathered for ‘A Conference of African Writers of English Expression’ at Marekere University College, Kampala, Uganda. He asks, how writings produced in the language of the colonizer can be considered as African literature. He terms this category as ‘Afro-European literature’- that is, the literature written by Africans in European languages, in the era of imperialism. Therefore, he finds it necessary to produce writings in African languages alone.

Further, he elaborates the need to reconnect the African with ‘his’ mother tongue. It arises from the fact that imperialism severed the link between the African and his native language. He illustrates the process of “colonial alienation”, from his own experience as a colonized Kenyan child.

In 1952 after the declaration of the state of emergency over Kenya the colonial regime took over all the schools run by the patriotic nationalists and imposed English as the language of formal education. This displaced Gikuyu, a Kenyan native language and severe punishment was given to students who spoke Gikuyu, their language. The Kenyan children underwent a traumatic experience due to this atrocity unleashed by the colonial regime:

Thus one of the most humiliating experiences was to be caught speaking Gikuyu in the vicinity of the school. The culprit was given given corporal punishment – three to five strokes of the cane on bare buttocks – or was made to carry a metal plate around the neck with inscriptions such as I AM STUPID or I AM DONKEY. Sometimes the culprits were fined money they could hardly afford.

This resulted in alienating Kenyan children from their language and their culture, and they were forced to identify themselves with that of an alien language. Ngugi also points out that learning for a colonial child became a cerebral activity and not an emotionally felt experience. Here he might run the risk of equating native language with emotion and colonizer’s language with intellect (similar to the equation drawn by Raja Rao in his forward to Kanthapura). But this is the way a colonised subject felt when the colonizer’s language (that had no connection with his immediate reality community, home etc…) was suddenly imposed upon her/him. The harmony between the language at home and its extended community, and the language at school was broken with the imposition of the colonizer’s language. Thus the qualification of one’s mother tongue as emotional is to point out how crucial was their language to their lived realities. Ngugi defines the colonizer’s logic of imposing their language:

In my view language was the most important vehicle through which that power fascinated and held the soul prisoner. …Language was the means of the spiritual subjugation.

Note the tying up of “power” with transcendental notions like “soul” and “spiritual”. However his argument is lucid when he refers to this “spiritual subjugation” as a “psychological violence”, it is clearly an attack on the mind, the intellect. Colonialism equated English with knowledge and native language was associated with negative qualities of backwardness, under development, humiliation and punishment. Here he enunciates those double facets of discourse: power and knowledge.

Another case for reviving native languages is that African writers who wrote in English where unable to communicate their message (though of African content like “sharp critique of European Bourgeois civilization”) by the very choice of their language. The representation of African culture created through such writing remains inaccessible to sections of peasantry and the working class, because they are in European languages. Though this retaliatory representation has acted as counter –discourses of imperialism, Ngugi sees them as literature that “added confidence to the petty-bourgeoisie class”. Because fruits of Africa’s independence were predominantly enjoyed by this class which in politics, business and education was assuming leadership of the countries newly emergent from colonialism. He notes that initially (in the post war era of anti imperial upheaval) their literature drew its stamina from the peasantry: Their oral heritage had brilliant representation. The reluctance of African writers to write in African languages is symptomatic of the gradual exclusion of peasantry and working class from political and economical activities.

Ngugi also analyzes the distinct approaches of working class and peasantry and, the comprador bourgeoisie in restructuring European languages. He identifies that the former Africanised the language of the master, without any respect for its ancestry shown by Senghor and Achebe, so totally as to have created new African languages, like Krio in Sierra Leone or Pidgin in Nigeria, that owed their identities to the syntax and rhythms of African languages.

These are the valid points of his argument that make his resolution a promising one. However, as stated earlier his proposal is flawed because of two reasons- (i) his construction of a glorious African language/culture that fails to include gender discrimination within its fold. (ii) his proposition for the complete removal of European languages from Africa, thereby causing a handicap in its international politics of all kinds.

He continues with the conceptual frame work of nation as woman ,the native tongue as mother and he refers to the colonized child as “he”. Above all, the capacity of language to misrepresent, silence and erase the gendered other is not addressed. (Such a language is inappropriate for gendered subjects unless it is radically reworked. Thus in his proposal to reclaim a culture through the revival of a language, he has actually wiped out half of its humanity.)This is in part due to his Marxist conceptualization of language as the relations people enter into with one another in the labour process. The understanding of the “relations” among people is not a nuanced one, it basically revolves around the theme of “production”. He does not perceive language as primarily an epistemology. It is not that he is oblivious to language’s capability to produce culture, with its moral, ethical and aesthetic values. But his analysis seems to present the cultural aspect as a separate category.

Another reason for his configuration of an unproblematic heritage is the necessity for a counter discourse in his confrontation with imperialism (whose epistemological violence on Africa produced a grotesque history and culture).And the foregrounding of “production” in the evolution of language is a reflection of his pro-proletariat stance which in turn is a double-edged sword that targets the economic,political and social policies of imperialism(especially in its neo-colonialist presence) and comprador nationalism.

Source: Fantasies Blog