By - Isaac Joseph
Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, born January 5, 1938 in Kenya, is one of Africa’s finest award winning and world renowned writers. His original name was James Thiong’o Ngugi, which he later changed after being exposed to the effects of colonialism in Africa in 1967. This exposure led him to the adoption of his traditional name, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. It was at this period that he also renounced his religion, Christianity and the usage of English in his writings. He started to write in his native Gikuyu and Swahili.
As a young boy, Ngugi’s writings were influenced by the Mau Mau War of Independence of (1952 – 1962). His literary journey began at the University of Uganda in the early 1960s. As a big fan of the school’s literary magazine back then, he was captivated by fame when he met one of the school’s writers that he could only mutter few words. Star stricken Ngugi blurted out – ‘I have written a short story – would you like to look at it?'” The school writer said, ‘Yes! Do you have it?’ Surprisingly, Ngugi had never written any but that night, he went back to his dormitory and came up with something called a story. Afterwards, Ngugi writings started to dwell on the radical changes that came with the end of the colonial rule; his stories were that of hope, which ironically was seen as ‘false hope’ by many. He rose to prominence with the performance of his first major play titled “The Black Hermit” which was held in 1962 at the National Theatre in Kampala, Uganda, as part of the celebration marking the independence of Uganda.
His works were highly critical of the post-colonial Kenya and its leaders; however, his writings only became threats when he wrote in his native language, Gikuyu. Ngugi helped set up The Kamiriithu Community Education and Cultural Centre in 1976 and they also organised African Theatre in the area. But in 1977, the uncensored political message of his play Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want), which he co-authored with Ngugi wa Mirii, provoked the then Kenyan Vice-President Daniel arap Moi, who ordered his arrest. Ngugi was detained in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison by the then Kenyan government, who were Africans too. This didn’t stop Ngugi from writing as he wrote the book, Devil on the Cross, while in the prison. Interestingly, the entire book was written on a toilet paper. After getting out of the prison, he went into exile – first to England and later to the United States.
Ngugi Wa Thiong’o as a Pan-Africanist
Ngugi’s early writings were strictly based on the concept of national identity and individualism. He believed in the common interest of Africa and advocated for a sense of oneness among African countries. Ngugi was concerned about the mind of a typical African, whose sense of judgment and reason shows that of a mind that has been colonized and neo-colonized by Euro-American “capitalist modernity.” He believed that “Political Pan-Africanism should make the continent a base where African peoples, meaning continentals and people of African descent, can feel truly at home. He had a stringent view of Pan Africanism and he believes that if Africa, as a continent is to achieve all of her dreams, then priority has to be placed on her language.
Pan Africanism and Ngugi’s “Weep Not Child”
Ngugi’s “Weep Not Child” (1964) was the first novel by an East African to be written in English. In the book, Ngugi exposes the travails of the Africans in the hands of the colonialists. He clearly illustrated how a society gets crumbled because of its exposure to the West. Also, the impact of cultural division was carefully examined and the sow of discord among Kenyans was revealed. This was an act, used by the colonialists to divide and rule the masses; a strategy that also worked in other African countries.
Currently, we still battle with some of the effects of colonization today, even as a continent. We are yet to wake from the slumber colonialism led us into. Ngugi believed that Pan Africanism is uniting together to form a common force and fight against the hangovers of the imperialists. While we have been wounded, battered and almost reduced to heaps, Ngugi believes it is time to weep no more. Africa had to take what is rightfully hers in the scheme of things.
However, he warned that the sense of unity had to be a sincere one; because our minds are far entrenched in the virtues of the colonialists that we can no longer think independently of the elements we acquired from them. While it looks like a difficult goal to reach, it is equally attainable if all hands are put on desk. It is attainable if we put our minds to it. While there might be calls to put a halt to this progressive step to regaining freedom, it is only the committed and dedicated that would see it to the end. It remains our choice to see how committed we are to the growth of Africa.
Pan Africanism and Ngugi’s “Decolonisng the Mind”
In 1982, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o declared his farewell to English Language when he wrote the book “Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature.” In the quest for freedom and the ceaseless battles of the Africans to liberate themselves from the shackles of the imperialists, it was important to have a hold on their language for creativity and self-identity. Ngugi believed that the loss of the African languages was not an option as we would become vulnerable to losing all that we were known and stand for. For Africans to be able to creatively tell their own stories, it was important not to lose control over her original linguistic elements. He believed that language remained the only powerful tool that could allow Africans break the hold of Western influence. This called for the need of a literature that rightly conveyed the true experience of Africa, from the view of the locals and not that of an intruder. Ngugi believed that language is a carrier of culture and as the collective memory bank of a people’s experience in history; it was not to be tampered with.
Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and the elusive Nobel Prize Award
When questioned on the Nobel Prize Award which had surprisingly eluded him over the years and his thoughts on it; Ngugi said in his own words – “When I go to a place, and I meet a person, and they tell me, ‘Your novel or your short story impacted my life,’ that’s a very special moment when as a writer I feel: ‘My God, it was worth it.’ It’s what I call the Nobel of the heart, and I really appreciate that one,” he says. And he added with a laugh: “The beauty of the Nobel of the heart is that every writer can have it, yeah?” This was the mindset of the iconic writer. He was ultimately concerned about making impact on the lives of the people; rather than some personal recognition. If this was the mindset our leaders had, we might have probably moved from being a developing continent to being called developed. The race to freedom and emancipation has to be void of personal gains; if the desired goal is to be attained.
While there are several hurdles to overcome to reach the ‘Promised Land’, decolonization has to start from our minds. And it takes a conscious effort to achieve all of this. It would not be given to us on a platter of gold. We, as Africans, have to work for it and the race to freedom would have to begin from individuals, then into units and other progressive numbers. Just as Nelson Mandela rightly said: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” We all have a role to play in our quest for ‘total’ freedom.
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