Ngugi wa Thiong'o, from Decolonizing the Mind (1986)

1. [Ngugi begins by quoting Achebe and another Nigerian writer, Gabriel Okara, both of whom advocate writing in English, albeit a 'West-Africanized' English.] How did we arrive at this acceptance of 'the fatalistic logic of the unassailable position of English in our literature,' in our culture and in our politics? [. . .] How did we, as African writers, come to be so feeble in our claims on other languages, particularly the languages of our colonization?

2. Berlin of 1884 was effected through the sword and the bullet. But the night of the sword and the bullet was followed by the morning of the chalk and the blackboard. The physical violence of the battlefield was followed by the psychological violence of the classroom. [. . .] In my view language was the most important vehicle through which that power fascinated and held the soul prisoner. The bullet was the means of the physical subjugation. Language was the means of the spiritual subjugation. Let me illustrate this by drawing upon experiences in my own education, particularly in language and literature.

3. [. . .] We spoke Gikuyu (the most widely spoken language in Kenya] in and outside the home. I can vividly recall those evenings of storytelling around the fireside. [ . . [ We children would re-tell the stories the following day to other children who worked in the fields picking the pyrethrum flowers, tea-leaves or coffee beans of our European and African landlords.

4. The stories, with mostly animals as the main characters, were all told in Gikuyu. [Ngugi describes common types of folk tales.] Cooperation as the ultimate good in a community was a constant theme. [He describes how people judged good and bad story-telling.] We therefore learnt to value words for their meaning and nuances. Language was not just a string of words. It had a suggestive power well beyond the immediate and lexical meaning. Our appreciation of the suggestive magical power of language was reinforced by the games we played with words through riddles, proverbs, transpositions of syllables, or through nonsensical but musically arranged words. [ . . .] The language of our evening teach-ins, and the language of our immediate and wider community, and the language of our work in the fields were one.

5. And then I went to school, a colonial school, and this harmony was broken. The language of my education was no longer the language of my culture. [. . . It was after the declaration of a state of emergency over Kenya in 1952 [the Mau-Mau anti-colonial rebellion] that all the schools run by patriotic nationalists were taken over by the colonial regime and were placed under District Education Boards chaired by Englishmen. English became the language of my formal education. In Kenya, English became more than a language: it was the language, and all the others had to bow before it in deference.

6. Thus one of the most humiliating experiences was to be caught speaking Gikuyu in the vicinity of the school. The culprit was 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 A DONKEY. Sometimes the culprits were fined money that could hardly afford. And how did the teachers catch the culprits? A button was initially given to one pupil who was supposed to hand it over to whoever was caught speaking his mother tongue. Whoever had the button at the end of the day would sing who had given it to him and the ensuing process would bring out all the culprits of the day. Thus children were turned into witch-hunters and in the process were taught the lucrative value of being a traitor to one's immediate community.

7. The attitude to English was the exact opposite: any achievement in spoken or written English was highly rewarded. [In the colonial education system, which advanced by qualifying exams,] nobody could pass the exam who failed the English language paper no matter how brilliantly he had done in the other subjects. [. . .] English was the official vehicle and the magic formula to colonial elitism.

8. [. . .]I started writing in Gikuyu language in 1977 after seventeen years of involvement in Afro-European literature, in my case Afro-English literature. [. . .] I believe that my writing in Gikuyu language, a Kenyan language, an African language, is part and parcel of the anti-imperialist struggles of Kenyan and African peoples. In schools and universities our Kenyan languages - that is the languages of the many nationalities which make up Kenya - were associated with negative qualities of backwardness, underdevelopment, humiliation and punishment. We who went through that school system were meant to graduate with a hatred of the people and the culture and [instead with] the values of the language of our daily humiliation and punishment. I do not want to see Kenyan children growing up in that imperialist-imposed tradition of contempt for the tools of communication developed by their communities and their history. I want them to transcend colonial alienation.

9. [. . .] But writing in our languages per se [. . .] will not itself bring about the renaissance in African cultures if that literature does not carry the content of our people's anti-imperialist struggles to liberate their productive forces from foreign control; the content of the need for unity among the workers and peasants of all the nationalities in their struggle to control the wealth they produce and to free it from internal and external parasites.