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Conditions for creating a reading culture in Africa

Reading empowers people, Ngugi wa Thiong’o writes in this week’s edition of Pambazuka News, but people need more than access to books, they need access to books in their own languages. In the first part of a keynote speech given at the 6th Pan African Reading for all Conference, wa Thiong’o argues that ‘if you want to hide knowledge from an African child, put it in English or French.’ To ‘know one’s language, whatever that language is, and add others to it, is empowerment, says wa Thiong’o, ‘but to know all the other languages while ignorant of one’s own is slavery.’

I want to start by congratulating the organisers of this conference, for nothing can surpass in importance books as entries into human history. I like the lines quoted from morality plays in the Everyman Library series: ‘Everyman will go with thee and everywhere be thy guide.’ The book as a guide! That’s why what one of the speakers said yesterday facetiously, that that if you want to hide something from an African, put it in a book, is sad, tragic even, where it is true. But I would put it differently and say that if you want to hide knowledge from an African child, put it in English or French. Tragically this is true; it is what we do to our children everyday.

I remember when my mother used to send on a journey alone, to some relatives for instance. She would give me rigu, food and water for a rainy day, and then would sit me down and tell me everything about the path before me to ensure that I would not get lost. Every instruction was punctuated with: Do you understand? Then would she let me go. Only a very irresponsible parent would give instructions in words and language that the child does not understand. Now, nothing is more important than life’s journey; and yet we in Africa following the colonial path, send our children on the journey of life with instructions coded in European languages. The colonialist may have wanted us to go astray, but why would we, an independent Africa, want our children to get lost? More likely, it’s a case of the lost giving instructions on how to lose your way in life.

In my book, Decolonising the Mind, published in 1984, I told the story of my relationship to my mother tongue, Kikuyu, and my language of education, English. English was also the official language of the colonial state. I told how we used to be punished when we were caught speaking an African language in the school compound. We were humiliated by being made to carry a piece we called ‘monitor’ around our necks, literally stating that we were stupid. This humiliation and negativity were attached to African languages in the learning process. A good performance in English on the other hand was greeted with acclaim. Two things were taking place in the cognitive process: Positive affirmation of English as a means of intellectual production; and criminalisation of African languages as means of knowledge production. With English, went pride: With African languages, shame. For a long time I used to think that this was an African problem.

But some years ago, when I was researching my new Book, Re-Membering Africa, which has just been published, I found out that what was done to Africa had already been done to the Welsh. In 19th century Welsh kids caught speaking their mother tongue in school compound were also humiliated by being made to carry something around their necks with initials: WN-Welsh Not. At the very least, my colonial story had been re-enacted in Wales.

Even earlier than Wales was the case of the relationship between English and Irish languages. English colonial settlement was first tried out in Ireland in 16th century. But the English were finding it difficult to conquer the Irish or rather, tame them. In 1598, Edmund Spencer, a contemporary of Shakespeare and the celebrated author of the Fairie Queen and other poetic works, published A View of Ireland at the Present Time. Spencer was an English land-owner in Ireland, a neighbour to Walter Raleigh, the founder of the colony of Virginia. In the book, A View of Ireland, Spencer literally prescribes a cultural solution to the political and military problem posed by the Irish resistance. He argues that if you change their names, strike out the Mc’s and O’s of their naming system, and then impose English, the Irish would soon forget the Irish nation. Language conquest would enable indeed complete political conquest. The solution to native resistance is thus seen as lying in the erasure of their memory through changing their memory through changing their language and main system.

It’s really the same colonial process dramatised in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, where Caliban loses his tongue and then his land to Prospero. When Caliban complains about the loss of his natural and human resources, Prospero accuses him of ingratitude for seemingly forgetting the gift of Prospero’s language: But then Caliban curses back, pointing out that the price of learning Caliban’s language is the loss of his sovereignty: ‘I was my own subject, now, your slave.’ Language in other words is part of that transition from freedom to slavery.

Africans who were taken to Americans by force by Raleigh and his descendants to become plantation slaves had their languages and their names literally banned, almost as if the colonists were reading from Spencer’s manual. In the place of African names, they were given those of their owners. Even the drum language was banned by the act of banning the instrument itself. But the plantation master never lost his linguistic connection to Europe. The Spanish, French, Dutch and English plantation owners remained connected to their European Languages.

We find similar practices in Asia. Japan banned the Korean language and imposed Japanese during the brief Japanese colonial era. We can say the same things relative to the indigenous peoples of Australia, New Zealand, South and North America. In the history of modern colonialism all the colonial powers, at one time or other, have imposed their languages on the conquered peoples, thus ensuring that the entire system of production, dissemination and consumption of knowledge takes place through the colonial language only. Even the very identity of the colonised is expressed in the language of conquest. In Africa, in other words identity is based on the language of the colonial conquest.

The case for mental conquest through language was put best by McCauley, the British secretary of education, who argued, in his famous minutes on Indian education, that English should be used to create a class, Indians in the name, but otherwise imbued with an English mentality; this class, he argued will help the British as effectively governors and the governed.

We can then generalise and say that where there is a situation of domination and subordination, between any two groups, whatever their colour or religion, this will be reflected in the language relationship. Unfortunately the linguistic imbalance of power takes a life of its own and may continue even after the underlying economic and political situation has changed. I believe that is how English and other European languages have come to be in the position in which they are today vis-à-vis other languages in the world, languages through which instructions for children on their life’s journey, are coded, with the gleeful approval of their own parents. The result of the many years of imperial relationship between Europe and the rest of the globe is world of languages divided into a dominant few, largely from Europe, and marginalised many, largely from Africa and Asia and Americans. Today, four of the five languages of the UN Security Council, are European. It is also not a coincidence that European and the West happen also to be the dominant economically in the world.

Therefore the problem is global, not peculiar to Africa, although it manifests its worst results in our continent. While the problem is basically economic and political; but philosophically, its roots lie in the conception of relationship between languages in terms of hierarchy, a kind of linguistic Feudalism and linguistic Darwinism.

Linguistic and cultural feudalism is the view consciously or unconsciously held that some languages between and even within nations, are of higher order than others; that they constitute an aristocracy while others, in a descending order of being, occupy lesser positions, different degrees of minions.

In the world today, a handful of western languages constitute that aristocracy. They dominate in the production and dissemination of ideas; they dominate in publishing and distribution and consumption of knowledge; they control the flow of ideas. Intellectuals who come from the supposedly lesser languages find that, to be visible globally, they must produce and store ideas in Western European languages, English mostly. In the case of most intellectuals from Africa and Asia, they become visible on the world stage but simultaneously invisible in their own cultures and languages. Global visibility comes at the price of local or regional invisibility.

This is because the dominant languages become perceived, even by the dominated, as having all the magic power of knowledge and production of ideas, culture itself, where the dominated languages are seen as having the opposite. They are incapable of producing knowledge and good ideas. But I wish it was simply a case of linguistic feudalism is being transformed into linguistic Darwnism.

Linguistic Darwinism is the extreme product of hieratic dominant language, dependent of the death of other languages. Languages can grow but only on the graveyard of others, an attitude that underlies all practices of monolingualism. In this most extreme form of monolingualism, linguistic Darwinism sees the growth of a national language as being dependent on the death of all the other languages. This is the assumption behind many national language policies: In order for the national language to be, other languages must die.

The death of any language is the loss of knowledge contained in that language. The weakening of any language is the weakening of its knowledge producing potential. It is a human loss. The saying cited yesterday that the death of an old person is the death of a library is probably more true of languages. Imagine the impoverishment of world culture if all the learning in say classical Greek and Latin had died with the languages? Today we can only imagine but never know the loss of knowledge with the disappearance of so many languages on earth. Each language, no matter how small, contains the best knowledge of its immediate environment: The plants and their properties, for instance. Language is the primary computer with a natural hard drive.

African languages face the destiny of dinosaurs: Things of the past. For the national, African and even global good, the prevailing power relationships of languages and cultures, has to be challenged and hopefully even shaken up. This was the thinking behind my books, Decolonizing the Mind, and also Re- Membering Africa.

My first prescription was that writers from marginalised cultures and languages had the duty and responsibility of making themselves visible in their languages. As I did not want to be saying do as I say but not as I do, I made the decision way back in 1978 to break with English as the primary mans of my writing, particularly in fiction and drama. My first novel in Gikuyu, Devil on the Cross, was first written on toilet paper in a maximum security prison where I had been put by a postcolonial African Government for having participated in the writing and performance of a play in my mother tongue. Today, I still believe that writers and other intellectuals have the duty to challenge and shake up that view of languages in theory and practice

But later I realised that though writers bore the primary duty of producing ideas in African languages, there was another equally important player. Writers do no do so in order to decorate their home shelves with unpolished manuscripts. They want to be published in order to reach the reader. But alas there were no major publishers in African languages. So lack of publishers in African languages leads to lack of writers in African languages and therefore few readers of African language productions and therefore few publishers willing to risk money by venturing there, and you can see the vicious circle.

The publisher then is an integral part of any meaningful challenge to linguistic feudalism and linguistic Darwinism. I have written several works in Gikuyu. But this would have been impossible without the willingness of Henry Chakava and the East African Educational Publishers to invest resources and skills into the project.

It is not question of books only. There are no journals of creative and intellectual production in African languages. So a young writer beginning to write has absolutely no forum in which he can showcase short pieces, at least. Let me show you what effects a journal can have by citing my own practice. Conscious of the problem of journals and with the assistance of the New York Niversity where I then worked as Professor of Comparative Literature and Performance Studies, I founded a journal of culture and modern literature in 1992. Mutiri was the first of its kind in Gikuyu. Even under very limited circulation the journal has made some impact. Let me cite one example.

A Kenyan student, Gatua wa Mbugua, was doing his senior paper at the University of California, Santa Cruz, when he came across the journal, Mutiri, at a friend’s house. It was the first time that he was seeing modem poetry and essays in Gikuyu. He immediately started writing his own poems and songs in Gikuyu. Later at Cornell University, he wrote the first ever Masters dissertation on Crop Science in Gikuyu. And early this year, he successfully defended his Doctorate in Agricultural Science at Wyoming University. Where his fieldwork for his Masters was done in Kenya, that for his dissertation was carried out in the central highlands of Wyoming. He had to be very dedicated to his task. For his examiners in both cases at Cornell and Wyoming, he had to give an English translation of the thesis and dissertation. As for as I know, this was the first doctoral science dissertation in an African language, certainly so in Gikuyu. The point here is that it was a Gikuyu language journal that inspired him to do what he has done, and now he is committed to producing smaller and simpler Science texts in Gikuyu.

The writer and the publisher need another partner. The government. Many African states don’t have a national language policy in a multilingual situation, meaning African languages. In some cases they have shown hostility. Whatever we may say of colonial states, they, through literature bureaus, often came up with some sort of policies. Some post-colonial governments have even shown active hostility to African languages. Governments have to create an enabling environment in terms of policies and resources. We have only to look at Kiswahili in Tanzania today, the result of Nyerere’s progressive linguistic foresight, continued in the successor Tanzanian governments. By Kiswahili having a home and a base, it is the one African language that is becoming an active player in the globe.

The fourth partner is of course the seller of books. Booksellers have to be willing to stock books written in African languages. At present this is largely missing. There are very few bookshops that sell African language books.

I could add other partners: Award givers and conference organisers. At present, many awards meant to help in the growth of African literature actually work against African literature and readership. They give awards that stipulate English as the linguistic means of literary production. Conference organisers within and outside Africa recognise only those intellectuals and writers who write in English. I was talking to Zanzibari writers and on the mainland, and they all felt that global visibility only went to writers in English. This obviously has to change: African languages have to speak for the continent. I have never heard of awards for French literature that stipulate that such writers, to qualify as French writers for purposes of French literature awards and conference invitations, must written in Chinese or Zulu.

There is finally the reader. The reader is the most important component of the four partners. Without readers and buyers of African language books, there can never be such a literature. But then those books have to be there, in the first instance. In other words the five elements have to work together: Writers, visibility in the world for writers and books in African languages, will come automatically, from a solid base in Africa.

The choice open to the world should not be between mono-lingualism and hierarchy of languages; but between those two models and a network system among languages. Language relationships within and between nations should not be in terms of hierarchy but rather in terms of network, with transitions enabling the transmission of knowledge and ideas between languages, a theme we can explore tomorrow.

I hope this conference will debate and share experiences that will really create the African reader of African literary and intellectual productions, a reader who is an integral active member of the global intellectual productions, a reader who is an integral, active member of the global intellectual community. ‘Father, do not send me into the dark alone among strangers,’ says the persona in one of Sonia Sanchez’s poems. Parents have the responsibility to send their children out into the world equipped with the self-confidence that arises from a clear knowledge of one’s base. Let me put it this way. To know one’s language, whatever that language is, and add others to it, is empowerment. But to know all the other languages while ignorant of one’s own is slavery, I for one choose empowerment rather than slavery and I believe that this I what this conference is all about: Empowerment through reading.


* This speech was made as the keynote address at the 6th Pan African Reading for all Conference, hosted by the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on 11 August 2009.
* Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o is Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature, and director of the International Centre for Writing and Translation, at the University of California Irvine.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.