Illustration by: Andy Friedman
The Kenyan author discusses colonialism and abandoning English to write in his native Kikuyu.
By Rohit Inani
Last year, when the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o entered a packed auditorium at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, he immediately received a standing ovation. The audience whistled and hollered, their fists jabbing the air as they cheered: “Ngũgĩ! Ngũgĩ! Ngũgĩ!” More than 50 years after Weep Not, Child, the first novel to be published in English by an East African, he remains a literary superstar and perennial favorite for the Nobel Prize
Ngũgĩ was born into a large peasant family in 1938 in Limuru, Kenya, at the height of the Mau Mau rebellion. He was educated at primary schools in Kenya, and earned his bachelor degrees at Makerere University in Uganda and University of Leeds in England. His debut novel, Weep Not, Child (1964), detailing the Mau Mau uprising, was published to wide acclaim. He quickly followed it up with The River Between (1965) and A Grain of Wheat (1967). After a 10-year gap, Ngũgĩ published Petals of Blood in 1977. Later that year, after he published the play Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want) about inequalities and injustices in Kenyan society, written in Kikuyu, his mother tongue, the government arrested and imprisoned him. While in prison, Ngũgĩ abandoned English as a literary language and committed himself to writing in Kikuyu. He wrote Caitani Mutharabaini (1981), translated into English as Devil on the Cross (1982), from his cell on the only thing available—squares of toilet paper.
After his exile from Kenya in 1982, Ngũgĩ headed to the United States, where he’s lived and taught for more than three decades, establishing himself as a fierce critic of Western imperialism and neoliberalism.
At 80, Ngũgĩ is warm, funny and deeply generous. Our conversation took place over two sittings, at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. —Rohit Inani
Rohit Inani: In 1977, you published Petals of Blood about a peasant uprising in a neocolonial Kenyan society. Immediately after, you published a controversial play Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want) in Kikuyu, your native language. Did you write the play in Kikuyu because Petals of Blood failed to connect with the people you were writing about?
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: It’s true. There is a reality in Africa that 90 percent of the population speaks different languages. And if you think, as I do, that people are an engine of change, then the question of their access to information and skills is very important. When you write a novel in English—no matter how radical, no matter how progressive—it can only reach people in a trickle-down fashion.
RI: Were you hoping of an uprising after the publication?
NT: No, never. Art does not incite. To me, art has to do with imagination. Imagination makes possible everything we do as human beings. We can picture all the possibilities and try to realize it in practice.
What nourishes the imagination? It is actually the arts, the songs, the culture. The problem with repressive regimes is that they like to starve the imagination. They don’t want you to think or imagine the possibilities of a different future. They want you to think this is the best of all possible worlds, like that character in Voltaire’s Candide, “Oh! This is the best of all possible worlds!” Slave-owning institutions used to argue that this is the best of all possible worlds.
So writing in English, or making sure that literature is only available in English, you are starving the imagination of a majority of people.
RI: In 1978, while being imprisoned in the Kamiti maximum-security prison, you wrote one of your most famous books, Devil on the Cross, in Kikuyu, on toilet paper. How difficult was it to write an entire book on toilet paper?
NT: I was put in prison because of my play I Will Marry When I Want, which was published in Kikuyu and acted by peasants. I remember the play being stopped in November 1977, and on December 31, 1977, I found myself in a maximum-security prison. Now, in prison I was thinking very seriously about the language question. I realized that when I looked at the history of colonialism, the colonizer not only imposes his language, but he denigrates and represses the languages of the colonized. So the condition of learning English was the unlearning of our language, which continued into the postcolonial era.
I decided that since I’d been put in prison for writing in a national language and put there by an African government, I would, as part of my resistance, write in the very language which had been the basis of my incarceration.
NT: Yeah. It sustained me—feeling as if I was resisting. It was fun writing when I did not have paper. All I had was toilet paper. But occasionally I got a pen from the prison authorities if I said I was writing some kind of confession—I don’t know what there was to confess.
RI: How did you manage to keep it away from the eyes of the prison authorities?
NT: I used to hide them in the open. We were allowed thousands of squares of toilet paper. Together they pack nicely. Towards the end the pile of toilet paper reached very high. At one point, I almost lost it, which I write about it in my memoir that’s coming out in March under the title Wrestling with the Devil.
RI: You have called language a “war zone,” and you describe yourself as a “language warrior.” Can you briefly talk about that?
NT: Look at the Irish situation with the British. The humiliation of Native Americans, how their language was denigrated. In Africa, of course, we were forbidden to speak our mother tongues. Japan imposed its language on the Koreans. So wherever you look at modern colonialism, the acquisition of the language of the colonizer was based on the death of the languages of the colonized. So it is a war zone. In case of India, [British historian and statesman Thomas Babington] Macaulay was brutally honest about wanting to create a class of Indians with English on their minds. The English wanted them to play a role in governing the rest of the population. It is true of Africa, and anywhere where there was a colonial situation. African languages were weaponized against Africans. Language was a weapon of war whether we are talking about the Spanish and Portuguese in Latin America or French in Africa and Vietnam. Language was a very important element in both the conquest and maintenance of colonial rule, because it was likely to bind the minds of the middle class.
RI: Do you think that once you have mastered a language, it becomes your own and you can reclaim it to free yourself even if you have been oppressed by it? In one of his letters to his father, V.S. Naipaul, as a young man in Oxford, wrote: “I want to come top of my group. I have got to show these people that I can beat them at their own language.”