Ngugi wa Thiongo On "Word Africa"
Monday, June 25, 2007.
By Ronald Elly Wanda
The name “Ngugi wa Thiongo” used to be a disparaging phase that cropped up in President Moi’s speeches during his ruinous domination of Kenya (1978 to 2002). Daniel arap Moi, like many of his contemporaries in Africa was also a dictator- the so called “Big men of Africa”, he terrorised civil society, stamping ‘men of letters’ whom he saw as oppositional (Ngugi suffered this fate, until he fled) and frustrated intellectualism as well as prohibited the “Word”.
On the 2nd of June 2007, Ngugi wa Thiongo gave a key note speech that included readings from his latest novel Wizard of the Crow at the British Museum’s BP Lecture Theatre in London, under the banner “Word from Africa”, a one off event amongst many other celebrating African languages, cultures, music, visual arts and literature.
His first novel Weep Not Child was published to critical acclaim in 1964; followed by his second novel, The River Between (1965). His third, A Grain of Wheat (1967), was a turning point in the formal and ideological direction of his works.
It was my first time to meet Ngugi. And I must say he is the most brilliant celebrity intellectual I have ever had the pleasure engaging with, I could never have predicted how charismatic and just plain inspirational the man would be. Especially knowing what he went through in Kenya in defense of freedom of expression and the “Word”.
Ngugi now a distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature and also in charge of the International Centre for Writing and Translation at the California University in Irvine, begun his compact lecture by stressing the need of preserving the vernacular “word”. “In the beginning” said Ngugi “was the word. It was not English. It was not European. It was in fact vernacular”. As such the professor argued that the preservation and advancement of the vernacular word ought to be the real education.
Ngugi also observed that the African intellectual has become imprisoned by the global educational system as well as suffering from psychological effects that colonialism imposed on him. Therefore, the challenge for the educated African is to free up the ‘African word’. “African literature” the professor said, “is rich”. It needs to be restored in its truest form- The vernacular language -so that it can engage evocatively and independently with other literary discourses.
With regards to his 1986 novel Decolonizing the Mind, Ngugi said that he was initially greeted with cynicism and downright hostility in some quarters. Since then, he says there has been a change of attitude. “There may not be a majority acceptance of the position articulated in Decolonizing the Mind, but the concerns raised receive more attention and involved debate” said Ngugi. Adding, “Literature provides us with images of the world in which we live.
Through these images, it shapes our consciousness to look at the world in a certain way. Our propensity to action or inaction or to a certain kind of action or inaction can be profoundly affected by the way we look at the world”.
Professor Ngugi later concluded his lecture by reading selected passages from his latest novel Wizard of the Crow amidst an exhilarated crowd. The novel is set in the fictional African republic of Aburiria; it tells the story of a ruler who has surrounded himself with comically sycophantic cabinet ministers.
Put very simply it is a book about third world dictators – and how they have been nurtured by the West. Though the novel is fictional it might as well be factual because one can identify the Ruler in the novel as Mobutu, Kenyatta, Bokassa, , Moi, Banda, Mugabe, and other African dictators all rolled up in one.
They tend to preside over the public purse, which they contentedly steer anywhere so long as their cream is endless, their cushions comfy, and their lives free from anything resembling commitment and fidelity.
Thankfully, today in Africa the electorate has to a degree slowly but surely woken up, having grown tired of the culture of the “Big men”. Just as real felines have an extraordinary ability to irritate, simply by existing, it seems that the time is ripe to advance the struggle, as has Ngugi, by giving their human counterparts a good kicking. Let their last words if not the “Word” be “it was greed wot done it m’lord”.
Ronald Elly Wanda is a political scientist based in London and the head of Pan African Society (UK).
Please e-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org