Ngugi Wa Thiongo and Chinue Achebe on the Politics of Language and Literature in Africa
African literature is oral. It includes stories, riddles, proverbs
So where does all of this leave us in a discussion of current African literature? It leads to an ongoing debate—what is African literature? Ngugi sees a structural problem however. He says that in a given discussion over this subject we may seesome of the following questions: "Are we talking of literature about Africa or the African experience? Was it literature written by Africans? What about a non-African who wrote about Africa? What if an African set his work in Greenland—does this qualify?" These are good questions, but, Ngugi explains, they were raised at the conference of African Writers of English Expression which included only English writing African authors because those that wrote in African languages were not invited.
This blindness to the indigenous voice of Africans is a direct result, according to Ngugi, of colonization. Ngugi explains that during colonization, missionaries and colonial administrators controlled publishing houses and the educational context of novels. This means that only texts with religious stories or carefully selected stories which would not tempt young Africans to question their own condition were propogated. Africans were controlled by forcing them to speak European languages—they attempted to teach children (future generations) that speaking English is good and that native languages are bad by using negative reinforcement. This is a process recognized by the great Martiniquen writer, Franz Fanon. Language was twisted into a mechanism that separated children from their own history because their own heritage were shared only at home, relying on orature in their native language. At school, they are told that the only way to advance is to memorize the textbook history in the colonizer's language. By removing their native language from their education they are separated from their history which is replaced by European history in European languages. This puts the lives of Africans more firmly in the control of the colonists.
Ngugi argues that colonization was not simply a process of physical force. Rather, "the bullet was the means of physical subjugation. Language was the means of the spiritual subjugation." In Kenya, colonization propogated English as the language of education and as a result, orature in Kenyan indigenous languages whithered away. This was devastating to African literature because, as Ngugi writes, "language carries culture and culture carries (particularly through orature and literature) the entire body of values by which we perceive ourselves and our place in the world." Therefore, how can the African experience be expressed properly in another language?
The issue of which language should be used to compose a truly African contemporary literature is thus one replete with contradictions. Ngugi argues that writing in African languages is a necessary step toward cultural identity and independence from centuries of European exploitation. However, let us consider critic Susan Gallagher's account below wherein Nigerian author Chinue Achebe discusses why he chose not to write or translate Things Fall Apart into "Union Igbo." What does Achebe use the "weapon" of the English language to accomplish in Things Fall Apart?
Achebe rejects the Western notion of art for its own sake in essays he has published (e.g. in the collections Morning Yet on Creation Day and Hopes and Impediments). Instead he embraces the conception of art at the heart of African oral traditions and values: "art is, and always was, at the service of man," he writes. "Our ancestors created their myths and told their stories with a human purpose;" hence, "any good story, any good novel, should have a message, should have a purpose."
Achebe, Chinua. Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays. 1988. New York : Anchor-Doubleday, 1990.
Achebe, Chinua. Morning Yet on Creation Day: Essays. London: Heinemann, 1975.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. [First published 1958.] Expanded edition with notes. 1996. London: Heinemann, 2000.
Gallagher, Susan VanZanten. "Linguistic Power: Encounter with Chinua Achebe." The Christian Century 12 March 1997, 260.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, 1986.