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Summary: Decolonising the Mind

Page history last edited by Lindsay Murphy 13 years, 1 month ago

Lindsay Murphy

EN 502



Summary: Thiong’o’s “Decolonising the Mind”

            Kenyan-born Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s 1986 book Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature can be thought of, in part, as a continuation of Martinique-born Frantz Fanon’s earlier anti-colonial book, Black Skin, White Masks (1952).  Each of these books can be considered both colonial and post-colonial, colonial because they examine the effects of teaching colonial children foreign (European) languages/cultures at the expense of native languages/cultures, and post-colonial because they both argue that these effects are detrimental to the colonized regions.

            Thiong’o’s general argument in this selection is that a national culture must include that nation’s literature expressed in that nation’s native language.  In other words, Thiong’o argues that the English (Spanish/French/Portuguese/etc.) language ought not to be the language of education and culture in areas where it was used as an implement of colonial domination.  He opens this selection by arguing “the language of African literature cannot be discussed meaningfully outside the context of those social forces which have made it both an issue demanding our attention and a problem calling for a resolution” (1126).  “Those social forces” can be understood as colonialism and the desires and struggles of African people to reclaim their economies, politics, and cultures from the colonial chokehold.  Thiong’o traces his interest in the discussion of the language of African literature through his childhood education in Kenya and his participation in a number of conferences on the subject, including his participation at the 1962 conference “A Conference of African Writers of English Expression.”  He explains that only African writers who had published in English were eligible to participate in the conference which had as its initial point of inquiry, the question “what is African literature?” (1128).  Considering this question in light of his English education and with the benefit of 26 years, Thiong’o explains why African literature must not be conceived of in European (or other non-native) languages.  Thiong’o argues, “language was the means of spiritual subjugation” of the colonized by the colonizers and therefore cannot express the inherent African-ness that an African literature must express (1130).

            In explaining how language was used for spiritual subjugation, Thiong’o looks to his own education.  He describes Gikuyu as the language for his peasant family’s communication with each other, with the community at large, and as their means to share culture, namely through orature.  As a child growing up in this community, his language remained unified until he went to school and was taught to elevate English language and to devalue Gikuyu.  Thiong’o argues that language “is both a means of communication and a carrier of culture” (1133).  Each of these characteristics has three aspects.  Language as communication is 1) the language of real life, 2) speech which mediates human relations, and 3) written language which imitates speech.  Language as a carrier of culture is 1) “a product and reflection of human beings communicating with one another in the very struggle to create wealth and control it,” 2) “an image-forming agent in the mind of a child,” and 3) the transmitter of “those images of the world and reality…through a specific language” (1134).  Until his English education, Thiong’o claims these six aspects were harmonious in his native Gikuyu.

            Thiong’o argues that colonialism’s real goal was “to control…the entire realm of the language of real life” (1135). To do so, colonial powers consciously elevated English and consciously devalued Gikuyu.  In school, Thiong’o (and other similarly educated children) were taught to use English exclusively, but this language could never adequately express the experience of a Kenyan child since it developed to express the experience of the English.  English as language of communication for Kenyans thus failed to allow full communication.  English as language of culture also failed Kenyans because “the colonial child was made to see the world and where he stands in it as seen and defined by or reflected in the culture of imposition” (1136).  English literature, even at its most innocuous, taught as reflecting universal humanism, reflected that “universal” humanism from a specifically English position.  Even when texts were translated into English, the literature was Euro-centric and the resulting education was alienating.  Because English literature, even when written by Africans, cannot express African culture (because culture is inextricably tied to its native language), an African literature must be written in African languages.

            Thiong’o states that English literature syllabi at African universities were almost identical in their coverage of the English cannon and inclusion of ancient and modern European drama.  Although Thiong’o writes specifically about African colonies, given the scope of European colonialism and the formulaic language subjugation, I believe his argument is applicable to other areas of colonialism, including the Caribbean.  Saint Lucian-born Derek Walcott’s Omeros comes to mind as an illustration for Thiong’o’s argument.  Written almost completely in English, Omeros is loosely based on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and is set on St. Lucia, an island with a long history of colonial rule vacillating between French and British rule. 

            Looking at the first review on the back of my copy of Omeros, it seems that part of its critical acclaim is due to Walcott’s ability to imitate the great European and British literary tradition.  Michael Heyward of The Washington Post Book World writes that “what justifies the title of Omeros is a sense of unbridled imaginative scope, that feeling of amplitude and sensuous inclusion which we find in Homer…Lucretius…Shakespeare…or Whitman...which Walcott can summon as much as any poet now living” (Walcott back cover).  This reviewer seems to find Walcott’s (and perhaps any poet’s) talent lies in his ability to summon other canonized writers.  This way of valuing a text seems similar to the way Thiong’o describes the colonial system culling of the educated colonized by valuing, above all else, a student’s mastery of English language.

            Although Walcott’s poem is mostly written in English, he does slip into French occasionally.  In these instances, the French is presented, and then a translation from the French into English is presented within the poetic structure.  It seems that in these instances, the French may be closer to what is being expressed than is the English.  This is fascinating to me as both languages are European, non-native Caribbean languages.  Analyzing this language use in light of Thiong’o’s essay, it seems that, somehow, French is closer to the culture than English.  Despite its critical acclaim, perhaps Walcott’s poem is an example of what Thiong’o wants to avoid in terms of developing an African literature. 

Works Cited

Thiong’o, Ngugi wa.  “Decolonising the Mind.” 1986. Literary Theory: An Anthology. 2nd Ed. Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004. 1126-1150. Print.

Walcott, Derek. Omeros. New York: Noonday Press-Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990. Print.






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