Saturday, November 27, 2010

"A literary and social activist"

I set out to write this blog as a fundraiser for the Stephen Lewis Foundation’s A Dare to Remember campaign, thinking that a month would be a long time. Now that I have just over a week left of blogging every day for a month, I’m wondering how I can possibly cover everything I'd like to. There are so many people who are telling us stories of Africa, and suggesting to us the promise of Africa.

So I’ll just start with one person: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o.

Photos courtesy of
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o is one of Africa’s most well-known writers -- his biography would fill up more than one blog post.

He’s an internationally celebrated Kenyan novelist, essayist, theorist, playwright, journalist, editor, academic and activist. He is currently Distinguished Professor of the Departments of Comparative Literature and English at the University of California, Irvine.

His first three novels, Weep Not Child, The River Between and A Grain of Wheat, are classics. He has published several volumes of literary essays and numerous other novels, short stories and children's books.

wa Thiong'o's books are literary achievements, but they are also challenges. His novel Petals of Blood, according to his website biography, "painted a harsh and unsparing picture of life in neo-colonial Kenya," and his play, Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want), written with Ngugi wa Mirii in "the language of people’s daily lives," was "sharply critical of the inequalities and injustices of Kenyan society." After its publication in 1977, wa Thiong’o was arrested by Kenyan authorities and imprisoned without charge until 1978.

While in prison, he made the decision to write only in Kikuyu, his first language, rather than English, even though he was already a well-known and influential writer in English.

From then, his message has consistently been the necessity of writing in African languages. He addressed this in Decolonising the Mind (1984), for example, and in Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance (2009), in which he writes about Africa's "dismemberment" through colonisation during which local languages were suppressed, and the need to reclaim local languages in order to "re-member Africa."

In a speech at the 6th Pan-African Reading For All Conference in 2009, wa Thiong’o remarked that throughout the world, colonisers have replaced local languages with their own. As a result, ..."a handful of western languages…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."

wa Thiong'o continues: "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…. 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."

For wa Thiong'o, "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."

wa Thiong'o published Wizard of the Crow in 2006 (a translation of his novel Murogi wa Kagogo), and Dreams in a Time of War in 2010. He also created and edits the Kikuyu language journal Mutiiri, and continues to write and speak internationally. His website is

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