Celebrated Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o is in the country to launch his latest book, Kenda Muiyuru (The Perfect Nine), and to promote writing in vernacular languages, a mission he has been on for more than three decades.
In this conversation with the Saturday Nation, which has been condensed for space and clarity, one of the world’s leading intellectuals talks about the Gikuyu epic, his views on the Nobel Prize and his plans to relocate to Kenya.
Most families in Kenya today converse in either Kiswahili, English or Sheng, giving children little or no exposure to indigenous languages. How viable is your campaign to promote local languages?
I am actually very encouraged by the rise of African languages. On YouTube, I see incredible performances in Kenyan languages. I have seen films in Gikuyu, for instance, and over the years I have seen really great improvement in camera work and editing. I have seen films by Kanyanya Stars, very well edited and the acting is very good and smooth. And also other comedies in different languages. I was watching the other day comedy in Ekegusii.
Actually, the best music, for me, is in African languages. But we can’t leave our languages merely as only oral or music. They should be part of the intellectual production of our communities. I know there are difficulties, like cases where teachers would have, say, the hour assigned for African languages used for English practice, which sends the message to children that their language is not important.
Many things have to change. I am very pleased actually to see that the Ministry of Education has now reintroduced African languages and because of that a publishing house like East African Educational Publishers has issued quite a number of books on how to learn Dholuo, Ekegusii and other languages. The hope is that they do all the 40-odd languages.
We have to put in more resources to train teachers and also abolish practices like humiliating or beating students who speak their mother tongue in school. Why are parents happy when those children can’t speak their mother tongue? In a way I don’t blame the parents or anybody for that matter. They may not realise it. They think they are making a decision, yet we were programmed a long time ago. It’s a colonial thing. We have to decolonise our own minds.
We can go to the history of how English came to be seen automatically as the language of intelligence and African languages as peripheral, but remember it was a conscious programme enacted by all colonial powers.
You have for many years now been tipped to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, with your admirers here and across the world holding their breath every time the Swedish Academy is about to make the announcement. What is the wait like for you?
Now that I write in Gikuyu, it becomes more significant that people think that the totality of my work is worth the Nobel Prize. I feel positive about that, but I do not write for prizes. What pleases me more is when I meet people who tell me such and such work of mine had this and this impact upon their lives. I once met a political activist in India who said he was ready to commit suicide when he entered a bookshop and, rummaging through my books, picked up Devil on the Cross, which I wrote at Kamiti Maximum Prison. He told me the book gave him a new purpose for living. As a writer it is very touching when you get such unsolicited confessions.
You were forced into exile in 1982 but despite all the change here, you won’t come back home for good. Why?
Remember in 2003, after 20 years of forced exile, I came back with my wife, Njeeri, and what happened to us? We were attacked by gunmen at Norfolk Towers apartments. But that kind of thing does not deter me from coming back to Kenya. Hopefully, I will retire here.
Remember I carry my Kenyan passport everywhere, although I qualify to take an American passport. I stay with my Kenyan passport and the green card, which means I am a legal alien in America. Of course I appreciate America as it gave me the space when I was being chased from my own country, but Kenya will always be home for me. But for now I want to teach a little bit more.
Yet you have written before that you have never really “unpacked the suitcase” in your mind and settled fully in the West. When will you write about that place that has been your home these 36 years?
I try but I find myself going back to Kenya. Except that I now introduce the connection between Kenya and the West a bit more. For instance, in my novel Wizard of the Crow (Murogi wa Kagogo) and my other book Nyoni Nyonia Nyone (Bird, please open my eyes so I can see), some of the action takes place actually in New York. So I do try to play with connections nowadays.
West Africa seems to have a higher concentration of good literary writers, from your generation all the way to that of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, compared with East Africa. To what do you attribute this variation?
No, we are doing very well in East Africa, actually. Its only when I began to write that there was this lopsided position in relation to West Africa where the region had many writers while Kenya had only me, (Leonard) Kibera, (Sam) Kahiga and (Grace) Ogot. We were sort of struggling. Now there are many Kenyan writers who are comparable to writers being produced in West Africa.
But the real challenge, quite frankly, really, is that there are not many writers in African languages in Nigeria or Kenya. In that sense the whole continent is almost the same in terms of being captive to European languages and in terms of hostility towards African languages. You get two people talking and one says, “I speak Italian, French, English, German,” and the other says, “Wow!” Then the other one says, “I, too, know many languages — Gikuyu, Yoruba and so on,” and the other says, “Why?”
Africa has really to change because losing a language is losing one’s soul. What we need in Africa is a three-language policy where, in the case of Kenya, we would have every child being grounded in their mother tongue, Kiswahili and then English.
The problem with Africa is this: Europe gave Africa the resources of their accents while Africa gave Europe access to the resources of the continent. So that when we are very busy engrossed in perfecting our English or French accents, Europe is very busy perfecting their instruments of extracting our gold, diamonds, coffee and oil.
You said we now have a good number of acclaimed Kenyan authors. Can you name some?
Take, for instance, Meja Mwangi. He has actually written more novels than I have done. You could say he is the leading Kenyan novelist in terms of the sheer quantity. My son, Mukoma wa Ngugi, is now being mentioned all over the world as one of the leading voices on the detective novel from Africa. My other child, Nducu wa Ngugi, also writes thrillers. My daughter Wanjiku wrote the novel The Fall of the Saints and she is becoming very well known in the world. But it is not only them; there are many others. Don’t forget that there was Grace Ogot. We also have Rebeka Njau and now Yvonne Owuor, who has been winning prizes left and right.
What are you reading now?
I am reading a lot of work on the Egyptian civilisation, which is the missing link in our education system. Remember the 3,000 years of Egyptian civilisation in which they did incredible things.
They cannot even tell now how they did it and remember they were black Africans when they did this. They were leaders in art, sculpture, astronomy. They invented writing and the idea of a state and bureaucracy.
But now we don’t read. Our children don’t know this. This has been an eye-opener for me. I encourage more schools to teach the Egyptian civilisation, long before Greek, Western history. Remember that even the Greeks used to go to Egypt to learn: Plato and Pythagoras, for instance.
What are your thoughts on the circumcision of women, seeing as you appear to give a near sympathetic portrayal of it in The River Between? Do you feel conflicted?
No. You forget that Muthoni, who gets circumcised, dies from the wound. That cannot be high recommendation. I believe in the integrity of the female body. What I was saying was you need to understand both the politics and the culture of a people you are going to change.
You seem to have in recent years been drifting away from your political commitment of the 1980s, when you wrote such books as Petals of Blood, to today’s autobiographical works and also mythology. What prompted this shift, seeing as some of the leadership challenges you grappled with then are still with us?
The one thing I have been fairly consistent about is the empowerment of the ordinary people. If I come to Kenya, as I do, I don’t look at the progress in terms of the skyscrapers. I go in the streets and see how many people live in shacks without school and hospitals. Poverty is connected to the politics and economic policies. There is nothing like poverty coming by itself; it’s produced, it’s manufactured.
Look: I believe in this sincerely that we cannot afford a world where palaces are built on prisons or splendour is built on squalor. Splendour for a few, squalor for many. That world, whether Kenya or wherever, is untenable. Instability is inherent in that society.
When I go through the countryside, as I was in Kisii and Kisumu, I can see there are more houses made of stone and iron roofing. But there are also people living in miserable conditions. On the one hand, there is a lot of progress in terms of the highways, but on the other hand, massive poverty is crawling on our streets.
In much of your anti-imperialist writing you take aim at Western powers for continued economic and cultural colonisation of Africa. What’s your take on what many consider today as Chinese imperialism?
If we don’t control our resources, then we are leaving others to do so. That’s why I keep coming back to our languages because that lack of confidence with ourselves begins by hating our tongues. The history carried by those languages is erased, we don’t have a memory of Africa making things when we abandon our languages.
That’s why my book, Kenda Muiyuru, is very important. The legend is that the 10 daughters didn’t have brothers. So if there was only one man in that home — their father — they must have been able to do things for themselves: build houses, defend themselves, you know, total human beings. From it we learn that in our past there was a period we made things.