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Speaking My Language: Ngugi wa Thiong’o's Address at the 2012 Sunday Times Literary Awards

Wizard of the CrowDreams in a Time of WarBy Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o for the Sunday Times:

Linguistic Power-sharing: Culture and the freedom of expression

I feel honored to be invited this evening of literary awards. I congratulate the winners and recipients and I hope the awards will spur them to great heights in their writing career. I have interesting relations to literary prizes. The first occasion was in 1962 at the world premier of my play The Black Hermit at the National Theater Kampala Uganda. I was a poor student so I was very happy to learn that a manuscript that I had submitted for a novel writing competition the year before had won a prize for the best among all the entries submitted but still not good enough to get the first prize. I was awarded the second prize. Still, I thought my financial worries were over. Well, what I got was five dollars in today’s value although then it would have had the buying power of twenty five dollars. The novel, The River Between, has been in print ever since its first publication in 1965.

It was during the celebration of its publication that I learnt that my second novel Weep Not, Child, but the first published, had won UNESCO First prize in Fiction at the First Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture in Dakar, Senegal, 1965. Again I was a student, this time at Leeds, in England, and I recall my professors and fellow students congratulating me and asking how I was going to spend the UNESCO fortune. Well, as it turned out, not a single dollar was attached to the prize. It was an honorary first prize. I am sure I could have done with something less honorary and more monetary, but really, it was still an honor to have the novel singled out by a jury that included the legendary Leon Damas who with Sedar Senghor and Aime Cesaire invented the concept of negritude when all three were students in the Paris of the 1930s.

Writers and artists value prizes and monetary rewards of course. But they hardly write for monetary prizes and if they did, most would starve to death waiting for returns commensurate with the time invested. My own novels take me anywhere between one to five years to write and when published it takes a few more years to build a loyal readership. The best seller that sells in millions is a very rare beast. But like prophets and seers, writers are driven by a force, an irresistible desire to give to the inner impulses, the material form of sound, color and word. This desire cannot be held back by laws, tradition, or religious restrictions. The song that must be sung will be sung; and if banned, they will hum it; and if humming is banned, they will dance it; and if dancing is banned, they will sing it silently to themselves or to the ears of those near, waiting for the appropriate moment to explode. Killing the singing goose is the only way of stopping the golden voice of conscience.

Art in its broadest sense as self-expression needs three areas of freedom. First is a democratic space, a civic space devoid of state harassment and threats of prison, exile or death. This space is for every citizen. In fighting for the integrity of that space, the artist is on the side of all the forces in society that struggle to have their voices heard. That’s why during apartheid most of the leading South African writers, even where they were not card-carrying members of a particular party, still allied with the liberations movements. Sometimes an artist can articulate a vision that’s ahead of the contemporary consciousness. It is the prophetic side to Art.

The second is democratic access to the means of self-expression. You may have the talent, but do you have the means of expressing it? If one is denied pen and paper, or any writing machine, a typewriter or computer, then one is hampered by that denial. That’s why oppressive regimes deny imprisoned writers or workers in ideas access to pen and paper. One of the basic, most fundamental means of individual and communal self realization is language. That’s why the right to language is a human right, like all the other rights, enshrined in the constitution. It’s exercise in different ways communally and individually chosen, is a democratic right.

But in most African countries before but more so after independence the majority are denied access to their languages because the state has marginalized them to the point of official invisibility. English, French and Portuguese take the pride of place in the body politic. In some cases there is hostility to African languages. Last year, in my own country Kenya, Parliament voted to ban African languages in public places, and this despite provision in the new constitution to give life to African languages. Even colonial powers never passed such a motion. It happened in the slave plantations of America and the Caribbean where African languages were similarly forbidden. These elected representatives were ready to take a leaf from the slave plantation and violate the constitution to protect English against the invasion of the languages spoken by the people who elected them. Fortunately the President has not signed it. But the languages remain under siege.

And even where there are positive policies, there is no economic, political, cultural and psychological will behind their implementation. All the will and resources are put behind European languages. The African middle class is running from their languages. In the process they perpetrate child abuse on a national scale. For to deny a child, any child, their right to mother tongue, to bring up such a child as a monolingual English speaker in a society where the majority speak African languages, to alienate that child from a public they may be called to serve, is nothing short of child abuse. To have mother tongue, whatever it is, and add other languages to it is empowerment. But to know all the other languages and not one’s own is enslavement. I hope Africa chooses empowerment over enslavement. Don’t turn our children into linguistic slaves, aliens in their own communities. The global citizen is not an abstraction: he or she has roots in all the countries, communities, and languages of the earth.

But good policies are not enough to bring about change in attitudes. Lip service without material service leaves service hanging on the lips. The allocation of resources is what tells the story of support. What African languages need is power sharing with English, French, Afrikaans or any other official languages. It is not too much to ask that demonstration of competence in at least one African language be made a condition for promotion. I don’t see why anybody should be allowed to stand for councils and parliament without showing a certified competence in an African language. Corporations can also help in attaching competence in an African language as an added value to the other conditions for hire and promotion. English, Afrikaans, French newspapers should also lead the way in this, for a reporter who also has one or more languages of the country they serve is surely a much better informed journalist. It should be a national effort The struggle to right the imbalance of power between languages should be national with belief and passion behind it. The education system should reflect that commitment and I don’t see why a knowledge of one or more African languages should not be a requirement at all levels of graduation from primary to colleges. And finally, we have to stop the madness of promoting African writing on condition that participants write in European languages. Can anybody think of giving money to promote French literature on condition that they write it in isiZulu? African languages are equally legitimate as tools for creative imagination and in South Africa, there is the testimony of the great tradition of Rubisana, Mqhayi, Dhlomo, Vilakazi, Mofolo and Mazisi Kunene. In translation, Mofolo’s Chaka, written in Sesotho, made a big impact on the work of such greats as Senghor and other African writers.

The third is the artists’ integrity and loyalty to their imagination. It comes with responsibilities to oneself, striving for the best and highest in one’s art, and to one’s community and the world. We are all connected. Sembene Ousmane, the late Senegalese writer and film maker, once said that art must give voice to those without a voice; legs to those without legs: eyes to those who cannot see. I agree.

Art particularly in its prophetic tradition embodies the conscience of the nation. In that sense Art and the freedom of expression are essential to culture for culture is not the same thing as a particular tradition. Culture reflects a community in motion. Culture is to the community what the flower is to a plant. A flower is very beautiful to behold. But it is the result of the roots, the trunk, the branches and the leaves. But the flower is special because it contains the seeds which are the tomorrow of that plant. A product of a dynamic past, it is pregnant with a tomorrow.

I still like what Mao once said: let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend. So also languages: Let a hundred languages contend and a hundred flowers will bloom.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine. He is most recently the author of Wizard of the Crow and the memoir Dreams in a Time of War. An edited version of this speech appeared in the Sunday Times on 24 June 2012.

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