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Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature
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Quarterly Nonfiction > Jan-Mar 2020 | Decolonising the Mind by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

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message 1: by Tinea, Nonfiction Logistician (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tinea (pist) | 406 comments Mod
For our first nonfiction read of 2020, we'll be discussing politics of African language by reading Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o.

Great African Reads read this together in our last nonfiction project back in 2014. You can check out that thread here. There's quite a bit of discussion and some links.

Please share your reactions, questions, and links to more food for thought in this thread.

While I encourage you to order the book from the library or purchase it to support the author, I have this available as an ebook I can share. Send me a private message with your email if you'd like it.


Zanna (zannastar) | 191 comments Great, one of the most mind-changing books I've read


message 3: by Anetq, Tour Operator & Guide (new) - added it

Anetq | 762 comments Mod
I've ordered a library copy :)


Nina Chachu | 205 comments I read it a while ago; it isn't long, but it is fairly dense at times, if I remember. But worth it


Orgeluse | 418 comments I will read Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature in March. It will be a re-read for me. Is there anybody else planning to read this book next month?


message 6: by Tinea, Nonfiction Logistician (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tinea (pist) | 406 comments Mod
I'll be reading it in March, too! I'm traveling in the meantime with a pile of other books with me. :)


Orgeluse | 418 comments Great! Looking forward to exchanging thoughts and in the meantime safe travels and happy reading!


message 8: by Cam (new)

Cam | 95 comments I forgot to pack my copy so I don't have it with me at the moment. But today I was reading the 1977 debate between Mostefa Lacheraf and Abdellah Cheriet with regards to Arabisation in Algeria, and it reminded me of the indirect debate between Chinua Achebe and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o regarding the place of English in former colonies.

For Achebe the former colonial language could be "neutral" (or "neutralised") and appropriated, but there is also the (very colonial/Western-centric) assertion that it is somehow the only way to communicate:
'Where am I to find the time to learn the half dozen or so Nigerian languages, each of which can sustain a literature? I am afraid it cannot be done. These languages will just have to develop as tributaries to feed the one central language enjoying nationwide currency. Today, for good or ill, that language is English. Tomorrow it may be something else, although I very much doubt it.
Those of us who have inherited the English language may not be in a position to appreciate the value of the inheritance. Or we may go on resenting it because it came as part of a package deal which included many other items of doubtful value and the pos­itive atrocity of racial arrogance and prejudice, which may yet set the world on fire. But let us not in rejecting the evil throw out the good with it. (...)
One final point remains for me to make. The real question is not whether Africans could write in English but whether they ought to. Is it right that a man should abandon his mother tongue for someone else’s? It looks like a dreadful betrayal and produces a guilty feeling.
But, for me, there is no other choice. I have been given this language and I intend to use it.' (from a 1965 article, full text here: https://theafricanbookreview.com/2014...)

For Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, genuine decolonisation required changing the role of the former colonial language from the language of prestige and access to opportunities to simply a foreign language, as a way of decolonising knowledge, education systems, and power structures. In 2018, in a journal article called "The politics of translation: notes towards an African language policy" he writes:
'Where English was now equated with the gate to progress and modernity, African languages came to be seen as barriers to this glittering thing called progress and modernity. (...) Another barrier is the fundamentalism of monolingualism. A nation is not really a
nation without a common language to go with the commonality of territory, economy and culture. In this context, African languages, because of their huge numbers, are seen as anti-nationhood. Monolingualism is seen as the centripetal answer to the centrifugal anarchy of multiplicity of languages. European languages are seen as coming to the rescue of a cohesive Africa, otherwise threatened by its own languages. It is in the same vein as what colonial military expeditions touted as the pacification of primitive tribes; only now, in the post-colonial era, it is linguistic pacification of languages of anarchy and blood. (...) The sub-text is that African languages are inherently incapable of relating to each other, but ironically they each can relate to English, especially when Anglophone writing dives into them for a proverb or two to spice their literary offering to a europhone modernity of monolingualism.
In reality, there are very few, if any, monolingual nations in the world. What most have is an officially imposed language as the national language: the language of power. The language of power is a dictatorship of the monolingual on a plurality of languages and it negates the human right to one’s language.' (pp. 125-126)

Taking a different perspective, Kateb Yacine, probably one of the most famous Algerian writers to write in French (and in Algerian Arabic) called French a 'butin de guerre' (spoil of war) pointing out in 1966 that 'la francophonie est une machine politique néocoloniale, qui ne fait que perpétuer notre aliénation, mais l'usage de la langue française ne signifie pas qu'on soit l'agent d'une puissance étrangère, et j'écris en français pour dire aux français que je ne suis pas français' (speaking French is a neocolonial political machine which does nothing but perpetuate our alienation, but the use of French does not equate to being the agent of a foreign power. I write in French to tell the French that I am not French.)


message 9: by Wim, French Readings (new) - rated it 5 stars

Wim | 801 comments Mod
I'll be joining soon, having a copy ready. Just have to rest a bit now, waiting for my dengue fever to end :(


message 10: by Cam (new)

Cam | 95 comments Yikes sorry to hear Wim, get well soon!


message 11: by Wim, French Readings (new) - rated it 5 stars

Wim | 801 comments Mod
Thank you Cam. And thanks as well for your interesting comments on Chinua Achebe, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o and Kateb Yacine!


Orgeluse | 418 comments Cam wrote: "I forgot to pack my copy so I don't have it with me at the moment. But today I was reading the 1977 debate between Mostefa Lacheraf and Abdellah Cheriet with regards to Arabisation in Algeria, and ..."

Thanks for sharing these different takes on how to deal with the languages of the colonial powers! I am binge-watching interviews with Ngugi wa Thiong'o on YouTube at the moment - all very interesting!


Orgeluse | 418 comments Wim wrote: "I'll be joining soon, having a copy ready. Just have to rest a bit now, waiting for my dengue fever to end :("

Oh my! This is no fun at all! Get well soon!


message 14: by Wim, French Readings (new) - rated it 5 stars

Wim | 801 comments Mod
Thank you Orgeluse!


message 15: by Wim, French Readings (new) - rated it 5 stars

Wim | 801 comments Mod
I finished Decolonising the Mind about 10 days ago and I found it a very powerful read (review here). Sad to see that 60 years after independence almost nothing has changed: European languages continue to dominate administration, culture, literature and education, whereas local languages and culture are still considered inferior. The imperialism is still alive and kicking.


message 16: by Wim, French Readings (new) - rated it 5 stars

Wim | 801 comments Mod
I just discovered this post titled Decolonizing African literature begins with language by Senegalese writer Boubacar Boris Diop on how the African literature taught in African universities has been first legitimized in the West: "In their search for literary legitimacy, African authors, writing in French or English, often focus on themes that are likely to appeal to Western readers, and this also makes them write in a certain way. At the heart of it, this translates to a fabricated repetition of the West’s clichés on terrorism or immigration, to name two “timely” themes of the moment. Such works then end up being part of the African school curricula, despite the fact that they are intended for the Western public in terms of their content and form. Interesting read.


Rafael da Silva (morfindel) | 2 comments This book is indeed a book to open our minds. A great book that everyone interested in linguistics and politics should read.


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