Themes of Family and Betrayal

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In Ngugi' s story, the themes of family loyalty and betrayal function as antitheses, or competing sets of values between which Njoroge, the main character, is caught. Njoroge works as the "houseboy" of Mrs. Hill, a white European colonial plantation owner. Njoroge is involved in an organized rebellion that involves the murder of individual white plantation owners by the Africans whose land they have stolen, and who have been forced to work for them. The historical significance of this setting is that the white European colonial settlers had first forced the Kikuyu (or Gekoyo) people of Africa off of their own land, and then forced them to work in slavery-like conditions for the profits of the Europeans on the very land which had been stolen from them.

Ngugi's fictional stories, often set in the historically real conditions of Kikuyu revolt against European colonialism, focus on the dilemmas and sacrifices of the individual in the face of the overwhelming forces of colonial racism and oppression. Ngugi's short story ‘‘The Martyr’’ is a strong example of this thematic focus. In exploring the themes of family loyalty and betrayal, Ngugi paints a landscape of colonial racism that dehumanizes both the oppressor and the oppressed.

The tensions created by European colonial dominance over African people are explored in this story through the theme of family. Family becomes the common denominator that "humanizes" Mrs. Hill in the eyes of Njoroge. At the same time, however, it is his concern for his family that causes Njoroge to particularly resent the insufficient housing Mrs. Hill has provided him; with two wives and many children, Njoroge is not able to house his family in the tiny hut in which he lives. Furthermore, Njoroge's sense of the displacement of his people from their rightful land combines themes of family and religion, as tied to the land. As he walks home at night and contemplates Mrs. Hill's house, the house represents for him the theft of land from his people: "Njoroge wanted to shout to the house all this and many other things that had long accumulated in his heart. The house would not respond.'' The image of ‘‘the immense silhouette of Memsahib's house-large, imposing’’ functions as a metaphor for the "imposing" and seemingly all-powerful white colonial domination over the Gekoyo people and land. Njoroge's anger at the theft of land by whites, and the subsequent effect on God-given familial rights, ties themes of family and spiritual belief to the land itself. Njoroge finds that ‘‘his whole soul rose in anger—anger against those with a white skin, those foreign elements that had displaced the true sons of the land from their God-given place. Had God not promised Gekoyo all this land, he and his children, forever and ever? Now the land had been taken away.’’ The fact that Njoroge is literally employed on the very land that rightfully belongs to his family makes concrete the injustice of the historical conditions of colonialism: "A big portion of the land now occupied by Mrs. Hill was the land his father had shown him as belonging to the family. They had found the land occupied when his father and some of the others had temporarily retired to Muranga owing to famine. They had come back and Nj'o! the land was gone.’’

The "imposing'' image of Mrs. Hill's house on the hill is contrasted with the tiny brick hut in which Njoroge is housed. The inadequacy of the housing is directly related for Njoroge to his ability to accommodate his family: "It was a very small room. . .Yet it was here, here, that...

(This entire section contains 1680 words.)

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he with two wives and a number of children had to live, had in fact lived for more than five years. So crammed! Yet Mrs. Hill thought she had done enough by just having the houses built with brick.’’ It is in fact for the sake of family that Njoroge feels compelled to plot against Mrs. Hill's life, in order to ‘‘strike a blow for the occupied family land.’’

However, it is the thought of his own family that leads Njoroge to consider Mrs. Hill's family. She is a widow whose children are away at school in England. Imagining Mrs. Hill as the mother of children "humanizes" her in Njoroge's eyes, and he loses the will to kill her.

He knew that she had loved her husband. Of that he was sure. She almost died of grief when she had learnt of his death. In that moment her settlerism had been shorn off. In that naked moment, Njoroge had been able to pity her. Then the children! He had known them. He had seen them grow up like any other children. Almost like his own. They loved their parents, and Mrs. Hill had always been so tender with them, so loving. He thought of them in England, wherever that was, fatherless and motherless.

In fact, Njoroge comes to the conclusion that he wants to save her from murder by his fellow rebels.

Mrs. Hill, by contrast, knows nothing about Njoroge's family, although he has worked for her for over ten years.

She thought of Njoroge. A queer boy. Had he many wives? Had he a large family? It was surprising even to her to find that she had lived with him so long, yet had never though of these things. This reflection shocked her a little. It was the first time she had ever thought of him as a man with a family.

The theme of betrayal runs throughout the story as an antithesis to the theme of family loyalty. The three European women who discuss the murder of Mr. and Mrs. Garstone are particularly disturbed by the fact that the couple were betrayed by their own "houseboy." In discussing the matter, Mrs. Hill assures her friends that her "houseboy," Njoroge, is ‘‘Very faithful. Likes me very much.’’ Njoroge, in fact, does not like Mrs. Hill, and ‘‘had never liked’’ her. Mrs. Hill's perception that Njoroge is ‘‘very loyal’’ to her is thus shown to be another symptom of her paternalistic, colonial attitude. Mrs. Hill additionally claims of her other African workers, "They all love me. They would do anything I asked them to!’’ Within the same conversation, Mrs. Smiles asserts the opinion that while ‘‘they look so innocent,’’ they are in fact inherently treacherous, meaning full of betrayal. Mrs. Smiles utilizes a metaphor for betrayal in her comment: "Quite the innocent flower but the serpent under it.’’ The mention of the "serpent" as symbolic of evil and betrayal hiding under the ‘‘innocent flower’’ invokes biblical implications of the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

Yet, Njoroge himself even sees his plan to murder Mrs. Hill that night, no matter how justified, as "treacherous." In thinking of Mrs. Hill, Njoroge finds that he cannot bring himself to see her in any other than human terms. This realization leads him to a decision that in fact betrays his fellow rebels; he ultimately acts "loyal" toward Mrs. Hill, and "treacherous" to his fellow Freedom Boys. ‘‘What was he to do now?'' he asks himself. "Would he betray the 'Boys'?’’ Although he decides to betray the "Boys" and save Mrs. Hill, he must wrestle with his conscience over this new betrayal. He decides that, after saving her, he will go into the forest to fight as a rebel: ‘‘It would serve as a propitiation for his betrayal of the other 'Boys.'’’ Yet, on his way to her house to save her, he finds that ‘‘Again he hated himself for this betrayal’’ to the 'Boys'; he is also worried about the fact that"if the 'Boys' discovered his betrayal he would surely meet death.’’

When he knocks at Mrs. Hill's door, she believes that he has betrayed her and led the gang to her house to kill her. Ultimately, however, it is Mrs. Hill who betrays Njoroge, by underestimating his loyalty to her as a fellow human being and member of a family, and thus assuming that his intentions are guilty and murderous—the result of which is her spontaneous decision to shoot him before finding out why he has come. Having killed him, the narration implies just a hint of guilt or remorse on the part of Mrs. Hill: ‘‘The circumstances of Njoroge's death worried her. The more she thought about it, the more of a puzzle it was to her.’’ However, Mrs. Hill's worry and puzzlement do not lead her to seriously contemplate the possibility that Njoroge had come to save, rather than kill, her. She merely concludes these reflections with ‘‘a slow enigmatic sigh’’ and the words ‘‘I don't know.’’

Through juxtaposition of the opposing themes of family loyalty and betrayal, Ngugi explores the effects of colonialism and racist oppression on individuals and individual relationships. Njoroge comes to realize that, because of his conflicting loyalties to Mrs. Hill, as a fellow human being and member of a family, and to "The Boys,'' as a fellow Kikuyu organizing against racial oppression, he is, and will probably always be, ‘‘a divided man.’’ Njoroge comes to hate this oppression not just because of its effect on the oppressed, but because of the ways in which it corrupts individual human relationships, such as that between Njoroge and Mrs. Hill. Njoroge comes to feel that, ‘‘For now it seemed an impossible thing to snap just like that ten years of relationship, though to him they had been years of pain and shame. He prayed and wished there had never been injustices. Then there would never have been this rift—the rift between white and black. Then he would never have been in this painful situation.’’ This story ultimately suggests that family is a universal human concern which has the potential to "humanize" the relationship between clashing cultures.

Source: Liz Brent, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000.
Brent has a Ph.D. in American culture, specializing in film studies, from the University of Michigan. She is a freelance writer and teaches courses in the history of American cinema.

Nagugi wa Thiong'o and the Politics of Language

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I am concerned with moving the centre . . . from its assumed location in the West to a multi-plicity of spheres in an the cultures of the world. [This] will contribute to the freeing of world cultures from the restrictive ways of nationalism, class, race, and gender.

In this sense I am an unrepentant universalist. For I believe that whlee retaining its roots in regional and national individuality, true humanism with its universal reaching out, can flower among the peoples of the earth. . . . - Ngugi wa Thiong 'o, Moving the Centre: the Struggle for Cultural Freedoms

The name Ngugi wa Thiong'o may be less recognizable to American audiences than those of Nobel Prize-winning African writers Nadine Gordimer and Wole Soyinka or even Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe. And yet, the life and work of Ngugi provide an excellent starting point for people who wish to achieve some awareness of the many inter-related dilemmas—cultural, political, linguistic, developmental—that beset an entire continent of people and yet remain obscure even for the vast maj ority of educated Americans. In fact, Ngugi— the author of 19 books of fiction, nonfiction, drama, and children's literature—is as important today as any other single literary figure in understanding the problems of post, colonial Africa.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o was born James Ngugi in 1938 in Limuru, Kenya. In 1967, at the age of 29, Ngugi—already the author of three critically acclaimed novels—began an address to the Fifth General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa by shocking his audience. "I am not a man of the church,’’ he stated. ‘‘I am not even a Christian.’’ Ngugi went on to censure the church for its role in the colonizing of his native land. At the end of the speech, a quavering old man approached the front of the auditorium, shaking a cane and denouncing Ngugi for blasphemy. "And you are a Christian,’’ the man rather absurdly insisted. ‘‘Your name, James, is a Christian name.’’ Perhaps as a result of this encounter, the next novel James Ngugi published bore his new Africanized name, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, formed by joining his mother's and father's family names. It is the name he has used ever since.

Thus, to approach Ngugi the writer, one must also confront this carefully cultivated mythic presence. Ngugi sees himself not just as a writer but also as a revolutionary continuing the fight against Western imperialism—particularly the sophisticated form of economic imperialsm that, he argues, has replaced traditional colonialism in his country. In his first three novels, Weep Not, Child (1964), The River Between (1965), and A Grain of Wheat (1967), he set out to develop a national literature for Kenya in the immediate wake of that nation's liberation from British rule. Setting his novels' plots against such historic events as the Mau Mau uprising and the subsequent day of Kenyan independence (or Uhuru) in 1963, Ngugi sought to create and establish historical legends for a nation less than half a decade old.

Ngugi was firm in his denunciation of any compromise with British colonialism—so much so, in fact, that his personality and radicalism have become as important to his stature among African writers as his works. Stories of Ngugi's fiery literary and political activism now form a kind of oral literature among students of contemporary African culture. Ngugi himself has launched a second career telling these stories in subsequent nonfiction books, as well as in lectures and readings across Europe and North America.

One of the most famous of these stories concerns his experiences with the Kamiriithu theater project. Ngugi had been persuaded by the villagers in Kamiriithu, where he lived while teaching at the nearby University of Nairobi, to begin working with the local theater group on literacy projects. Since many of the villagers didn't speak English—the language of the former colonial administration, in which Ngugi had written his first four novels—and since he had an interest in exploring the traditions of pre-colonial African expression, Ngugi decided to write and produce a play in his own regional language, Gikuyu.

This was a bold initiative. Until 1970, theater in Kenya had been monopolized by the Kenyan National Theatre, a British-based company that produced largely Western plays, in English, with British actors. The Kenyan National Theatre had also altered the traditional "space" of African theater from a less formalized outdoor setting to a more formal and Westernized indoor one. Ngugi was interested in opening up the theater to the peasantry again; he wanted to make it not just an isolated aesthetic event for the cultural elite but "part and parcel of the . . . daily and seasonal life of the community,’’ as song and ritual had once been in the Kenyan countryside.

The play which resulted from Ngugi's experiments with the Kamiriithu Theatre, Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want), was wildly popular. Drawing from the experiences of theater participants who had been involved in the events of the time depicted—one man who made fake guns for the play had actually made real guns for the rebels—Ngugi allowed the audience themselves to feel a vital part of the artistic creation. The Kenyan government, however, was not as enthusiastic; it withdrew the license that allowed the "gathering" at the theater. Ngugi was arrested at the end of 1977 and ‘‘spent the whole of 1978 in a maximum security prison, detained without even the doubtful benefit of a trial,’’ as he noted in his book Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Later attempts by others to resurrect the theater led first to a government ban on theatrical activities in the area and later to the razing of the open-air theater itself.

In cell 16 of Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, Ngugi began to write his fifth novel—and his first in Gikuyu. He had been raised as a speaker of the language despite attempts by the British colonial administration to install English as its language of instruction in Kenya (in the schools Ngugi attended, children were punished if they were caught speaking Gikuyu on the grounds). Until 1978, all of Ngugi's works had been written in English, but now he desired not the international audience English afforded but the local one reachable only through Gikuyu. This proved to be a formidable challenge; although British missionaries had developed a written form of the language in order to make the Bible more widely available to this audience, there was no formal literature written in Gikuyu, and native speakers were punished for attempts to write secular works in the language. By writing a novel, Ngugi was now stretching this written language system beyond any previous test, especially since it required him to standardize written Gikuyu and make it more accurately reflect the way native speakers practiced it.

As it turned out, an even more immediate challenge for Ngugi was how to actually write a book in prison when he was denied access to writing paper except for the purpose of making a confession. Ngugi solved this problem by writing on toilet paper—a seemingly impossible undertaking, but as Ngugi explained in Decolonizing the Mind: "Toilet paper at Kamiti was meant to punish prisoners. So it was very coarse. But what was bad for the body was good for the pen.’’

This novel, Caitaani Mutharabainin (Devil on the Cross ), was hugely popular, finding an audience even among the illiterate; it led, among other things, to the development of ‘‘professional readers,’’ who sat in bars and read aloud to the clientele until a key passage, at which point they would stop and make sure their glasses were refilled before they continued the story. But after selling as well as any English-language novel ever published in Kenya, Devil on the Cross was banned by the government. A subsequent novel written in Gikuyu, Matigari, was published in that language by Heinemann of London but was seized upon arrival in Kenya; in fact, Ngugi's translation of this novel into English is the only version legally available in Kenya today.

Ngugi now lives in exile; he has taught at Yale University and Amherst College and was recently appointed professor of comparative literature and performance studies at New York University.

Why, the reader may be wondering at this point, did Ngugi's work so consistently run afoul of the Kenyan government? Ngugi contends that it was his choice of Gikuyu, more than any other single factor, which led both to his imprisonment and to his subsequent exile. A reader unfamiliar with African literature might be puzzled by this. Why wouldn't the Kenyan authorities wish to permit literary works written in an indigenous African language? One would think that the government of an independent African state, nearly 30 years after Uhuru, would seek both to champion its own languages as evidence of its cultural independence from the West and to celebrate its successful struggle against tyranny—in this case, the Mau Mau uprising which began its guerrilla war against Britain in 1952.

It is important to remember here that Kenya, like many other African states, is a nation whose boundaries were artificially drawn in Europe. Although the Kenyan government has never officially explained why Ngugi was detained, we can see in this an initial reason for its actions. Kenya relies upon English as a unifying force; the citizens of that country are in the paradoxical position of having as their only common language the one spoken by their former oppressors. Nor is this situation peculiar to Kenya; Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe has written of this problem in Africa in general, and in his article "The Role of the Writer in a New Nation,'' published in a 1964 issue of Nigeria Magazine, he made clear his own opposition to the use of African languages for African literature:

It is not that I underrate their importance. But since I am considering the role of the writer in building a new nation I wish to concentrate on those who write for the whole nation whose audience cuts across tribe or clan. And these, for good or ill, are writers in English.

Achebe has since modified his position, saying that he admires those writers who use African languages for their works but remains adamant about the use of English in his own. And it is important to remember that Achebe's credentials as a champion of literary Africanicity are impeccable. His first novel, Things Fall Apart, is probably the best-known African novel in the United States, and one that consciously seeks to show, in Achebe's words, that"African peoples did not hear of culture for the first time from Europeans; that their societies were not mindless but frequently had a philosophy of great depth and value and beauty, that they had poetry, and, above all, they had dignity.’’ Moreover, Achebe's position on the use of European languages is more in keeping with the feelings of most African writers than Ngugi's.

Thus, the issue of which language should be used to compose a truly African contemporary literature is murky at best. Ngugi steadfastly maintains that writing in African languages is a necessary step toward cultural identity and independence from centuries of European exploitation. But, as critic David Westley has noted, the problem is historically complex: as a strategy to maintain apartheid—by definition the separation of defined racial groups—south Africa for many years encouraged African, language manuscripts, under the theory that the resulting problems of communication would make it harder for various groups to band together and collectively protest government policies.

Of course, discussions of language alone neglect the all-important issue of class, an issue to which Ngugi continually returns. The masses of peasants and workers in Kenya are largely illiterate in English, and it is precisely these people from whom the government wishes to keep Ngugi's writings. The reason is a simple one: Ngugi is an explicit and unabashed Marxist, and his works recall the revolutionary spirit of the Mau Mau rebellion which convinced the English to relinquish control of Kenya.

A little history is necessary here. While the origins of the term are controversial, Mau Mau seems to have originally been a British term to describe the small bands of guerrillas which sought to resist the domination of British settlers in the 1950s. At that time, the Mau Maus did not constitute an actual national movement. The British settlers, however, grew increasingly worried about their tenuous hold on the country; only 1 percent of the population, they nonetheless controlled all the best farmland in Kenya. Taking advantage of a change in colonial administration, the settlers began spreading horror stories of a nationwide revolution in the offing. The authorities responded with a crackdown; gradually, however, the measures taken— illegal detentions, the razing of villages, and the imposition of a 24-hour curfew had the ironic effect of provoking more and more people, particularly Gikuyu, to join the guerrilla bands.

Soon, the tiny force that the British tried to extinguish became a substantial guerrilla army (in
Gikuyu, ‘‘The Land and Freedom Army’’). The national state of emergency that was supposed to last several weeks lasted for seven years; for four of these years, the so-called Mau Mau rebels fought a guerrilla war against British rule. Eventually, the British defeated this army, killing its leader, Dedan Kimathi, and establishing prison camps to ‘‘rehabilitate’’ captured rebels. In their attempts to make these prisoners confess their allegiance to Mau Mau (a step in the rehabilitation process), prison officials practiced horrible tortures—twisting mens' testicles, punching prisoners into incoherence, sometimes whipping them to death. When the British government itself, thousands of miles away, learned what was being carried out in its name, it decided to follow a new policy in Kenya and readied the country for independence.

However, the independence Britain had in mind was not the same as that which the Land and Freedom Army had fought for. If independence was to be granted, the British wished to yield control to a government they had themselves trained and installed—one that could be counted on to protect the landed interests in the nation. Thus, the colonial administration stepped down and a neocolonial administration—answerable not to the Kenyan people but to the economic interests that still retained actual control of the country—took its place. The Kenyan rebels returning from jail found, in the words of Anthony Howarth and David Koff in their 1973 documentary Black Man's Country, a nation that ‘‘they had helped create, but which they had no place in.’’

Ngugi asserts that the Kenyan government— and other neocolonial administrations like it in Africa—are fronts for ‘‘U.S., led imperialism,’’ a phrase he returns to again and again. He continually reminds us that the world is and always has been a linked unit, that the rich—be they nations or individuals—did not get that way on their own, but profited by the labor of the poor. "Over the last 400 years,’’ Ngugi said at a recent conference at Yale University,"the developments in the West have not just been the result of internal social dynamics but also of the West's relationship with Africa, Asia, and South America.’’ The so-called First World's privileged position did not come about simply by means of superior technical ingenuity or managerial skills (much as we like to laud ourselves for these things); it began with the stolen labor of slavery and continued with the enforced labor of colonial governments, working hand in hand with multinational corporations.

In sum, Ngugi argues, if today a nation enjoys wealth—particularly great wealth, as we do in the United States—it is directly linked to exploitation somewhere else in the world. This is why the Kenyan government, acting as the proxy of Western investment, will not tolerate the widespread dissemination of a revolutionary message by a fiercely committed Marxist who is also national hero (in 1964, Ngugi published the first novel in English by an East African), through a populist medium like drama or through structures designed to empower workers (written literature read aloud to the illiterate). In Decolonizing the Mind, Ngugi describes a revealing example of the type of self-discovery which occurred during his rehearsals of Ngaahica Ndeenda :

I remember for instance how one group who worked in a particular department at the nearby Bata shoe factory sat down to work out the process and quantity of their exploitation in order to explain it all to those of us who had never worked in a factory. Within a single day, they would make shoes to the value of all the monthly wages for the entire work force of three thousand. . . . For whom were they working for the other twenty-nine days? They calculated what of what they produced went to wear and tear of the machinery and for the repayment initial capital, and because the company had been there since 1938 they assumed that the initial investment had been repaid a long time ago. To whom did the rest go? To the owners in Canada.

At a time when African governments do not wish to alienate large lender nations, such rhetoric represents a real threat to any neocolonialist regime. As Ngugi himself puts it:

A writer who tries to communicate the message of revolutionary unity and hope in the languages of the people becomes a subversive character. It is then that writing in African languages becomes a subversive or treasonable offence with such a writer facing possibilities of prison, exile, or even death. For him there are no "national" accolades, no new year honors, only abuse and slander and innumerable lies from the mouths of the armed power of a ruling minority.

Ngugi's ear of imprisonment seems to have a marked impact on his writing. As he notes in Detained: A Prison Writer's Diary, he found himself analyzing the purposes of detention itself:

Political detention, not disregarding its punitive aspects, serves a deeper, exemplary ritual symbolism. If they can break such patriot, if they can make him come out of detention crying "I am sorry for all my sins,’’ such an unprincipled about-turn would confirm the wisdom of the ruling clique in its division of the populace into the passive innocent millions and the disgruntled subversive few. The "confession'' and its corollary, ‘‘Father, forgive us our sins,’’ becomes a cleansing ritual for all the past and current repressive deeds of such neocolonial regime.

But Ngugi abjured the ‘‘cleansing ritual.’’ He is determined to keep the past alive, and Detained is ascrupulous record of the wrongs done against the Kenyan people: massacres, betrayals, abuses at the hands of the settlers (one of whom, incidentally, was Karen Blixen, whose own account of her time in Kenya, Out of Africa, would later become an Academy Award-winning movie starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford), arrests and interrogations, including that of the author himself. Given the systematic attempt to break his will, the energy of Ngugi's response is astonishing. In Detained, he writes:

I would remind myself that the . . . ruling class had sent me here so my brain would turn into a mess of rot. The defiance of this bestial purpose always charged me with new energy and determination: I would cheat them out of the last laugh by letting my imagination loose over the kind of society this class, in naked treacherous alliance with imperialist foreigners, were building in Kenya in total cynical disregard of the wishes of over fourteen million Kenyans.

When Ngugi emerged from jail, literature had a different purpose; since then, his works have had much less room for subtlety. It is as if the concentrated anger and moral outrage built up during his incarceration exploded upon his release—the blast revealing, in flood of sudden bright light, a stark vision in which all the ambiguity or shadowing we tend to value in creative works has been forever banished.

Take, for instance, A Grain of Wheat, Ngugi's last novel before his prison term. Published in 1967, this is a novel which cannily embraces ambiguity; at the moment of Uhuru, the Kenyans of a certain village seek out a hero to speak to them. Little by little, however, they realize that all the living have somehow been compromised, that war makes a person choose between life and heroism but rarely, if ever, allows both. When Mugo, the novel's central character, is finally forced to make a speech because the assembled masses think he is a hero, he instead tells them that he is the worst of all traitors, having sold out the village leader of the Mau Mau himself. He had wished only one thing, to be left alone; in war, this is a luxury.

Published 20 years later, Ngugi's most recent novel Matigari begins with Matigari ma Njiruungi, whose name in Gikuyu means ‘‘the patriot who survived the bullets,’’ emerging from the forest, having finally killed Settler Williams and his assistant John Boy. The allegory is not subtle, nor is it meant to be: Settler Williams is the English oppressor; John Boy his aptly named Kenyan collaborator. Matigari roams the land seeking "truth and justice'' and wishing also to reclaim the home he fought for against Williams and Boy. But Williams' and Boy's sons now own the house; they are Kenyan captains of industry who openly bribe the nation's leader, His Excellency Ole Excellence; the three of them constitute the nation's ruling authorities, who work to smash workers' strikes and suppress all dissent. Matigari's act of emerging from ‘‘the forest’’ recalls the Mau Mau rebels who emerged from colonial prisons; but his questions reveal him to be different from the contemporary citizens of his country, who bow silently to the friendly faced neocolonial oppression. Matigari had sworn himself to peace upon leaving the forest but begins to see that he must again pick up arms to fight for what is right.

A Grain of Wheat was a novel about a war that was presumed over. The final image of Matigari shows a young boy, Muriuki, arming himself with Matigari's weapons, readying to fight a war that is just beginning. If the earlier novel is more subtle, it must be remembered that Ngugi imagined it serving an evaluative function; a work that seeks to stir people to revolt has much less room for subtlety.

Nonetheless, such a purpose may be argued as creating not literature but propaganda. Writing in Gikuyu has undoubtedly changed the forms of Ngugi's fiction—there is more concentration on folk traditions, and the appeal is intended to be simpler and more direct. But there is a sense as well that the quality of Ngugi's fiction may have suffered. Ngugi's long, time readers were largely disappointed with Matigari; having become a political figure, some have argued, Ngugi has become less effective, perhaps even lazier, as a creative artist. Moreover, even Marxists have criticized Ngugi's politics; to many, the intellectual level at which he makes his pitch for socialism in Matagari is too simplistic, savoring too much of mere propaganda. Others have criticized his project as too naive and have accused Ngugi of willfully refusing to acknowledge the complexity of the African, languages controversy. At a conference in England, South African author Lewis Nkosi once responded to Ngugi's call for writers to use indigenous languages by shouting him down in Zulu; the point, of course, was that Ngugi could not understand what Nkosi was saying. Committed to the use of Gikuyu for his fiction, Ngugi has continued to use English for his books of "explanatory" prose, of which there were four in the last decade: Detained: A Prison Writer's Diary (1981); a series of lectures published as Writers in Politics (1981); Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to Oppression in Neo-Colonial Kenya (1983); and Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986). This seeming need to legitimate himself to his English, language readership (practically his entire readership), combined with the unfortunate fact that his novels, written in Gikuyu, do not usually get read in that language, renders Ngugi's choice of Gikuyu more a quixotic political gesture than an actual condition of existence for his fiction. This decision has led to some strange twists of fate: having declared himself a Gikuyu, language novelist, Ngugi has been required to become an even more prolific English-language essayist, turning out nonfiction in his colonial language faster than fiction in his native one.

Ngugi has also become the leading interpreter of his own works. Now all of his fiction is fringed with the author's own marginalia: ‘‘This is how I should be read"; "These are the conditions which produced this text''; "These are the issues my texts are concerned with.’’ in this way, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, the writer, has become inseparable from Ngugi wa Thiong'o, the figure of the unfinished revolution. Mau Mau—which Ngugi was too young to join but which his older brother joined and died serving— has always been a constant presence in his works. Now the struggle which the rebels fought and lost, gaining independence yet finding themselves shut out of the government, has been picked up again by Ngugi. This time, each of his works seems to proclaim, we will be the victors in our struggle; this time we will get back what is rightfully ours—the land and wealth taken from us by foreign exploiters.

The five years since the publication of Matigari have been one of the longest periods of publishing inactivity in Ngugi's career. In many ways, the publication of that novel seemed to end a stage in Ngugi's career—one which began with his release from prison and saw the publication of two novels in Gikuyu and several works of nonfiction in English. According to Ngugi him, self, he said farewell for good to English six years ago with the publication of Decolonizing the Mind. "I have lost interest in the use of the English language,’’ he remarked in a recent interview in Transition.

On January 18, 1993—Martin Luther King Day—James Curry/Heinemann published Ngugi's new collection, Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedom. The essays range from Ngugi's celebrated (some would say notorious) 1980 address to the Danish Library Association, ‘‘Her Cook, Her Dog: Karen Blixen's Africa,’’ to his 1990 salute to Nelson Mandela, ' 'Many Years Walk to Freedom,'' written in (and translated from) Gikuyu. Ngugi has also appeared in print as a spokes, person for Mwakenya, an underground movement which openly seeks "the establishment of a national economy, where all the resources of the land will go to the benefit of all Kenyans.’’ The recent political news from Kenya, however, has not been good. On Wednesday, December 20,1992, the nation held its first democratic elections in 26 years—and, as many people had predicted, the voting was marred by widespread irregularities and abuses. The election pitted President Daniel arap Moi and his Kenya African National Union against three main rivals: Oginga Odinga of the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD)/Kenya; Kenneth Matiba of FORD/Asili; and Mwai Kibaki of the Democratic Party. Moi, "who fought tooth and nail against multiparty democracy'' (in the words of Canadian journalist Jonathan Manthorpe), won a bare plurality of the votes—nearly two million out of 7.9 million registered voters—but irregularities were reported at every polling station visited by journalists or international observers. (Even worse, three million Kenyans who had recently attained the age of majority were left off the rolls of eligible voters entirely; this, according to Manthorpe, in a country of 25 million people.) The victorious Moi has explained these irregularities as merely ‘‘administrative’’ glitches occasioned by a massive voter turnout, but it is unlikely that this election win quiet dissent against his government.

One wonders what the future has in store for Kenya. Although it appears to be one of the most stable nations in sub-Saharan Africa, Kenya is precariously situated. Famine and political chaos brought international military intervention in Somalia, its northeastern neighbor, and bands of Soma;i guninen have already been reported fleeing into Kenya. in Sudan, on the northwestern border, civil war and famine continue; in Angola, on the continent's western coast, free elections have been held after a 16-year civil war, but the new representative government is by no means stable; in the south, 1.5 million Mozambicans have fled that strife-ridden country during its civil war; and South Africa continues its own painful, convulsive transition from an apartheid nation.

One also wonders what the future has in store for Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Will he continue to write critical prose in that largely unread language, Gikuyu? Will he write another novel in that language or in the more widely spoken Kiswahili (a language whose linguistic boundaries extend beyond Kenya)? Will he return to the theater? And, most poignantly, will he ever be able to return to Kenya?

Ngugi, as Kenya's leading cultural spokesperson, is a man dedicated to making the world aware of the oppressive regime that still rules his nation. But he is also committed to healing the continent itself of the long,standing injuries of colonization, and he believes that this healing can only come through cultural autonomy and self-determination. "I think the dividing line is really the issue of language,'' he repeats endlessly, tirelessly. He does not consider it an oversimplification to suggest that European languages themselves are the final, pervasive colonizing army that will not leave his homeland. So he repeats it again:

We must avoid the destruction that English has wrought on other languages and cultures in its march to the position it now occupies in the world. The death of many languages should never be the condition for the life of a few. ... A language for the world? A world of languages! The two concepts are not mutually exclusive, provided there is independence, equality, democracy, and peace among nations. Ngugi wa Thiong'o on cultural imperlalism:

Today the USA and the West in general control nearly all the news to and from Third World countries. .. . Most of the images on the cinema and television screens of the Third World are actuaffy manufactured in the USA. This dominance is likely to continue with the vast US investment in information technology. With the satellite TV, Cable TV, and the USA-based video productions, these images ‘‘made in the USA’’ will be received directly by many Third World families. We have already seen the devastating use of this technology in religious propaganda by the USA-based millionaire foundations who now promote idiotic illusions about the pleasures of the heaven to come on a mass hypnotic scale. Even such publicly discredited characters as [Jimmy] Swaggart and Oral Roberts will occupy regular spots running into prime television time in a number of African and Third World countries.. . .

The 1990s will therefore see even greater battles for the control of the minds and hearts of the exploited and the oppressed of the world, trying to mould them in the image of the neo-colonial father in the American heaven. The aim will still be what it has always been: to divide, weaken and scatter resistance. For how a people view themselves will affect how they view their values, their culture, their
politics, their economics, and ultimately their relationship to nature and to the entire universe.

Source: Theodore Pelton, ‘‘Nagugi wa Thiong'o and the Politics of Language,’’ in The Humanist, Vol. 53, No. 2, March-April, 1993, p. 15.

Language in African Literature: an Aside to Ngugi

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The subject of language is now central in discussions of African literature. Many issues have been raised. Is language the determining feature of African literature? Is it acceptable for the African writer to write in non-African languages? In the process of asking such questions, Ngugi wa Thiong'o has emerged as a key advocate of writing in African languages, and it has become almost unfashionable to challenge his views on the subject, but I believe it is necessary to examine what Ngugi has been saying and to consider the possibility of looking at the language question in new ways. Developments in literary theory enable us to pose new questions about the nature of language and the ways in which language mediates writing, authorial intentions, the reading process, and literary meaning. Such questions invite broader considerations of a political nature, involving the relationship among the social classes and the respective demands of nationalism and internationalism.

Ngugi has expressed his views rather forcefully: An African writer should write in a language that will allow him to communicate effectively with peasants and workers in Africa; in other words, he should write in an African language. . . . Literature published in African languages will have to be meaningful to the masses and therefore much closer to the realities of their situation. (‘‘On Writing’’ )

This statement is significant both for what it reveals and for what it conceals. It demonstrates great faith in the capacity of language to communicate ideas and sentiments intended by the writer. But we need to ask whether language is really such an efficient instrument of communication or if it is a more stubborn medium.

In discussing the nature of the word, Jurij Tynjanov illuminates the problematic nature of language in the following terms:

A word does not have just one definite meaning. It is a chameleon and every time it occurs there appear not only various shadings but even various colors.

If the meanings of words are so indeterminate, the use of language poses serious problems for writers as well as readers. For writers, the essential problem is whether they can say, through language, what they desire to say. No matter how optimistic we might be about the power of language, we must concede that there are moments, as Heidegger explains, ‘‘when we cannot find the right word for something that concerns us, carries us away, oppresses or encourages us. Then we leave unspoken what we have in mind. ...’’ Lewis Nkosi has suggested that, whatever language writers use, they cannot escape this problem:

In a way, any writer always falls short of his true ideal: his struggle with his materials, the attempt to wrestle from language the true meaning of the world he seeks to depict, is always endless and incomplete. Incomplete, because in describing the true lineaments of what the writer sees with his inner eye language can only approximate the shapes and figures of his imagination. In this respect, therefore, the situation of the African writer is not unique. It is the same struggle with language.

The other problem concerns the reader. Like writing, reading is an active process. It is a dialogue, a struggle with language, and its outcome is far from certain. Even assuming that writers could say exactly what they intended to say, it is never certain that readers will receive the intended message. In proclaiming the need to ‘‘communicate effectively with peasants and workers in Africa,’’ Ngugi fails to recognize that the reading process is problematical. In discussing his experience in writing Ngaahika Ndeenda with the villagers, he clearly states his opinion about the transparency of language:

And because there was no language barrier, the villagers could also comment on the content of the play. There was no mystification of the play's message. . . . They could now participate in correcting the content of the script. (‘‘On Writing’’)

But the reception of language is never so un-problematic that everyone agrees about its meaning.

Ngugi himself remains content to note the popularity of his Gikuyu-language works among the Gikuyu masses without asking himself what meaning they attach to these works. Concerning the reception of Caitaani Muthara-ba-ini, for example, he observes:

The novel had an interesting kind of reception. At first it was read in families. When families gathered together in the evening, they would get one of their literate members to read for them. In this way the
novel was appropriated and became part of the community's oral tradition. It was also read in buses and matutus (sic) (small, crowded public transport vehicles); people would read for passengers between stops. Another example of the community's collective appropriation of the novel was the emergence of professional readers in bars. Someone would start reading the novel aloud while drinking his beer, and when the beer was finished, he would just put the novel down. And of course the other customers would have to offer him another round to get him started again. So he would read and drink, read and drink, until the glass was again empty and again refilled, and so on, through the evening. ("On Writing’’)

Concerned about conveying what he regards as a revolutionary message, Ngugi assumes that the Gikuyu masses enjoy his works because they understand the message he intended to communicate. But if we can never be sure what readers see in a text, his assumption becomes even more dubious when we consider the probable responses of readers and audiences who are drinking beer.

Jonathan Culler has remarked that:

None would deny that literary works, like most other objects of human attention, can be enjoyed for reasons that have little to do with understanding and master-y—the texts can be quite blatantly misunderstood and still be appreciated for a variety of personal reasons.

Culler's point can be corroborated in the African context, where epics, folktales, and other oral genres often contain segments that neither performers nor audiences understand; nevertheless, this lack of understanding does not hamper their enjoyment of the performances. Thus, many of the Swahili who listen to the popular epic Rasi' LGhuli enjoy it without understanding what it is all about (Ridhiwani).

Under such circumstances, Ngugi's insistence that the African writer should write for peasants and workers is not as unproblematic as he assumes. Furthermore, African society is also comprised of other social groups, including intellectuals. Mao Tse Tung, one of the most influential champions of the peasants and workers, had a more realistic perspective on this question. While stressing that literature and art should be for the masses, he also pointed out that they are:

. . . needed by the cadres. The cadres are the advanced elements of the masses and generally have received more education; literature and art of a higher level are entirely necessary for them. To ignore this would be a mistake.

In other words, Mao recognized the importance of a literature that might be inaccessible to peasants
and workers on account of its complexity or its existence in a foreign language. Not only Ngugi but also scholars such as Abiola Irele and Emmanuel Ngara, who rail against what they call elitist literature, are vulnerable to criticism on these grounds (Irele and Ngugi).

Mao was also ahead of Ngugi in another way. Although he recognized that the cultural level of the peasants and workers was low, he advocated that it should be continually raised. He would certainly have argued in favor of encouraging the peasants and workers to learn foreign languages. In contrast, Ngugi seems to assume that Gikuyu peasants will forever speak, write, and read only in Gikuyu. What benefits might Gikuyu peasants gain by learning English, French, or Russian? Anybody who espouses revolutionary causes, as Ngugi does, ought to address the question of foreign languages in a dialectical and forward-looking manner. The example of Karl Marx is worth noting in this respect. As Paul Lafargue points out:

Marx could read all European languages and write in three: German, French, and English, to the admiration of language experts. He liked to repeat the saying: "A foreign language is a weapon in the struggle of life.

It would be neither accurate nor fair to charge Ngugi with having ignored internationalism. Although he champions writing in African languages and now writes only in Gikuyu, he has considered the question of how to reach readers outside. His answer has always been that they will be reached through translations:

Writing in Gikuyu does not cut me off from other language communities because there are always opportunities for translation. My Gikuyu novel, for example, has been translated not only into English and Kiswahili but also directly from Gikuyu into Swedish. A German edition is planned, and a translation directly from Gikuyu into Japanese may appear later. In other words, there is already a dialogue emerging with the rest of the world due to the translation of a piece of Gikuyu literature into foreign languages. This kind of dialogue has also occurred within East Africa with the publication of a translation into Kiswahili. Hopefully a situation will arise where this novel is translated directly into other African languages within and outside Kenya, so that once again there will be direct communication between two African language communities rather than indirect communication through an intermediary language such as English or French. ( ‘‘On Writing’’)

But something is always changed, added, or lost in translation. For this reason, there really can be no true translation; in fact, a translation is actually a new work of art. Ideally, works should be read in the original languages, and if we must have translations, we should acknowlege them as a necessary evil.

Since Ngugi appears to believe that the work remains the same in translation, why is it essential for him to write in Gikuyu first? If translation offers such an efficient bridge between languages, he could just as easily write in English and then have his work translated into Gikuyu. Irele is undoubtedly right when he argues that"the literary artist will produce his best work in the medium that he most confidently controls.'' In light of this fact it is quite possible that Ngugi is capable of producing better work in English than in Gikuyu. By his own admission, he lacks the mastery of Gikuyu that would enable him to write his best work in it:

And when we scripted the play in Gikuyu called Ngaahika Ndeenda (or I Will Marry When I Want), something happened which was very interesting. The people in the village of course knew their language much better than we did; so they began to offer their comments on the script. They would say, 'Oh, this image is wrong here, or that type of language is inappropriate there. An old man doesn't speak like this; if you want him to have dignity, he must use a different kind of speech. Oh my God, you are making him speak like a child! You university people, what kind of learning have you had?' (‘‘ On Writing'')

Perhaps Ngugi can improve his mastery of Gikuyu, but he might also have abandoned English too soon.

In criticizing what he calls ‘‘petty-bourgeois African writers’’ who, while writing in foreign languages, misrepresent the African peasants, Ngugi actually undermines his own views on translation:

Often the African peasant characters were made to appear naive and simple minded because of the kind of simplistic, distorted foreign languages through which they were made to articulate their feelings and world outlook. More often the peasant/worker characters were given the vacillating mentality and pessimistic world outlook of the petty bourgeois. But the final indignity was that even where the peasant/ worker characters were given their due in terms of dignity and world outlook, they were made to express these awkwardly in foreign languages. Thus the tongues of millions of peasants were mutilated in the works of African writers, and in their stead the peasants were given plastic surgery in the literary laboratories of Africa and emerged with English, French and Portuguese tongues. (Writers)

However, he fails to cite a single work of African fiction in which peasants are portrayed in this way. Furthermore, one is tempted to ask what happens to Ngugi's own novels when they are translated into European languages. Do his Gikuyu peasants and workers escape the simple-mindedness and awkwardness that emerge when they are made to speak in an alien tongue? To save his peasants and workers from such indignities, Ngugi should perhaps refuse to allow any of his Gikuyu works to be translated into foreign languages.

Ngugi's decision to abandon English as a medium for expression for his creative work and to use only Gikuyu is intriguing because it seems to be based on a non-dialectical view of English and, for that matter, of other European languages as well. For him, these languages are simply the languages of the former colonial masters. Any African writer who uses them today thus becomes a victim of neocolonialism. Ngugi himself explains:

There are other contradictions of a writer in a neocolonial state. For whom does he write? For the people? But then what language does he use? It is a fact that the African writers who emerged after the Second World War opted for European languages. All the major African writers wrote in English, French, and Portuguese. But by and large, all the peasants and a majority of the workers—the masses—have their own languages. Isn't the writer perpetuating, at the level of cultural practice, the very neo-coloni-alism he is condemning at the level of economic and political practice? For whom a writer writes is a question which has not been satisfactorily resolved by the writers in a neocolonial state. (Writing Against Neocolonialism)

However, if English, French, and Portuguese are the main languages of the former colonizers, they are also the languages of the working masses in England, France, and Portugal, and elsewhere. These
languages were created by the masses and reflect their creative genius; they were not created by the imperialists, who only came onto the scene much later. It is an historical accident that they were used as the languages of colonialism, and this fact alone does not detract from their significance and value. Similarly, although Gikuyu is the language of Gikuyu peasants and workers, it is also the language of Gikuyu landlords and capitalists. If these capitalists and landlords had the power, they could easily use Gikuyu to dominate people of other language groups.

Ngugi has consistently argued that the colonialists downgraded African languages and promoted European languages; however, his views on this subject are rather simplistic. The colonialists' policies on African languages were not uniform throughout the continent, nor were they entirely negative. In fact, the colonialists and missionaries whom Ngugi castigates were instrumental in promoting many African languages. Even in Kenya, Ngugi's own country, they produced the orthographies, dictionaries, grammars, and readers that enabled large numbers of Africans to become literate in these languages. In many places in Africa, colonialists and missionaries started newspapers and publishing enterprises that enabled indigenous writers such as Thomas Mofolo of Lesotho and Shaaban Robert from Tanganyika to make names for themselves. That Ngugi can now write in Gikuyu and that he can be read by an appreciative Gikuyu audience result largely from the good work done by the colonialists and the missionaries.

In many ways, Ngugi's struggle against English appears to be fueled by psychological conflicts, anxieties, and guilt feelings. His situation is a variation on the Oedipal theme of the father-son conflict, for he is bent on killing the father, the former colonial master, who, through a process of displacement, is represented by the colonizer's language. But this language begot Ngugi as a writer. His struggle is all the more intense because the father is perceived as being intent upon emasculating and obliterating the son, by subjecting him to cultural institutions such as the language and the school. In this respect, Ngugi resembles all of us who were formerly colonized. Okot p'Bitek's Lawino has characterized our predicament quite well, embodying it in the metaphor of castration:

Bile bums my inside! I feel like vomiting! For all our young men Were finished in the forest, Their manhood was finished
In the classrooms,
Their testicles were smashed
With large books!

Ngugi's struggle to kill the father is at the same time a struggle to possess the mother, represented in this case as the mother tongue. The African writer who champions the mother tongue is haunted by a feeling of guilt at having betrayed her, as Chinua Achebe admits:

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 whereas Achebe has forged ahead and continued to use a European language, Ngugi criticizes this choice, calling it a manifestation of weakness:

How did we arrive at this acceptance of the fatalistic logic of the unassailable position of English in our literature; [a phrase Achebe had used] in our culture and in our politics? . . . How did we, as African writers, come to be so feeble towards the claims of our languages on us and so aggressive in our claims on other languages, particularly the languages of our colonization? (Decolonising)

References to aggressiveness and feebleness provide further proof, from a psychoanalytical perspective, that Ngugi is subject to a deep-seated anxiety. Feebleness is just another term for the condition that Lawino names, without mincing words, in the quotation cited above.

Ngugi's pronouncements about the use of languages in African literature are not completely unacceptable. Much of what he says is valid, but the subject is a complex one, and there are no easy solutions to the theoretical and practical problems that it implies. By pointing out the gaps and weak links in Ngugi's arguments, I hope to stimulate a rethinking of the crucial issues to which Ngugi has drawn our attention.

Source: Joseph Mbele, "Language in African Literature: an Aside to Ngugi,'' in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 23, No. 1, Spring, 1992, p. 145.


Critical Overview