For Ngũgĩ, the estate of writing and thinking definitely go hand-in-glove, resulting in substance and style that is due not just to fecund imagination but also rigorous logic. His essays have found a relentless logic, which he has followed through in his life and literature.
In the 1970s, he mounted a ‘hobby horse’ that is yet to throw him: the conviction that the African writer’s road to literature should start from his indigenous, African language rather than a colonial one. Where the illustrious Chinua Achebe made his peace with English as a literary language, considering language as ‘not just words, but a man’s entire world view,’ and famously domesticated English in his novels, Ngũgĩ insisted on a literal interpretation of ‘language’ and hence focused on his indigenous African language.
It was a position that did not attract many followers, whether in his generation or in subsequent ones. For most of African writers, it was a lost cause: they were often exclusively schooled in the colonial languages, which were therefore both a pragmatic and commercial choice for literature. In 1986, he wrote, with some exasperation: “The African writer believes too much in African literature' to write it in those ethnic, divisive and underdeveloped languages of the peasantry!” Taking his cue from Obi Wali’s provocative paper, The Dead End of African Literature, and in the tradition of African language novelists of the 1930s like Pita Nwana (Igbo) and D.O. Fagunwa (Yoruba), Ngũgĩ turned to his native tongue: Gikuyu.
For him, writing in Gikuyu was not just a literary decision but a political act, part and parcel of the anti-imperialist struggles of the Kenyan and African people. He was inspired by his own school days when speaking Gikuyu was outlawed by the colonial schools and was severely punished by flogging: “I do not want to see Kenyan children growing up in that imperialist-imposed tradition of contempt for the tools of communication developed by their communities and their history. I want them to transcend colonial alienation,” he writes in Decolonising the Mind (1986).
Visiting a linguistic graveyard
What happened next was the difficult bridge between precept and practice, for in returning to Gikuyu from English, Ngũgĩ was going from metropolis to clan. He was going to a literary graveyard of languages to attempt the resuscitation of a colonial casualty from whose funeral most of his contemporaries had already departed. In 1986, he published Matigari ma Njiruungi in Gikuyu, which was translated into English as Matigari by Kenyan writer, Wangui wa Goro. His subsequent work has mostly followed this template and the satirical, fantastical, The Wizard of the Crow, was first published in 2004 as Mũrogi wa Kagogo, in Gikuyu, before he then undertook an English translation himself.
With the publication of his well-received memoirs, Dreams in a Time of War (2010), and In the House of the Interpreter (2012), there is a sense of a summing-up by a storyteller with a sense for the natural rhythm of tales, but the gauntlet he dropped back in 1986 as thinker remains relevant for this generation and beyond. He has demonstrated the battles all colonial societies with relegated languages have to fight, to heal their souls. Reading The Wizard of the Crow in its English manifestation leaves one steeped in its Gikuyu antecedents. In much the same way, the reader feels the Igbo language, writhing like a live animal beneath the English mantle of Things fall Apart.
In both books, the reader falls under the spellbinding power of the storyteller, swaying to a linguistic dexterity alien to English – whether emanating from Achebe’s Igbo mind, or Ngũgĩ’s Gikuyu text, the effect is similar. The difference of course is that while The Wizard of the Crow has left behind a canonical Gikuyu novel which has enriched and revitalized a language wounded by the colonial sword of English, and which will tool the minds of future generations of Gikuyus in their mother tongue, Chinua Achebe lived to see more than fifty translations of Things Fall Apart in fifty-five years but died before the publication of an authorised translation in his Igbo mother tongue was published.
More African languages will claw their way back from the literary graveyard, and some thanks will be due to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o who has, like his late compatriot and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Wangari Maathai, chosen to plant his oaks in the desert.