Thursday, May 06, 2010

Channeling Ngugi: language and identity in Kenya and Africa

Sitawa Namwalie returns to our pages; this time defending Ngugi's decolonising the mind. Join the discussion, excerpt below:

Despite the divergence of these two opinions I believe that they represent the same limited view which confines Ngugi’s raison d'ĂȘtre to the logic of a village or at the very most within the fundamentals of Kenyan borders. Both groups claim Ngugi’s agenda as a national one and so use his work to justify the essentials of negative local ethnic discourse. As I listen to these views I am reminded of the saying that is attributed to Jesus Christ that a prophet often goes unrecognized and acknowledged in his or her own home. I can imagine the national debate that may have surrounded the great literary figures in their time. In a similarly multi-ethnic Russia, Tolstoy may have been accused of representing only the interest of his linguistic group and dismissed as a parochial chauvinist. And yet today we know his genius. If he wrote in his mother tongue then many others would have complained about reading and understanding his novels.

They all miss the point. By writing in Gikuyu, Ngugi is carving out an alcove of existence, a space of freedom, for all of those many ethnicities and civilizations, which do not come from a dominant language culture. The image that comes to mind is that of the meaning of the term niche in the natural environment. A rare highly specialized species of moss will inhabit a sliver of micro-climate created by the particular conditions that are due to an outcropping of rock perhaps; that results by chance; in just the right temperature, soil conditions, wind and moisture. A fitting anomaly becomes established and we joyously acknowledge the miracle of nature.