Kenyan author Ngugi Wa Thiong’o discusses the problematic elements of colonial languages and the hierarchical tendencies, and power dynamics, they encourage in countries that, through colonization, have adopted them as their lingua franca.
Wa Thiong’o firmly states that, “English is not an African language, period”, and that in using English as a default tongue, we are simply contributing to the expansion of this dangerous form of cultural suppression, still submitting to the hierarchy of colonial languages.
HARDTAlk host Gavin Esler notes that his form of decolonizing African minds and tongues is in stark contrast to writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who says that, “English is mine, I have taken ownership of English”.
Wa Thiong’o then goes on to say that claims made in the same vein of Adichie are related to the ‘metaphysical empire’, a sort of abstract reclaiming of ones own identity in relation to history and the power dynamics of language in the world, as opposed to penetrating the systematic structures of language as a tool of oppression.
I must agree with the stress Wa Thiong’o puts on first writing in ones mother tongue, and then translating it into other languages, as not only does it promote the importance of African languages, it also creates and stressed a need for not only Africans but people around the world to pay attention to African languages, perhaps learning them in the process, countering the idea that writing in African languages somehow limits the reach of ones work.
It’s a cultural shift that won’t happen overnight, but a transition that is very necessary and ultimately holds a great deal of weight in global cultural power systems and structures.