“Education, far from giving people the confidence in their ability and capacities to overcome obstacles or to become masters of the laws governing external nature as human beings, tends to make them feel their inadequacies, their weaknesses and their incapacities in the face of reality; and their inability to do anything about the conditions governing their lives.”- Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind
I’ve never seen colonialism described as succinctly as in the following passage:
“The real aim of colonialism was to control the people’s wealth: what they produced, how they produced it, and how it was distributed; to control, in other words, the entire realm of the language of real life. Colonialism imposed its control of the social production of wealth through military conquest and subsequent political dictatorship. But its most important area of domination was the mental universe of the colonised, the control through culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world.”
I read this book with my experiences in Africa, conversations with my relatives and friends, and my education at the back of my mind. Trying to make sense of history and my place in it made this book invaluable to me, and helped clarify and reiterate a lot of things. The more I read books on Africa, be they about art, language, history, or politics, the more I’m amazed how the continent is seen, in many people’s minds, as a homogeneous country. This passive thinking really masks the complexity of issues in the continent. Even without colonialism Africa would have been quite intricate but colonialism has truly caused mayhem in the entire continent. And in many ways, language is one of the biggest weapons the colonialists used to do so.
I like wa Thiong’o a lot. Not only is he a great writer, but it’s also clear he is a very passionate person with a lot of love for his country, his continent and his language, and a great advocate for the traditional arts. He is very blunt and I admire that a lot. Nobody is safe from his criticism, even a few of my personal favourites such as Achebe, Soyinka, Cesaire. In a sense he thinks they were brainwashed for putting the language of the colonizers on a pedestal. I think it’s an interesting argument to be had but it’s hard for me to pick a side because I’m admittedly colonized myself and English-dominant, although it’s not my first language. I found it useful to read wa Thiong’o’s perspective regardless.
And wa Thiongo’s perspective is important. He grew up during colonialism after all, so he, unlike me, had the opportunity to study in his native language and unfortunately had to endure being forced to assimilate into the English language.He details how the British tried to suppress local languages in Kenya, how they arrested those who tried to encourage cultural proliferation, and controlled the gathering of people in places. He sees the differences in himself and his society before and after English language education was forced on him, and his explanations and insights are very precise and often personal.
wa Thiong’o is very thorough in how he discusses the role of language as a carrier and transmitter of culture, and what happens when that language is taken away from people. This is such a common story, not just in Africa but even here in Canada, and I think we’re beginning to understand just how damaging it is to suppress and devalue language. In what planet does it make sense that a Kenyan student in colonial Kenya would be punished for speaking Gikuyu or Swahili instead of English? Personally I remember how I was often treated better than my cousins just because I could speak English and they couldn’t; I learned early on how language can be elitist:
“I believe that my writing in Gikuyu language, a Kenyan language, an African language, is part and parcel of the anti-imperialist struggles of Kenyan and African peoples. In schools and universities our Kenyan languages– that is the languages of the many nationalities which make up Kenya– were associated with negative qualities of backwardness, underdevelopment, humiliation and punishment.”
Another great thing about wa Thing’o is how he respects the peasantry (his choice of word). The other day I was reading about the Third Estate in France during the 19th Century revolution and this reminded me of how in Africa the peasantry are the majority, and that’s where the culture comes from. Who makes the oral stories, who upholds the culture? It’s nice to see the peasantry being accredited with maintaining culture and tradition:
“These languages, these national heritages of Africa, were kept alive by the peasantry. The peasantry saw no contradiction between speaking their own mother tongues and belonging to a larger national or continental geography. They saw no necessary antagonistic contradiction between belonging to their immediate nationality, to their multinational state along the Berlin-drawn boundaries, and to Africa on the whole.”
I was struck by the violence caused by colonialism. Colonialism was celebrated, and that’s the world I grew up in: gratitude to the colonialists for “rescuing” us. But what we know now is that it was very very violent and the wounds are still there. If, like wa Thiong’o said, in 1984 the president of the West German Federal Council visited Togo in order to celebrate the centennial of Germany establishing Togo as a German colony,”to commemorate not the resistance to colonisation but the glory of colonisation,” then clearly we haven’t learned much and dialogue still needs to be had.
The constant unlearning, the decolonizing, that needs to be done because we were lied to, is something that I thought of throughout this book. And it’s only now that I’m realizing in more detail just how horrific colonialism was, just how much we’ve lost. What I aim to do myself, how I aim to decolonize my own mind, is by reading more of my history. I’ve also been thinking about how I’ve been influenced by other cultures so I wonder how far I can be decolonized. This got me thinking about globalization and how that has affected us, I would be interested to hear Thiong’o’s thoughts on this. This is definitely a must-read for everyone, there is so much we don’t know or realize about the impact of the actions of those who came before us, and this is a great start.