Decolonizing the Mind

Linda Tuhiwai Smith wrote "Decolonizing methodologies" (1999). Ngugi wa Thiong'o wrote "Decolonizing the Mind" (1986). This is essential reading and the insights are numerous – from curricula design and literary critique to social transformation and liberation. In this post I focus on one of Ngugi's central and influential arguments about the power of language.

The author outlines how colonial and neo-colonial language policies and practices entrenched power and dominance, while simultaneously marginalizing and excluding the majority. Ngugi writes: "Berlin of 1884 was effected through the sword and the bullet. But the night of the sword and the bullet was followed by the morning of the chalk and the blackboard. The physical violence of the battlefield was followed by the psychological violence of the classroom. But where the former was visibly brutal, the latter was visibly gentle" (p. 9). The legacy was more long lasting, more transformational, because "language was the most important vehicle through which that power fascinated and the soul of the prisoner" (p. 9). Furthermore, language is "central to people's definition of themselves in relation to their natural and social environment, indeed in relation to the entire universe" (p. 4). At the end, Ngugi concludes that while the book is about the politics of language, it is in fact about "national, democratic and human liberation" (p. 108).

The 'gentle' manifestation of colonialism and imperialism Ngugi calls the 'cultural bomb', which acts to "annihilate a people's belief in their names, their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves. It makes them see their past as a wasteland of non-achievement and it makes them want to distance themselves from that wasteland. It makes them want to identify with that which is furthest removed from themselves; for instance, with other peoples' languages rather than their own." (p. 3)

  • "African children who encountered literature in colonial schools and universities were thus experiencing the world as defined and reflected in the European experience of history. Their entire way of looking at the world, even the world of the immediate environment, was Eurocentric. Europe was the centre of the universe. The earth moved around the European intellectual scholarly axis. The images children encountered in literature were reinforced by their study of geography and history, and science and technology where Europe was, once again, the centre. This in turn fitted well with the cultural imperatives of British imperialism. In this book I have in fact tried to show how the economic control of the African people was effected through politics and culture." (p. 93)
  • "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. We who went through that school system were meant to graduate with a hatred of the people and the culture and the values of the languages of our daily humiliation and punishment. 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." (p. 28)

What makes Ngugi a influential person is not just his words, but also his actions – this included engaging in community theatre to move beyond the bounds of academia as well as working to re-centre African languages and African literature in curricula. For his actions, he was imprisoned, barred from employment in Kenyan universities, experienced an attempted assassination, and had to live in exile for more than twenty years. It is also his self-critical approach to the question of language:

  • "The question is this: we as African writers have always complained about the neo-colonial economic and political relationship to Euro-America. Right. But by our continuing to write in foreign languages, paying homage to them, are we not on the cultural level of continuing that neo-colonial slavish and cringing spirit? What is the difference between a politician who says Africa cannot do without imperialism and the writer who says Africa cannot do without European languages?" (p. 26).

For scholars and practitioners of international development, Ngugi presents a challenge well beyond educational policy and curriculum. His work should also challenge us to reflect upon the ways in which we replicate the enshrinement of foreign languages – languages not spoken by the people for who, or with whom, it is claimed that we work. As a bare minimum, we might ask, how many of our papers and reports are available in local languages? Ought not community members be given the opportunity to know what we have outlined in our proposals and reports, what we have found in the baseline and endline evaluations? Is neglecting to work in local languages disenfranchising the people we claim to be working to empower? In so doing, is it not the same paternalistic attitude of the self-determined 'experts' know best while community members are excluded? This does not even begin to grapple with the question of who ought to have the right to participate and who ought to decide what is done, where, for whom and why. Yet, even these bare minimum questions should be cause for serious reflection.

Banting Fellow, Carleton University (2017-2019)
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