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  • Ooretoluse Delano

Decolonising the mind by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

In the book, ‘Decolonising the Mind’, N wu Thiong’o takes a different approach in discussing the post-colonial state, by noting that many African writers fail to see the colonial origins of contemporary African issues. Instead, he argues that imperialism is still the cause of most problems in Africa, and that this is maintained by the subversion of the culture of post-colonial states. Thiong’o focuses on the use of language as a tool to subvert cultures. He argues that this was mainly achieved through the elevation of European languages, alongside the denigration of indigenous languages. Thiong’o is an academic and social activist, whose literary works address the lasting effects of colonialism in contemporary Africa.

This article agrees with Thiong’o’s argument that until the African mind is decolonised, there is little hope for growth. Firstly, it will look at Thiong’o’s focus on language as a tool of cultural domination. Secondly, it will explore the effect of African writers using European languages on the continent. Thirdly, it will focus on the importance of dismantling the use of Western languages, as the only valid medium for knowledge contribution.

Language as Cultural Domination

Thiong’o shows us, readers, how forgetting one’s language means forgetting one’s culture, community and sense of being. He establishes this relationship by analysing language from a Marxist perspective. As language is an expression of relations between people, language gradually becomes 'a way of life’. He notes that language was the most important tool, in holding the ‘soul prisoner’: ‘the bullet was the means of physical subjugation. The language was the means of spiritual subjugation. The choice to focus on language as a tool of mental subjugation is incredibly important in the conversation of decolonisation. This is because, as Thiong’o notes, eliminating one’s culture makes controlling their relationship to the world easier: ‘for a colonial child, … the alienation became reinforced in the teaching of history, geography… where bourgeois Europe was always the centre of the universe’. This elevation of European culture is harmful in that the child is taught to hate their own cultural roots.

Yet, whilst Thiong’o is adamant in the embrace of the European language symbolising cultural domination, his literary counterparts, such as Nigerian author, Chinua Achebe, disagree. For Achebe, the colonised do not lose their identity by using English, instead, they reclaim it by localising the English language. Following this argument, Charles Teke, whilst critiquing the likes of Thiong’o notes that, ‘culture is not fixed… [and] language by extension cannot be hegemonic’. Therefore, the use of European languages has not disrupted the development of African languages, instead, part of the survival of African cultures has been through the localisation of the language of the colonisers. However, it is difficult to see how they use of European languages has not deterred the development of African languages when most literature is written, and children are taught, in the former. For example, fewer and fewer homes in Nigeria are raising their children as bilingual, and are instead only taught English. Moreover, the idea that complex thoughts can only be conveyed in European languages still exists, thereby encouraging natives to abandon their vernacular.

African Writers, the Working Class and Anti-imperialism

Thiong’o’s focus is not only on the importance of cultivating and promoting the use of indigenous languages. Instead, he also focuses on how the use of European languages by African writers is counter-productive in the fight against imperialism. This is two-fold: first, it is seen as enriching the language of the colonisers at the expense of African culture. Thiong’o, describes works by renowned African authors, as ‘Afro-European literature’. Further, Thiong’o illustrates the impact of prioritising European languages in literature by highlighting the fact that conferences on African literature have excluded literature written in African languages. Thus, for Thiong’o, the only way writing in Africa could be anti-imperialist is for it to be in the native languages of Africa. Secondly, such literature was of the petite bourgeois born of colonial schools, therefore, its writers were automatically limiting their audience. Thiong’o highlights how the alienation of the working class or ‘peasants’ is dangerous in the fight for decolonisation: firstly, it is the peasant's struggle, Thiong’o notes, that feeds the novel. Further, writing in European languages by the bourgeois makes ‘the acquisition of their tongue a status symbol’. Through this, Thiong’o effectively emphasises how the use of European languages by bourgeois writers continues the colonial legacy of subjugation and exclusion. Thus, writing in ethnic languages and widespread literacy is necessary for the fight against imperialism.

Moreover, in ‘Moving the Centre: The Struggle For Cultural Freedoms’, Thiong’o, notes that the African bourgeoisie that inherited nation-states from colonial powers, was ingrained with the imperial mentality: ‘they saw things through eyeglasses given them by their European bourgeois mentors.’ Today, not only in post-colonial states but also in the diaspora, the enduring effects of colonialism still materialise in the need for validation from the West. For example, the former Nigerian President, Yar’adua, in the presence of the American President, George Bush, said that he considered himself lucky to be there. This shows the continuing effects of cultural subjugation and a loss of sense of self even amongst the elite.

Similarly, Frantz Fanon, whom Thiong’o was influenced by, foresaw the effect such bourgeois would have on colonial states, simply widening the socio-economic gap created by imperialism. Indeed, Thiong’o notes that the resistance tradition (against imperialism), is being carried out by the working people. Therefore, the peoples whose struggles created the material used by bourgeois African writers, are unable to read the work. As the peasants are the guardians of traditional culture, Thiong’o rightfully emphasises the need to extend literature to them, as they are the ones most affected by coloniality. Thus, as the writer must talk directly to workers and peasants, the use and study of an African language are important for a meaningful self-perception.

Dismantling the Curriculum

Through the focus on language as a tool to maintain cultural domination, Thiong’o calls on us to find a liberating perspective to view ourselves in relation to others. In other words, in order to decolonise the mind, Africans must dismantle the European perspective as the viewpoint through which they see themselves: to be closer to European ideals must no longer be the answer to the struggle. He notes that the only ways to do this are to teach indigenous languages and to question the role of European epistemology as the primary source of knowledge.

The need to decolonise education and for the primacy of coloniser values to be dismantled is still evident today. This is evident in movements such as the #decolonisingthecurriculum movement in South Africa. In discussing decolonisation, Le Grange notes that ‘Decolonisation is a necessary response to first- and second-generation colonialism, neo-colonialism and the recent (re)ascendency of neoliberalism.’ South African universities implemented Western academic structures, thereby excluding the knowledge of colonised people. Thus, the academic framework needed to maintain colonialism and apartheid has continued from independence and an acknowledgement of equal rights. Thus, Thiong’o, rightfully calls for a primary focus on African knowledge, from which other forms of knowledge can then be learnt about and compared. Moreover, he calls for this to be done in indigenous languages, as language carries the culture.

Movements across Africa and elsewhere have pushed for a revival of local languages in their countries' literary works. For example, a project in Senegal uses translation to challenge the dominance of French books in a country where the language spoken by most is Wolof. However, despite how admirable Thiong’o’s quest is to decolonise the mind by returning to vernacular, there is the lingering question of whether this is possible in some African countries where the number of indigenous languages is in the hundreds.

As Bruner, notes, ‘if Thiong’o’s goal is a united front against the struggle by Africans embracing their languages, how will any group even discover any other group's structure and culture'? However, Thiong’o focuses on an exchange of language between African borders, by learning each other’s vernacular and having work translated. Moreover, it is worth noting that only a small percentage of people can speak and read English. Yet, the road to an Africa where indigenous languages and knowledge are priorities, although possible, is still far away. The subversion of imperialism will not be easy on such a multilingual continent. However, it is a process worth embarking on. In the next issue, I will be further exploring ways multilingual societies can keep their languages alive and the importance of this.


‘Decolonising the Mind’, makes a compelling argument as to why a return to indigenous languages is essential in the fight for decolonisation. Thiong’o convincingly explains why embracing one’s language also means embracing one’s culture. African languages should be the medium for all expression, including and most especially academic thought.


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