Ngũgĩ in the American Imperium

Part 2—Decolonizing the Mind

For the land has lost the memory of the most secret
we see the moon but cannot remember its meaning
a dark skin is a chain but it cannot recall the name
of its tribe. there are no chiefs in the village
the gods have been forgotten or hidden

a prayer poured on the ground w/water w/rum
will not bid them come
back. creation has burn to a spider. it peeps up over the hills

w/the sunrise but prefers to spin
webs in the trees. the sea
is a divider. it is not a life-giver. time’s



Author’s note:  I open this second article on Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o with the poem by the noted Barbadian poet and scholar, Kamau Brathwaite that also appears in the collection, edited by Tim Reiss, Ngũgĩ in the American Imperium. Kamau’s sign-off includes the replication of what Brathwaite called his “video style,” Mac-specific fonts. Sadly, Brathwaite died before seeing Reiss’ volume in print, but see my personal remembrance of him in  Witty Partition’s Extras!.” Kamau was my teacher, a mentor. He opened the doors of Caribbean literature, not just to me, but to many, and on those occasions when he read his work publicly, he was tremendously inspiring.

Click on image for purchase in USA. The book can also be purchased from in the UK. For a French translation, see Décolinizer L’Esprit, La fabrique éditions, (2011). Also in Spanish, Catalan, Deutsch, and Italian.

It is difficult to talk about Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o as a writer without mention of his role and thinking as teacher, critic and mentor. I met Ngũgĩ when I was studying for my doctorate at New York University. One anecdote which sticks in my mind even today was when my first semester began and he asked me how I was doing with my move from less urban New England to New York City.  I answered that I had made a makeshift desk with some of my boxes so I would miss not time on my studies while settling in.  He laughed, “You’re a survivor then,” though I knew at the same time that this comment was from a man having survived in far more difficult circumstances than I was ever likely to experience.

As an African coming into a soon-to-be postcolonial world in Kenya, Ngũgĩ’s first novel, Weep Not Child (1964), was written in English and chronicled a child’s vision of the Mau Mau[i] struggle.

The tale emerged from his own experiences seeing one brother involved in that struggle—that brother and his mother, both tortured by the British colonizers—as well as the subsequent brutalities of the British as Kenyans sought to throw of the yoke of colonialism.  Authored, if I may put it this way,  under his colonial name, James Ngũgĩ, given him by missionaries when at school, more followed, also written in English: The River Between (1965), A Grain of Wheat (written while he was pursuing a post graduate degree at the University of Leeds in the UK—1967), and the play The Black Hermit (1968). The non-fiction, Homecoming (1972,) dealt with African writing and culture plus some of his work at Leeds on George Lamming and Caribbean literature; and then came a collection of short stories, Secret Lives (1975), the play The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (1976),with Micere Githae Mugo and Njaka, and Petals of Blood (1977.)[ii] Over the course of that decade, Ngũgĩ  had become increasingly concerned with the displacement of African languages, literatures and orature (oral literature) by the exclusionary pursuit of English literature in schools in areas colonised by the British, not to mention the coloniser’s accompanying denigration of autochthonous cultures and languages; and in 1977, he changed his name to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. 

Readers are no doubt familiar with accounts of the shameful practices of both Canadian and U.S. governments towards the peoples, languages and cultures of their indigenous peoples. Indeed, as an artist whose medium of creation is words, here we segue into a key issue for Ngũgĩ, addressed in his essays and in his fiction  before the implementation of any other craft: language. Language, language, language. Under colonial rule Kenya was, to put it mildly, not kind to its indigenous students, especially in the use/teaching of language, but also in its concomitant teaching of culture. Indeed, Ngũgĩ’s son, Mukoma wa Ngũgĩ writes of his own experience in postcolonial schools being caned for using Gikuyu and, upon a return visit, in 2017,

My wife, daughter and I visited my former primary school. By each classroom door I saw a listof 19 rules, with the second rule being, “Vernacular Speaking is PROHIBITED.”[iii]

But back to Ngũgĩ. Returning from the metropole, it is important to note, Ngũgĩ worked briefly in the English department at Nairobi University, leaving in 1969 in protest over the treatment of five students in that department, then returning in 1972 as Senior Lecturer and, with the writer Taban lo Liyong, sharing the role of Head of the Department.  What followed next was  “‘the great Nairobi literature debate’,” with Ngũgĩ as one of its key participants.  The flaw in traditional English (= “literature”) departments in universities and schools lay in the syllabus as employed by colonialism: “the study of a single culture throughout the period of emergence of the modern west.[iv] No matter that the curriculum showed an obstinate and studied ignorance of the literature and orature (oral literature) of the culture(s) in which those English departments were situated. Ngũgĩ, along with Taban Lo Liyong and Awuor Anyumba authored On the Abolition of the English Department, that produced a global debate on  postcolonial practices and theories. “If there is need for a ‘study of the historic continuity of a single culture’, why can’t this be African? Why can’t African literature be at the centre so that we can view other cultures in relationship to it?” they asked.[v] With the efforts of Ngũgĩ and his colleagues, the English Department at Nairobi University was thus successfully changed to the Literature Department with appropriate inclusions.

As mentioned, Ngũgĩ first established his notable reputation as a writer of novels written in English.  However, in 1977 he produced a play written in Gikuyu, Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want ) which, among other things, critiqued the injustices in Kenyan society.  On December 31, 1977, Ngũgĩ  was arrested and thrown in to prison, never officially charged or tried, but clearly incarcerated because his views were antithetical to the government. When in prison, Ngũgĩ wrote his first novel in his mother tongue, Gikuyu, on toilet paper: Caitani Murtharaba-Ini (1980)later translated from Gikuyu by Ngũgĩ himself into English as Devil on the Cross (1982).

Herein lies the dilemma, the challenge and the wonder of  Ngũgĩ’s continued fiction.  I remember him explaining his thinking as he approached the writing and considered the form of that novel: how, he thought, how do I write a novel in a language, in my language, which does not have the same creative traditions? What he did was to model the novel on the Gikuyu tradition of an oratorical competition, a twist on the traditional precolonial Gikuyu poetry festival; and what emerges is a satire wherein the participants, members of the International Organization of Thieves, were challenged to outdo one another in the outrageousness of their claims and thievish “accomplishments.” It is both a critique of international capitalism, of colonialism and the postcolonial state (in a Kenya dominated by the dictator Daniel arap Moi) and tellingly courant, still, in many societies. 

Happily, through the efforts of Amnesty International, Ngũgĩ was released from prison after a year of imprisonment, although, according to an email (11/28/22) from Tim Reiss, editor of Ngugi in the American Imperium, 

in 1977, Ngugi was imprisoned by Daniel Arap Moi, who was the home minister or whatever they called it (I think I give the correct title in the collection), but at the time the dictator was Kenyatta. It was his death thenext year that gave Moi the face-saving opportunity to release Ngugi as if it were his own magnanimous pardoning as he became President…rather than the international pressure brought by Amnesty and others.

Finding that he was in danger of being re-incarcerated, he went into exile, first in London in the UK and then in the US. In 1981, Ngũgĩ published Decolonising the Mind, the Politics of Language in African Literature [vi] which took on the above concerns.  Decolonising the Mind as ‘English’ (aka ‘literature’) departments began to be more inclusive thanks to the Nairobi debate, his book became more central to that argument. The experience he and other Africans have had of having their first languages suppressed and replaced by a colonial language (in the case of Kenya, English) and its insistence on cultural primacy, was and is another form of colonialism, in effect linguistic invasion and occupation. To return to one’s mother tongue, especially for creative work, literally requires, yes, decolonizing the mind.  Indeed, it has also been widely asserted that using one’s mother tongue for creative expressive is particularly important in keeping the language alive, vital, flourishing. Thus, in the 1981 edition of his Decolonizing the Mind, Ngũgĩ declared in  “A Statement” (xiv),

Five years later, the novel Matigari, first written in GikuyuasMatigari ma Njiruungi was published in Kenya in 1986. Thinking that the novel’s main character was a real person, Dictator Moi issued a warrant for his arrest. However when he found out that the character was fictional, Moi had all copies of the book removed from bookshops and publishers’ warehouse. Between 1986 and 1996, Matigari could not be sold in Kenyan bookshops; and Moi went even further, and had all Ngũgĩ’s books removed from all educational institutions. Matigari was published in English translation in 1989.

There you have it.  Writers—and here I mean artists whose creative medium is  words—when writers sit down to write, what language do they use?  Not quite as politically loaded as the banning of indigenous languages and all that that entails, I nonetheless have a vague memory of Joseph Brodsky, the Russian poet, who was sprung from Soviet Russia and wound up at a university where I worked for a while: rather than his beloved Russian, he began to write in English. It was flat, without music, and uninteresting.  (I am not suggesting any flaws in Ngũgĩ’s English, nononono!)  If only in terms of craft, while those of us who are instinctively and truly bilingual have a choice, for most of us our respective mother tongues are what we have and what we love, their rhythms and cadences with us from birth (some say even overheard in the womb), and with them, when reading from the page, the capacity to hear that same music in our minds. If, like Gikuyu and so many African languages, First Nations’ languages, like Russian, classical Greek, many others no doubt, if the language has been used in a rich tradition of orature, there is even more for the artist to draw upon. And when that is suppressed, beaten out of the speaker, the writer, it is a gross violation of the ordinary curious human being and his or her culture. To reclaim it is liberation. A triumph.

Not long after my own dissertation defense (Ngũgĩ  was on my committee) and not too long after I left to teach abroad, Ngũgĩ was lured away from NYU to UC Irvine in California. I believe the final and irresistible offer was the directorship of the newly formed International Center for Writing and Translation (ICWT) and one of its emphases, so dear to Ngũgĩ ‘s heart was imperiled languages, ones in danger of disappearing.  He began with indigenous American languages, I am told; and, indeed, he had several times commented on  “the humiliation of Native Americans, how their language was denigrated,” noting too that “in Africa, of course, were were [also] forbidden to speak our mother tongues.”[vii]

* * *

Having been granted a precious preview of the recording of the ICWT (University of California at Irvine’s International Center for Writing and Translation) launch of Ngũgĩ in the American Imperium, ed. Tim Reiss, I will be referencing that book and its launch from time to time.  With interest, I noted the beginning of that video and how Handel Kashope Wright briefly introduced Ngũgĩ and the theme of education—what ought to be the impact of Ngũgĩ’s work in a literary curriculum. While affirming the importance Ngũgĩ’s work has had, Wright also affirms Ngũgĩ‘s concerns about colonial education.[viii]

Wright refers to his discovery of Ngũgĩ in high school and in his undergraduate studies in Sierra Leon. Here, he said, was “a refreshing African novelist in our otherwise unapologetically hegemonically Anglo-centric English literature curriculum.”  (Aha!)  Further, Wright asks, of what relevance does Ngũgĩ and his work have to students in the Americas? For they were “perhaps only introduced to Ngũgĩ as the social and political critic and activist, the global revolutionary….”  Understandably, Wright goes on to say, Ngũgĩ

has always epitomized the inextricable link between the creative and the political, illustrative of the fact that the conscious African writer cannot afford the luxury and privilege of being purely and solely  ​a creativewriter.

He then poses yet another question, “How often do we teach/learn about utilizing Ngũgĩ in full, [emphasis mine] in mutually contributory literary and activist work?” What Wright begins with is advocating a combined shift of the ideas in Ngũgĩ’s Moving the Center (James Currey, London. 1986), moving what academics call “cultural studies,” “comparative literature,” etc. from its British and U.S. enclosures into a genuinely global context, minus the privileging of colonial dominance and with the inclusion of work and linguistic practices of many more cultures. Such efforts, and almost as an obvious result, are a further decolonization of the mind—as noted, undoing the depredations of forced use of English/colonizing languages on those with other valuable oral, literary, and linguistic practices and traditions.

And that brings us back, not only to Decolonizing the Mind and the challenge, if I may put it this way, of decolonizing education, butimportantly, to the work of Ngũgĩ himself, especially in view of the recent PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature awarded Ngũgĩ by PEN/America on February 2, 2022.   

(To be continued…)


[i] Kenya was a settler colony, and Britain’s colonial powers embraced it as “white man’s country.” They misrepresented the Mau Mau as “terrorists” and painted them as savages, told propagandistic lies including that they performed secret ceremonies that included cannibalism, other grotesqueries. They were, in fact, a liberation army, largely composed of Gikuyu, Ngũgĩ’s ethnic group. For a more balanced picture, Robert  B. Edgerton’s Mau Maupublished in 1989, is a far more balanced account. 
[ii] For a complete list of Ngũgĩ’s books and where to purchase, go to in the US or in theUK or Amazon in your respective country.
[iii] See
[iv] quoted in Decolonising the Mind (89)
[v] As it is, even now, debate swirls around the privileging of English as the international written language. Rohit Inani quotes no less than J.M Coetzee who “has said that English liberated him from the narrow worldview of the Afrikaans, but last month, speaking at the Hay Festival in Colombia, he said with disappointment, that ‘the hegemony of English language, of London and New York in the realm of global literature has to end.'” In  “language is a War Zone,” in The NationApril 2, 2018.
[vi] James Curry, London; Heinemann Kenya, Nairobi; Heinemann, Portsmouth N.H. 1981.
​[vii] See and Rohit Inani’s interview of Ngũgĩ  atũgĩ-wa-thiongo/
[viii] Born and raised in Sierra Leon, Wright is widely published, currently teaches—and has variously taught—cultural studies, multicultural education, as well as functioned as being a consultant to the President on anti-racism and inclusive excellence at the University of British Columbia.  His article, “Appropriating Ngũgĩ for the Journey,” is included in  Part II, “Moving Language(s) and Mental, Natural and Pedagogical Ecologies” in Ngũgĩ in the American Imperium.