Decolonizing the Mind

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March 20, 2021

Colonization in Africa was much more than a land grab. It was a project to replace — and even erase — local cultures. To label them inferior. Music, arts, literature and of course language. In other words, it permeated everything. So how do you undo that? How do you unlearn what you’ve been forced to learn?

In this hour, produced in partnership with the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes (CHCI) and Africa is a Country — we learn what it means to decolonize the mind.

Cecil Rhodes cartoons and statues.

Questions about identity, history, language, what should or should not be taught in school — these are all debates about confronting our past. Political theorist Adom Getachew says many of these issues were debated in Africa more than 60 years ago.

Africa made of books

Kenyan literary scholar Simon Gikandi says you can’t understand the rise of European culture — or for that matter, the formation of the modern world — without also knowing how European thinkers demonized Africans and the very idea of "blackness."

Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Ngugi wa Thiong’o — the renowned Kenyan author — believes African writers should write in their native language, not the colonial language of English or French. He says the best way to decolonize the mind is to reclaim native languages.


Show Details 📻
March 20, 2021
November 06, 2021
July 09, 2022
April 29, 2023
March 02, 2024
Full Transcript 📄

- [Anne] It's To The Best of Our Knowledge, I'm Anne Strainchamps.

- And I'm Steve Paulson.

- [Anne] And we want to start today by going back.

- [Steve] To March 6th, 1957, midnight.

- [Anne] Before tens of thousands of people, Kwame Nkrumah, leader of the Gold Coast independence movement and now prime minister of his country, steps on stage to make history.

- [Kwame] At long last, the battle has ended. Ghana is free forever. And here I would like the band to play the Ghana national anthem.

- [Steve] As the crowd watches, the British Union jack is lowered forever.

- [Anne] And looking out over the throng of people is a man who's traveled all the way from the U.S. to witness the moment, Martin Luther King, Jr.

- [Martin] I stood there thinking about so many things. Before I knew it, I started weeping. I was crying for joy. After Nkrumah had made that final speech, it was about 12:30 now, we walked away. We could hear little children, six years old and old people, 80 and 90 years old, walking the streets of Accra, crying, freedom.

- Freedom.

- Freedom.

- Freedom.

- Freedom.

- Freedom.

- Freedom

- [Steve] This moment had a powerful impact on Dr. King. It was the first time he'd set foot in Africa, and it was only a year after leading the Montgomery bus boycott.

- [Anne] He was there with a delegation of civil rights leaders at the personal invitation of Kwame Nkrumah to send a powerful message of Black transatlantic solidarity.

- [Adom] It's the culmination of at least a century, but decades of very intense collaboration and connections between African American civil rights organizations and decolonization in Africa.

- [Anne] Adom Getachew is a political theorist at the University of Chicago.

- [Adom] It stems from a view that colonialism and Jim Crow in the United States share the same structure of White supremacy and racial hierarchy.

- [Anne] Three years later, in 1960, 17 African nations declared their independence. It became known as the Year of Africa.

- [Steve] Kwame Nkrumah, now president of the Republic of Ghana, tells the UN General Assembly that the age of colonialism is over, that the future is Africa.

- [Kwame] One cardinal fact of our time is the momentous impact of Africa's awakening upon the modern world. The flowing tide of African nationalism sweeps everything before it.

- [Adom] What was achieved in that moment was a remarkable feat, right? In a matter of 30 years, the whole map of the world has been radically transformed.

- [Anne] And for civil rights leaders in the U.S., the decolonization of Africa looked like a sign of things to come.

- [Martin] Ghana tells us that the forces of the universe are on the sign of justice. An old order of colonialism, of segregation, of discrimination is passing away now. And a new order of justice and freedom and good will is being born.

- [Steve] But the project of decolonization doesn't end when countries get their independence. That's just the beginning.

- [Anne] Colonization in Africa was much more than a land grab. It was a project to replace and even erase local cultures, to label them inferior. Music, arts, literature, and of course, language. In other words, colonialism permeated everything.

- [Steve] So, how do you undo that? How do you unlearn what you've been forced to learn?

- [Anne] You're listening to episode three of "Ideas from Africa, Decolonizing The Mind."

- [Ngugi] The colony of economy, politics, power is easier to see, but the colony of the mind is almost invisible. That's why it's so dangerous.

- [Anne] Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o, more about him later, but so why talk about all this today?

- [Steve] Because so many contemporary debates are actually debates about the legacy of colonialism and its racist underpinnings. Issues like identity, history, language, policing, what should or should not be taught in school. These are all debates about decolonizing the mind, about confronting our past.

- [Anne] But with ideas this big, this abstract, this unseen, where do you start?

- [Steve] One place is with the things you can see, symbols, monuments.

- [Anne] And of course, statues.

- [Adom] This started in part in South Africa with the hashtag Rhodes Must Fall movement. Rhodes is Cecil Rhodes. Many might know him from the Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University.

- [Anne] This is Adom Getachew again.

- [Adom] Cecil Rhodes is best known in Africa as the architect of imperialism in South Africa. His statue was very prominently located at the University of Cape Town and students demanded that the statue be taken down.

- [Students] Rhodes must fall. Rhodes must fall. Rhodes must fall. Rhodes must fall.

- [Adom] I think we should remember that the removal of statues has always been part of political protest and political mobilization. American revolutionaries took down statues during the American Revolution. I mean, that was also true of the French revolutionaries, right, tearing down symbols of royalism, and monarchy were part of how they imagined transformation. In a moment in which I think people are trying to wrestle with history and the presence of history everywhere, the statues become this focal point. For a lot of people, this is a site in which to make the case that there are other histories to be told. There are other ways of narrating who we are as a city, or as a state, or as a nation.

- [Anne] But what's often lost in stories about contemporary protests is how much of this decolonizing project goes back to African thinkers, writers, and revolutionaries. To moments like that night in 1957 when Kwame Nkrumah announced Ghana's independence.

- [Adom] I want to go back to an earlier moment to help us think a little bit about this. There's this very important Pan-African Congress in 1945 in Manchester, leading lights of African nationalism and Pan-Africanism, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Amy Jacques Garvey, and others. At that meeting, they have a declaration to the world where they say, we want independence and equality. We want to create our own forms of beauty, our own standards of cultural identity. To give you one concrete example, one of the things Nkrumah does, the rise of higher education in Africa, happens in this period of decolonization. As part of that, Nkrumah insists there has to be an African studies program at the University of Ghana, and that the project of this Center for African Studies would be, one, to teach African languages and to generate a form of knowledge that centers Africa and the African experience, and think the world from the African context.

- [Anne] You know, Adom, what strikes me is how incredibly contemporary so much of that language seems. I mean, talking about cultural identity, about decentering European perspectives, about curriculum, these are all things we're arguing about now.

- [Adom] Yeah, I think that's exactly right. I mean, if you think back to the classic texts of anti-colonial thought, most people will have come across, for instance, Frantz Fanon's "Wretched of the Earth." If you think about figures like Leopold Singor, or Aime Cesaire, these are poet-politicians, right, who spend the 1920s and 30s founding a school of philosophy and thought called Negritude. So, this idea of unmooring oneself from attachment to or infatuation with Europe, with European modernity, trying to recover alternative traditions and ways of thinking about Africa, and the colonial world more generally, were really central parts of this project.

- [Anne] But what does that mean on a personal level, if you think, my mind is not decolonized? Is there an example?

- [Adom] I think it's a really tricky concept, right, in the sense that it's powerfully evocative of the psychic and psychological consequences of racism. But I have maybe one good example for you, which is Aime Cesaire writes this very important poem called "Notes of a Return to a Native Land." In it, he describes how coming to realize that he has inherited and internalized a sense of Black inferiority. When he looks at his native Martinique, everything he sees he finds ugly and inferior, right? The way he gets out of that in that poem is by learning to understand that all the things he associates with European modernity, San Francisco, New York, Paris, have actually been built by slave labor, right? It's his ancestors who created the modern world.

- [Anne] It's interesting, decolonizing the mind, this process of freeing yourself from internalized oppression, was originally described as a task for the formerly colonized or subjugated people. I mean, if I look at the U.S. right now, I think there's a very strong feeling that that mental work, that self-examination and reflection, really needs to be done by White people now. Do you also see that as part of the decolonization project?

- [Adom] Yeah, that's a great question. I actually just today was re-reading Toni Morrison's "Playing in the Dark," where she says at some point, you know, we often talk about racism's effects on Black people, but how about the ways it shows up in the psychic life of White people, right? And that's like the point of her book. I think this is also an emphasis, again, that Cesaire makes in a book called "Discourse on Colonialism," where he basically is like, Nazism, fascism in Europe is the effect and consequence of having brutalized the colonized world for all these centuries, right? That habituation to White supremacy generates these forms of pathology for the colonizer. He says, you know, every time a child is raped in Vietnam or a laborer is beaten in Africa and no one says anything, your kind of moral, and ethical compasses have been completely screwed up.

- [Anne] That's fascinating. And it seems to me, I mean, that seems to me is what we're talking about when we talk about decolonization, making that link between psychological formation and then political and economic consequences.

- [Anne] Yeah, and I would say it goes both ways. So, it's this gradual accrual of colonial practices over time that generates racist attitudes, right? Eric Williams says a similar thing in Capitalism and Slavery, he says, you know, slavery was not born of racism, racism was born of slavery.

- [Anne] Yeah, I'm really fascinated by what changes when you see contemporary movements, you know, like Black Lives Matter or I don't know, Standing Rock. What changes when you see those movements as part of an ongoing global decolonization movement?

- [Adom] I think one thing you very quickly understand is why the uprisings in the United States so quickly generated global solidarity protests. I think for a lot of people who may not be familiar with this longer history, it's hard to understand why the killing of one Black man in Minneapolis generated protests across the world. And so, for me, one way to understand that is to draw on this long history of how people have made connections that link their specific local contexts to global discourses about racism and colonialism. Another thing for me that that global resonance brings up is the ways that in particular African American struggle in the United States has always been so exemplary for people around the world. I think of the struggle for Black equality in America as really the quintessential David and Goliath story. It is the story of the most powerful nation in the world. And this minority group who has been constitutive of the country from the very beginning, but always in a perpetual struggle for equality and full citizenship.

- [Anne] In a nation that holds itself up as the very model of democratic equality.

- [Adom] Exactly, exactly. And I think there's something so resonant and exemplary about that struggle that has powerfully moved, so many people around the world.

- [Anne] Adom Getachew is a political theorist at the University of Chicago and author of "Worldmaking After Empire, The Rise, and Fall of Self-Determination."

- [Steve] We're talking this hour about decolonizing the mind, unpacking the legacy of colonialism.

- [Simon] Now, when I started learning how to read, my father taught me how to read. And the first primer he brought home was great because it said it starts with A is for apple. The only problem was, you know, there weren't apples in East Africa. So, I asked, what is this apple? He himself hadn't seen an apple, but he had seen it in books. So, he has to now translate and explain. So, what does it mean for us to assume that A is apple, you know, the casual assumptions? In order to imagine other people, we have to dis-imagine ourselves. So, the challenge of dis-imagining ourselves demands a certain kind of decolonization of our own sets of assumptions, a set of assumptions about what we think is Africa.

- [Anne] Simon Gikandi deconstructs the Western canon to reveal the shadow history of slavery. Next, I'm Anne Strainchamps.

- [Steve] And I'm Steve Paulson.

- [Anne] It's To the Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. We're talking about decolonization as a cultural practice, a process that draws on the kind of training you get in places we don't usually associate with revolution, English departments.

- [Steve] Sometimes it takes a literary scholar to unpack the hidden narratives and implicit assumptions left behind after centuries of colonialism. Princeton professor Simon Gikandi has spent decades studying what he calls the unconscious of books and paintings, the cultural artifacts of the past. He says you can't understand the rise of European culture, or for that matter, the formation of the modern world, without also knowing how European thinkers demonized Africans and the very idea of Blackness.

- [Anne] Gikandi was born in Kenya and grew up during the political upheaval of the post-colonial period. It was a time when many of the most outspoken pro-democracy activists were writers, and the University of Nairobi's English department was a site of struggle for freedom.

- [Simon] By the time I got to the university in the late 1970s, the government was beginning to become much more repressive, and the people who were kind of speaking up were writers. By the early 1980s, writers were being imprisoned, and once you're imprisoned, of course, it means that your books are not available in the public space.

- Right.

- [Simon] But writers were leading, as it were, the major debates about democracy and democratization and freedom and the failure of what was seen as decolonization itself.

- [Steve] What writers in particular are you referring to here?

- [Simon] In Kenya, I would say the major figure was Ngugi wa Thiong'o, who had come back to teach at the University of Nairobi and was very much involved with young students in terms of pushing for not only curriculum reforms, but in many cases, curricular reforms were also connected to questions about democracy and so on. But most African writers had developed a very powerful sense that literature was committed to political change and transformation. And I remember quite clearly, if you are interested in literature as I was, and you're leaving for the university, it was not unusual for your parents to tell you, I really am not very happy about what you're going to do, not because you're not going to get a job after getting a degree in literature, but because you're going to be associated with people who are considered to be revolutionary.

- [Steve] Wow! Now, I heard a story that you nearly got arrested in Kenya at one point when you were a student, I don't know, maybe a graduate student, there was a coup or an attempted coup or something like that and they were rounding up academics?

- [Simon] Oh yeah, what happened was after I left the University of Nairobi, I got a scholarship from the British Council to go and study at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. So, I finished my Masters of Letters degree, and I went back home to Kenya. And a day after I arrived, there was a coup attempt. They were arrested because the coup attempt failed. But then the government decided that actually the masterminds of this event were former students from the University of Nairobi. And so, the government kind of declared that anyone who had studied in the departments of literature, history, and law from 1974 to 1982 was implicated one way or the other. And most of the people arrested were my former classmates, my former professors. And at that point, of course, I felt I was threatened with arrest. I went back to visit my mother and I was kind of hiding in her house and they are going around arresting everyone who had ever been to the university during that period. And at that point, I managed to sneak out and I had already a visa to come to the US. So, I had a friend who worked for Air France who got me a ticket and that's how I left.

- [Steve] Wow!

- [Simon] It was not a pleasant time in my life because although I managed to get away, most of my former classmates were arrested and many of them spent many years. A few of them actually died in prison.

- [Steve] Just because they had been, they'd studied literature at the university.

- [Simon] Well, yeah, it was guilt by association. And the reason for it was by that time, one person who had escaped from the country was Ngugi wa Thiong'o, the novelist, the man around whom we kind of revolved. The government declared that he was behind most of the anti-government activities. He's a very distinguished writer. So, anyone who had been a student of Ngugi, or was associated with him was under suspicion. And we either ended up escaping, going abroad. If you could, you couldn't go back. I didn't go back to Kenya until the 1990s. I ended up doing my PhD at Northwestern.

- [Steve] So, I'm so interested and fascinated actually that you would go on and study English, English literature, British literature, you know, coming out of this background of colonialism when you must have seen what the English had done, you know, with empire, but yet this became your area of scholarship. [Simon] I would say that's the great story of my life, that I was born in the last years of colonialism. I was literally born in a colonial village. We call it the British Gulag in Kenya. My earliest memories were of British soldiers beating up people. And yet here I ended up being a scholar of Englishness, not only English, but also Englishness. So, how it happened has always fascinated me. The way it happened was, as I said, my father was a schoolmaster. And like most schoolmasters, he was involved in the nationalist movement, the anti-colonial movement. And one of the things that I found very strange was that he and his generation were strong advocates of English itself. In fact, most of my teachers, when I went to elementary school after independence had spent years in colonial detention camps. And yet, when I asked them, you know, why do you keep on insisting on English, they always said, well, the reason why we were fighting the British is because they were not giving us access to a lot of the things they had promised, modernity. And among those things was the English language. So, in 1948, a lot of the schoolteachers are voting against that because they thought that if students are not educated in English, they are not going to have access to this modernity and this global culture that British had promised.

- [Sreve] So, another great irony, I mean, to liberate themselves, they had to study English, the language of the oppressor.

- [Simon] Well, they needed to study the language of the oppressor. In fact, when finally, I went to the University of Nairobi, and I was looking for graduate schools to go to, initially, I wanted to go to a place where I could do African literature. But my department at the University of Nairobi quite clearly said, we don't want you to go to Europe or to the United States to study African literature because we can do that here. What we need you to do is to go to Britain and study English literature in Britain, so that you can understand precisely what the secrets of the British are.

- [Steve] So, I want to come back to this idea that at a certain point, you went and studied English literature. You went and studied the humanities. I mean, if you were African, because that was going to be how you learn the culture of Europe. I mean, it sounds like the idea was it was going to civilize you in some way to study the great European classics. And this was part of the whole colonial mindset, right?

- [Simon] It was a very powerful colonial idea. And I'll tell you why it was powerful. Because the British did not have universities in Africa, or the Caribbean until 1949. After the war, the colonial government decided that it needed to train a new class of local people, local elites, who could replace them and continue to do the work of civilization if you want.

- [Steve] And they had to believe in Englishness then.

- [Simon] Oh, and Englishness was at the center, quite powerfully. Englishness was the center of the idea of civilization, all the way from India to Australia to South Africa. The assumption always was that if you want colonial people to understand the colonizer, the key was, of course, the colonizer's language and culture. So, the idea was when you read Chaucer or read John Astin or Shakespeare, who was quite popular, you begin to understand the English mind. And so, if civilization is trying to turn you into a Black English person, then literature is the key to that kind of socialization.

- [Steve] And there is that famous quote from Saul Bellow who said, "Who was the Tolstoy of the Zulus, the Proust of the Papuans?"

- [Simon] Yes.

- [Steve] The idea that those civilizations, those cultures could never produce a great writer.

- [Simion] Yes, I'm old enough to remember that. So, in the 18th century, when the idea of culture is emerging as important and literature also is emerging as important, we begin to see for the first time, of course, European intellectuals beginning to argue for the distinctiveness of an enlightened European culture. And in order to make the argument that this European culture is modern and distinctive, you have to invent a culture that is going to be considered to be retrogressive, barbaric, and so on. And so, of course, the way the Europeans do it, the intellectuals, is to turn to the cultures of Papua New Guinea or the New World or Africa.

- [Steve] So, you're saying that, I mean, basically for European culture to take on its prominence, its dominance in the world, it had to demonize another culture that was considered primitive. And what was used often was African culture. So, it's almost like African culture then became the shadow side of this flourishing of European culture.

- [Simon] Well, that's a good way of putting it. In fact, that's one of the arguments I'm making in my recent work. I was asking myself, why is it that the period that gives us freedom is also that period of slavery? And the reason, of course, these two things go hand in hand is that in order for the European subject to be imagined as free, as civilized, as distinctively individual, you also have to give us examples of people who don't have those qualities. Every category that modernity has, whether it's individualism, whether it's the whole idea of progress or accumulation of wealth, and especially democracy, you have to kind of isolate a certain people and demonize them as not having those qualities.

- [Steve] You're saying that you cannot have modernism, the modern era of Europe, without slavery and the colonization of Africa. There's a direct connection between the two.

- [Simon] Oh, the powerful argument I think I'm making is that you cannot understand the emergence of modernity without understanding African slavery. The identity of Europe as modern is closely tied to slavery and the slave trade. One of the things that seems to happen in the 18th century, which I don't see a lot of in the 17th century, is the emergence of ratio taxonomies and ratio categories. So, in order for philosophers and writers to make the claim that the enlightenment is the pinnacle of human achievement, you also have to constantly tell us and imagine and in fact find case studies of people who are incapable of enlightenment.

- [Steve] And it's worth pointing out that some of the towering figures of the enlightenment, Immanuel Kant and David Hume, were out not racists. I mean, if you read some of what they said, I mean, they are very open about their belief in the inherent inferiority of Black Africans.

- [Simon] Oh, yes. It's not just the inferiority of the African. You can trace a whole line where we start with the Native American. The discovery of the new world means that the Native American becomes as it were the representation of the savage. Later, of course, as the Native populations are destroyed, you need someone to replace them. And the African, of course, enters that symbolic role. So, every time there are anxieties about these values, freedom, Europe itself and the idea of Europe, you have to always find someone who is going to be the antithesis of that ideal. So, the philosophers themselves are quite aware of it. Hume writing about Jamaica, Immanuel Kant writing about Blacks and Blackness, they themselves don't pretend that they are not racist. In fact, there is a way in which racism is the enabling condition of certain claims to enlightenment. That's my argument.

- [Steve] So, your project, in a sense, I mean, as a literary scholar, is to help us work through this decolonization, and there's this phrase, to decolonize the mind.

- Yes.

- What does that mean to you? Well, the first part, the decolonization of the mind, of course, is to decolonize those who've been taught to think in those colonial ways. My students sometimes are surprised to discover that racism was not always there.

- [Steve] Right.

- The fact that the idea of Europe itself is a very recent concept, that Africa is not invented until the 19th century. So, decolonization is kind of calling attention to the invention of categories. So, that's one part of it. The second part of it, which is what interests me as a literary scholar, I'm constantly engaged in a process of reading and rereading. So, I'm not trying to create new knowledge. What I'm trying to do, and this is where I have the skills of a literary scholar, is to discover the things that are usually unspoken in texts, the things which are put in footnotes, the things which are between the lines, the things which are repressed, the things which are symptomatic of something else.

- [Steve] So, give me an example of that, a classic English writer, let's say, who we would think has nothing to do with slavery or colonization, but actually, if we understood this history, we would have a better understanding of what that person wrote.

- [Simon] One is Jane Austen, of course. Everybody talks about Jane Austen as the writer of the domestic space, right?

- [Steve] Right.

- [Simon] But of course, what the post-colonial studies have shown is actually her own sensitivity to certain things that are happening in her world, which she doesn't always name directly. So, the most famous case is her novel Mansfield Park, where the crisis in the family takes place because the father has to go away to the Caribbean, to the island of Antigua, because he has been told that that business there is not going as well as he expected.

- [Steve] Which means he's basically going and checking on the plantation he has down there.

- [Simon] Oh, absolutely. And when he comes back, he tells us, yeah, things are now settled there.

- [Steve] The revolt has been put down, unstated.

- [Simon] Exactly, yes. Jane Austen, to be fair to her, is aware of those things because they are part of the fabric of social life. Slavery just hoovers there or enters what one may call the unconscious of the text.

- [Steve] So, I'm curious about what all of this means for you. I mean, you are a very prominent scholar at Princeton. You've spent your whole career basically teaching at Western universities. So, for you, what does it mean to be an African intellectual working primarily in the West, but also engaged in all of these cultural and political debates about Africa?

- [Simon] It has always, again, been a paradox because on one hand, I think I've done whatever I could to promote scholarship and knowledge on Africa in the United States and in Europe. But of course, what I realized at one point, I wasn't doing as much for scholarship in Africa. So, one of the things I've been doing recently is to actually begin to slowly shift my intellectual energies, especially towards trying to develop and help younger African scholars who are based in Africa. When I left, those of us who found ourselves abroad kind of said to ourselves, we are going to create an African academy in exile. But over time, it was an African academy which was losing touch with Africa because the geography does matter. If knowledge is being produced in Africa and becoming global, it's a knowledge which still retains its African connections. That was the case in the 1960s and 1970s. When knowledge about Africa is produced even by Africans in American institutions, it's always going to be extroverted. It's a knowledge which is about Africa, but not inside Africa.

- [Anne] That's Simon Gikandi. He's an English professor at Princeton and author of many books, including "Slavery and the Culture of Taste."

- [Steve] Next, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, the writer who radicalized a generation of African students and wrote the book on decolonizing the mind.

- [Ngugi] So, when I went to church to be baptized, I was given the name James. An African name like Ngoge, Kamau, Onyango, were not valid Christian names. So, I changed my name into the name that my mother and father gave me, which is Ngugi. Ngugi wa Thiong'o means Ngugi, son of Theomer, right?

- [Steve] I'm Steve Paulson.

- [Anne] And I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's to the best of our knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. And now a story about art and politics and how a writer came to be seen by the Kenyan government as one of his country's most dangerous people.

- [Steve] And how a remarkable act of defiance, writing a novel in prison on toilet paper became one of the defining events in modern African literature. We're talking about Ngugi wa Thiong'o, the Kenyan novelist, essayist, poet, and playwright. He's one of Africa's great men of letters, and his name comes up every year as a possible Nobel Prize winner.

- [Steve] In the late 70s, Ngugi wa Thiong'o was teaching at the University of Nairobi. He was also a prominent writer and critic of Kenyan authorities. On New Year's Eve, 1977, police busted into his home and hauled him away in the middle of the night. It was never entirely clear why he was arrested. No formal charges were ever brought, but to Ngugi, it was obvious what he'd done wrong. He'd written and staged a play, a very successful play, which slammed the ruling elites. But he'd done that before. The difference this time was that he wrote in his mother tongue Gikuyu, not English.

- [Ngugi] In Kenya, after independence, even before, English is the official language. But the majority of people don't actually speak English.

- [Steve] Yeah.

- [Ngugi] Every other community in Kenya have their own language. The language is actually spoken by the people.

- [Steve] So, tell me, why was this considered so threatening by the authorities, by the actual government of Kenya?

- [Ngugi] This is actually very, very important. The question you've just raised is a question I was asking myself in prison. What is this about language? Let me explain. I saw how one could colonize another. The first thing they do is always impose their language as the language of power.

- [Steve] Yeah.

- [Ngugi] So, they demonize the language of the colonized, and they glorify the language of the colonizer. It becomes the language of intelligence, of education, of intellectual exploration. And the opposite with African languages. They are good for speaking, but not good for ideas, not good for politics. The way I put it is this way. English becomes the language of glory. African languages become the language of glory, okay, yeah.

- [Steve] We should point out though, this is in the post-colonial era. The British had long been kicked out of power here. These were Kenyans running the country. Why did they need English to hold onto power?

- [Ngugi] Because the abnormalities of the colonial system became normalized.

- [Steve] Yeah.

- [Ngugi] And this continues to the present. Because the colony of the mind is harder to see. The colony of economy, of politics, power, is easier to see. But the colony of the mind is almost invisible. That's why it's so dangerous here.

- [Steve] What was hardest for you about that year of being a political prisoner?

- [Ngugi] Well, you know, you just imagine this. I was a professor of literature at the University of Nairobi. I am a writer. I'm used to having books around me all the time. So then you're put in a maximum security prison. You have no books around you, no radio, no newspapers, no pen, nothing. It's when I decided, no. How am I to survive in prison? I'm going to write a novel in prison, and I'm going to write it in Gikuyu in the language which was the basis of my incarceration. And they had never been, not only me, they had never been a novel, a modern novel in Gikuyu language.

- [Steve] So, I still don't understand how you could actually do this when you were under surveillance.

- [Simon] Yeah, well, it's actually quite simple. They don't tell you the reason why they imprisoned me, okay? But they want you to confess yourself. Some sins you have committed against the government, okay? So, if you say you're going to confess, they can give you some paper. Not a lot, but one or two sheets. But the key thing is they would also give you a pen. And it's a pen which I really needed, not paper. Because where would I get paper from? Toilet paper. And the toilet paper they gave us actually was not a usual softy, softy one. The ones we see on television these days is a bit hard. And I always joke that maybe it was meant to punish us prisoners. But believe it or not, it's a very good writing paper. It held the pen very, very well. Yeah, yeah.

- [Steve] It takes a lot of toilet paper to write a novel. As the pages accumulated and Ngugi had to figure out how to keep the guards from noticing his solution.

- [Ngugi] I would put it back as a bundle of toilet paper and cover it in such a way nothing was written on the top ones. And when you do it very carefully from the side, you cannot tell whether there's anything in between. You'd think it was a bundle of toilet paper unused, okay?

- [Steve] Yeah.

- [Ngugi] Except that one day there was a raid. They did actually come in my cell. And they show this bundle of toilet paper almost reaching the roof, you know? And now the question came. We were only allowed two bundles of toilet paper per person. How did they come to accumulate so many?

- [Steve] The guards confiscated his mountain of TP and handed the whole thing over to the police commissioner who read it or tried to, but decided it was worthless and gave it back. The book he wrote would become a modern classic. A novel told through the eyes of a young woman from rural Kenya, which was also a biting critique of Western capitalism in Africa. But it wasn't just the story that was political dynamite. It was the language he wrote it in. And Ngugi was released from prison shortly after that when a new president came to power. But his troubles weren't over.

- [Ngugi] When the publisher tried to publish in Gikuyu.

- [Steve] In English, it's called "Devil on the Cross."

- [Ngugi] He, and his name is Henry Chakava. He was a week before the publication of the novel. He was attacked. One of his fingers was chopped off as he was defending himself.

- Oh, my God.

- [Ngugi] One of his fingers was chopped off. But he went ahead and published the novel.

- [Steve] A year later, and Ngugi was forced into exile when he learned of a government plot to eliminate him. In England, he wrote a second novel, also in Gikuyu, called "Matigari." This one is about a mysterious, possibly superhuman hero on a quest for truth and justice in a land ruled by corruption and fear. And judging from their reaction, Kenyan authorities hated this novel even more than the last one.

- [Ngugi] The government sent people to arrest "Matigari" because they thought he was a real living person, okay?

- [Steve] Wait, they were trying to arrest a character in the novel?

- Yeah, yeah, yeah. But they found it was a novel, you know. But anyway, they banned the novel in Kenya.

- [Steve] Over the next decade, Ngugi would continue to investigate these questions of language and power under colonial rule. In 1986, he came out with his landmark book, "Decolonizing the Mind."

- [Ngugi] At the heart of Decolonizing the Mind, they had looked at the centrality of the language question in all colonial enterprises. Africa, Australia, America, New Zealand, Ireland. The languages of the colonized were demonized. Children were punished. In the ink colonies in America, African languages were banned, literally, among the enslaved. And any co-speaking African languages, some of them were actually executed. That's how important the language question was to the colonizer, okay? The same thing happened to native American languages, to Maori languages. Australia, the same thing.

- [Steve] So, to come back to that phrase, decolonizing the mind, do you think that still is mainly about language, or is that about other things too?

- [Ngugi] But it's connected. Take the question of a job today in Kenya or in Africa. If you know English language, you've got an advantage in terms of jobs, whether you can become a professor or not. It's the language spoken in parliament. So, for me, this struggle for languages, this struggle for recovery of the soul of Africa, that is the phrase we use in America today, right, yeah?

- [Steve] In exile, Ngugi was living the life of an itinerant academic, moving from one distinguished visiting professorship to another. When the Moi dictatorship ended, Ngugi and his wife figured it would finally be safe to visit Kenya again. So, after 22 years in exile, they went back in 2004, but it was still too soon. You were attacked by gunmen in your hotel.

- [Ngugi] Yes, that's true. We were attacked. My wife was sexually assaulted and my face is burnt with cigarettes. In one of the best hotels in Kenya, with the police station was around the corner.

- [Steve] So, this was all sanctioned. I mean, the authorities allowed this, or maybe even ordered it to happen.

- [Ngugi] Yeah, obviously. It could not have been done without some sections of the authority at least being part of it, yeah. I was going to launch the publication of a novel I wrote in exile in Gikuyu, called "Wizard of the Crow" in English, okay? What I'm trying to say is that in every instance so far of my publishing a novel in Chikuyu, something happened to me or to my publisher, or in this case, to me and my wife, right?

- Yeah.

- Yeah.

- [Steve] Now, obviously a great deal has changed since your book, "Decolonizing the Mind" came out in 1986. And for one thing, we've seen a number of high-profile novels written by African women, younger women, especially over the last decade. And most of them are in English. I guess I'm wondering whether you see that as a problem and what that means in terms of decolonizing the mind today.

- Yeah.

- [Steve] Does that mean something different now?

- [Ngugi] No, no, no, it's still a problem. Remember this way. Yeah, you are right. It's phenomenal what's coming out of Africa by young men, young women, incredible novels. And it's great. The problem is just like our generation, they are writing in English or French.

- [Steve] So, do you wish that some of these younger writers were writing in their native language rather than in English?

- [Ngugi] There is a problem. There are no, hardly any publishers for African writing. If a young person who is beginning to write and just wants to write and get published, it's easier for her or him to get an English language publisher. So, all government policies, publishing practices are stuck against African languages.

- [Steve] It's not as if you were objecting to people writing in English. What you're objecting to is if English is the only language. Yeah, I'm glad you raised that question because people think that I'm somehow against English language. And I keep reminding people, I am, please, I am professor of English, I'm not against English, but I'm against hierarchy of languages. There's no language who is more of a language than any other.

- [Steve] Yeah, I have one final question. You've mentioned that you have now lived in the United States for many years, and you've been teaching at the University of California, Irvine for a number of years. Have you ever thought about moving back to Kenya during these years? And I'm wondering if you feel like you've been missing anything because you've been living in this country rather than back in Kenya.

- [Ngugi] Oh yes, I miss being in a place where the core language is spoken daily. You know, I miss that really. I do go back, and I remember it was two or three years ago when the current president, Uhuru Kenyatta, received me and my family in the state house. His father had sent me to state prison. His son received me in state house. So, I'm very grateful. But I don't give up on Kenya or Africa. I honestly, once I retire, I want to go back to the country, yeah.

- [Anne] Ngugi wa Thiong'o is 83 years old. He's still teaching at the University of California at Irvine, and he's still writing. He's got a new novel out, an epic inverse based on the origin myth of the Gikuyu people. The English language version is called "The Perfect Nine," and it's getting rave reviews. Today's show is part of our series, Ideas from Africa, a partnership with the Consortium of Humanity Centers and Institutes. I'm Ann Strain-Champs.

- [Steve] And I'm Steve Paulson. This hour was produced by To the Best of Our Knowledge with help from Craig Ely.

- [Anne] Sound design and engineering by Brad Kohlberg. Special thanks to Sean Jacobs and Bojma Tucker at Africa is a Country.

- [Anne] And to Sarah Guyer, Guillaume Rattell, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

- [Steve] To hear more Ideas from Africa, visit us online at

- [Anne] To the Best of Our Knowledge comes to you from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Last modified: 
March 08, 2024