Decolonizing the Mind

Woman in profile

A photo from the from the "Black Is" Project. Oladimeji Odunsi (CC0)

Listen nowDownload file
Embed player
Original Air Date: 
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 📻
Full Transcript 📄

Anne Strainchamps (00:00):

It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge, I'm Anne Strainchamps.

Steve Paulson (00:03):

And I'm Steve Paulson.

Anne Strainchamps (00:05):

And we want to start today by going back.

Steve Paulson (00:08):

To March 6, 1957, midnight.

Kwame Nkrumah (00:13):

[foreign language].

Anne Strainchamps (00:15):

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 Nkrumah (00:25):

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 Paulson (00:55):

As the crowd watches, the British Union Jack is lowered forever.

Anne Strainchamps (01:00):

And looking out over the throng of people, is a man who's traveled all the way from the US to witness the moment, Martin Luther King Jr..

Martin Luther King Jr (01:10):

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."

Kwame Nkrumah (01:39):


Martin Luther King Jr (01:40):


Kwame Nkrumah (01:41):


Martin Luther King Jr (01:41):


Crowd (01:41):


Kwame Nkrumah (01:41):


Crowd (01:41):


Steve Paulson (01:44):

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 Strainchamps (01:53):

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 Getachew (02:03):

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 Strainchamps (02:18):

Adom Getachew is a political theorist at the University of Chicago.

Adom Getachew (02:21):

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 Strainchamps (02:33):

Three years later, in 1960, 17 African nations declared their independence. It became known as the year of Africa.

Steve Paulson (02:41):

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 African.

Kwame Nkrumah (02:52):

One cardinal fight 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 Getachew (03:09):

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

Anne Strainchamps (03:21):

And for civil rights leaders in the US, the decolonization of Africa looked like a sign of things to come.

Martin Luther King Jr (03:28):

Ghana tells us that the fortunes of the universe are on the side 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 Paulson (03:49):

But the project of decolonization doesn't end when countries get their independence, that's just the beginning.

Anne Strainchamps (03:55):

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 Paulson (04:13):

So how do you undo that? How do you unlearn what you've been forced to learn?

Anne Strainchamps (04:19):

You're listening to episode three of Ideas From Africa: Decolonizing the Mind.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o (04:25):

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 Strainchamps (04:38):

Kenyan writer, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, more about him later. But so why talk about all this today?

Steve Paulson (04:44):

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 Strainchamps (05:05):

But with ideas this big, this abstract, this unseen, where do you start?

Steve Paulson (05:12):

One place is with the things you can see; symbols, monuments.

Anne Strainchamps (05:16):

And, of course, statues.

Adom Getachew (05:19):

This started in part in South Africa with the #RhodesMustFall movement. Rhodes is Cecil Rhodes. Many might know him from the Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University.

Anne Strainchamps (05:32):

This is Adom Getachew again.

Adom Getachew (05:34):

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.

Crowd (05:52):

Rhodes must fall. Rhodes must fall. Rhodes Must fall. Rhodes must fall. Rhodes must fall.

Adom Getachew (05:56):

I think we should remember that the removal of statues has always been part of political protests 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 Strainchamps (06:44):

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 Getachew (07:00):

I want to go back to an earlier moment to help us think about this. There is 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." And to give you one concrete example, one of the things Nkrumah does, you know, the rise of higher education in Africa happens in this period of decolonization and 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 Strainchamps (08:09):

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

Adom Getachew (08:28):

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 Léopold Senghor or Aimé Césaire, these are poet-politicians who spent 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 Strainchamps (09:19):

But what does that mean on a personal level if you think my mind is not decolonized? I mean, is there an example?

Adom Getachew (09:27):

I think it is a really tricky concept 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 Aimé Césaire 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. 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 Strainchamps (10:23):

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. If I look at the US right now, I think there is 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 Getachew (10:51):

Yeah, that's a great question. I actually just today was rereading Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark where she says at some point we often talk about racism's effects on black people but how about the way it shows up in the psychic life of white people, right? And that's the point of her book. I think this is also an emphasis, again, that Césaire makes in a book called Discourse on Colonialism where he basically is like Nazism and fascism in Europe is the effect and consequence of having brutalized the colonized world for all these centuries. That habituation to white supremacy generates these forms of pathology for the colonizer. He says, 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 Strainchamps (11:52):

That's fascinating. 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.

Adom Getachew (12:05):

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

Anne Strainchamps (12:26):

Yeah, I'm really fascinated by what changes, when you see contemporary movements, 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 Getachew (12:48):

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 context to global discourses about racism and colonialism.

Adom Getachew (13:30):

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 for citizenship.

Anne Strainchamps (14:04):

In a nation that holds itself up as the very model of democratic equality.

Adom Getachew (14:10):

Exactly. Exactly. And I think there is something so resonant and exemplary about that struggle that has powerfully moved so many people around the world.

Anne Strainchamps (14:21):

Adom Getachew is a political theorist at the University of Chicago and the author of Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination.

Steve Paulson (14:32):

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

Simon Gikandi (14:37):

You know, 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 starts with A is for apple. The only problem was 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, the casual assumptions? In order to imagine other people, we have to disimagine ourselves. So the challenge of disimagining ourselves demands a certain kind of decolonization of our own sets of assumptions. A set of assumptions about what we think is Africa.

Anne Strainchamps (15:44):

Simon Gikandi deconstructs the Western canon to reveal the shadow history of slavery, next. I'm Anne Strainchamps.

Steve Paulson (15:52):

And I'm Steve Paulson.

Anne Strainchamps (15:53):

It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (16:03):

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 Paulson (16:14):

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, the very idea of blackness.

Anne Strainchamps (16:44):

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 Gikandi (16:59):

By the time I got to 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 1980s, writers were being imprisoned, and once you are imprisoned, of course, it means that your books are not available in the public space. 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 Paulson (17:31):

What writers in particular are you referring to, here?

Simon Gikandi (17:34):

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, curriculum reforms were also connected to questions about democracy and so on. So 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 were interested in literature as I was and you're leaving for university, it was not unusual for your parents to tell you, "I really am not 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 revolutionaries.

Steve Paulson (18:20):

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 Gikandi (18:32):

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 all 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.

Simon Gikandi (19:06):

And so the government 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 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. 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 Paulson (20:05):

Just because they had studied literature at the university?

Simon Gikandi (20:09):

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. And the government declared that he was behind most of the anti-government activities. He is 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 Paulson (20:49):

So I'm so interested and fascinated, actually, that you would go on and study English, English literature, British literature, coming out of this background of colonialism when you must have seen what the English had done with empire but yet this became your area of scholarship.

Simon Gikandi (21:10):

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 called 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.

Simon Gikandi (21:41):

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 why do you keep on insisting on English they always said, "Well, the reason why we are 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 school teachers are revolting 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 the British had promised.

Steve Paulson (22:39):

So another great irony, to liberate themselves, they had to study English, the language of the oppressor.

Simon Gikandi (22:45):

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 Paulson (23:23):

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 if you were African because that was going to be how you learned 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 Gikandi (23:54):

It was a really 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 Paulson (24:19):

And they had to believe in Englishness, then?

Simon Gikandi (24:21):

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 Jane Austen 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 Paulson (24:59):

Yeah, and there is that famous quote from Saul Bellow who said, "Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus, the Proust of the Papuans?" The idea that those civilizations, those cultures could never produce a great writer.

Simon Gikandi (25:12):

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 Paulson (25:54):

So you're saying that 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 Gikandi (26:15):

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 the 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 Paulson (27:07):

You're saying that you cannot have modernism, the modern era of Europe without slavery and the colonization of Africa, there is a direct connection between the two?

Simon Gikandi (27:17):

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 racial taxonomies and racial 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 Paulson (28:08):

And it's worth pointing out that some of the towering figures of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant and David Hume, were out and out racists. I mean, if you read some of what they said, they are very open about their belief in the inherent inferiority of black Africans.

Simon Gikandi (28:23):

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 and, in fact, there is a way in which racism is the enabling condition of certain claims to enlightenment. That's my argument.

Steve Paulson (29:26):

So your project, in a sense, as a literary scholar is to help us work through this decolonization and there is this phrase: To "decolonize the mind." What does that mean to you?

Simon Gikandi (29:39):

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, 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 am 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 Paulson (30:39):

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 Gikandi (30:55):

One is Jane Austen, of course. Everybody talks about Jane Austen as the writer of the domestic space, right? But, of course, what postcolonial 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 a family takes place because the father has to go away to the Caribbean, to the land of Antigua because he has been told that that business there is not going as well as he expected. Now-

Steve Paulson (31:35):

Which means he is basically going and checking on the plantation he has down there?

Simon Gikandi (31:38):

Oh, absolutely. And when he comes back he tells us, "Yeah, things are now settled there." You see?

Steve Paulson (31:45):

The revolt has been put down, unstated.

Simon Gikandi (31:48):

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 hovers there or enters what one may call the unconscious of the text.

Steve Paulson (32:01):

So I'm curious about what all 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 Gikandi (32:22):

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.

Simon Gikandi (33:02):

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 Strainchamps (33:46):

That's Simon Gikandi. He is an English professor at Princeton and author of many books, including Slavery and the Culture of Taste.

Steve Paulson (33:55):

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

Ngugi wa Thiong’o (34:03):

So when I went to church to be baptized, I was given the name James. An African name like Ngugi, [Kamau 00:34:11] or [Nyango 00:34:13] 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 Thiong'o.

Steve Paulson (34:33):

I'm Steve Paulson.

Anne Strainchamps (34:34):

And I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (34:48):

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 Paulson (34:56):

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.

Anne Strainchamps (35:06):

We're talking about Ngugi wa Thiong'o, the Kenyan novelist, essayist, poet and playwright. He is one of Africa's great men of letters and his name comes up every year as a possible Nobel Prize winner.

Steve Paulson (35:19):

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 wa Thiong’o (36:00):

In Kenya, after independence, even before, English is the official language, but the majority of people don't actually speak English. Every other community in Kenya has their own language, the language is actually spoken by the people.

Steve Paulson (36:15):

So tell me, why was this considered so threatening by the authorities, by the actual government of Kenya.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o (36:20):

This is actually very, very important. The question you have just raised is a question I was asking myself in prison. What is this about language? Let me explain. I saw how one to have colonized another, the first thing they do is always impose their language as the language of power. 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 opposite with African languages. They are good for speaking but not good for ideas, not good for politics. The way I've put it is this way, English becomes the language of glory, African languages become the languages of gory, okay?

Steve Paulson (37:25):

We should point out, though, this is in the postcolonial era. The British had long been kicked out of power here. These were Kenyans running the country. Why did they need English to hold on to power?

Ngugi wa Thiong’o (37:37):

Because the abnormalities of the colonial system became normalized. 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.

Steve Paulson (38:14):

What was hardest for you about that year of being a political prisoner?

Ngugi wa Thiong’o (38:22):

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 are 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 am 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 there had never been... not only me, there had never been a modern novel in Gikuyu language.

Steve Paulson (39:07):

So I still don't understand how you could actually do this when you were under surveillance.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o (39:11):

Yeah, well, it's actually quite simple. They don't tell you the reason they imprisoned me but they want you to confess yourself, some sins you have committed against government. So if you say you are 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 soft one, the ones we see on television these days. It's 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 a pen very, very well.

Steve Paulson (40:17):

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 wa Thiong’o (40:27):

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 looked at it carefully from the side, you cannot tell where there is anything in between, you'd think it was a bundle of toilet paper, unused, okay? Except that one day there was a raid. They did actually come to my cell and they saw this bundle of toilet paper almost reaching the roof, and now the question came. We were only allowed two bundles of toilet paper per person. How had I come to accumulate so many?

Steve Paulson (41:16):

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. Ngugi was released from prison shortly after that when a new president came to power but his troubles weren't over.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o (41:51):

When the publisher tried to publish Caitaani Mutharaba-ini in Gikuyu-

Steve Paulson (41:57):

In English, it's called Devil on the Cross.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o (42:00):

... he, his name is Henry Chakava, a week before the publication of the novel, he was attacked. One of his fingers was chopped off as he was defending himself. One of his fingers was chopped off but he went ahead and published the novel.

Steve Paulson (42:18):

A year later, Ngugi was forced into exile when he learnt 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 wa Thiong’o (42:42):

The government sent people to arrest Matigari because they thought he was a real living person.

Steve Paulson (42:52):

Wait, they were trying to arrest a character in the novel?

Ngugi wa Thiong’o (42:55):

Yeah, yeah, yeah, but they found he was a nobody. But anyway, they banned the novel in Kenya.

Steve Paulson (43:13):

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, Decolonising the Mind.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o (43:23):

At the heart of Decolonising the Mind, I 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 English colonies in America, African languages were banned, literally, among the enslaved. And any caught speaking African languages, some were actually executed. That's how important the language question was to the colonizer. The same thing happened to native American languages, to Maori languages, Australia the same thing.

Steve Paulson (44:24):

So to come back to that phrase, decolonizing the mind, do you think that still is mainly about language or does it... Is that about other things too?

Ngugi wa Thiong’o (44:33):

No, 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, the struggle for languages is struggle for recovery of the soul of Africa, to use a phrase which we use in America today.

Steve Paulson (45:01):

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.

Steve Paulson (45:21):

You were attacked by gunmen inside your hotel.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o (45:24):

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

Steve Paulson (45:37):

So this was all sanctioned, I mean, the authorities allowed this or maybe even ordered this to happen.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o (45:43):

Yeah, obviously. It could not have been done without some sections of the authority, at least, being part of it. I was going to launch the publication of a novel I wrote in exile in Gikuyu called Wizard of the Crow in English. What I want to say that in every incident so far of my publishing a novel in Gikuyu, something happened to me or to my publisher or, in this case, to me and my wife.

Steve Paulson (46:28):

Now obviously, a great deal has changed since your book Decolonising 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, does that mean something different now?

Ngugi wa Thiong’o (46:54):

No, no, no, it's still a problem. Let me put it this way. 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 Paulson (47:18):

So do you wish that some of these young writers were writing in their native language rather than in English?

Ngugi wa Thiong’o (47:25):

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 stacked against African languages-

Steve Paulson (47:51):

It's not as if you are objecting to people writing in English, what you're objecting to is if English is the only language.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o (47:57):

Yeah, I'm glad you raise that question because people think that I'm somehow against English language and I keep reminding people, please I am professor of English of the... I am not against English but I'm against hierarchy of languages. There is no language which is more of a language than any other.

Steve Paulson (48:22):

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 wa Thiong’o (48:44):

Oh yes, I miss being in a place where Gikuyu language is spoken daily. 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.

Anne Strainchamps (49:39):

Ngugi wa Thiong'o is 83 years old. He's still teaching at the University of California at Irvine and he is still writing. He's got a new novel out, an epic in verse, based on the origins of the Gikuyu people. The English language version is called The Perfect Nine and it's getting rave reviews.

Anne Strainchamps (50:08):

Today's show is part of our series, Ideas from Africa, a partnership with the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes. I'm Anne Strainchamps.

Steve Paulson (50:17):

And I'm Steve Paulson. This hour was produced by To The Best Of Our Knowledge with help from Craig Eley.

Anne Strainchamps (50:22):

Sound, design and engineering by Brad Kolberg.

Steve Paulson (50:25):

Special thanks to Sean Jacobs and Boima Tucker at Africa is a Country.

Anne Strainchamps (50:30):

And to Sara Guyer, Guillaume Ratel and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Steve Paulson (50:35):

To hear more ideas from Africa, visit us online at

Anne Strainchamps (50:41):

To The Best Of Our Knowledge comes to you from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Speaker 10 (50:44):


Last modified: 
April 16, 2021