“To control a people’s culture is to control their tools of self-definition”
Ngugi wa Thiong’o (1938-) is a contemporary writer and cultural activist who calls for resistance to the domination of Western imperialism in Africa and elsewhere.
Influenced by Frantz Fanon, he has emphasised the crucial cultural aspect of the way the capitalist empire oppresses and controls populations.
Ngugi wrote in his 1986 book Decolonising the Mind: “The real aim of colonialism was to control the people’s wealth: what they produced, how they produced it, and how it was distributed; to control, in other words, the entire realm of the language of real life.
“Colonialism imposed its control of the social production of wealth through military conquest and subsequent political dictatorship.
“But its most important area of domination was the mental universe of the colonised, the control, through culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world.
“Economic and political control can never be complete or effective without mental control. To control a people’s culture is to control their tools of self-definition in relationship to others”. (1)
Ngugi explains that language is part of the authentic organic culture that imperialist power has to crush in order to impose its centralised system.
Decolonising the Mind was his last book in English and his official renunciation of the coloniser’s language: thereafter he chose to express himself in his native Gikuyu.
He wrote: “Values are the basis of people’s identity, their sense of particularity as members of the human race.
“All this is carried by language. Language as culture is the collective memory bank of a people’s experience in history. Culture is almost indistinguishable from the language that makes possible its genesis, growth, banking, articulation and indeed its transmission from one generation to the next”. (2)
In a 2018 interview he pointed to the way that the transatlantic slave trade sought to disempower uprooted people by cutting them off from their cultural identity.
He said: “Remember that the first thing that happened to African people was forced loss of language and names.
“The resistance of African American people is one of the greatest stories of resistance in history. Because against all those arduous conditions they were able to create a new linguistic system out of which emerges spirituals, jazz, hip-hop, and many other things.
“Resistance is the best way of keeping alive. It can take even the smallest form of saying no to injustice. If you really think you’re right, you stick to your beliefs, and they help you to survive”. (3)
Ngugi follows the organic radical tradition in stressing the importance of authentic, grass-roots socio-cultural self-expression within the larger framework of an internationalist humanism.
He told an audience in South Africa in 2017: “If you know all the languages of the world but not your mother tongue, that is enslavement. Knowing your mother tongue and all other languages too is empowerment”. (4)
Video link: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o Interview: Memories of Who We Are (18 mins)
1. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (London; James Currey, 1986), p. 16.
2. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind, p. 15.