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Ngugi at 80: What do we learn? A seminar on Selected Essays

Literature plays a significant role in socio-economic and political arenas. It is a powerful tool that connects people from around the world. Writers try to reflect the voice of people through various genres. But the view point in which the literary work is presented matters. How should writers address their people and in what language? Ng?g? wa Thiong’o, a renowned Kenyan writer, advocates the empowerment of African languages through literary works.

What Ngugi tries to share with African intellectuals and writers is that writers in African languages should arm people with knowledge, equip them with wisdom and enlighten them through their literary works.

The advocacy of Ngugi is that the power of African languages will be more meaningful once the African writers use their indigenous languages as a medium of their writings to reach their target audiences. Colonial languages should not be considered the norm in African literature. The focus needs to be on African languages. African culture is full of wisdom and has its own unique characteristics and the central ideas presented there can be well reflected though indigenous languages.

In 1986 Ngugi decided to write only in his native language and Kiswahili and made this bold statement: “Fare well to English… for any of my writings.”

During his visit to Eritrea in 1998 for a big conference “Against all Odds” that was later held in 2000 focusing on African Languages and Literature, he learned that Eritreans never gave up writing in their languages and, thus, their poetry still thrives.

Recognizing the role of literature in the history, culture and struggle of the Eritrean people, the Research and Documentation Center organized a seminar titled “Ngugi at 80: What do we learn?” on 18 July 2018. The main objective of the seminar was to shed light on the central role of literature in nation building and to pay tribute to the renowned African writer and to analyze and learn from his critical literary works. The workshop also focused on Ngugi’s relationship with Eritrea.

In the seminar that was held at Expo G3 Hall, Dr. Charles Cantalupo, a Professor of literature at Pennsylvania State University, gave a narrative about Ngugi’s literary achievements in various genres and his firm stance on African writings in African languages.

Prof. Cantalupo, who has been giving a lecture and seminar series in Eritrea since 2002, said that Ngugi’s writings today are well accepted by publishers because the ideas presented are admired by a number of readers from around the world.

Ms. Rahel Asghedom, a literature professor and writer, gave a presentation on Ngugi’s Essays titled “Moving the Center: Towards a Pluralism of Cultures.”

What is reflected in this essay is that we should not view the globe by taking Europe as a center. The center from which we look at the world should take into account the pluralism of cultures and views. Echoing and imitating others should be avoided and what appeals to the African continent should be determined after thorough and careful comprehension of Africa.

Citing reflections of European imperialism in the writings of Joseph Conrad and voices of the oppressed in George Lamming’s writings, Ngugi tries to draw a comparison as regards the center of the view when he writes:

“Conrad always made me un easy with his inability to see any possibility or redemption arriving from the energy of the oppressed. He wrote from the center of the empire. The experience of the empire was central to his novels. George Lamming, unlike Conrad, wrote very clearly from the other side of the empire, from the side of those who were crying out.”

Dr. Halima Mohammed, from the Ministry of Education, presented on Ngugi’s essay “The Language of African literature” under a subtitle “Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African literature.” She stated that Ngugi’s adherence to the significance of African languages in promoting African literature stems from his participation at “A Conference of African Writers of English Expression”.

The essay shows that while writing in colonial languages the writer simultaneously promotes the culture of the colonizers merely to gain a wider acclaim. That is why Ngugi says literature could not be seen without context. While using colonial languages in the African context, most of the time, the culture is also imbedded within the language in which the literary work is produced. A n g l o – p h o n e African writers, for instance, define themselves in the language of the colonizers not through their native languages.

The concept presented in the essay is that a deeply rooted notion that African writers can make a difference through writing in English rather than their local languages has negatively affected the development of African languages. African writers see English as a unifying language and they opt to use it in their literary works and, thus, African languages were undermined. African writers have enriched the English language and other colonial languages. “The language of school was no more the language of the culture.” The attitude to English was much higher than the interest in local languages.

Ngugi is of the idea that foreign languages should be taken as a temporary necessity. African writers believe that African literature can be revived through colonial languages. African writers in English language were qualified merely due to language preference. Other works of African writers were excluded or marginalized because they were written in African languages. Despite all these, African languages refused to die for they were kept alive by the peasants.

One of Ngugi’s essays presented by Mr. Tesfaldet Ghebrehiwet, who has written elementary school English text books, was titled “Allegory of the Cave`: Language, democracy and A New World Order.”

This essay takes its foundation in Plato’s theory of knowledge and education. It allegorically presents a dark cave and chained people, fire and sun light, shadow of objects, and people who escaped from the cave. They represent the state of humans, which is full of ignorance, philosophical truth and knowledge, the authority of today – information providers exemplified as the government, religious leaders, teachers, the media, and the philosophers who seek knowledge outside the cave and outside the senses respectively.

The essay tells the creation of three different interpreters. The first Interpreter is a foreign agent and messenger (one way go between – the reformed African – Macaulay Man), the second interpreter is a double agent and the third interpreter a people`s scout and guide. The essay calls for the increment and dominance of the third interpreter.

The essay comparatively shows Plato`s ideas from the Republic and Armah`s points from `The beautiful once are not yet born`. It says that there was none or less imaginative literature produced in the African continent. The literary work `The beautiful once are not yet born` a novel by a Ghanaian author, Ayi Kwei Armah, which deals with the social instability in the 1960s shows the inability of the characters to comprehend the enormity of the existing corruption, perplexed intellectual. In “The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born“ we see the cave dwellers choosing the eternal darkness and this is due to cynicism and withdrawal (being not compelled to face the fact) of the intellectual who immediately sees the blinding beauty, eagerly returns to the cave and shares what he sees. He then is rejected and gives up and thus concludes the darkness is Impenetrable.

Whereas in “The Republic” the incorruptible true philosophers – though not yet born, the possibility of such characters being born is shown. We see the intellectual who has escaped from the cave going through various stages before he looks at the fullness of the sun. The intellectual shares what he has and is rejected by the cave dwellers. Reluctant to return to the cave, he is compelled to return to share his new vision and examine opposing ideas.

The essay tells readers how colonialism has affected the African languages and cultures rendering them as subhuman status. To do this and to open doors for slavery and slave trade through linguistic engineering assimilation was opted as a tool.

This resulted in the rise of two nations within the same territory where the dominant minorities are speakers of European languages and the colonized majorities are speakers of the indigenous languages to whom the light of sun or the truth was hidden and denied.

It was concluded that the intellectuals who constitute the third category are still a tiny minority in practice and influence. In other words the “Beautiful Ones” have to be born. The emergence of the third category of intellectual interpreter will lead to dominance in the life of Africa and creation of democratic state. The role of the third category of intellectual interpreter is to scout in foreign linguistic territories and take whatever is the most advanced in those languages and cultures and translate those ideas into their own languages.

What Ngugi tries to reflect in this essay is that the intellectual should return to the grassroots after acquiring knowledge.

Yonas Ghebrehiwet, MA in Public Policy and Management from the Eritrean Center for Organizational Excellence, presented on one of Ngugi’s works “Privatize or be Damned: African Globalization and Capitalist Fundamentalism.”
This essay claims that capitalist fundamentalism has eclipsed the fundamental principles of Africans. A notion that the west is the only guardian has dominated contemporary societies.

It raises various issues as regards the role of Africa’s elites. According to the essay, the role of the middle class is multi faceted. During slavery the middle class acted as mediators, later as revolutionary fighters against slavery and then as collaborators and accomplices of colonizers

The elites are referred to as people with black skin and white masks. Knowledge is not shared but confined on the intellectuals who studied in foreign languages. Hence, states have become replicas of former European colonizers. They have become collaborators of the idea that states “privatize or perish.”


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