Review: Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, 1986


In a revolutionary study Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o takes native Africans on a journey of “Decolonising the mind”; in his study, he explores various aspects of language to venture through how and why language oppresses ‘native’ Africans. He explores what Karl Marx once called the ‘language of real life’, “the element basic to the whole notion of language, its origins and development” (p.13). This is what gives native tongues integrity and honour; there is a history of rich culture which, by simply being used, unrelentingly keeps African pride alive. Another aspect of language speech which imitates the “language of real life” (p.13). However, when that communication is deemed irrelevant for ‘progression’ speaking the native tongue often becomes a source of shame. Finally, a third aspect is written signs. The written word imitates the spoken” (p.14), it allows ideas and creativity to surpass direct contact onto a wider audience/ readership.As the African Diaspora internalises the sensationalised images of ‘freedom’, it is becoming evident that the current generation of Africans are heavily influenced by Western culture. For Wa Thiong’o, language is a powerful tool that can help native Africans break from Western influences.Linguistic oppression has stunted the progress decolonisation should have led to. In South Africa, for example, the Black elite control the narrative of a ‘new’ and ‘free’ South Africa simply because they can speak and write in their colonial tongues. They were/can read philosophers of decolonisation like Fanon, Garvey and other great African thinkers. It is because of their colonial tongues that populations have been able to survive and thrive under Western structures.Unlike in America, throughout Africa de-colonial books like ‘Black Skin, White Masks,’ ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’, and several others are not readily available. When searching for translations of such renowned novels the word ‘missing’ pops up. What does this mean for the current and future African children? In nations, such as South Africa, the majority of Black people don’t speak Dutch or English, yet the majority of books are written in these languages.If the translations of decolonial texts are ‘missing’ from those who speak their native tongues, is their grasp of true freedom dead?What then is the solution? Translation.Translation is a voice that is silenced in every respect, however, in relation to Africa, it is the bridge that needs to be rebuilt to for Africans to achieve true decolonisation. If most Africans had access to decolonial literature would revolution have been different? Would we have seen innovative ways of gaining freedom? We will never know the answer until we change the system; and it is up to us, to find those missing voices.

Featured image | Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o (signing autographs in London) | wikimedia commonsThe views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.Do you find this topic interesting? Why not contribute to our blog?