In September 2020, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Kenyan writer, anti-colonial activist, and “language warrior,” was awarded the Catalonia Literature Prize in recognition of the bravery of his work in the face of repression and his stalwart support of African languages. His acceptance speech, given in his mother tongue Gikuyu, was heartfelt and rousing in equal measure. He accepted the award “on behalf of all those who fight for linguistic justice and the unity of the peoples of the world.” In the flurry of reactions that Professor Ngũgĩ’s award has produced, it is worthwhile to think critically about what the struggle for these goals must entail.
The decision to address the international audience in Gikuyu was always going to raise eyebrows, especially across the East African commentariat. One piece argued that he should have spoken in Swahili, another East African language in which Professor Ngũgĩ is fluent, and which has a much broader base of speakers. This is a stupendous exercise in missing the point: Professor Ngũgĩ has risked his career and, arguably, his personal freedom to express himself in Gikuyu, and this speech, featuring a moving tribute to his own mother in his mother tongue, was another lesson in Gikuyu oratory from the master himself. A majority of reactions, both formally published as well as in the comments sections, were positive. Professor Ngũgĩ’s acceptance speech was “stunning,” even “wizardly.”
Most compelling of all, however, were the pieces which, inspired by this moment in Catalonia, reflected on the loss of African languages, their link with identity, and their role in forging decolonial futures. Linguists will recognize these issues and their interconnectedness. African languages represent fully one-third of the seven thousand or so human languages spoken on earth, and over half of these are in danger of no longer being spoken by this century’s end. On a continent in which culture is largely transmitted orally, African languages are vital to the continuity of valued histories and lifeways. Intimately tied with the practices of speaker communities, the use of African languages promises bold and endlessly diverse ways of seeing, engaging with, and building the world. Unfortunately, in trying to articulate these ideas, each of these think pieces ends up turning their fire on speakers themselves. To be clear: Professor Ngũgĩ’s “linguistic famine” is real. But, similar to how farmers are never to blame in an agricultural famine, language shift and language endangerment are driven by larger systems outside of most speakers’ direct control.
Take, for example, the ridiculing of Kenyans for “mangled American accent[s].” How people speak is a cumulative result of their life experiences, (dis)advantages, and identities. For many, these influences include being forced to conform to Eurocentric institutions at home or migrating to centers of colonialism. Blaming a speaker returning from America for a cringey “put-on” accent is only further engaging in deeply colonial attitudes of linguistic superiority that led to the abandonment of local languages in the first place.
Equally problematic is placing the task of language learning at the feet of parents without first critically examining how the home environment has been transmogrified by neoliberal forces. As some of my work has noted, many parents are aware of their role as traditional educators, but by the time they are done working all day to provide for their families (especially costs associated with modern schooling), they are often too exhausted to take on pedagogical activities such as songs, riddling, and storytelling. Expecting parents to return to their traditional roles as teachers is impossible without simultaneously demanding an end to these wider systems of exploitation.
In Catalonia, Professor Ngũgĩ asserted that “we live in a world built on systems of hierarchies, where very often the splendor of a few is built on the misery of others; a world where billions in the hands of the few have been earned at the expense of billions of the poor.” In rejecting old hierarchies (both linguistic and otherwise), new ones cannot be reimposed: Gikuyu, Swahili, affectated English—all are languages. In addressing the issues of language endangerment and language change, we must recognize that it is the most oppressed who are most vulnerable to the market forces which encourage the shift to more widely spoken languages. Resultantly, no solution will come when the larger systemic issues of oppression are out of sight.
Instead, to join in Professor Ngũgĩ’s “fight for linguistic justice and the unity of the peoples of the world” is to engage in radical action: unsettling the comprador class engaged in maintaining the status quo (the “police boots,” “gowned clergy,” and “state intellectuals” Professor Ngũgĩ writes about) and identifying with figures of resistance (“the working people” and “patriotic students and intellectuals” defending the “worker roots of national cultures”). The image of Professor Ngũgĩ sitting with local participants of the Kamĩrĩĩthũ Community Education and Cultural Centre—in the shadow of the exploitative Canadian multinational Bata shoe factory where many were employed—and bringing his play Ngaahika Ndeenda to life in the local idiom is a potent one. Not debasing speakers of the languages that emerged in the chaos of the colony, but lifting up the speakers of languages that have been disadvantaged. Not seeing linguistic justice as a struggle unto itself, but recognizing that the fight for linguistic justice and the fight for social justice—Professor Ngũgĩ’s “unity of the peoples of the world”—are one and the same.