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“Writing in African Languages: A question for our times” by Mukoma Wa Ngugi

“Writing in African Languages: A question for our times” by Mukoma Wa Ngugi


“Repeat after me. The red lorry went round the red bend,” one of my elder brothers turned English pronunciation teacher would say to me.

“The led rolly went lound the led bend,” I would attempt.

“Try again, repeat after me – The red lorry went round the red bend.”

“The led rorry went lound the led bend.”

“Okay try this – She sells sea shells at the sea shore,” my brother, would move on, bemused I like to think now.

“See shells she cells at the she sore,” I would fail once again.

I don’t remember at what age the practice finally paid off and I could say, ‘She sells sea shell at the sea shore’ and ‘the red lorry went round the red bend’ without making a mistake – what we termed, ‘shrubbing’. We used shrubbing to describe those who mixed their L and R, and mishmashed their “S” sounds. We made fun of ‘shrubbers’ without mercy. There were no adults to defend shrubbers, or to ask us why it mattered so much how one pronounced words in a language that was not our mother tongue. No one bothered to ask what African language we spoke and applaud us if we spoke it well. All languages have word play and tongue twisters but I doubt any have a high a premium as the one we put on English.

I was working against the grain of my mother tongue; the Gikuyu language does not have the ‘L’ and ‘S’ consonants. By running interference in my English pronunciation, it had become a problem language. As teenagers, shrubbers, no matter how handsome or beautiful, had difficulty finding someone to date them.

In a post-colonial but not yet decolonized Kenya, English was all around us – the president addressed the nation in English, the two major newspapers were in English, and most of the programs on TV were in English. The legal system was in English, with black judges and lawyers wearing blonde wigs, just like their British counterparts. The books we read were all in English. English was what mattered.

At Tigoni Primary School, every morning, we stood outside our classrooms and a teacher would inspect us for cleanliness – shorts and dresses were to be ironed, hair short and combed if you were a boy, and neatly braided if you were a girl. Fingernails were expected to be short and clean, black shoes polished and socks pulled up and neatly held in place by rubber bands. One could be punished or sent home for being untidily dressed. And from the moment we set foot in the school compound, only proper English was allowed. To be found speaking your language was punishable by caning and wearing a sign, “I am an Ass” all day.

With some of my friends, I formed a clandestine Gikuyu-speaking group, not so much because we advocated for African language rights, but because it was the language that came naturally to us, and it was another law to be broken. Kiswahili was taught, but as just another subject – no other Kenyan languages were taught. In school, all my classmates had English first names disguised as Christian names – James, Jane, Timothy and so on. It was the normal thing and I, who went only by my Gikuyu names, Mukoma Wa Ngugi, was seen as an outlier, because statistically I was. And even now, some Kenyans still express surprise that I do not have a Christian or English name. I was lucky, or not so lucky depending on who was asking me about my lack of an English name, that my father had from an early age seen the abnormality of baptizing African children English names. He himself had changed his own name from James Ngugi to Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, and also started writing fiction in Gikuyu.

Whereas for me I could get a fix of Gikuyu at home, some children grew up speaking only English at home. I know many Kenyans now my age who have lived in Kenya all their lives speaking only English – and not just any English, proper standard English, and if they went to an international school to boot, with a slightly British accent. We are talking about the 1970s and 1980s, ten to twenty years after independence – decolonization meant colonial education only this time by black African teachers.

Why was it that somewhere in a village school in Limuru, Kenya two decades after independence, it mattered more how well we spoke than what we said? This was the linguistic inheritance from our decolonized parents. The Makerere generation had gone through the same violent deculturization and language shaming. In the essay, “Recovering the Original” my father writes:
Speaking African languages in the school compound was a crime. If a student caught another speaking an African language, he would pass a token called a monitor to the culprit, who would carry it around his neck till he caught another speaking the forbidden tongues; he would pass the dreaded thing to the new culprit, and so on – children spying on one another, all day, or even tricking each other into speaking the leprous language. The one with the monitor at the end of the day was the sinner and would be punished. The above recipient of whiplashes had been a sinner for so many weeks that it looked as if he was deliberately defying the ban on Gikuyu. The teachers were determined to use him as an example to teach others a lesson. (13)

What does it mean that generations coming after continued to record similar experiences of language trauma? What does it mean to a literary tradition to have several generations who identify their languages with shame, wrong doing, and fear?

My father’s language awakening did not happen until after his Makerere generation had already cemented the idea of African writing, Pan-African writing that is, ought to be in English. By then it had become the norm for his generation to propagate English and Englishness, and bring up children in English language-only households. Within the logic of this inherited history, it was not strange that a foreign language could matter so much that it would affect my dating life and social standing in a small village town called Limuru in Kenya. The language question for me, as a converted and saved shrubber through the herculean efforts of my devoted elder brothers, is also very personal and psychologically violent.

Today, like most linguists, I start from the position that all languages are created equal. That is in the same way there are no superior and inferior human beings and all human beings are equal before the law, there are no superior and inferior languages. The language with a billion speakers and that with one hundred are equal. And I believe that African governments have a duty to African languages. Putting resources into African languages is the most culturally significant Pan-African act African governments can do.

But we, writers, critics, readers and publishers can still do what we can. For example, Lizzy Attree the Caine Prize Director (working in her personal capacity on this) and I founded The Mabati Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African literature in 2014. The first three years are being primarily funded by the Kenya based Mabati Rolling Mills supported by a substantial contribution from The Office of the Vice Provost for International Affairs at Cornell University. The Africana Studies Center at Cornell is providing the administrative support. The total proposed awards of 15,000 US dollars will be awarded to both poetry and fiction winners and to the second and third winners. East African Educational Publishers will publish the winning fiction entry in Kiswahili. And the best poetry book will be translated and published by the Africa Poetry Book Fund. The prize is a work in a progress and it needs more money, and more institutional support, and most importantly goodwill.

Instead of making arguments for the English language that is doing very well, it is time we invested our talents, imagination, time and money in our languages. English is not going anywhere, but our languages are. African languages can do into the dustbins of memories and histories lost, or into a confident future where they stand side by side with other languages, be it Hausa, Russian, French or English. That choice is ours to make. Now!

  • A shorter version of this essay appeared in the Standard Newspaper, 22 Nov 2014

Mukoma Wa Ngugi (@MukomaWaNgugi) is an Assistant Professor of English at Cornell University and the author Mrs. Shaw, Black Star Nairobi, Nairobi Heat and the forthcoming poetry collection, Logotherapy.

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