Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: Anyone Living in a Colonial Society Can Relate to Black Lives Matter

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, author of Decolonising the Mind, is one of the most important African intellectuals writing about the politics of post-colonialism today. He told Jacobin how the colonial legacy in Kenya shaped his politics — and why language remains a decisive political battleground.

Renowned Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o reads excerpts from his work, 2019. (Shawn Miller / Library of Congress)

Interview by
Arjun Chaturvedi

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is one of the most important African intellectuals writing about the politics of colonialism and post-colonialism in the twenty-first century. His book Decolonising the Mind (1986) was prescient in alerting scholars and activists to the importance of interpreting the links between race, culture, and language in order to understand imperialism in postcolonial Africa — and its implications for the wider world.

Arjun Chaturvedi met with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o to discuss the relationship of his writings to the politics of today’s Black Lives Matter movement. In this interview, he connects his experiences of racism and violence in Kenya to his political and literary work — and the civil strife unfolding today. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.


Your work spans a number of genres — from novels and theater to postcolonial theory. What inspires you to write across such different genres?


I grew up listening to stories, and then reading stories, and then I wanted to tell stories and writing helped me do that. Fiction is my real love. I wrote my first novel called Weep Not, Child and second novel The River Between as an undergraduate at Makerere University. I believe writing those books and plays while at college also helped me in my other intellectual pursuits. So, the novel, storytelling, and writing have been my passions.

But I also indulged in theater. As you know, I was put in prison by the Kenyan government from 1977–78 because of my involvement in community theater in Kenya. I helped write a play called I Will Marry When I Want in English translation, but I wrote it in the Gikuyu language. You can say that my first love is fiction, but theater had the most impact on my life because theater sent me to a maximum-security prison.

And it was in prison that I made the decision that now I would start writing in my mother tongue — my first three novels and plays were written in English. After being put in prison for having written a play in my mother tongue, I decided not to write fiction and plays and poetry in English anymore. The first novel that I wrote in my mother tongue is called, in English, Devil on the Cross.


Can you say more about the politics of language in Kenya?


Let me explain. In Kenya, we have many African languages, I think about forty languages altogether — meaning the different peoples of Kenya have their own mother tongues, including, by the way, a large Kenyan-Asian community. We also have Asian languages. But the dominant language, the official language in Kenya was and still is English. It is the language of power. It is a minority language, meaning that although it is spoken across Kenya, it is a language spoken by 10–15 percent of the Kenyan population. The rest speak their mother tongues or Kiswahili. So, people speak three languages in Kenya: one mother tongue, then Kiswahili, then English.


How did your writing change when you shifted from English to Gikuyu?


That was important. Why did I decide to write in Gikuyu first of all? As I told you earlier, I made that decision after I was arrested and imprisoned by an African government for writing in an African language — and that struck me as being very odd! I asked myself: How is it possible that I can write fairly political works in English and nothing happens to me, but the moment I write a similar thing in my mother tongue, I am put in prison?

That’s when I started thinking about the politics of language in a colonial process, not only in Kenya, but also in India, in Europe, in America, all over the world. I started thinking about it: How did they come to be? In my cell — number sixteen — I decided fiction for me will now be written in my mother tongue, drama as well, poetry as well.

I can tell you that since 1978, all my novels, plays, and poetry have been composed in Gikuyu. The only texts I write in English are either academic stuff or memoirs. It was a very important turning point for me, that decision to write in an African language, because it created a connection with my Kenyan environment. It was a moment of my own enlightenment. It was a moment of personal liberation intellectually, emotionally, psychologically — everything.


In addition to your fiction, you’ve written more theoretical works. I am thinking here particularly of Decolonising the Mind. Could you say more about how these ideas of decolonization relate to the current Black Lives Matter movement?


That is a complicated one, but not so complicated because I grew up in a white-dominated Kenya. Kenya from 1885 to 1963 was a white settler colony. Structures of relationships were based on racial hierarchies of power, with a white minority at the top, followed by the Asian community in the middle, and the African community at the bottom.

In my memoir, I’ve talked about going to school, and even then the trains were segregated. There was an equivalent of first class, which was for whites only, and it was written there: “For whites only.” Then, second class was for Asians only. The third class was for Africans, but they didn’t even use the word “only” since it was understood that third class was for Black Africans.

I grew up under that system where blacks, no matter their social status, were always second-class or third-class vis-à-vis the whites at the top. In some ways, I can understand and relate to the whole notion of Black Lives Matter. I’m just saying that generally when you say “Black Lives Matter,” it doesn’t mean that other lives don’t matter. White lives have always mattered to the legal system.

But I am also interested in the whole idea of decolonization of colonial memories. By this I mean deconstruction. We need to understand that every system which has gone through a colonial system in the past — whether it be America, Australia, Canada, Africa, or Asia — they need to go through the decolonization of the mind. It is very, very important that people realize that the colonial system can affect almost everybody but in different ways.

If you look at the monuments, they celebrate our history. Some of those monuments celebrate the history of slavery or they celebrate those who gained from slavery or those who gained from oppression. This can affect what we think is normal. Abnormality can be turned into normality. We need to say no, no, no, no! It is not normal that black people can be arrested and be killed even when they’re saying, “I cannot breathe.” It’s not normal — we should never ever accept such acts as normal.


Is this a form of decolonization?


Decolonizing the mind to me is very important. I’m glad that what I wrote about in 1984, it is now becoming a general cry in the world — decolonizing the mind and decolonizing institutions. I have another book published under the title Something Torn and New. In this book, I talk about the politics of memory, that when people colonize a place, they try to plant the new memory and bury the older memory of the place.

Let us take the example of New York. Before the Europeans settled in New York, there were other people who lived there, Native Americans. They had a name for that place, but when the Dutch came, they said, “Oh no, no, no, it should be called New Amsterdam.” But when the English came over, they said, “No, no, no, it’s not New Amsterdam and it is not whatever it was before, it is now New York.” The new name buries the memory associated with the old names.

Even statues and other things, it is very important to realize that they carry memory and they are burying the older memory of place. I’m glad that the whole question of decolonizing the mind and decolonizing institutions is now being discussed all over the world.


The ideas behind Black Lives Matter have a long history in critiques of racism. How has this history influenced your writings?


I think it’s in Dreams in a Time of War where I describe the day I hear news that I have passed my exams and am going to high school. On that day, I also happened to encounter British Army soldiers on patrol. I was hit on my face by a British soldier, and I fell down. I couldn’t react physically. You feel a rage within, but there was nothing I could do about it. He was armed to the teeth, and he had other soldiers with him as well. I had just passed my exams from primary to high school, and I was waiting to hear the results.

So, I remember that blow to this day because I felt tears, but I told myself that I cannot cry. I forced myself not to cry, and the more I didn’t cry the more furious he became. Anybody who is living in colonial society can and should be able to relate to Black Lives Matter.