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Native Language Is a Continuation of Ourselves

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Undressing the quote “Thus language and literature language and literature were taking us further and further from ourselves to other selves, from our worlds to other worlds” – Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. This essay will unpack and offer my view. In the context of imperialism language is not apolitical but can function as a tool to oppress the colonised group. The Blacks therefore play around with language to reconstruct their own identity. Language is to be stretched and distorted. The colonised rejecting the concept of language and culture of the dominant white helps the Black people reformulate their identity. Local language that is usually seen as a medium to bind the members of a community becomes a tool to spread hatred.

The language used by the colonizer is apparently meant to spread love and good sentiment. But words such as love have no meaning for the colonised group who is further entrapped in the imperial net by the coloniser’s language. Ngugi propagated the idea that language is an extension of ourselves and that the increased normality of English and the literature it introduced ‘ were taking us further and further from ourselves to other selves, from our worlds to other worlds”.

If the White man’s domination through slavery was the human body, colonialism was about claiming and seizing land from the natives, then the use of languages that weren’t African was about the cultural subjugation and the internal manifestation of the values of the colonizer’s power and enforcement. What Ngugi is doing with the repetition of saying his language is Gikuyu is imprinting it into the readers brain to not forget it, remembered it. He speaks about when the adults spoke the children would listen and tell the other children the next day and that is how stories went about, but they used their mother tongue when passing the story on. This too is how language identity was created, speaking your own language among your own people creates a sort of home like feeling inside, reminds you of where you came from and who you are. The children telling the stories and then carrying those stories on until they’re older forms a sense of continuity and firmness to the language, making it stick ‘Language was the means of the spiritual subjugation ‘(Ngugi Wa Thiong’o: 1986:12).

“Thus language and literature language and literature were taking us further and further” (Ngugi Wa Thiong’o: 1986:12) the language being specifically referred to here is English. There were mirrors that the colonized were told to look to find out about who they truly were, as they made their way to everlasting fame and fortune within the circumscribed parameters of the British Empire. Such colonial education makes Ngugi particularly agitated. Its language was an international attempt to silence him, deprive him of his own language, identity, and reward him for speaking in another. As he puts it ‘ The attitude to English was the opposite: any achievement in spoken or written English was highly rewarded… English became the main determinant of a child’s progress up the ladder of formal education… Orature in Kenyan languages stopped… Thus language and literature were taking us further and further from ourselves to other selves, from our worlds to other worlds ‘(Ngugi Wa Thiong’o: 1986:12), he conceives the institutionalization of English as the language of communication in Africa as a steady substitution of a colonial subjectivity for the native self. He argues that this alienation emerges in the context of the colonial education in two interlinked modalities.

Gikuyu as a language, was his key to the world: it unlocked meaning in the world for him; through Gikuyu he could read, understand, communicate with, relate to, foster relationships and develop a sense of his location in the world. Gikuyu, was in all essence, ‘WHO HE ACTUALLY WAS’. This was his tool for realising his self-worth, his role and function in the world; it was the tool for making him feel ‘real’ like a true African! Now if that ‘tool’ was taken away and replaced with the language of the oppressor: English there were definite advantages and disadvantages to learning English well. It wasn’t really a choice since the consequences for not learning English were severe and what we have in Ngugi’s story, is a Ngugi who actually learnt English and learnt it well, thereby gathering up all the rewards and accolades that goes with this. And this is what Ngugi is reflecting on years later he is trying to reassess the types of damage that the colonial system, through its use of English, inflicted on him as an African, who was ‘forced’ to give up his mother tongue, his link to his African world.

Ngugi describes the languages brought to Africa by colonizers as a ‘cultural bomb’. This metaphor entails that those languages cause major destruction. They destroy one’s heritage, collective identity and of course, their sense of culture. A cultural bomb is when one is alienated from culture, when a society culture taking over another one. A ‘bomb’ is an exceptionally ruinous and profoundly perilous weapon – it truly demolishes and executes anything and anybody inside its impact radius. So, when Ngugi utilizes the term ‘bomb’ close by the term ‘cultural’, he is demonstrating the devastation and obliteration of a specific gathering of individuals’ lifestyle. One’s mind definitely plays a part in their identity, otherwise Ngugi would not suggest ‘decolonizing’ your mind in order to recover your ‘true identity.’ Ngugi is categorically contending that this was no idle power ploy but one designed to rob the next generation of its speech, its orality, its accustomed customs.

Thus African, Indian, Caribbean children would share the same predicament. Remodelled in the name of the White Father, they could do little to lay claim to the indigenous matrilineality of their societies. Homi Bhabha makes the equally telling point of the Bible in English being pedalled by missionaries in India as God’s word. In world where many African languages seem threatened with extinction, and English has become almost ubiquitous across the continent one can not help but wonder about Ngugi’s declaration in Decolonizing the mind, when he wrote, ‘it is the final triumph of a system of domination when the dominated start singing its virtues'( Ngugi, 1986). Ngugi opposing English, his decolonizing his mental headspace by what the colonizers have implemented in them. ‘These classes need to use considerably more solidly the weapons of the battle contained in their societies. They need to communicate in the unified language of battle contained in each of their languages.’ (Ngugi, 50-51).

The past proclamation shows how he believes that the best way to battle, is through your own language. Ngugi being compelled to communicate in English he was re-socialised, to new standards about his language. As indicated by (Little, 2013:141) Socialization is the means by which we get familiar with the standards and convictions of our general public we experience socialisation by interacting with one another and learning from each other. Therefore, African people lost their authentic African traditions by adopting the values and lifestyle of the colonisers through the process of resocialisation. Resocialisation meaning that, the values and way of life that were useful to them before having been replaced with the values of the colonisers. This means that they have created a new identity for themselves that fits in with the colonisers, prior to the Authentic African one they had before.

This process was achieved through agents of socialisation such as family, community and the Gikuyu language. The Gikuyu language functioned as a means of communication but also as a carrier of culture. For Ngugi’s situation, he was not associated to communicate in English, however constrained through techniques for disciplines. Ngugi was brought to accept that through the procedure of resocialization, he would not have any utilization of African language, as he is offered to examine and compose his work in English. By compelling resocialization on Ngugi, it caused him to understand that one ought not need to be embarrassed about your language however grasp it.

We see a stark contrast between the ‘Our’ and the ‘other’. It becomes apparent that Ngugi holds an essentialist view of identity and sees the world in terms of the binaries of Us and Them. This created boarders a there was an ‘excessive use of English’ but also a forceful imposition of English on the Gikuyu people it created a border the statement shares 2 forms of distancing according to Ngugi, one is a distancing from one’s innate identity that one was born with. The second is a distancing from his Gikuyu community (our world) to the Western community (other worlds). As a result of Ngugi adopting English in his early childhood, his African identity and heritage was uprooted. He is being uprooted from his sense of self and his own people.

He also seems to suggest that once the distancing happens, there is a sense of loss of an identity and a culture (our world) which would be difficult to reclaim Ngugi does try though by writing in an African language. There is a gradual progression of the distancing – it gets worse It is a ‘cultural bomb’. The cultural bomb, as much as it was gradual, was also forceful. People were not given options and would be punished for using their mother tongue in schools. That would explain why Ngugi feels a sense of loss and the erasure of his traditional views and practices through the colonial system.

As defined by (Woodward,2004) “structure are the forces beyond our control which shape our identities”. The language we use can very often influence our identities and the way we see the world and English as a universal language can be understood as a structure. The effects of the boundary-crossing on identity this colonial system of knowledge creates a space and a system where we are logically trapped into defining ourselves as other people. The colonised other is not simply born out of the representational violence in European literature, but also produced within the colonial system of education, where the colonised others herself/himself. So, one may be distancing oneself from one’s world, but one is never quite a full member of the other world. The assimilation is not aimed at creating equality, but rather creating subservience. Colonialism seeks to reduce the self-confidence in the colonised by offering the language and the world of supposedly, superior people. Making the colonised suffer from a sense of inferiority forms of the psychological basis of colonialism. Colonialism works as long as the colonised is convinced that the coloniser is superior, even if he may be an exploitative figure.

The issue of boundaries must be viewed as something with powerful abilities to ‘construct worlds & realities’, boundaries not only constructs what’s on the inside, it also constructs what’s on the outside. Boundaries thus also separate the world we live in, into different spaces. So there’s the world of ‘home’ the world of ‘school’. ‘how are the boundaries between identities preserved?’ – Ngugi points to Apartheid within the SA context as a very powerful structure used to enforce difference. Apartheid as a social structure, was formed in a pyramid shape, with the white elite, in other words those who had access to all the resources and wealth of the country, at the top; and the black majority, those who were the most marginalised and who were denied access to resources (schooling, health care, skilled jobs etc) were placed at the bottom.

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