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Thought piece on International Roundtable: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Yongho Kim
INTL245 Introduction to Human Rights
October 20, 2003

Thought piece on International Roundtable: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Ngugi asserts in his paper, When the Margin Becomes the Center: African Identities in a Global Context, that political and economic remedies are not enough in addressing the internal problems in African societies, and that linguistic and ethnic approaches should be emphasized.

First, he explains that ethnic boundaries shared among nations may be used to consolidate unity and fraternity; the Maasai people link Kenya with Tanzania, while Somali people link Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia. Following a similar spirit of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, he encourages cooperation, not competition, among African states.

Second, Ngugi claims that a fostered development of the native languages can be true source of empowerment for the African people and culture. The basic premise here is that the current “national” languages, most notably French, English and Portuguese, are a heritage of the colonial domination of Europe in Africa and that Africa can never extricate itself from the shadows of colonialism if the language of every day and scholarly use itself is not replaced with autochthonous languages.
Ngugi’s main argument is his second one, and it is interesting because of its resemblance to issue raised in the Minorities Schools in Albania case, with the difference that the ruling government is not a foreign one but one from the main ethnic group in the nation itself. A better parallel may be whether the Czech Republic should adopt the german language because (hypothetically) it is already under the influence and monopolist dominance of Germany – which is not similar enough because of the unprecedented scale of European pre- and post-colonial influence in Africa.

He acknowledges that the enormous amount of languages being used in local form in Kenya alone may make the implementation of this change of mind difficult, but he also calls for hope since there are already several languages used in regionally, such as Kiswahili in Eastern Africa. Parker attacks this weakness further, first pointing out that the distinction between “European” or “Foreign” and “African” is rather thin, since for instance Kiswahili is the result of extensive commercial and political exchange with the Arab world and thus may be equally regarded as a colonial language. Furthermore, she recognizes the problem of establishing one official local language, since it may override other minority languages in lieu of the dominant ethnic group (Gikuyu in the case of Kenya, the group to which Ngugi belongs).
Will minority regimes be an option for Kenya? In such diversely mixed societies as the Kenyan ones, determining one official language becomes a delicate issue. Should “native” British populations (who lived in Kenya for more than a hundred years) be allowed to establish their own English schools? Will students from such English schools hold more influence than, say, a students from a Luo language school? Ngugi has already declared that he will only write in the Gikuyu languages, putting his words into practice. Hesbon, a Kisii co-worker at my workplace expressed concern that such influential writers as Ngugi should not confine themselves into one ethnic language, since by doing so he is privileging only one group. He is concerned that the literate Kisii population, barely comprising five hundred people, will never get access to a written material besides the bible. Ngugi’s reply is that this is precisely the reason why writing in local languages should be encouraged, so that the available written material will increase, thereby encouraging the increase of the literate population. (Arguably, a number of people do not learn the language simply because there is nothing to read in it.) Can the gradual process of linguistic extinction be reversed, as Ngugi argues?

Even if we agree on the main conceptual tenets, implementation becomes another concern. Moore points out that European languages are already the de facto languages in Africa and elsewhere in the world, and that efforts should be placed to localize the language and use it as a tool in fighting back the cultural and economic domination of Europe. Does the use of European languages constitute a violation of Article 2 of the ICESCR, namely, that language, among other elements, should not constitute a basis for discrimination? Does language equal culture, or can language be re-appropriated by the oppressed people? During the closing lunch with professor Ngugi, a Macalester student from the Kiisi group expressed his need for these ideas to be implemented at the government level. “He should be one of those people closely advising the new president”, he said. I disagree; the state will be all the more likely to fall into violations of cultural and social rights by enforcing a specific form of cultural ideology into public schools and (possibly) government offices. I believe that if these initiatives should take place, it should be a gradual process, flexible enough to modify its aims and means by consensus and public input in the nation.

These are challenges that arise in addressing Ngugi’s proposal. I hope that with the ongoing discussion will further conceptualize and clarify the issue of language in previously colonized countries, since this is not an issue that concerns solely Kenya, or Africa, but a growing number of states that are falling into an international minority in terms of economic and cultural power.

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