Explain how the British as colonizers of Kenya sought to achieve dominance by 1/ devaluing native speech, dance, art, and traditions and 2/ promoting the worth of everything British, including the speaking of English. How does changing the language a people are allowed to speak change the way they perceive themselves and their relationship to those around them? Which of the examples Thiong’o gives, in your opinion, most clearly reveals the extent to which speaking English was rewarded? (“Decolonising the Mind” by Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o)
In this essay, I will present an overview of how the colonizers imposed their language on the Kenyan natives, and in doing so, the created conditions of ideological domination which justified, maintained and perpetuated their rule over and the colonial control of Kenya. In the first part of the essay, I will argue how the British devalued the Native language and how they sought to replace it with their own language. Lastly, referring to the examples mentioned in the earlier parts, I will elaborate Thiong’o ‘s views about the link between the use of language and the formation of people’s worldviews.
Firstly, the British devalued the native speech and local culture by making it punishable and looked down upon. For instance, the author mentions how after the state of emergency in Kenya in 1952, the language of teaching was changed from Gikuyu to English. This change was strictly enforced and heavily imposed. The author mentions how speaking Gikuyu became something to be avoided. Not only did it cause emotional strain and embarrassment but also carried physical punishments. For instance, the author writes, ‘one of the most humiliating experiences was to be caught speaking Gikuyu in the vicinity to the school. The culprit was given corporal punishment- three to five strokes on the bare buttocks- or was made to carry a metal plate around the neck with inscriptions such as I am Stupid or I am Donkey” (Thiong’o, 398). Here, one can see that by an inappropriate exposure of one’s body parts and demeaning punishments, the speakers of Gikuyu were made to feel shame and isolation publicly in front of other students, and they were conditioned to associate their mother tongue as a lower language, which did not belong in school- a hub of civilization and knowledge. Furthermore, since Gikuyu was Kenyan’s mother tongue in which they communicated about and formed a worldview of their daily life, by pushing Gikuyu to a lower level than English, the colonizers delegitimized the communication about native customs, dances and other traditions. Here, it is interesting to note that Gikuyu (Kikuyu) is not merely the name of the language indigenous to Kenya, it also represents and symbolizes the very markers of the identity of the people who speak it. For instance, it has been discovered that “the word Kikuyu refers to the language spoken by Kikuyu people” (Danver, 48) and Gikuyu (Kikuyu) was not only the name of the people who spoke it but it also refers to their ‘ancestor, ‘a man named Gikuyu’ (Danver, 48). Similarly, Gikuyu people are an agrarian community and animals hold a pivotal place in their traditional beliefs (Danver, 48). Thus, one can argue here that the British by devaluing the Gikuyu language and making it punishable, robbed the Kenyan people of their sense of identity and their cultural and historical legacy.
Secondly,it can be argued the British tried to devalue local traditions by creating an environment of silence around them which would let the Kenyans forget about their cultural heritage. For instance, as the author argues, the Kenyan children’s world was full of imagination of their own cultural myths and stories, which prominently featured animals as main characters. By replacing Gikuyu with English, the colonizers also tried to erase the Kenyan children’s association with their folklore, cosmology and native belief systems. It can be argued so since the Kenyan children were exclusively trained in European literature and their minds were filled with imaginations of European culture and ways of looking at the world. This conscious and highly invasive replacement of Gikuyu education with a European curriculum had an erosive effect. The children now were no longer connected to their ancient roots and beliefs and their understanding of their own world, traditions and culture became foreign to them. The English world of literature came to dominate the minds of young Kenyans, and they were selectively and deliberately lead to a forgetfulness in cherishing and exploring their own cultural heritage- which was communicated to them and made accessible to their minds by their own mother tongue. Here, the authors explain how doing such a thing led to the belief that Kenyan life and culture was something to be ashamed of and something which should be replaced by an English and a European counterpart. The author explains that the devaluation of native life and customs came about when the students were made to think in English- a corollary of making English the exclusive language of teaching and learning. By reading literature in other languages and by reading other subjects such as History, Geography, and Music the imaginations of children were shifted onto a Eurocentric perspective of looking at the world.
Thus, by making knowledge accessible in a foreign language and teaching about phenomenon and issues foreign to the Kenyans, the colonizers delegitimized and undermines the primacy and importance of focusing on one’s own culture, rituals and worldviews. Thus, in this way the native traditions and their importance was devalued by creating an environment where silence about the local culture was held as perfectly ok and respectable. Thus, by deliberately distracting the Kenyan children’s minds from thinking about and communicating about their own native ideas and culture, a taboo was created, which further justified and perpetuated the stereotype that African culture is inferior to the Western one. Here, in connection to Thiong’o’s discussion of invasion of English in the realms of education, I am reminded of the French Philosopher and theorist Michele Foucault’s ideas of the “Discourse”. Foucault’s views are in line with Thiong’o’s when he states that a system of domination cannot be held in place solely by obtaining control of resources, or physical domination (Thiong’o, 400). Rather, such a system to remain operative and dominant seeks recourse to institutions where ideas are generated, for instance in schools and educational settings. It is this recourse to tools such as language which normalizes the conditions of exploitation and makes it acceptable and the de fact truth for the conquered people. In this regards, Foucault argues that “”What makes power hold good, what makes it accepted, is simply the fact that it doesn’t only weigh on us as a force that says no, but that it traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse. It needs to be considered as a productive network which runs through the whole social body, much more than as a negative instance whose function is repression” (Foucault, 119).
Thus, here in the Kenyan context we see how Foucault’s observations hold true. The devaluing of Gikuyu language came about as a result of its replacement with English. This replacement brought with it an entire body of knowledge and a new paradigm of thought. The introduction of English did not merely repress the old Gikuyu but produced a new reality for people and created a discourse, and new sets of ideas and worldviews which then went on to be incorporated in the minds of Kenyan people.
Thirdly, it can be argued that the British promoted the worth of English by incorporating it in an institutional system managed by the devices of reward and punishment. In this regards, the author argues, for instance, how the education system strictly preferred the students who had a good command of and fluency in English. This focus was so much that the author argues, ‘Nobody could pass the exam who failed the English language paper no matter how brilliantly he had done in the other subjects’ (Thiong’o, 398). Similarly, he recalls how a brilliant student who had distinctions in other subjects except for a failing grade in English was punished by making him fail the entire exam. Similarly, the author was rewarded for scoring a credit in English by his placement at one of the Kenya’s top school called Alliance High School. Thus, the author explains how English was promoted as a language of upward mobility by restricting the highest opportunities for educational and cultural achievement for those who excelled in the said language. In support of this argument, the author analyses the social structure of Kenyan society with the analogy of a pyramid. People at the topmost base were the ruling elites or those who knew English. Furthermore, the use of English allowed the colonizers to promote the worth of everything British as their English curriculum pitted the African cultures and values against the ‘high ideals’ of the British and more broadly the European civilization. Here, I am reminded of Edward Said’s remark about how colonizers create their hegemony. He argues, ““Every empire, however, tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate” (Said quoted in Morgan, 4). For instance, the author (Thiong’o) explains how the racist ideas of Hume, Jefferson and Hegel were taught to Kenyan students, who then started to equate their own civilization as worthless and to see it as inherently inferior to the English one. What is interesting to note here is that such ideas which were racist and dehumanizing were preached in the name of science, civilization and progress!
Hence, it can be argued that such ideas about “Negroes” being barbarians that promoted a sense of detachment with the African heritage and produced a false sense of cultural and ideological superiority of their British counterparts. The impact of using English was so pervasive that it led to such false beliefs about the exotic and dangerous status of the African heritage. For instance, the author quotes how Miere Mugo’ formed an untrue and stereotypical view of Africa by reading the novel ‘King Solomon’s Mines’ where African women were depicted in a negative light. Similarly, the author narrates how Sydney Poitier explains how the latter developed a fear of snakes in Africa even though he was staying in a modern hotel in the continent.
Thus, all these examples demonstrate the essential link between language and the worldview. Thiong’o’s examples about how the imagination of the Kenyans and their life condition was changed after the replacement of Gikuyu by English in the privileged social spheres. These examples of Kenyan students and scholars and authors he quotes shed light upon how reading what one writes in a foreign language alters one’s perception of reality. For instance, Thiong’o explains how he discovered that the connotations of the word ‘missile’ were very different from the visualization which comes with the Gikuyu equivalent of ‘ngurukuhi’. Thus, upon hearing the Gikuyu equivalent of missile, the author was able to conjure up a rich and different imagery than the one projected by the word missile. Similarly, the author’s examples about the enforcement of English language instruction upon Kenyan student’s highlight how the use of English made the students lose touch with their own native traditions and lifestyles. More particularly, the examples mentioned about the student’ exposure to racist discourses exhibit how the Kenyan people’s worldview was change drastically. On the whole, it can be argued that these examples portray how language is a subtle, invisible and highly pervasive tool through which one’s viewpoints are formed and changed.
Foucault, Michele. “Truth and Power.” Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings (1972-1977). United States of America: The Harvester Press, 1980. 109-133.
Thiong’o, Ngugi wa.”Decolonizing the Mind’. One world, many cultures. Ed. Stuat Hirschberg
and Terry hirschberg. New York: Pearson, 2009. Print.
Marcyliena H. Morgan. “What are Speech Communities: Key Topics in Linguistic Anthropology.” Speech Communities. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 4. Print.
Steven L Danver. “Kikuyu.” Native Peoples of the World: An Encylopedia of Groups, Cultures and Contemporary Issues. New York: Routledge, 2013. 48-49. Print.