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Ngugi wa Thiong'o

The role of colonial language in creating
the image of a savage continent.

AN intellectual is a worker in ideas, with words as the primary means of production. Ideas are constructed in specific languages, and if we believe that ideas are important in development, in the determination of relations of wealth, power and values in a society, then the languages of their construction and eventual distribution may be a matter of life and death for societies. For that very reason we cannot divorce issues of language and writing from issues of wealth, power and values.

An intellectual is also an interpreter, mediating between society and specific processes in nature, society and thought. Both as a worker in ideas and as an interpreter, he or she plays an important role in our collective psyche.

I want to look at the genealogy and types of the modern African interpreter. There are three types and three roles into which he could and has fallen in the colonial and post-colonial era: the interpreter as a foreign agent and messenger; as a double agent; and as a people's scout and guide to the stars of freedom.

In 1554, John Lok, an Englishman, made his first voyage to what is now Ghana. On returning to England, he brought back with him five Africans. They were kept in England long enough for them to learn English. Four of them returned to Africa as interpreters and public relations men for subsequent English voyagers.

Thus, according to an account of William Towerson's voyage of 1556, it was one of these interpreters who pacified a hostile crowd of natives. At first the natives would not come out to meet them in their ship, "but at the last by the perswasion of our owne negros, one boat came out to us, and with him we sent George our negro ashore, and after he had talked to them, they came aboard our boates withoute feare". Note the possessive reference to the interpreter. The pattern was established. The region was now ready for the era of English participation in the Atlantic slave trade.

An account of voyages all round the world, Principal Navigations, came out in three volumes in 1598-1600, firing the imaginations of Elizabethan and Jacobean writers. Thus, in Shakespeare's The Tempest, by the time Caliban has learnt to curse [his master Prospero, in Prospero's tongue], he has already shown Prospero all the secrets of the island. Prospero does not have to learn Calibanese in order to get to know these secrets. Instead, he teaches Prosperese to Caliban, in the tradition of Lok's five Africans. Caliban learns Prosperese and spies against himself. The same process is dramatized in Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, where Crusoe teaches Friday English - and the first lesson is that he, Crusoe, is master.

It is the languages of Europe, which define, delimit and identify each of the plantations in the Caribbean, the Pacific and Americas. It is the languages of the different masters, which keep them apart, and so prevent the various enclosures from communicating with one another. Spanish enclosures remain Spanish; English, English; and French, French and these never meet unless through conquest and reconquest. Within each plantation, African names and languages are systematically eliminated. Thus, for diasporan Africans, the European languages worked as a boundary more difficult to cross than the Atlantic Ocean. Their linguistic linkage to the mother continent was broken, but that between the plantation owner and his linguistic base in Europe remains intact.

The same interpreter reappears in the 19th century with the direct colonisation of the continent. He helps in the conquest of the interior, in mapping out and classifying every corner and resource, and later in the actual administration. This go-between by virtue of his knowledge of the master's language is the soldier, the policeman, the court interpreter - the one Joseph Conrad described as the re-formed African.

The famous Macaulay minute on Indian education had the intent of creating a class of Indians who were so in name but otherwise English in everything else - Indian bodies with English minds. These re-formed Indians would become efficient and trusted "interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern".

The French were to elaborate this into a system they called assimilation:
some blacks could become French through the same process of linguistic engineering. The Portuguese and the Belgians parodied the same.

Africa became zoned into French, Portuguese and English regions which were also linguistic enclaves. Once again, European languages built walls between different regions in Africa, and within each zone marked out Macaulay's men from the rest of the population. The colonial system had learnt well from the slave system.

A few of Macaulay's interpreters in Africa and in Diaspora actually produced books rationalising the slave and the colonial systems. They became what Edward Said has described in another context as prosecution witnesses for the West.

Yet this system also gave rise to contradictory impulses, practices and outcomes. The confined do not always accept the conditions of their confinement. They can even turn prison conditions into those of freedom. In the plantations, in the enclosures either in Diaspora or on the continent, African languages and their associated images, myths, stories, became the space in which the slave and the colonial subject were free.

The diasporan African reacted to the decimation of his inherited languages and the imposition of those of the conqueror by creating new languages they variously called patois, creole, or what Kamau Braithwaite now calls nation languages. Their very creations were acts of resistance. In their languages, Africans could sing the songs they wanted; they could shout any joy; engage in whispers of love; and organise conspiracies.

And then out of those interpreting between the jailed and the jailers arises a new kind of interpreter, the second kind. This one sees his role not of delivering the messages of the jailer to the jailed, but of articulating the messages and demands of the jailed to the jailer. In effect, he becomes a spy of the jailed among the jailers. He had been to Harvard, Oxbridge, the Sorbonne, Berlin, Lisbon, Rome; he knows nearly all the connotations and denotations of their languages.

The leaders of a revolution, CLR James has stated in his book The Black Jacobins, are often those who have taken advantages of the language and culture of the oppressor. This interpreter is a double spy. By this time he has already become a traitor to his historical calling as a conveyor of messages from the West and a spy of the West among his people. Words like traitor, ungrateful, uppity are often used against this kind of interpreter.

It is like Lok's men returning to Africa and, instead of doing what they had been trained to do, warning their people of what to expect and how to deal with the invasions. Or, more accurately, they had started formulating in perfect English the resistance curses of the people. From this group arose the Kenyattas, the Azikiwes, the Nkrumahs and the Awolowos of the colonial world. These often go through Caliban's spiritual journey from gratitude for the learning to denunciation of the abuses of that learning. And they can do it with a perfect command of the language of their master - Jomo Kenyatta's Facing Mount Kenya; Zeke Azikiwe's Renascent Africa; Kwame Nkrumah's Towards Colonial Freedom.

African academic and imaginative literature in European languages is a development of this tradition. It is the literature of the double agent. The abolition of slavery and, later, independence from colonial rule were the great achievements of the alliance between the second kind of interpreter and his people. They knew then that the only real power a black man can have will come from black people.

But at the moment of triumph something tragically wrong had happened. The interpreter had become captive of the very mastery of the language of the former coloniser. He forgot that his power of accurate articulation came from those black people; and he came to attribute his power to the means of articulation. Holding the reins of power of the post-colonial state, he turned what at best had been a temporary expedient into a permanent necessity. He now stood behind the English and French screens haranguing his people to come out of the darkness of their languages into the light of European tongues. He also started talking to them through interpreters.

In their willful narcissism, to use Frantz Fanon's phrase, such leaders came to believe that it was they as a social group who constituted the new nations. Instead of empowering the languages of those who had given them power, they came to believe that their power lay solely in their capacity to interpret, to talk to the West, and among themselves, about the fate of the nation. "Tribal" languages would tear the new nation apart.

The result of this for Africa is the rise of two nations within the same territory: a small minority speaking and conducting the affairs of the nation in European languages, and the majority speaking their own different African languages. This has vast implications for the development of the post-colonial nations in Africa. It means literally the split between the mind and the body of Africa, producing what, in my book, Decolonising the Mind, I called nations of bodiless heads and headless bodies. In Tsitsi Dangarembga's novel Nervous Conditions, a man goes to the mission school to acquire an education which might help improve his parents' economic situation, but, after only one term there, he comes back home and claims to have forgotten all the Shona he knew. He can only talk to his family through an interpreter. By the simple means of linguistic engineering, he becomes dead to his family.

At the level of economics, science and technology, Africa will keep on talking about transfer of technology from the West. There are countless resolutions about this in regional, continental and international conferences. Yet the African intellectual elite refuses to transfer even the little knowledge they have already acquired into the languages of the majority. The chorus is the same: let them first learn European languages. There can be no real economic growth and development where a whole people are denied access to the latest developments in science, technology, health, medicine, business, finance and other skills of survival because all these are stored in foreign-language granaries.

The implications for politics in general and democracy in particular are obvious. The peasant and the worker in Africa have been denied participation in discourses about their own economic, political and cultural survival. For democracy to thrive, information must be accessible to all equally. Any search for a new social order within an African nation will have to address the language question.

In the global context, the African people have also been written off the pages of international discourse and history. From the 1884 Berlin conference which split Africa into various European zones, to the present United Nations, Africa exists in international treaties in European languages. At the UN there is not a single African language.

A new world order demands, at the least, the necessity to move the centre from which we look at the world from its current location in a group of European languages and recognise in theory and practice that there are other linguistic centres. Take the status of scholarship on Africa: experts on Africa do not have to demonstrate even the slightest acquaintance with an African language! Have you ever heard of a professor of French who did not know a word of French?

The united class of interpreters of the first and second order dominate the post-colonial state. The entire judicial, legislative, executive arms of the state and the entire bureaucracy which goes with them, use European languages. Many post-colonial states have, in fact, designated European languages as both official and national. This position and policy are a reflection of the narcissism of the African middle-class. When some of its representatives speak of European languages as now being national and African, it is because they, as a class, see themselves as the content of what is national, at the territorial-state level, and what is African at the level of the continent.

At the global level, the same class sees itself as part of an European-language-speaking middle-class. Thus, whether they are merchants, academics, writers, experts, they have no difficulties in talking to their counterparts at conferences and institutions Tokyo to New York. And in all those forums they see themselves as representing Africa.

The vehemence with which leading African writers, even those most critical of the post-colonial distortions, have reacted to the possibility of their return to African languages has been remarkable in its unanimity. If some of the best and most articulate of the interpreters of Africa's total being insist on doing so in languages not understood by the subject of interpretation, where lies the hope of African deliverance?

In pre-colonial Africa the intellectuals had their base in African-language cultures and histories. There were those in the griot tradition, keepers of the word, keepers of memory of the family and the community, with orality as their means of communication. The ruling councils contained the best minds of their time but chosen by the community on the basis of character traits -and language skills -observed from childhood and in their different stages of life.

Such a person led by wisdom, by persuasion, and not by the force of arms. His wisdom showed itself in how he managed words. He became a kind of interpreter of the collective mind. We can call this type the oral intellectual.

By the time of Lok's Africans and the genesis of the first type of interpreter, there was already in existence the third category of intellectual interpreter, who operated within the cultures, histories and languages of Africa. During the entire slave and colonial periods, this intellectual was superseded by the other two categories who became even more dominant in the post-colonial period. But the tradition itself remains unbroken.

Whether he was an oral or a literate intellectual, the key thing was that this third category of interpreter worked in African languages to interpret reality within and without the borders of the country for the consumption of the African community. It is quite clear that what is required for African development is the re-emergence to dominance of this third category of the intellectual interpreter and, of course, a democratic state which would allow, at the very least, equality of space to all the interpreters.

Such intellectuals, writing and talking in languages which the people can speak and understand, could bring all the wealth of their contacts with the languages of the world to enrich theirs. For them the maxim that their real power would always be that power which came from black people would be an article of faith in theory and practice.

We have glimpses of this intellectual in the actions of all those post-colonial intellectuals who have kept faith in African languages. But just now those who constitute the third category are still a tiny minority in practice and in influence. They are simply not visible. There is an important novel by the Ghanaian writer, Ayi Kwei Armah, called The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. He could as well have been thinking about the third category of the intellectual. They have to be born, otherwise Africa, having lost its entire naming system, will become a cultural appendage of Europe.

Such intellectuals will grow their roots in African languages and cultures. They will also learn the best they can from all world languages and cultures. They will view themselves as scouts in foreign linguistic territories and guides in their own linguistic space. In other words, they will take whatever is most advanced in those languages and cultures and translate those ideas into their own languages. They will see their role as that of doing for African languages and cultures what all writers and intellectuals of other cultures and histories have done for theirs.


This is an edited version of a speech delivered at the English Teachers Connect conference hosted by Wits university's Applied English Language Studies division. It is part of a series of lectures to be published later this year by Oxford University Press under the title Penpoints, Gunpoints and Dreams July 21, 1997

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