Ngugi Wa Thiongo’o and Chinua Achebe

African Novels

When authors are relating the African experience, must they write the original book in the native language? Does this add to the experience? Better yet, does writing it in English lose its cultural identity? These questions have led to an ongoing debate by many authors, including Kenyon author Ngugi Wa Thiongo’o and his Nigerian contemporary Chinua Achebe. Ngugi wa Thiong’o began his noteworthy career writing in English, but eventually turned to using his mother tongue, Gikuyu. Achebe chooses to write in English and uses Western forms of literary expression, instead of rejecting the colonizers’ languages and other vestiges of colonial influence. Literature is an essential part of sharing culture and understanding. As the world becomes “flat” and globalization and cultural sharing continues to expand, it becomes more critical to publish books in the language(s) that the most people will be able to read and enjoy.

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In 1962, Ngugi listened to a talk given by the Nigerian critic Obi Wali, who argued that as long as writers in Africa continued with their uncritical acceptance of European languages, it would be impossible for African culture to advance. However, it took nearly a decade after this talk for Ngugi to decide to go this route and make his feelings known in a statement in Decolonising the Mind.(Williams 12).

Decolonising the Mind is Ngugi’s most famous and extensive discussion of the language debate. He had been giving it thought for quite some time and in the book Detained explained what led him to this point. He said that he had resolved to use a language that did not have a modern novel, which was a way of affirming his faith in the possibilities of the languages of all the different Kenyan nationalities, “languages whose development as vehicles for the Kenyan people’s anti-imperialist struggles had been actively suppressed by the British colonial regime and by the neo-colonial regime of Kenyatta and his comprador KANU cohorts” (Ngugi, 8).

Ngugi had realized that resistance at the level of language is far from being a symbolic step. He stated in Decolonizing the Mind that “The domination of a people’s language by the languages of the colonizing nations was crucial to the domination of the mental universe of the colonized” (16).

One of the most important aspects of using the indigenous language was to open the way to increased participation and democratization. However, this alone will not bring about the renaissance in African cultures, stressed Ngugi, if “that literature does not carry the content of our people’s anti-imperialist struggles to liberate their productive forces from foreign control” (ibid 29).

According to Gyasi (75) the consideration about language is quite important. He states that “Literature is about people, their society, their culture, their institutions. But it is also, and especially, about language, the medium through which the people’s society, culture, and institutions are expressed.” Thus, it is true that talking about literature is talking about language. Yet this assertion does become problematic when it is applied to the situation of African literature written in European languages.

Gyasi (ibid) continues saying that if one looks at the language debate in Africa, it is easy to recognize that the focus has especially been on the attitude of the African writer in respect to the European language instead of on the creative use of the language. In fact, the classical question has consisted of asking if writing in the language of the colonizer was problematic for African writers or if the author felt comfortable in using this language. As Jacques Chevrier has noted: “It seems the attitude of the writer towards a language that is not his mother tongue rests on a certain ambivalence: a mixture of love and hatred, acceptance and rejection, which clearly accounts for the feeling of struggle with the language that is sometimes caused by reading the works of francophone writers (49). This also brings up the question, adds Gyasi (76), if the use of a foreign language as a medium of literary expression raises a certain number of questions? Is any given individual capable of mastering completely his or her mother tongue as well as a foreign language? Another question is whether a certain language is capable of perfectly expressing a foreign culture? or, in other words, is a foreign language capable of translating satisfactorily an imagination that has its roots in an alien culture?

It is to answer such questions that Simon Gikandi termed the “epistemology of translation” (162) for example, he analyzed the translation of Ngugi’s Matigari Ma Njiruungi from the original Gikuyu into English and noted the two versions are not equal. According to Gikandi, the two texts function in a political situation where English is more powerful than Gikuyu. This is because “if Ngugi’s intention was to make the Gikuyu text the great original to which all translations would be subordinated, this intention is defeated not only by the political repression of Matigari but also by the act of translation itself. By suppressing certain unique aspects of Gikuyu language that give it power and identity, such as proverbs and sayings, Gikandi adds, the Matigari translator makes the novel read as if it were originally written in English. This totally defeats Ngugi’s intention of restoring the primacy of the African language (163).

Bassnett-McGuire adds to this argument by saying that faced with the charge, such as the one by Ngugi, that by writing in European languages, which is spoken by just a few million speakers in Africa, African writers are actually participating in the further canonization of European-language literature. Contemporary African authors seek new ways to sustain a discourse that can be called African. Thus, their act of writing in the dominant European tongue is both linguistic and political. Their authorship demonstrates the tensions and power struggles between the European and African languages. “By choosing to ‘Africanize’ or translate their languages and models into the European language, the African writers question the historically established authority of the European language and establish their languages as equally viable means of producing discourse” (84)

While Ngugi now strongly supports complete rejection of the colonialist language due to the anti-imperialist struggle, Achebe instead looks at the concept of subversion. According to Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin, Achebe’s work “displays a process by which the language is made to bear the weight and texture of a different experience. In doing so it becomes another language” (23). In the African Trilogy, for example, Achebe uses the colonizer’s language to convey the Igbo experience. The idioms, proverbs and imagery all invoke his Eastern Nigerian culture.

In fact, in Things Fall Apart Achebe actually uses the difference of the two languages to further promote his book’s thematic structure. The linguistic level of the Ibo becomes fragmented and subsumed by the written tradition of the English. There are the telling differences between the symbolically rich, expansive and redolent language of the Ibos and the more literal-minded reductionism of the literate British. Midway between these two linguistic worlds stands Okonkwo, linguistically deficient as he stammers and resorts to violent action when language fails him. He becomes a symbol for the linguistic breakdown that occurs in the novel (Iyasere 5).

Similarly, the literary critic Abdul Jammohamed asks (20), “Can African experience be adequately represented through the alien media, or ones that were fashioned to codify an entirely different encounter with reality, of the colonizers’ language and literary forms or will these media inevitably alter the nature of African experience in significant ways?” In response, through the understanding of the language approach in Things Fall Apart, he concludes that Achebe is able to create “a new syncretic form and contribute to the negative dialectics by deterritorializing, to some extent, the English language and the novelistic form.”

Sullivan (81) concludes her article on the language debate between such authors as Ngugi and Achebe and whether or not books should be written in the native language or that of the colonist by looking at the way the world is changing today and in the near future. First, she states that monolingualism has never been as usual in Africa as it is in Europe. Thus, Africa may best serve its own interests by giving people the opportunity to develop the personal language portfolios they will anyway continue to acquire. Multilingualism can be seen as a potential strength, not a divisive factor. English only one of the many languages in which Nigerians choose to express themselves.

Therefore, she adds (ibid), translations need to be recognized as the key to defining and refining Nigeria’s national literature. Read in translation in a number of different national languages, novels can contribute to the shaping of the national identity as well as the ongoing discussion of national problems and their possible solutions. All texts have to be considered, regardless of their language of origin, as contributing toward building the national character and ideology.

The world is only increasing in its complexity, and global problems, which all countries share, continue to grow. In order to survive, people from all nations will have to collaborate on answers to resolve these growing concerns. If anything, the more languages in which a book is published the better. This way there can be as much cross fertilization of ideas and solutions to pressing needs.


Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Penguin, 2006.

____African Trilolgy. London: Picador, 2000

Ashcroft, Bill; Griffiths, Gareth and Tiffin, Helen (eds.). The Post Colonial Studies Reader, London: Routledge, (1995)

Bassnett-McGuire, Susan. Translation Studies. London: Routledge, 1991.

Chevrier, Jacques. “Writing African books in the French Language L’Afrique littcraire et artistique 50 (1979): 49.

Janmohamed, a. Janmohamed, a. “Sophisticated Primitivism: The Syncretism of Oral and Literate Modes in Achebe, Chinua Things Fall Apart..” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 15 (1984): 19-39.

Gikandi, Simon. “The Epistemology of Translation: Ngugi, Matigari, and the Politics of Language.” Research in African Literatures 22.4 (1991): 161-67.

Gyasi, Kwaku. Writing as Translation: African Literature and the Challenges of Translation.: Research in African Literatures a.2. (1999)., 75.

Understanding Things Fall Apart: Selected Essays and Criticism. Contributors: Solomon O. Iyasere – editor. Publisher: Whitston Publishing. Place of Publication: Troy, NY. Publication Year: 1998. Page Number: i.

Lyasere, Solomon O. Understanding Things Fall Apart. Troy, NY: Whitston, 1998.

Ngugi Thiong’o, Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary (1981) New York: Heinemann

____Decolonising the Mind. New York: Heinemann, 1983

Matigari) Africa Press. Lawrenceville, New Jersey, 1989

Sullivan, Joanna. The Question of a National Literature for Nigeria. Research in African

Literatures 32.3 (2001) 71-85

Williams, Patrick, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1999.

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