Apr 24, 2007

Response to Ngugi wa Thiong’o speech at Southeastern Louisiana University

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A new book by Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Wizard of the Crow, satirizes the West from an African perspective; Like Achebe, he brings old questions to the fore about Western colonialism and Christianity.


The halls of Southeastern's Vonnie Borden theater was filled to hear the world's foremost East African writer. Having just completed a novel about a fictional despotic African leader, Ngugi also spearheads a program at Irvine, The International Center for Writing and Translation, to create and distribute indigenous African tongues apart from Western translations.

Whether or not the Colonial experiment in Africa tainted Christian missionary activity or whether Christian missionary activity is itself tainted is probably not the right approach to tackle Western Christianity’s attempt to proselytize non-Western peoples. It is not that the missionary activity is inherently tainted, but rather that the approach was marred, most significantly because of the imperial and univocal nature of Colonialism — the structure of Colonialism did not allow for, what we would call today, the recognition of the language of the subaltern. The Christian missionary movement was lead by many good-intentioned Christians. But, what many Christian missionaries failed to realize is that they were not only teaching Christian doctrine in their own Mother tongues, not the language of the people, but they assumed that the conquering language had a stake in knowledge that was not apparent in the indigenous languages. Although some missionaries attempted to learn the language of the conquered African colonies, for the most part, the idea of Colonialism was to teach them the history of the Conqueror, the language of the Conqueror, and the beliefs of the Conqueror. Get a few educated elite to learn English, for example, and to translate the ideologies and beliefs of the people into English. In this paradigm there is no attempt to raise the native languages to the status of elite — as if Jesus spoke English! Jesus did not speak English, as Ngugi playfully reminded us last week; Jesus spoke a rural form of Aramaic and spoke in simple terms using the imagery and language of the people he taught and lived among in Galilee, which is why it is sometimes very difficult to understand his parables and sayings. But his sayings were translated into the language of the educated elite, which is Greek in this case, and this is how the message of the New Testament writings were originally communicated. But perhaps the Jesus of Colonialism did not learn anything after 2000 years old and is still up to his old tricks, so the language of the elite is still the language of the Conqueror, in this case, English or French, or Dutch, or whatever the language of the conquering nation happens to be. But take this language and try to translate native Swahili to mirror it is obviously going to have problems. But of course, the Harvard educated professor can not be told by a graduate from the University of Treetops that he speaks good English. “Of course I speak English. I went to Harvard!” Ngugi here is parodying how language is classed, like race or ethnicity. How can the Mother tongue of the Western Nations describe a God (or Gods) to a community of peoples who have their own language of God (or Gods)? It just doesn’t make sense. This has been parodied, as in the short story, "The Gospel According to Mark" when an unbeliever, Espinoza is crucified on a tree like Christ — the people believed him to be the Savior. But this view is terribly pejorative and simplistic. It is as if to say, people of a non-Western ideology or bound to mistake Western religion to the point of sheer, nonsensical violence. This does not make sense. Nor does the univocal injunction to impose one language, one faith, one way of thinking on a collection of people that does not fit into the hegemonic whole. Ngugi seems to be saying that Globalization is partly to blame for this branding of language and culture that seems to disavow the minority of a language for the sake of its own language, not needing to be mediated by a language like English or French to be understood or disseminated. But you may say, there is something innate about all human beings that no language, no matter how univocal its insistence to be the language of choice, can override the dignity and value of humanity, because any knowledge that is worth having is knowledge of a humanity that is universal. But the problem with this kind of thinking is that it ignores the nuances of languages and the inability to express in subtle language — say the texture of snow or the agronomy of the Kenyan plains — that cannot be translated. True, maybe translation from Nilotic to English actually enhances the Nilotic language — but for who? who benefits? Not the Nilotic speaker, but the English one. So, it seems this is what Ngugi is trying to do; he is not trying to disparrage English or any other language, but simply insisting that the indigenous languages of a people, to be of value, to provide knowledge for its people, has to be kept within its own language families. Ngugi would say that a novel written in Swahili needs to be translated from Swahili to Nilotic as it is, not mediated by English or French. It would be like translating a letter written in English into another language and then using that language, not English, to translate it into another language. The more permutations of language the more diluted and lost the original becomes. I can see how this can become very problematic and detrimental the more it perpetuates itself. Although, I, and millions of other people, know only Western Romance languages, and have only read non-Western texts into Western languages, it still does not preclude the fact that my language, my Western Romantic language does not need to ipso facto the one language that swallows up the rest.

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