III I was born into a large peasant family: father, four wives and about twenty- eight children. I also belonged, as we all did in those days, to a wider extended family and to the community as a whole. We spoke Gi kuyH as we worked in the fields. We spoke Gi kttyu in and outside the home.
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III I was born into a large peasant family: father, four wives and about twenty- eight children. I also belonged, as we all did in those days, to a wider extended family and to the community as a whole. We spoke Gi kuyH as we worked in the fields. We spoke Gi kttyu in and outside the home. I can vividly recall those evenings of storytelling around the fireside. It was mosdy the grown-ups telling the children but everybody was interested and involved. We children would re-tell the stories the following day to other children who worked in the fields picking the pyrethrum flowers, tea-leaves or coffee beans of our European and African landlords.
The stories, with mostly animals as the main characters, were all told in Gi kuy U. Hare, being small, weak but full of innovative wit and cunning, was our hero.
We identified with him as he struggled against the brutes of prey like lion, leopard, hyena. His victories were our victories and we learnt that the apparently weak can outwit the strong.
We followed the animals in their struggle against hostile nature— drought, rain, sun, wind— a confrontation often forcing them to search for forms of co-operation.
But we were also interested in their struggles amongst themselves, and particularly between the beasts and the victims of prey.
These twin struggles, against nature and other animals, reflected real-life struggles in the human world. Not that we neglected stories with human beings as the main characters.
There were two types of characters in such human-centred narratives: the species of truly human beings with qualities of courage, kindness, mercy, Decolonising the Mind Page hatred of evil, concern for others; and a man-eat-man two-mouthed species with qualities of greed, selfishness, individualism and hatred of what was good for the larger co-operative community.
There were good and bad story-tellers. A good one could tell the same story over and over again, and it would always be fresh to us, the listeners. He or she could tell a story told by someone else and make it more alive and dramatic. The differences really were in the use of words and images and the inflexion of voices to effect different tones.
We therefore learnt to value words for their meaning and nuances. Language was not a mere string of words. It had a suggestive power well beyond the immediate and lexical meaning. Our appreciation of the suggestive magical power of language was reinforced by the games we played with words through riddles, proverbs, transpositions of syllables, or through nonsensical but musically arranged words.
So we learnt the music of our language on top of the content. The language, through images and symbols, gave us a view of the world, but it had a beauty of its own. And then I went to school, a colonial school, and this harmony was broken. The language of my education was no longer the language of my culture. I first went to Kamaandura, missionary run, and then to another called Maanguuu run by nationalists grouped around the Gikuyu Independ- ent and Karinga Schools Association.
Our language of education was still Gikuyu. The very first time I was ever given an ovation for my writing was over a composition in Gikuyu. So for my first four years there was still harmony between the language of my formal education and that of the Limuru peasant community. It was after the declaration of a state of emergency over Kenya in 1 that all the schools run by patriotic nationalists were taken over by the colonial regime and were placed under District Education Boards chaired by Englishmen.
English became the language of my formal education. In Page Decolonising the Mind Kenya, English became more than a language: it was Slanguage, and all the others had to bow before it in deference. Thus one of the most humiliating experiences was to be caught speaking GikuyU in the vicinity of the school. Sometimes the culprits were fined money they could hardly afford.
And how did the teachers catch the culprits? A button was initially given to one pupil who was supposed to hand it over to whoever was caught speaking his mother tongue.
Whoever had the button at the end of the day would sing who had given it to him and the ensuing process would bring out all the culprits of the day. The attitude to English was the exact opposite: any achievement in spoken or written English was highly rewarded; prizes, prestige, applause; the ticket to higher realms. As you may know, the colonial system of education in addition to its apartheid racial demarcation had the structure of a pyramid: a broad primary base, a narrowihg secondary middle, and an even narrower university apex.
Selections from primary into secondary were through an examination, in my time called Kenya African Preliminary Examination, in which one had to pass six subjects ranging from Maths to Nature Study and Kiswahili.
All the papers were written in English. He was made to fail the entire exam. He went on to become a turn boy in a bus company. I who had only passes but a credit in English got a place at the Alliance High School, one of the most elitist institutions for Africans in colonial Kenya. The requirements for a place at the University, Makerere University College, were broadly the same: nobody could go on to wear the undergraduate red gown, no matter how brilliantly they had performed in all the other subjects unless they had a credit-— not even a simple passl-— in English.
Thus the most coveted place in the pyramid and in the system was only available to the holder of an Decolonising the Mind Page English language credit card. English was the official vehicle and the magic formula to colonial elitedoth. Literary education was now determined by the dominant language while also reinforcing that dominance. Orature oral literature in Kenyan languages stopped. In secondary school, Scott and G. Eliot with a touch of Grahame Greene. Thus language and literature were taking us further and further from ourselves to other selves, from our world to other worlds.
What was the colonial system doing to us Kenyan children? What were the consequences of, on the one hand, this systematic suppression of our languages and the literature they carried, and on the other the elevation of English and the literature it carried?
To answer those questions, let me first examine the relationship of language to human experience, human culture, and the human perception of reality. IV Language, any language, has a dual character: it is both a means of commu- nication and a carrier of culture. It is not a carrier of their culture. For the British, and particularly the English, it is additionally, and inseparably from its use as a tool of communication, a carrier of their culture and history.
Or take Swahili in East and Central Africa. It is widely used as a means of communication across many nationalities. But it is not the carrier of a culture and history of many of those nationalities. However in parts of Kenya and Tanzania, and particularly in Zanzibar, Swahili is inseparably both a means of communication and a carrier of the culture of those people to whom it is a mother-tongue.
Language as communication has three aspects or elements. A human community really starts its historical being as a community of co-operation in production through the division of labour; the simplest is between man, woman and child within a household; the more complex divisions are between branches of production such as those who are sole hunters, sole gatherers of fruits or sole workers in metal.
Then there are the most complex divisions such as those in modern factories where a single product, say a shirt or a shoe, is the result of many hands and minds.
Production is co-operation, is communication, is language, is expression of a relation between human beings and it is specifically human. The second aspect of language as communication is speech and it imitates the language of real life, that is communication in production. The verbal signposts both reflect and aid communication or the relation established between human beings in the production of their means of life. Language as a system of verbal signposts makes that production possible.
The spoken word is to relations between human beings what the hand is to the relations between human beings and nature. The hand through tools mediates between human beings and nature and forms the language of real life: spoken words mediate between human beings and form the language of speech.
The third aspect is the written signs. The written word imitates the spoken. Where the first two aspects of language as communication through the hand and the spoken word historically evolved more or less simulta- neously, the written aspect is a much later historical development.
Writing is representation of sounds with visual symbols, from the simplest knot among shepherds to tell the number in a herd or the hieroglyphics among the Agikuyu gicaandi singers and poets of Kenya, to the most complicated and different letter and picture writing systems of the world today.
In most societies the written and the spoken languages are the same, in that they represent each other: what is on paper can be read to another person and be received as that language, which the recipient has grown up speaking. In such a society there is broad harmony for a child between the three aspects of language as communication. His interaction with nature and with other men is expressed in written and spoken symbols or signs which are both a result of that double interaction and a reflection of it.
But there is more to it: communication between human beings is also the basis and process of evolving culture. In doing similar lands of things and actions over and over again under similar circumstances, similar even in their Decolonising the Mind Page mutability, certain patterns, moves, rhythms, habits, attitudes, experiences and knowledge emerge. Those experiences are handed over to the next generation and become the inherited basis for their further actions on nature and on themselves.
There is a gradual accumulation of values whicK in time become almost self-evident truths governing their conception of what is right and wrong, good and bad, beautiful and ugly, courageous and cowardly, generous and mean in their internal and external relations.
Over a time this becomes a way of life distinguishable from other ways of life. They develop a distinctive culture and history. Culture embodies those moral, ethical and aesthetic values, the set of spiritual eyeglasses, through which they come to view themselves and their place in the universe.
All this is carried by language. Language as culture is the collective memory bank of a peoples experience in history. Culture is almost indistinguishable from the language that makes possible its genesis, growth, banking, articulation and indeed its transmission from one generation to the next.
Language as culture also has three important aspects. Culture is a product of the history which it in turn reflects. Culture in other words is a product and a reflection of human beings communicating with one another in the very struggle to create wealth and to control it.
But culture does not merely reflect that history, or rather it does so by actually forming images or pictures of the world of nature and nurture. Thus the second aspect of language as culture is as an image-forming agent in the mind of a child.
Our whole conception of ourselves as a people, individually and collectively, is based on those pictures and images which may or may not correctly correspond to the actual reality of the struggles with nature and nurture which produced them in the first place.
But our capacity to confront the world creatively is dependent on how those images correspond or not to that reality, how they distort or clarify the reality of our struggles. Language as culture is thus mediating between me and my own self; between my own self and other selves; between me and nature.
I, a student, could qualify for the meeting on the basis of only two published short stories. But neither Shaban Robert, then the greatest living East African poet with several works of poetry and prose to his credit inn Kiswahili, nor Chief Fagunwa, the great writer with several published titles in Yoruba, could possibly qualify. Those writing in African languages had to justify their use of their mother tongues. To be clear, the language question did not begin with my father.
DECOLONISING THE MIND
Background[ edit ] The language debate in post-colonial studies[ edit ] Language is a central question in post-colonial studies. They examine this practice as part of the systematic oppression of imperialism in neocolonial societies, and they investigate its ramifications on the psychological, physical, and cultural well-being of colonized peoples. In the context of post-colonial studies, language is a weapon and a site of intense neocolonial conflict. Others, however Salman Rushdie , for example , see the practicality of utilizing hegemonic languages like English and French as too immediate to permit the abandonment of such languages.