April 21, 2014

Kenyan Activist, Writer Talks Politics of Language at Cornell

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African writer and activist Ngugi wa Thiong’o and filmmaker Ndirangu Wachanga spoke about the role of language and culture during the period of Britain’s colonization of Kenya at Cornell Thursday.

According to Ngugi, a central theme in his early work comes from this period of colonial rule.

“A colonial story about Kenya cannot be told from the point of view of the colonizer,” he said. “The colonized must also be able to tell their story from the point of view of their struggles for liberation.”

Ngugi said he was interested by the implications that language can have in politics — and how in “colonized” situations, the colonizer always makes the colonized speak their own language or put their language as the standard of value.

“The colonized must find some way of connecting with their own languages as the starting point,” he said. “All languages have their own musicality, beauty, possibilities and limitations, but the way we are made to experience language is through hierarchy.”

While a lecturer of English literature at the University of Nairobi in the 1960s, Ngugi said he worked to change the name of the English department to “English literature” to reflect world literature with African and other local literature.

“The way departments were organized was as if British national literature was the standard,” he said. “[But] we were saying our journey can begin anywhere in the world — [that] if you are in Africa, Africa [can be] your starting point.”

At the event, Wachanga screened part of his new documentary called Ngugi wa Thiong’o: The River Between Indigenous Languages. He said his inspiration for making a documentary of Ngugi began seven years ago.

“This is part of the history of my country … as an information scientist I often turn to archives, but in the absence of archives I turn to testimonies,” Wachanga said. “I use [Ngugi] as the axis around which narratives about colonial and post colonial period can be anchored, [and] his autobiography as a way to shine light to the biography of East Africa.”

Wachanga said Ngugi’s method of storytelling impacted his journey in making the documentary.

“I am interested in the architecture of memory — what we remember, how it is remembered, what we forget and repress,” Wachanga said. “My interviews have exposed me to stories of struggles, dreams of independence, national failures and collective triumphs.”