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the Complete Review
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Decolonising the Mind

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

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To purchase Decolonising the Mind

Title: Decolonising the Mind
Author: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1986
Length: 113 pages
Availability: Decolonising the Mind - US
Decolonising the Mind - UK
Decolonising the Mind - Canada
Decolonising the Mind - India
Décoloniser l'esprit - France
Dekolonisierung des Denkens - Deutschland
Decolonizzare la mente - Italia
Descolonizar la mente - España
  • The Politics of Language in African Literature
  • The essays collected in this volume were previously presented and published elsewhere

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Our Assessment:

B : important arguments, fairly well presented, but too ideologically coloured

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
NZZ . 28/3/2018 A.Seiler-Dietrich
New Statesman . 8/8/1986 Adewale Maja-Pearce
TLS . 8/5/1987 Chinweizu

  From the Reviews:
  • "Ngugis Schrift ist eine harte Auseinandersetzung mit dem postkolonialen Imperialismus, in dem die Sprache weiterhin als Herrschaftsinstrument fungiert. (...) Dekolonisierung des Denkens ist zweifellos ein historischer Grundlagentext, wird aber der heutigen Wirklichkeit nicht mehr gerecht." - Almut Seiler-Dietrich, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Ngugi's presentation of the case suffers from a romaticiziation of the peasantry. It is as if African culture is an exclusively peasant affair. (...) This misleading bit of Marxist hagiography aside, Ngugi's book remains invaluable as an African intellectuals account of his withdrawal from the Eurocentric culture of the neo-colonial state in which he was nurtured." - Chinweizu, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Ngugi wa Thiong'o famously began his writing career writing in English (publishing under the name "James Ngugi"). He had considerable success, but eventually turned to writing in his mother tongue, Gikuyu (though he did translate and publish these later works in English too). Ngugi is among a handful of authors who have written successfully in more than one language -- Samuel Beckett and Vladimir Nabokov are among the few others -- but his reasons for doing so differ somewhat from those of other bilingual authors. Decolonising the Mind is both an explanation of how he came to write in Gikuyu, as well as an exhortation for African writers to embrace their native tongues in their art.
       The foreign languages most African authors write in are the languages of the imperialists -- English, French, and Portuguese -- that were relatively recently imposed on them. (Ngugi doesn't consider Arabic in the same light, nor Swahili.) Ngugi makes a good case for the obvious point: that the relation of Africans to those imposed languages is a very different one from that which the same Africans have to the native languages they speak at home. Speaking and writing in the language of the colonisers will naturally be different than in the language one speaks while at play or with one's family. In addition, the language of the coloniser is often a truly foreign one: segments of society understand it badly, if at all, and so certain audiences can not be reached by works in these imposed languages. (The validity of some of these points has, however, diminished over the past decades, as literacy has spread and French, Portuguese, and especially English have established themselves as linguae francae across much of the continent.)
       Ngugi rightly complains that an educational focus that embraced essentially only foreign works (not only foreign in language, but also in culture) was destructive:

Thus language and literature were taking us further and further from ourselves to other selves, from our world to other worlds.
       Clearly there was (and probably still is) a need to create a literature that conveyed the true African experience -- from the perspective of the local, not the visitor or outsider. The local language is an integral part of conveying that experience, often because much of local tradition has been preserved in that language -- for example, in the songs and stories that have been passed down (the oral tradition -- orature -- that Ngugi values so highly).
       In the second chapter of this book, "The Language of African Theatre", Ngugi describes his experiences at the Kamiriithu Community Education and Culture Centre, and the efforts to stage drama there -- in Gikuyu. Ngugi convincingly shows the benefits of working in the local language, and within local traditions, as the entire community works together to create and shape a play.
       Ngugi's basic arguments are largely convincing, and his personal experiences, related to explain how he learned and changed his views, make the entire book an interesting read. Occasionally he does go overboard: in the end he maintains that it is:
manifestly absurd to talk of African poetry in English, French or Portuguese. Afro-European poetry, yes; but not to be confused with African poetry which is the poetry composed by Africans in African languages.
       For new generations the language of the former imperialists has also become something different. Admittedly, too often it is the Westernized worldview found in music, television, and film -- but then the French complain about a similar cultural imperialism too. Ngugi is right to say that it is important to reach an audience in the language of its heritage, but one of the difficulties with that is that it is financially difficult to publish in local languages in Africa. The state of publishing is deplorable through much of the continent, and writers are drawn to English and French also because the audiences (and publishers) they want to reach are often Western ones.
       We at the complete review are always terribly disappointed by how difficult it is to find any books by African authors originally written in an African language. There are a few, but they are very few. (Similarly, it is very difficult to find books originally written in Hindi or other Indian languages, while there are dozens of "Indian" authors who write in English.) Ngugi is to be lauded for his efforts in this area, and for his willingness to stand up for what he believes. Would that more followed his example.
       Among the problems with Decolonising the Mind is its political and ideological slant. He writes of "two mutually opposed forces in Africa today: an imperialist tradition on one hand, and a resistance tradition on the other." Imperialism for him continues after the colonial period: it is "the rule of consolidated finance capital". Ngugi's worldview here is still profoundly Marxist, and one has to question how useful this simple division -- imperialism versus resistance -- is at the beginning of the 21st century. (Curiously he chooses to see the class struggle as universal, never considering that it too might be an imperialist fiction imposed on Africa despite not fitting African tradition, culture, or history.)
       The book also focusses on art-with-a-purpose: be it pedagogic or political or helping preserve traditions or forge identities, all the literature he considers serves a purpose. The simple beauty of art isn't at issue for him -- in part, no doubt, because he does not want to admit that politically incorrect art (of any stripe or colour -- even art with say a blatantly imperialist message) might still have some value.
       Decolonising the Mind is an interesting, if occasionally too heated (and too simplistic) work. It addresses significant issues, and Ngugi's presentation is consistently engaging. Though aspects are already dated, it can still serve as the basis for fruitful discussion of a subject that continues to be of interest.

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Decolonising the Mind: Reviews: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o: Other books by Ngugi wa Thiong'o under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Kenyan author (James) Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o was born in 1938.

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