Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Writing in His Own Language


Ngugi Wa'Thiong'O reads from Wizard Of The Crow, University of Hawaii at Manoa
Kanaka Menehune, via Flickr

What is your native language? How often do you use it? Spotlight looks at Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and his decision to write in his native language.

Transcript


Voice 1 

Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Liz Waid.

Voice 2

And I’m Joshua Leo. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

Voice 1 

In Kenya, a young man sits in his high school classroom. He is learning in English. His classes are in English. His books are in English. His teachers speak English and he must ask questions in English. Everything is in English.

Voice 2 

But when he steps out of the school, everything is different. Outside of the school, the boy does not speak in English. He speaks his native language – Gikuyu. Every day, it is like he is living in two different countries. For Ngugi wa Thiogn’o, this was his life. This experience changed how he understood language and art. Today’s Spotlight is on Ngugi wa Thiogn’o, the Kenyan writer.

Voice 1 

Ngugi was born in a small village in Kenya. It was 1938. At the time, Great Britain ruled Kenya. They built English schools for the Kenyan people. Ngugi attended Alliance High School. At school, he learned history and stories from a British perspective. They told Britain’s version of the story, not the African version. He learned about British writers like Shakespeare. He also had a British name. During this time, it was common for Kenyans to take British names. Ngugi was called “James Ngugi.”

Voice 2

During his time at school, Kenya was at war. The Kenyan people wanted independence from British rule. They wanted to govern themselves. This war made things very difficult for Ngugi at school. He told the news organization, NPR:

Voice 3

“Inside my school, I would feel wonderful - I was learning Shakespeare! But the second I stepped out of the gates of the high school, something difficult would happen. It made me remember that war was happening. People were dying, people were being arrested, people were living in fear.”

Voice 1 

The war affected Ngugi’s whole life. His older brothers fought in the war. They would be gone for long periods of time. Ngugi worried about them. The war also affected his village and his home. One year, he went on a holiday trip with his school. When he returned home, his village had been completely destroyed. The British army had attacked and destroyed it. The memory of this experience is still very hard for Ngugi. He told NPR:

Voice 3

“That memory, even today, is a little difficult. To go home, expecting to meet my mother. I expected to have a big welcome, as a high school student returning home in glory. Only, I found that my home did not exist. I did not know where my mother was, or my brother. It was not only my own house, but my whole village. My village, that I had come to know and love my whole life, had been burned to the ground.”

Voice 2 

This event changed Ngugi’s life. After his village was destroyed, he began to study harder. He earned degrees from schools in Uganda and in England. He became very good at speaking and writing in English. His first book was published in 1964. It was called “Weep Not, Child.” It was the first book in English by an East African writer. People all over the world read his work.

Voice 1 

After he finished school, he moved home to Kenya and continued writing. He wrote many books and plays in English. But he worried about writing in English. The people who taught him English were the same people who destroyed his village. He began to write more about the government.

Voice 2 

It was not long before Ngugi was in trouble. In 1977, he wrote a play about the government. It encouraged the people watching to join in the play. It encouraged people to use language to fight. The play was very popular, but some government officials did not like what it said. The government forced the play to close. Ngugi was arrested and put in prison.

Voice 1

Prison was a difficult time for Ngugi. During that time, he decided that it was important for him to speak and write in his own language - his native language, Gikuyu. He believed that people should read books that are about their own cultures. So while in prison, he started writing in Gikuyu. He wrote the first Gikuyu-language book. He also changed his name back to Ngugi wa Thiogn’o. He was no longer James Ngugi.

Voice 2 

Ngugi left prison after one year. But Ngugi and his family could not stay in Kenya. It was no longer safe. So they moved to the United States. It was twenty years before they could return to Kenya. Ngugi became a university teacher. He continues to write books in both Gikuyu and English. He has been considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature. And he has continued to write about the importance of native languages in art and culture. Ngugi believes that language, art, and freedom are closely connected. He talked with the magazine Left Curve about this idea. He said,

Voice 3 

“The second you open a democratic or free space, it is important for art. You also open the space for creativity. In history, there have been times of great change. In these times, you can see art and the government looking forward to and almost working together on a new world. Art looks forward to a new world. Revolutionary forces in society are always looking forward to a new world.”

Voice 1 

For Ngugi, speaking native languages is important for saving traditions and culture. And traditional cultures must exist to create good art. Ngugi believes that writing in his native language respects his home. His life taught him that art can be used to create social change, and to change governments. He wants to remember the time of war in Kenya. He does this by creating art in his first language.

Voice 2 

Ngugi also believes that learning from the past can lead to a better future. He thinks language and art will help create a better future by teaching about the past. In 2012, he gave a speech about the importance of art and culture. In it, he said:

Voice 3 

“Art and the freedom to express it are important to culture. Culture is not the same thing as one tradition. Culture is a community in motion. Culture is to a community what a flower is to a plant. A flower is very beautiful to see. But it is the result of the roots, the stem, the branches and the leaves. But the flower is special because it contains the seeds. These seeds are the future. It is the product of the past, and is ready for tomorrow.”

Voice 1 

The writer and producer of this program was Dianna Anderson. The voices you heard were from the United States and the United Kingdom. All quotes were adapted for this program and voiced by Spotlight. You can listen to this program again and read it, on the internet at http://www.radioenglish.net. This program is called “Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Writing in His Own Language.”

Voice 2 

We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Goodbye!

Question:

How often do you use your native language?

Comments


Avatar Spotlight
Haes
said on April 30, 2013

Thanks!

Avatar Spotlight
thanhdung07121985@gmail.com
said on April 30, 2013

The war stopped.But it’s consequence has been left until now such as the loss,wound.

I highly appriciate of Ngugi’s mind.

It is a great mind which is always towards the peace,independence, and social progress.

All of these things are human’s wish.

Have a nice day!

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QuangTrang
said on July 21, 2014

Using language such as news paper, book or play is a sharp knife to fight the government officials, who doing wrong things but the writer will be gotten trouble with them. As Ngugi he wrote the book and play to against Great Britain who ruled Kenya, the result he was in the prison.
The writer who write the book or play to repair the wrong things from government officials’s acts always needed in peace time and war time, but the acts for encourager men and I always proud them. I hope in VIetnam have many people as Ngugi but they get no trouble, no prison.

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hermit peter
said on July 19, 2017

Thank you sir for the last email on my job looking and lonliness problem
i am sure i am a introverted person when i was a child. i was born in country, not city. my favoriate is reading.i seldom went to visist my classmate or play with them. i love alone. my face even be red when i talk to a girl at university.
at the beginning of my marriage, i lived with my wife alone, we were happy and we can endure each one’s shortcoming even though we also quarrelled.
when my daughter was born, her parents cherish her and our daughter, and their house was old to dismantle, so they moved to us and took care of baby.
you know, i am a country man, they are city person, i think there are thinking and behavior gap between us. i didn’t feel goot at something they have done, and they believed i have done something wrong. there were always violently qurrals each several months. but we all too stubbron to change ourselves. i really appreciate what they did, but i always feel bad when i saw they spoiled my daughter. they always said she is too young, and she will be good when she is older. i do envy your ways to raising your childern i learned from TV or net: you let children do what they want to do and watch them out of risk only,not treat them like a king.
so our relationship is so bad, even between my wife and I.
i wonder how i should do, i even thought the best solution is seperation.

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hermit peter
said on July 19, 2017

to tell you the truth, my daughter even be fed food when she is 7 years old.
ok, forget about those depressing thing, let’s talk about improving english.
i just studed at university, and i only expressed some words and short sentence, never spoke out a paragraph. i even did not catch some VOA with slow speed. later i entered a Danmark company in china, i need to report to my boss in english at morning department meeting. it’s a nightmare for me. i have to stir my brain to collect right words to speak.fortunately our boss has been worked in china several years, he can guess what we said(chinese english).speaking with foreign people, my english is improved so much, but it is not enough.
this big surprise to me happened in this month, it occur to me why not write down the words, phase and short sentence in my mobilephone when i meet those words which can be used frequently. so i did in this way. at first, i listened to your spotlight english, when i heared some new words or important words, i wrote it and checked it on dictionary to find other usage. when i heared it again and again in the spotlight, i would say, yes, i remember it, i have written it before, yes, it was used in this way.so i can master more words day after day. in a week, i could catch the low-speed Voa. then i read a word list and write the unfamilar word in my mobilephone
then i recognize that: yes, i could understand, but i need to express myself in the end.i only knew the grammer, but for sentence, i only can say, i am ...., she is ....., i know little about the subject is not pronoun.
i need to read more and hear more model sentence, and write them in my notebook and master them, then they will become my english.
Can you give me some valueable suggestion about my method? or some other effective way?
Thanks a lot!

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hermit peter
said on July 19, 2017

i prefer non-china comany to local ones. after i dismissed from Maersk container Qingdao, i stayed at home for 5 month. i want a foreign company, but there is little chance in Qingdao, because of finance depression last year. so i hurried to a local private enterprise. speak frankly, i am not used to the culture and working habit. the worker did lazily and looked work hard. the general manager lockd himself in his office play cards:Freecell Solitaire, i never see he come down to the workshop. the worker salary depends on how many products they finished. as i learned, when their payment is too high, the manager will reduce the unit price. so the workers didn’t want to work hard to finish more products to keep unit price and they have enough time to rest. there is no promotion, no incentive. that is not what i want.
i always want to leave to a foreign company, because i believe even foreign manager will promote some one he like, but he also remember your hard work, it rather fair than in local ones.that is the cause why i study english so hard.
the month before last, my ex-fellow in Maersk call me that he joined a new refeer company, he is the production manager, and need a process engineer, he think i am the right person.so i accept his invitatation and send my resume to the company. at first, everything is ok, the boss of chinese part are satisfied with me,  because a experieced man who can speak english well in this field is hard to find in Qingdao. then i am interviewed with the cooperator in Italy, and send what he wanted.after several days, the HR department say it is ok, he will send offer to me, and then i reply to them. and issue resignation letter to my mangager and take resignation process. then a terrible things happens:the HR call me that the cooperator is not satisfied with me, he say the drawing i made is too easy, and i do not fit the job. so l left the private comany, and get some compensation, and back home.
this is my miserable experiance this time. my wife laughed at me that i had a summer vacation each summer.
it is true, last summer i was dismissed from Maersk.

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kenhieuloilam
said on July 20, 2017

Each of us is born and grows up. We are cared for, taught and educated to become good persons of family and community. We live a beautiful good life. Beautiful good things exist. We do beautiful good things with all our efforts. Beautiful good things exist. We respect beautiful good values. We preserve beautiful good values. There are beautiful good things. There are not-good things. We do beautiful good things with all our efforts. We keep away from not good things.

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KatyBlake
said on July 26, 2017

hermit peter I will reply to you by email