Sing like Parrots

Adewale Maja-Pearce

  • Birth of a Dream Weaver: A Writer’s Awakening by Ngugi wa Thiong’o
    Harvill Secker, 256 pp, £14.99, November 2016, ISBN 978 1 84655 989 1

In 1962 the young Ngugi wa Thiong’o had a piece of good fortune. He had left Kenya for Uganda, where he was enrolled as an undergraduate at Makerere, in Kampala. As he explains in Birth of a Dream Weaver, the third of his memoirs, the university was hosting a conference on ‘African writers of English expression’, and he was invited to join a panel on the strength of a handful of short stories published by a local press in Kenya. At the conference he approached Chinua Achebe, one of the stars of the event, whose novel Things Fall Apart had appeared four years earlier in Britain and gone on to become the first, and most enduring, title in the newly established Heinemann African Writers Series. Ngugi had the manuscript of a novel in progress and asked Achebe to take a look. He had no idea that Achebe had been appointed general editor of the series and was scouting for new writers. Two years later, Weep Not, Child became the first English-language novel by a black Kenyan writer. Two more novels quickly followed – The River Between and A Grain of Wheat – and Ngugi became an international bestseller.

Like Achebe, Ngugi came of age at the moment of independence from British colonial rule. Both were rare examples of ‘natives’ with a university degree. Makerere, Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone and Ibadan – Achebe’s Nigerian alma mater – were the only institutions of higher learning in the whole of British-ruled Africa. The British had founded Ibadan and upgraded Makerere in the late 1940s, as the US dismantled the old imperial order and the Soviet Union looked on with an ambitious eye. It did no harm to set the tone for a postcolonial relationship, the British believed, by moulding an indigenous cadre in the image of the departing power. In the mid-1950s Molly Mahood, a Shakespeare scholar from Oxford, told students and faculty at Ibadan that ‘a country does not attain nationhood without a literature, and Nigeria has not yet a literature.’ She meant a literature in English, and pointed to Ireland, whose writers had long ago abandoned their native language, as an instructive precedent.

This was not a condescending comparison. Nigeria, like Kenya, owed its territorial identity, and its lingua franca, to the colonial power that had subjugated a range of indigenous peoples and confined them within a single border. Yet those ethnicities had rich oral traditions that were held in high regard by their audiences, just as the novel, written verse and drama were valued in the colonising countries. (In Nigeria, whether Mahood knew it or not, there had also been a turn to print during the 1930s, as authors began writing novels and plays in local languages.) By the time of the Makerere conference, with independence already won by Nigeria and Ghana, and looming for Kenya and Uganda, the West was eager for a role in the postcolonial future. For Britain – and the US – this meant stressing the vitality and relevance of English. It turned out that the conference was convened under the auspices of the CIA’s cultural wing, the Congress of Cultural Freedom, as Ngugi discovered later.

The neo-colonial drift of Makerere was apparent to more forward-thinking, or radical, delegates in Kampala. As Ngugi recalls, the discussion quickly turned to the subject of what, exactly, constituted African literature. He revisits a famous article by the Nigerian activist and intellectual Obi Wali, ‘The Dead End of African Literature?’ (1963), which argues that ‘any true African literature must be written in the African languages.’ This was the position that Ngugi eventually adopted in his own, equally famous collection of essays, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986), a ‘farewell to English as a vehicle for any of my writings’. ‘European’ languages, Ngugi insisted, inscribe a neo-colonial dependency in African cultures that use them: freedom can only be achieved through the medium of languages that contain the ‘collective experience’ of Africans.

Ngugi’s anxieties about language have been shared by many African writers. Achebe, whose reputation is based on a famous trilogy of novels in English, was also worried that writers who took up the colonial language were guilty of a ‘dreadful betrayal’: he was thinking of Leavis’s view, which Ngugi shares, that language is not simply ‘an analogue for a culture’ but its ‘essential life’. Achebe’s approach was to say that the African writer ‘should aim to use English in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost’. Yet that same writer must also fashion ‘an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience’. This was either an elegant fudge or an impossible demand. Can a language, and the way it’s used, be both particular and universal? Universal for whom? For graduates of Makerere and Ibadan, schooled in Leavis’s great tradition? Or for Ngugi’s Gikuyu mother, who neither read nor wrote in her own language and spoke no English? Dealing mostly with life at Makerere, as well as Ngugi’s short stint as a journalist before studying at Leeds, Birth of a Dream-Weaver prowls around this dilemma, but stops well short of the point at which Ngugi, by then nearly forty, tried to resolve it. I’m not sure how long we’ll have to wait for another volume, to get us to that crucial moment, both for Ngugi and for the literary scene in Africa, so we may as well address it now.

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[*] R.W. Johnson wrote about Powell’s reaction to Hola in the LRB of 23 January 1997, and Bernard Porter wrote about the episode itself in the issue of 3 March 2005.