“Mother Wanjik?, wherever your soul rests, I beg you to forgive me for all the years I had abandoned the tongue you gave me at birth; the language through which you sang me lullabies; and told me stories that thrilled the heart. I have come back home: I embrace my mother tongue. The prodigal son is back,” he told a virtual audience this week.
True to his standpoint on the equality of languages, renowned novelist and essayist Prof Ngugi Wa Thiong’o didn’t deliver his acceptance speech in English when, on Thursday, he was honoured as the 31st recipient of the Catalonia International Prize for his daring and distinguished literary work and defense of African languages.
The Kenya writer, who dropped his colonial name (James) decades ago, drove the point home by speaking in his mother tongue – Kikuyu.
This piece is, therefore, a product of a translation. We tried our level best to retain all nuances.
The virtual award ceremony took place in Catalonia, Spain, where President Qium Torra said he was honoured to present the award to Prof Wa Thiong’o though he regretted that it had to be presented from a distance.
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Prof Wa Thiong’o thanked the Catalonian government for the El Premie Internacional. The award had touched his heart in so many ways, he said.
“I received news of the award, in December 2019, while I was in a hospital bed in UC Medical after undergoing a triple bypass surgery on my heart. Physically helpless and contemplating my testament, this award made me feel celebrated and appreciated on my journey back to the land of the living,” he told the audience.
UC stands for the University of California where he teaches.
He highlighted the honour of being among the other luminaries, Bishop Desmond Tutu and former US President Jimmy Carter, to receive the prize.
Prof Wa Thiong’o made a special note on the award’s 2011 winner the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami.
"Although we had never met face to face, I always felt as if I know Murakami . Year after year, his name and mine are always on top of the list of those expected to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature," he said.
Prof Wa Thiong’o foregrounded the link between Catalonia and how his publisher Laura Verga invited him to Barcelona, Spain, where one of the books he was gifted was Canigou by Jacinta Veladuega, an epic novel which reminded him the Kirinyaga.
“This book inspired me to write my first epic novel Kenda Muihuru Rugano rwa Gikuyu na Mumbi [The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gikuyu and Mumbi.] which was published in Kenya two years ago,”
The English translation is will be released in October 2020.
The River Between author said he was receiving the award with the joy of bringing together Kikuyu and Catalan cultures as well as all the African and global indigenous languages that are oppressed and discarded by the languages that are considered the domineering languages of the world.
Catalonia, capital Barcelona, is a wealthy autonomous region of Spain that unsuccessfully declared independence in 2017.
Prof Wa Thiong’o, whose works encapsulate the socialist ethic, said the world we live in was governed by a system of oppression where the majority exploits the minority.
“We live in a world where a small group of people are carried by the majority the same way the head is carried by the rest of the body. The joys of a few people are derived from the tears of the public, and the riches of 10 millionaires is built on the backs of 100 million people,” said the writer who cherishes the socialist aesthetic.
It is this unshakable fidelity to social justice that had him detained by the Jomo Kenyatta government. The experience is succinctly captured in Ngugi Detained.
This system of oppression is evident in the literary world where for one language to thrive, the other languages must be silenced, he said.
“I am a believer that all languages, even those spoken by a small number of people, should be protected and nurtured. There should be friendly exchanges between languages where we talk to each other; not rule each other. Having a vast array of languages is as important as Oxygen on the planet,” he said.
Prof Wa Thiong’o said that all the languages should be spoken equally to give the world life and one way to build bridges across cultures is through translation.
He narrated the story of his mother Wanjiku who did not know how to read or write but gave him the vision and drive to read and write.
However, Prof Wa Thiong’o said when he started writing, he used the language of her oppressors, The English, but he luckily he opened his eyes and found his way back to his mother’s language.
The speech was concluded with a Kikuyu folk song as he dedicated the award to his mother and all the language warriors of the world.
He said the award was recognition of his collective work over the decades as well as all African languages on the continent.
Prof Wa Thiong’o was born in Limuru 82 years ago and was educated in Makerere, Leeds and Yorkshire universities. He taught Literature at the University of Nairobi during which time he was detained and his open-air theatre at Kamiriithu village was razed by the police. He had to seek political asylum after his release from the dungeon.
He comes regularly for speaking engagements and business despite a vicious attack on him and his wife Njeeri in Nairobi in 2004 and has met President Uhuru Kenyatta.
Click here to appreciate Prof Wa Thiong'os creative output.
-Backgrounding and additional writing by Wambua Sammy