Ngugi wa Thiong’o: I won the Premi International Prize while on a hospital bed, had written a will

Novelist Ngugi wa Thiong'o. [Standard]

On Thursday the globally-renowned Kenyan novelist Prof Ngugi wa Thiong'o was awarded The Premi  Internacional Prize by the President of Catalonia, Spain, for his writings and bravery.  Below, the acceptance speech he dedicated to his mother Wanjiku.

The President of Catalonia and all guests present:

The Premi Internacional Prize has touched my heart in special ways. When I received the news in December 2019, I was lying on a hospital bed at UC Medical Center, feeling completely helpless because I had just undergone a heart surgery: a triple by-pass. Before the surgery, I had already written my will. So when I received the news of the award, I felt as if I was being met with ululations of a welcome back home from the land of the Dead. Tears of gratitude and joy welled up in my eyes.

I was very pleased to see the impressive list of names of those that had received the prize before me:  which included Bishop Desmond Tutu, Malala Yousafzal, Nawal al Sa’dawi, Jimmy Carter, Luiz Inacio Lule da Silva, and especially, Haruki  Murakami, the Japanese writer. 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.  I would like to say a special thank you to Prof Vincent Cerf, who got the prize last year. I am happy to receive the baton from one of the Fathers of the Internet. 

This prize comes from Catalonia. My publisher, Luara Huerga, and her company, Royal Verde, come from here. My story Ituika ria Murungaru: Kana Kiria Gitumaga Andu Mathii Marungii, in English, The Upright Revolution or why Humans walk upright, has been translated into Catalan and other languages in Spain. Even the composer of the music for the body anthem, the song sung by all the organs of the body, comes from here. Her name is Clara Peya.

Laura Huerga and her Royal Verde have published a few other of my books. When once Laura invited me to Barcelona to celebrate the launch of one of those books, I was given a copy of an epic, titled, Canigo by Jacint Verdaguer.

Canigo is a story of a young knight, Gentil, who leaves the battlefield against the Saracens, all because his heart had been captured by the love of the beautiful woman, named Flordeneneu, Queen of the Fairies. Canigo is a story of love of the human and the land and the spirit. As I read about Mount Canigou, I was picturing Mount Kenya.

The story inspired me to write my own epic, my first ever attempt at the epic form, titled: Kenda Muiyuru: Rugano rwa Gikuyu na Mumbi.  The book came in Kenya about two years ago. The English translation will come out October 2020 under the title: The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gikuyu and Mumbi.

Therefore, in accepting this prize, I do so with joy, and in celebration of both Gikuyu and Catalan, and also all the other languages in Africa and the world, which have been marginalised by the self-proclaimed, imperial languages.

We live in a world built on systems of hierarchies, where splendor for a few is often built on the squalor for the many; a world where billions by few are earned on the backs of a billion poor. This hierarchy is best seen in the relationship between languages.  In order for a few languages to be, the many languages must cease to be. These few languages see themselves as more of languages than other languages and cultures. They set themselves as the kings of languages.

This was the case of Catalonia under Franco. The same was done to Native American languages. Also New Zealand, and Australia and Ireland. Asia too. Kenya and Africa, too. Imperial languages like the English, French, Spanish or Portuguese crowned themselves as kings of languages.

I believe that languages, no matter the number of the speakers, can and should relate not in terms of hierarchy, but in terms of the equal give and take of a network.  Monolingualism is the carbon monoxide of cultures; multilingualism is the oxygen of cultures.  Relating as networks of give and take, languages breathe life into each other.  Translation builds bridges between cultures. Glory to all the translators in the world.

Therefore, I feel joy in knowing that I have been awarded this prize for my struggle for equality of languages. The Los Angeles Times Review of Books once described me as a language warrior. I accept.

In ending, let me tell you a story about my mother. Her name was Wanjiku. She never went to school; she could not read or write. But she was the one who sent me to school. It was mother Wanjiku who instilled in me the dreams for education and pursuit of knowledge. But what happened after I got the education and I started to write books? What language did I use? The tongue of Mother Wanjiku who sent me to school? No. I embarked upon English, the language of those that had oppressed her. Luckily, I eventually came to my senses, opened my eyes, and I reconnected with the mother tongue.

Mother Wanjiku, 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.

Ni njangite o kuraya

Ni ngwirira riu

Ndigane na ucangaci

Ni nguinuka riu

            Ni nguka, hari we

            Ndige gucanga

            Ndaguthaitha unjiyukie

            Ni nguinuka riu.

I have wandered far

I repent right now

I leave behind all the waywardness

I am coming back home, right away.

            Let me come back to you

            Let me stop my wanderings

            I beg you take me back

            I am coming home right away

Yes, mother Wanjiku, I have come back to you. I receive this awesome award in your name. I also joyfully receive it in the names of all who fight for language justice, all who help in the conservation of languages, and for the unity of the peoples of the world.

Mr President, I am well aware I have been given this award for my work as a whole. But much of this work has now been written in Gikuyu.

Mr. President, because of your celebrating work written in an African language, I gratefully accept and receive this award: The Premi Internacional Prize.