At 81, Ngugi still speaks the truth on mother tongues

“Welcome, Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Come and speak the truth!” These were the words of the master of ceremonies, Owen Mc’Onyango before he handed over the microphone to Prof Ngugi at the Millenium Hall, Maseno University, on February 4, 2019.

Let me bring you up to speed. Ngugi was in the hall to officially launch Somo Ber, the Dholuo competency-based curriculum books for grades 1, 2 and 3, all published by East African Educational Publishers (EAEP) Limited. There was a huge audience.

Well, let’s revert to Ngugi’s introduction to the audience by Dr Mc’Onyango. “Superficially, the utterance that is the object of my reference and fascination may pass as any other commonplace statement. How I wish I could give these words a casual look and let them be blown away by the wind.

Sadly, all the time I have invested in my tango dance with literature have made an impact on me. I have become very analytical. I have learnt to listen not only to what one says but also whatever it is that they are not explicitly saying.” In just a few sentences, Mc’Onyango spoke volumes. He pointed out Ngugi’s consistency in his campaign on decolonisation of the mind. He unveiled Ngugi, the language politician, to the people.

Most importantly, with his words, Mc’Onyango endorsed Ngugi as the merchant of truth. I corked my ears. I was ready to listen to the truth. And I was excited. It would be my first time to hear the truth from the horse’s mouth. Ngugi did not disappoint. He presented the truth as he envisions and perceives it. All through his address, something stood out. His tone was not combative. He did not shout.

There was no noticeable element of radicalisation in his tone. On the contrary, he was persuasive. His tone was even and convincing. Ngugi did little to conceal his awareness of how misunderstood his argument has been over the years.

Ngugi set the record straight. In his arguments on language, it has never been his intention to decimate other languages as he elevates mother tongues. His interest, instead, he reminded his audience, lay in the relationship between mother tongues and other languages.

In fact, Ngugi wants us to learn as many foreign languages as we possibly can. This, in his view, is empowerment. What disturbs him is the African misinformed penchant for foreign languages at the expense of their own languages. He wondered aloud, for example, why an African teacher should vilify and torment an African learner for speaking mother tongue. Anybody who has read Ngugi will accuse me of preaching to the converted. I will plead guilty to such a charge. One thing calls for our attention nonetheless.

Look, Ngugi is 81. He has never faltered. He still remains faithful to his cause. He still speaks the truth. Pained by the fact that his writings were inaccessible to his mother, he bade farewell to English decades ago. Isn’t it time the Government heeded Ngugi’s counsel and invested in the promoting local languages? We ought to be wiser now and break the shackles of language enslavement. Let us completely decolonise the mind now! As Ngugi argued in his Maseno University address, it is the elites to lead anti-enslavement campaign.