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Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1986

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Important Quotes

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“Universities today, particularly in Africa, have become the modern patrons for the artist. Most African-writers are products of universities: indeed a good number of them still combine academic posts and writing. Also, a writer and a surgeon have something in common—a passion for truth. Prescription of the correct cure is dependent on a rigorous analysis of reality. Writers are surgeons of the heart and souls of a community.” 

(Preface , Page ix)

Ngũgĩ describes how he views the role of the author with respect to the author’s country of origin, national community, and intended audience. Just like doctors who train in universities prior to their practice and who sometimes maintain their positions within academia, a writer articulates the collective feelings and emotions that come to define a community, whether in the past or in the present. It is this task of giving voice to the feeling of a community that renders the writer a “surgeon,” because to do justice to the people requires precision. 

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“If in these essays I criticise the Afro-European (or Euroafrican) choice of our linguistic praxis, it is not to take away from the talent and the genius of those who have written in English, French or Portuguese. On the contrary I am lamenting a neo-colonial situation which has meant the European bourgeoisie once again stealing our talents and geniuses as they have stolen our economies. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Europe stole art treasures from Africa to decorate their houses and museums; in the twentieth century Europe is stealing the treasures of the mind to enrich their languages and cultures. Africa needs back its economy, its politics, its culture, its languages and all its patriotic writers.” 

(Preface , Page xii)

Ngũgĩ announces a crucial clarification for the subsequent chapters of the book. Although he criticizes writers who choose to write in a European as opposed to African language, he does not intend to emphasize supposed guilt on the part of any individual author. Rather, Ngũgĩ’s concern is that by continuing to write in European languages, African authors remain complicit in perpetuating European hegemony for all people of African descent. 

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“I shall look at the African realities as they are affected by the great struggle between the two mutually opposed forces in Africa today: an imperialist tradition on one hand, and a resistance tradition on the other. The imperialist tradition in Africa is today maintained by the international bourgeoisie using the multinational and of course the flag-waving native ruling classes. [...]The resistance tradition is being carried out by the working people (the peasantry and the proletariat) aided by patriotic students, intellectuals (academic and non-academic), soldiers and other progressive elements of the petty middle class.”

(Introduction , Page 2)

Ngũgĩ provides the reader with the framework that unifies each of the chapters of the book. Regardless if the topic is literature, history, language, or