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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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Summary and Study Guide


Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature is a nonfiction book published in 1986 by the Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o. In the Introduction, titled “Towards the Universal Language of Struggle,” Ngũgĩ writes: “This book, is a summary of some of the issues in which I have been passionately involved for the last twenty years of my practice in fiction, theatre, criticism and in teaching literature” (1). Decolonising the Mind is a series of essays based on Ngũgĩ’s lectures that touch on the key themes which have preoccupied the author between the 1960s and the 1980s: theatre, language, politics, literature, and the history of the colonization of the African continent. In writing Decolonising the Mind, Ngũgĩ drew on his experiences of imprisonment and exile following his production of a controversial 1977 play that challenged the authoritarian status quo in Kenya.


In Chapter 1, “The Language of African Literature,” Ngũgĩ deals with the relationship between imperialism and resistance by examining how English was substituted for Indigenous Kenyan language during the colonial era of British occupation. For Ngũgĩ, the detrimental impact of colonization and imperialism extend all the way down to the very language that is used by certain authors. This is the case, says Ngũgĩ, because of the inherent nature of language which carries within itself a whole world of references and values that are specific to the culture from which it originates. Ngũgĩ advocates for the revival of literature written in Indigenous African languages, because the literature of Europe is inseparable from the racist images and stereotypes that perpetuate the false ideology of European superiority over the African continent as a whole.

Chapter 2, “The Language of African Theatre,” shows how the colonial history seen in the previous chapter direct affected the role that theatre played in Kenya in the 1970s and 80s. In particular, Ngũgĩ touches on his time spent organizing a theatre production with his local community and his eventual imprisonment for those actions. Ngũgĩ’s personal history gives the reader a clear example of the political potential for revolutionary change that exists in theatre and literature.

In Chapter 3, “The Language of African Fiction,” Ngũgĩ reflects on the relationship between the writer and Kenyan society that is now defined by the postcolonial era. Ngũgĩ argues that it is artists and writers who possess the ability to transform the images that African peoples come to identify with by producing works of art and literature in their native tongue.

Finally, in Chapter 4, “The Quest for Relevance,” Ngũgĩ brings these preceding analyses to bear on his own experiences as a professor in Kenya. Ngũgĩ deals with the institutional debate regarding his department’s attempt to center the curriculum around African languages and those works of literature that place a focus on the lived experience of African peoples.