Prison Left Me Laughing: A Conversation with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

By Remo Verdickt, Emiel RoothooftSeptember 1, 2023

Prison Left Me Laughing: A Conversation with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

The Language of Languages

NGŨGĨ WA THIONG’O is considered one of the leading writers on the African continent of the last 50 years. On December 31, 1977, he was arrested and spent a year in prison as an opponent of the Kenyatta dictatorship. During his imprisonment, Ngũgĩ developed the seminal Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986) and decided to substitute his native Gĩkũyũ for English as his primary language of writing. A staunch champion of (self-)translation, he recently published a collection of essays on the subject, entitled The Language of Languages (2023). Here is an edited version of our conversation about his new book and how it reflects back upon his career.


REMO VERDICKT & EMIEL ROOTHOOFT: Why is translation “the language of languages”?

NGŨGĨ WA THIONG’O: When two or three languages share a knowledge system, they do this through translation. In other words, if languages had a common language, that language would be called translation. Hence my new book’s title, The Language of Languages.

I reject a hierarchy of languages where some languages assume themselves to be higher than others—especially within postcolonial countries or countries that experience any system of oppression whatsoever. At the same time, I believe that all languages are very unique. Each language, however small, has a unique musicality that cannot be replaced by another. I like to compare them to musical instruments. A piano has its own specific sound or musicality, which you cannot mistake for that of a guitar. You cannot destroy or diminish the importance of other instruments like the guitar or the violin and leave only the sound of the piano. When different instruments work together, they produce harmony, orchestras—just like languages.

Why do you refrain from using the term “minority language” throughout the book?

Because the use of the term is often ridiculous. Think, for instance, of an Indian language spoken by millions of people but which is still treated as “a minority language.” [Laughs.] These terms are part of the hierarchical system I reject.

But are there languages of power? Of course! The language of power is the language of the ruling nation or the ruling section within a nation. I come from Kenya and my mother tongue is Gĩkũyũ, but in Kenya, English is the language of administration and of education—of power—even though 90 percent of the Kenyan population doesn’t speak it. If you want to get an education or obtain any position in government, you have to reckon with the language of power.

Some of these languages of power have criminal relationships to other languages. Colonizers consciously and deliberately kill the language of the people they have conquered—and their own languages are a means of conquest. Spanish missionaries encountered highly advanced civilizations in the Americas, with unique writing systems and histories. The Spanish systematically burned these down, destroying all the written systems and materials of the Maya civilization.

The question of who gets translated into what language obviously has consequences for who gains recognition and wins prizes. We have seen Abdulrazak Gurnah win the Nobel Prize in 2021, but he writes in English instead of his native Swahili. Do you think that the Swedish Academy and the prize industry at large have a bias against African and non-imperial languages?

Let me congratulate Gurnah and all the others from Africa and around the world who have received that kind of recognition for their writing. I hope there will come a time when someone writing in an African language or, say, a Native American language will receive the Nobel Prize. It seems odd that in Africa there has been no writer of our languages who has received the prize.

The quality of the writing comes first, but we can also look at it this way: today, there are prizes specifically for African literature awarded on the condition that the so-called African writer does not write in an African language. [Laughs.] You cannot submit a novel or a short story written in an African language into those competitions. The prizes become part of the suppression of languages.

What about the publishing industry?

In the case of African literature, I have always argued that you need at least three elements: there must be writers who are writing in an African language, but there must also be publishers who publish those books. Because without a publisher, a writer has no means of becoming known—and no writer writes to keep their books in their home library forever. There are very few [who do], that much I can tell you.

But the problem for Africa is also governmental. Most of the governments in Africa are run by products of the colonial education system. They have come to internalize the colonial policies—downgrading African languages and believing that a proper education must be formed through English, French, or Portuguese. In Kenya, we have even gone further. Now we have schools that are run by Africans for African children that offer the British curriculum.

In your novel Wizard of the Crow (2006), the protagonist, Kamĩtĩ, is made more and more aware of the impossibility of escaping politics by his lover Nyawĩra, who says that one must choose between “personal salvation or a collective deliverance.” Is writing in Gĩkũyũ a case of “personal salvation” for you—or is it a move toward “collective deliverance”?

I suppose that when you write in English, you write for personal salvation. Joseph Conrad was Polish, but he learned English at the age of 19 and produced an incredible body of work in that language. That was a personal thing in the sense that he found writerly fulfillment or whatever, but he did not contribute to Polish literature. The same goes for writers like Chinua Achebe and myself. Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958) is a brilliant novel—in English, but it did nothing, absolutely nothing, for Ibo literature. The same in the case of James Joyce and many Irish writers, as Irish, too, was systematically destroyed by the English colonials. James Joyce, in fact, is very cognizant in his writings about the language question, but still he wrote in English. The same applies for my own early novels [written in English]—Weep Not, Child (1964), The River Between (1965), A Grain of Wheat (1967), and Petals of Blood (1977). I’m glad I wrote them, but I’m happier having written my later novels in Gĩkũyũ.

Apart from the language question, do you write for the collective?

No, all writers have to write from something within them. If you say, “Let me sit down and write a novel for the people,” it’s not going to work. It’s great when that motivates you to keep writing, but as a writer you have to be faithful to your imagination. Personally, when I write, I want to communicate something. I’m very concerned about inequality. I don’t want to see a society where palaces of gold are built next to homeless people. I cannot accept a world in which the grandeur of a few is built on the denigration of the many. My books are written from the perspective of empowerment of the people.

In Weep Not, Child, Njoroge and his father Ngotho discuss the purpose of education. Njoroge concludes that it’s a self-sufficient goal, whereas Ngotho thinks it serves the reappropriation of land. What do you consider the aim of education to be?

We need the world to empower all people, not just a few. We have a tendency to think of knowledge as belonging to professors and writers, but everybody has their own knowledge. I’m a distinguished professor of English and comparative literature, but when my lock and key don’t work, I don’t think, Oh, let’s call my fellow professor for help—I find a locksmith. The same goes for the working person in the factories. Again, because of the nature of the society in which we live, the hierarchies of everything are also reflected in education and knowledge systems. We assume that some people have the knowledge and others have to kneel down and ask for the knowledge to trickle down to them. Instead, we have to find a system in which we harness the knowledge systems that people have. You don’t put knowledge up in hierarchies—it’s communication, a give-and-take. Then, we can truly advance.

You have satirized how African countries exploit the underprivileged for their public image. There’s this scene in the beginning of Wizard of the Crow where the narrator mentions that the beggars and the flies are being used in the streets of Aburĩria to draw tourists …

[Laughs.] Look at pictures of Africa. They mainly show extreme poverty or the rich fauna and flora, but they ignore the regular and rich people who live there. Africa is not just poor people, not just running noses and flies around one’s ears and eyes; there are also people who drive Mercedes-Benzes and helicopters. The key thing is to show the two. I’m not arguing to ignore the poverty but to contrast these two sides and reveal their connection. Should I come to Belgium with my camera, I will not just focus on the palaces and the skyscrapers but also on the streets and how people live.

Your later work is more satirical than the early books. In Matigari ma Njirũũngi (1986), John Boy Junior says that the time of his people’s fathers was one of tragedy and their own was one of comedy. Did the same shift occur in your work?

In December 1977, I was arrested and placed in a maximum-security prison because I had participated in the play I Will Marry When I Want, which was performed by peasants and workers from the local village in Gĩkũyũ [and which Ngũgĩ co-wrote with Ngũgĩ wa Mĩriĩ]. There I was, in prison, thinking about it all. The leader who put me in prison was Jomo Kenyatta, himself a Gĩkũyũ speaker. Prison is just meant to destroy somebody, so I felt I had to contrast myself and my environment. So, I began to laugh. [Laughs.] I started laughing at those who put me in prison, and that healed me a little bit.

My turn to satirical novels started with my first novel in Gĩkũyũ, which I wrote on toilet paper. It was the irony of it all: a professor of literature in Nairobi, chair of the department, sitting in a prison cell without a pen, paper, or books. I was confined for writing in Gĩkũyũ, but some of my prison guards were Gĩkũyũ speakers and they could not believe that I was detained for writing in a certain language. They didn’t mind discussing the Gĩkũyũ language with me. That time was full of ironies, but laughter was very important for me. I think my novels since have been satirical.

Let us take a quote from Mugo in A Grain of Wheat: “I am important. I must not die. To keep myself alive, healthy, strong—to wait for my mission in life—is a duty to myself, to men and women of tomorrow.” Mugo recognizes that his survival is the most important thing. Have you, by choosing exile, come to the same conclusion?

Let me just correct one thing: I did not choose exile. First of all, I agree that a writer must survive. If I had known beforehand that I would be detained, I would not have said, “Oh, let me go to prison as an experience where I can acquire the satirical quality to my writing.” Exile was not a choice. I was forced into it. After my release, I was in London for the launch of Devil on the Cross (1980) when things turned very bad in Kenya—the dictatorship of Daniel arap Moi. The government used the occasion to kill many people. Fellow writers fled to Zimbabwe.

When I returned eventually to Kenya, what happened? My wife and I were attacked in a hotel in Nairobi by armed gunmen who didn’t steal a thing from us—only humiliation. [Ngũgĩ’s wife was raped by the assailants. Ngũgĩ himself was beaten with a gun and suffered cigarette burns.]

If there’s a choice between prison or death, I would choose exile. I appreciate the fact that for many years I was able to live in Britain and in America, with jobs, some of them at leading institutions, like Yale, New York University, and now the University of California, Irvine. But my heart, believe me, is still in Kenya.

I want to be very clear: if one needs to escape in order to survive, that’s fine. Even exiles have done a lot in history. The best known is Moses, growing up in Egypt but leading his people into freedom. Jesus himself had to escape to Egypt. Muhammad’s followers had to escape to Ethiopia. Many writers escaped from Hitler’s Germany to America. Still, exile is like an external prison. In both cases, you try to overcome its adversities.

You’re a very fierce critic of globalization, which you contrast with globalism. What’s the difference?

I like to think of globalism as the coming together of peoples. When I travel, my beliefs are reaffirmed—good people can live together. The globalization I don’t like is what I call the “gobble-ization” of resources. Take Africa, the second-biggest continent in the world. Ninety percent of the resources of the continent are consumed by the West—the gold, the diamond, the copper, the zinc, the uranium. Because the West consumes that big percentage of resources, Africa is very poor. Africa is a donor to the West, but Europe is portrayed as a donor to Africa.

What African writer should we read next?

The writer of the future, who writes in an African language.


Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is a Kenyan author whose work includes novels, plays, short stories, and essays, ranging from literary and social criticism to children’s literature. He is the founder and editor of the Gĩkũyũ-language journal Mutiiri.

Remo Verdickt is a doctoral researcher at the University of Leuven in Belgium, working on the posthumous career of James Baldwin.

Emiel Roothooft studies philosophy at KU Leuven in Belgium and writes for Dutch-language media.

LARB Contributors

Remo Verdickt is a doctoral researcher at the University of Leuven in Belgium, working on the posthumous career of James Baldwin.
Emiel Roothooft studies philosophy at KU Leuven in Belgium and writes for Dutch-language media.


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