Kenya in Translation: An
Interview with Ngugi wa Thiong'o
By Emily Wilson, AlterNet
March 2, 2008
Ngugi wa Thiong'o was imprisoned for writing in his own
language. He speaks to AlterNet about the importance of language
in battling oppression.
Kenya's recent political upheaval and news of brutal ethnic
clashes need to be understood in terms of the country's political
and cultural history. At a reading at the Center for the Art of
Translation in San Francisco, author and activist Ngugi wa
Thiong'o, one of the country's most important chroniclers of this
history, discussed the relationship between language and
Ngugi wa Thiong'o was born in Kenya in 1934 into a Gikuyu farming
family. The Mau Mau uprising against the British in the 1950s left
a deep impression on him, and much of his writing deals with
government corruption, oppression and inequality in society. In
1977, then vice-president Daniel arap Moi ordered Ngugi -- who was
teaching at Nairobi University at the time -- arrested and
imprisoned for his play I Will Marry When I Want, which he wrote
in his native language of Gikuyu -- and which was sharply critical
of neo-colonial Kenya. While in prison, Ngugi decided to forsake
writing in English and write only in Gikuyu in an effort to
revitalize indigenous languages. He wrote the first ever novel in
Gikuyu, Devil on the Cross, on prison-issued toilet paper, the
only paper available to him.
In 1978, following a campaign by Amnesty International, Ngugi was
released from prison. Following his release, he was unable to
regain his position at Nairobi University; with Moi elected
president, he left Kenya in 1982, going into self-imposed exile in
Britain and, later, the United States.
Ngugi argues that literature written by Africans in English is not
African literature, and he has encouraged other African authors to
write in their own languages to emphasize a non-colonial cultural
expression. He describes his most recent novel, Wizard of the Crow,
which he translated into English, as a "global epic from Africa."
A satire set in the imaginary African nation of Aburiria, the
novel is about a dictator -- known only as "the Ruler" -- who
plans to build the tallest building in the world so he can live in
the same neighborhood as God. Critics have compared its scope and
quality to the work of Salman Rushdie and Gabriel García Márquez.
Following his appearance in San Francisco, AlterNet caught up
with Ngugi, currently a professor of English and comparative
literature at the University of California, Irvine and the head of
its International Center for Writing and Translation.
Emily Wilson: Why were you put in prison? What did you do that
was so threatening to the government?
Ngugi wa Thiong'o: The community discovered its own voice;
how to talk about themselves, what they had done in history, the
confidence they were getting about themselves. It awakened their
consciousness. I don't think the government was so afraid of the
language -- because if the language were praising what the
government had done they would have been quite happy about it.
They would not have felt the need to arrest me. But I think a
repressive regime always fears people who are awakened --
particularly ordinary people. If they are awakened, I think
governments all over the world feel uncomfortable about that; they
want to be in control. (Laughs) They want to be the ones telling
people: "This is what we have done in history" but when people
begin to say, "No this is what we have done in history" it's a
EW: Why did you make the decision to write in your native
Ngugi wa Thiong'o: It was an act of resistance. In 1977 and
the whole of '78 I was in a maximum-security prison. Why? Because
I had combined with other people to work in a community theater in
a language understood by the peasantry. We put on a play called I
Will Marry When I Want and this was stopped by the government and
I was arrested and put in prison. When I was there I was wondering
why I was put in prison for working in an African language when I
had not been put in prison for working in English. So really, in
prison I started thinking more seriously about the relation
between language and power. And that's when I made the decision
not to write in English; "I'll be writing in Gikuyu." It was a way
of saying "I'm going to write in the very language which had been
the basis of my incarceration." It was a way of resisting that
incarceration. But of course, what I did not realize was that my
resistance had larger implications.
EW: What are the larger implications?
Ngugi wa Thiong'o: For me, being in prison writing in an
African language was a way of saying: "Even if you put me in
prison, I will keep on writing in the language which made you put
me in prison." But when I came out of prison with a novel, Devil
on the Cross, two things happened: One, it meant here I had an
original novel in an African language [that] could be read by
people who understood Gikuyu. But the same novel was now available
in English, so it reached the same audience I was reaching before.
It was a revelation for me, in a practical sense, that you could
write in an African language and still reach an audience beyond
that language through the art of translation. Through the act of
translation we break out of linguistic confinement and reach many
My practice then began encouraging other people. Writing in
African languages became a topic of discussion in conferences, in
schools, in classrooms; the issue is always being raised -- so
it's no longer "in the closet," as it were. It's part of the
discussion going on about the future of African literature. The
same questions are there in Native American languages, they're
there in native Canadian languages, they're there is some
marginalized European languages, like say, Irish. So what I
thought was just an African problem or issue is actually a global
phenomenon about relationships of power between languages and
EW: You say translation affects everyone's life. How is that
Ngugi wa Thiong'o: Translation can be invisible -- and it
is very real. The Bible affects everybody's life who is a
Christian, from the middle class in Europe to the peasant in
Africa and Asia. The Bible has affected their lives, but in
translation, since they do not read the Bible in the original
Greek or Hebrew. Many people do not know that Jesus did not speak
Latin or English or Hebrew; he spoke Aramaic. But nobody knows
that language. So we're talking about the Bible itself being a
translation of a translation of a translation. And, in reality, it
has affected people's lives in history. People went to war as a
result of it and even today, every Sunday, the Bible in
translation is being read to thousands and thousands in Africa. It
is an integral part of their functioning and the way they look at
EW: How is translation a political act?
Ngugi wa Thiong'o: We think of politics in terms of power
and who has the power. Politics is the end to which that power is
put. And you think: who holds that power, what group? In terms of
language, English is very dominant vis-à-vis African language.
That in itself is a power relationship -- between languages and
communities -- because the English language is a determinant of
the ladder to achievement. A person who acquires English has
access to all the things that that language makes possible. You
get another person who operates only in an African language and
there are many persons who operate only in African languages; he
or she is excluded from all the goodies that come with English.
And even in terms of justice, law codes, the legal system. A
person who does not know English in Africa is excluded from that
system because he can only operate through acts of translation. So
what is translated from English and into English -- and in what
quantities -- is a question of power.
EW: What do you think about what is happening in Kenya now?
Ngugi wa Thiong'o: It's very sad what is happening in Kenya
right now. There are two things: There is the question of the
elections and the allegations and counter-allegations of rigging
and so on. Of course that's a huge problem. That's something that
has to be solved politically, meaning you can recount the votes,
you can share power -- some political solution. But another
phenomenon developing in Kenya is ethnic cleansing -- and that's
the thing that has made me very sad. Because some people will use
the cover of the problems of rigged elections to do things that
are unacceptable like ethnic cleansing and displacement of people.
It's completely unacceptable.
I am hoping Kenyans will overcome this because we have to find our
own unity. There is no way we can survive as a nation in the world
without finding unity. But in Kenya, in Africa, there is the
question of uneven development … meaning some centers, which are
near towns or hubs gained more by way of having infrastructure.
The other problem is uneven social development. In each community
you get a small elite and the majority is poor. So those two
problems of uneven geographic development and uneven social
development are something that has to be tackled and its something
I've been writing about in all my books all these years, because
uneven geographic development also coincides with specific
linguistic communities. So those who are there are not getting the
goodies that those nearer the capitals are getting. Those problems
have to be addressed by whatever government is in power.
EW: How do you feel artists and writers are addressing these
Ngugi wa Thiong'o: What's good about writing is that when
you write novels or fiction, people can see that the problems in
one region are similar to problems in another region … If a novel
is written in a certain language with certain characters from a
particular community and the story is very good or illuminating,
then that work is translated into the language of another
community -- then they begin to see through their language that
the problems described there are the same as the problems they are
having. They can identify with characters from another language
group. We can appreciate each other's languages. And the question
of being uncomfortable about our languages would go away.
EW: What is it like to be an African writer physically away
Ngugi wa Thiong'o: Any writer likes to be near the area
which is the location of his work. Of course it's very, very
important for me to feel Kenya, to feel, every day, this is where
images come from. So to be taken away from that by political
pressure or other means -- one is taken away from the area, which
is the basis of inspiration -- is difficult. You get taken from an
area where the language you are using, in my case Gikuyu language
is spoken there and I'm having to operate in, say, New York, or in
Irvine, writing in Gikuyu language in an environment which is not
Gikuyu-speaking. So I'm writing for those people in Kenya, but in
Irvine and in New York. I'm more trying to connect; I'm more
listening to people. Whatever I get is very meaningful to me.