His latest book is slim but packed with an impassioned message: If Africans do not shed Europhonism, they stand to lose their memory. A people without memory are in danger of losing their soul.
Europhonism, Ngugi was Thiong’o explains in Re-membering Africa, is the African’s continued self-identification with Anglophonism, Francophonism and Lusophonism. It is the African embrace of European culture. Europhonism is the replacement of native names and language systems with European ones.
It is the loss of self-identity. It is the loss of the African memory and consciousness, Ngugi says. The distinguished professor of English and comparative literature at the University of California argues that language is the carrier of culture. “To starve or kill a language is to starve and kill a people’s memory,” he says.
Ngugi writes that people lose their memory and self-identity through “linguicide”, as happened to the Africans taken as slaves to the Americas, and through “linguifam”, as happened to the Africans colonised on the continent. “Linguicide” is the equivalent of genocide; it is conscious acts of language liquidation.
“Linguifam” is linguistic famine. Re-membering Africa, 128 pages long, significantly differs from Ngugi’s other works. It is a collection of essays that draws from history, literature, anthropology and globalisation. It draws comparisons from other parts of the world and shows us in graphic terms the connectedness between colonialism and modernity.
With penetrating honesty, Ngugi seeks to decolonise the African memory. Of course, central to the African memory is language. “Language is a communication system and carrier of culture by virtue of being simultaneously the means and carrier of memory – what Frantz Fanon calls ‘bearing the weight of a civilisation,’” he says. Frantz Fanon refers to the African memory in Black Skin, White Masks.
Using illustrations from global history, Ngugi narrates in powerful words how Africans lost their self-confidence and memory, drawing parallels from other colonized peoples. “Ireland was England’s first colony, and it became a prototype for all other English colonies in Asia, Africa, and America” he writes. The British deployed language, religion, and education “to achieve loss of memory and dismember the Irish elite from their parental social body.”
And even when Japan invaded Korea in 1906, it banned Korean names and required the colonised to take on Japanese ones. In Kenya, the British did even more dramatic things in their bid to colonise the African memory. They captured Chief Waiyaki wa Hinga, one of the most important figures in Kikuyu anticolonial lore, removed him from the base of his power in Dagoretti and deported him to the Kenya Coast.
But on the way, they buried him alive at Kibwezi, head facing the bowels of the earth in opposition to the Kikuyu burial rites requirement that the body face Mount Kenya, the dwelling place of Ngai, the Kikuyu supreme deity. “Similarly, in Xholand, the present-day Eastern Cape of South Africa, the British similarly captured King Hintsa of the Xhosa resistance and decapitated him, taking his head to the British Museum, just as they had done with the decapitated head of the Maori King of New Zealand.”
Ngugi uses such symbolisms to show the relationship between Africa and Europe, how colonial acts were intended to pacify a populace and produce docile minds. “Of course, colonialists did not literally cut off the heads of the colonised or physically bury them alive,” he writes. “Rather, they dismembered the colonised from memory, turning their heads upside down and burying all the memories they carried.”
The publisher’s puff captures Ngugi’s message neatly. “Over centuries of contact with the west, Africa has suffered the deprivations of slavery, colonialism and globalisation,” it says. “An integral part of this tragic encounter has been Europhonism: the replacement of native names and language systems with European ones. Language is a communal memory bank. In losing its native languages, Africa would lose its social memory—its very identity.”
Can Africa reconstruct its memory? Ngugi reminds us that whatever gains have been achieved, including independence and national liberation, did not arise by themselves. “They were the results of struggle and sacrifice, and it behooves us, the inheritors of any and every benefit of those sacrifices, never to forget,” he writes. “A people without memory are in danger of losing their soul.”
And he asks: “Is the task in front of us, that of the recovery of the African historical memory and dreams, too difficult a task?” No, comes the obvious reply.