Ngugi wa Thiong’o and the language of NGOs

I just finished reading “Decolonizing the Mind,” a short book from perhaps Kenya’s greatest living writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Ngugi is an interesting figure. Born into a peasant Kikuyu family in the fabricated colonial village of Kamiriithu in Central Province, he managed to take advantage of new educational opportunities during the colonial period and attended Makere University in Uganda and eventually Leeds in the UK. He returned to Kenya and eventually became Chairman of University of Nairobi’s Literature Department.

Though highly critical of colonialism, having been in the heart of the worst of Kenya’s experience with it, he was even more critical of Kenya’s post-colonial trajectory. He started a political theater in his hometown and was eventually jailed under the dictator Daniel Arap Moi.

In “Decolonizing the Mind,” Thiongo seeks to dissociate Kenya’s literature from that of the colonialists. He seeks to create a new African literature, by and for Africans. He would eventually abandon writing in English, choosing instead to write works in his native Gikuyu. Despite Thiongo’s call for an African literature, his European pedigree can’t be denied. He is Brechtian in both rhetoric and action. Hs politics are wholly Marxist and it can even be noted that his medium itself (the novel) is decidedly un-African. Moreover, despite his clear hostility to Europe and the United States, it is interesting the he would be jailed by his own countrymen and then would receive asylum and employment from the US.

I found his ideas of language, however, quite interesting. The colonialists, like the Americans, worked to debase indigenous cultural practices to further an imperialist agenda. Locals were weakened through the apparent dominance of English as a language for communication and business, and the language itself was presented in such a way that social hierarchies were reinforced.

This phenomenon continues to this day. Children are taught from an early age, to greet white people on the street with a scripted “How are you?” “I’m fine, and you?” The formal distance between the stilted Kenyan English spoken in Palirament and the guttural Sheng spoken on the streets of Nairobi is hardly an accident. English the language of oppression, control and government exploitation, and Sheng the language of resistance.

Given my recent experiences at Governmental and NGO meetings, however, what strikes me is how language continues to be used as a tool of control, but hat this vocabulary has been internalized by Kenyans themselves. I grit my teeth now when I head the term “capacity building,” which basically implies that people lack the capacity to help themselves without the good graces of NGOs and governmental organizations. It implies that people are helpless without the assistance of formal authoritarian structures. This is, of course, untrue (though one has to allow for the possibility that people often do things that run counter to their long term self-interest).

People may argue that the term is innocuous, but in my experience “capacity building” is often used in place of “training.” To me, words matter, and where “capacity building” carries with it the implications that there is an inherent defect to be rectified, training implies that the capability exists, but the knowledge not yet there. To put this in perspective, I don’t think that anyone would call any of my academic degrees to have been an exercise in “capacity building.” I can’t help but think that white people are trained, while black people are “capacity built.”

Worse yet is “gender empowerment,” which implies that women weren’t sufficiently capable of managing their own affairs prior to the arrival of some dubious microloan project. Again, in my experience, women all of the world are sufficiently empowered. It’s the men who need to be de-powered. The term is condescending and fails to appropriately recognize the inherent capabilities of individuals while at the same time avoids challenging the paternalistic structures which created economic disparities reprehensible practices like FGM, the buying and selling of women and the inability for women to hold men accountable for violence. In essence, the term blames the victim.

Both “capacity building” and “gender empowerment” reinforce the weakness of the individual and offer that the poor of Africa’s only hope lie in international organizations and their own authoritarian though wholly inept governments. It’s worth noting that the strategy is very similar to that of Christianity, which requires followers to believe themselves powerless and to blame for whatever awful fate has befallen them.

Sadly, both of these terms have worked themselves so deeply into the consciousness of people in SSA, that questioning their validity is futile, which is exactly the nightmare that Thiong’o writes of in “Decolonizing the Mind”. Pointing out that “training” is a more appropriate term than “capacity building” to locals will be met with black stares.

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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