Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o

something tornTechnically, this is a set of lectures by Professor Thiong’o on African renaissance and languages. The author presents the case for writing in African languages and the pride of African names. Also, there is a great discussion on what is needed for an African Renaissance. You would expect this to be a tedious read, but quite the contrary. In fact, I read this book in approx. two days.

Whenever writing in African languages is mentioned, the first name that always came up is Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. He used to write in English back in the 60s-70s. Until, he renounced English, Christianity, and the name James Ngugi as colonialist sometimes in the 1970s. He changed his name back to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and began to write in his native Gikuyu and Swahili.

Now it is important to know that he is not the first African author to do it. If you read this book, you will realized that some African authors have been doing it way back. At page 90, the authors states:

There have been a tradition of unbroken writing in African languages that goes all the way back to Timbuktoo in the twelfth century (even earlier in Ethiopia and Egypt) and continues to the present day

The challenge is primarily for those on the continent to produce for Africa in African languages, because language is the basic remembering practice – through it is often missing in discussion about intellectual and literary movements from negritude to Afrocentrism.

….and it would be just as ridiculous to describe “African Literature”, works written by African in non-African languages as to describe French literature works written in Yoruba by Frenchmen…

 First ,a word about the author

Kenyan teacher, novelist, essayist, and playwright, whose works function as an important link between the pioneers of African writing and the younger generation of postcolonial writers. After imprisonment in 1978, Ngũgĩ abandoned using English as the primary language of his work in favor of Gikuyu, his native tongue. The transition from colonialism to postcoloniality and the crisis of modernity has been a central issues in a great deal of Ngũgĩ’s writings.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was born in Kamiriithu, near Limuru, Kiambu District, as the fifth child of the third of his father’s four wives. At that time Kenya was under British rule, which ended in 1963. Ngũgĩ’s family belonged to the Kenya’s largest ethnic group, the Gikuyu. After receiving a B.A. in English at Makerere University College in Kampala (Uganda) in 1963, Ngũgĩ worked briefly as a journalist in Nairobi.The most prominent theme in Ngũgĩ’s early work was the conflict between the individual and the community. He is currently Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine

About this book

In Something Torn and New, Ngugi explores Africa’s historical, economic, and cultural fragmentation by slavery, colonialism, and globalization. Throughout this tragic history, a constant and irrepressible force was Europhonism: the replacement of native names, languages, and identities with European ones. The result was the dismemberment of African memory.

Seeking to remember language in order to revitalize it, Ngugi’s quest is for wholeness. Wide-ranging, erudite, and hopeful, Something Torn and New is a cri de coeur to save Africa’s cultural future.

Now discussing this book all by myself is not that interesting. Simply, because this is the kind of work that need to be discussed in group. As I mentioned earlier, some of the chapters are university lectures.If you have already read or intent to read it, please I want to talk to you. I am really curious to know how people will react to this book. Personally, it inspires me and motivates me to try to read and write in Wolof. Luckily, there is an existing literature in Wolof that is trying to survive.

About Wolof

Wolof  is a language of Senegal, the Gambia, and Mauritania, and the native language of the Wolof people.  Unlike most other languages of Sub-Saharan Africa, Wolof is not a tonal language.

Wolof originated as the language of the Lebou people. It is the most widely spoken language in Senegal, spoken natively by the Wolof people (40% of the population) but also by most other Senegalese as a second language Wolof dialects vary geographically and between rural and urban areas. “Dakar-Wolof”, for instance, is an urban mixture of Wolof, French and English.

Senegal is mentioned several times in this book. Why is that? Two reasons: Cheikh Anta Diop and Leopold Sedar Senghor.

Just a word about these two emblematic figures:

About L.S Senghor

Léopold Sédar Senghor was a Senegalese poet, politician, and cultural theorist who for two decades served as the first president of Senegal. Senghor was the first African elected as a member of the Académie française. “The french academy

About C.A.Diop 

Cheikh Anta Diop was a historian, anthropologist, physicist, and politician who studied the human race’s origins and pre-colonial African culture. Cheikh Anta Diop University, in Dakar, Senegal, is named after him.

What do they have in common? Well, Senghor is accused to have cannibalized what African languages have produced so as to enrich French language. He has a famous statement which is :

…..Emotion was to Africa what logic was to greek….

Mr Thiong’o made a very powerful comparison P53 about Senghor and Arrow of God “Chinua Achebe”:

…seeking to imprison the African python in a French box…It is evident that Senghor one of the highest priest of Negritude, who always kept his french citizenship, even as the head of state of an African country ended up as a guardian of the sacred academy that oversees the growth of French…

Senghor’ s attitude toward African languages  is essentially not different from that of the postcolonial African middle class. Even, when I was in high school in Senegal, speaking Wolof was not cool at all. The more you are assimilated, the higher you will be regarded by everyone.

In this book, there is a very interesting statement of Cheikh Anta Diop:

When can we talk about an African Renaissance? …It is absolutely indispensable to destroy this attachment to the prestige of European languages in the greatest interest of Africa

You can imagine why Senghor hated Diop and persecuted him.

A very interesting and philosophical book. If you are african, please read this book. I guarantee that you will be inspired. I have always believed that African languages should be included in the curriculum in high school. Instead of choosing European languages as second languages, we could very well choose African languages such as Peulh, Yoruba, Ga, fon, Dioula…. Why not? It will greatly help the cause of Pan-Africanism.

I recommend this short but very powerful read. I intend to read it again in the future.

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5 responses to “Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o

  1. I’m struck by this quote: “….and it would be just as ridiculous to describe “African Literature”, works written by African in non-African languages as to describe French literature works written in Yoruba by Frenchmen…”

    Do you agree with it? I’m inclined to disagree, at least partially, but I’m also not in a position to judge what qualifies as African literature.

    • I know it’s harsh!But the book advocates for authors to write in their languages and then translators will do the rest in english/french! So for example, the author wrote “wizard of crowd” in Giyuku but then it was translated in several languages.
      Also the case of french literature is different. They have always looked down on the literature written by non-french people, even sometimes not considering it French literature at all. Which is why I believe the exemple of French literature was taken. Again, Sometimes quotes, taken out of their context, can means something entirely different.

  2. This is what Chinua Achebe had to say about this topic “The truth is that we chose English not because the British desired it but because, having tacitly accepted the new nationalities into which colonialism had forced us, we need its language to transact our business, including the business of overthrowing colonialism itself in the fullness of time…… For me, it is not either English or Igbo, it is both.”

    You should read “The Education of a British-protected child” by Late Chinua Achebe. it is a collection of essays on various topic and mainly on this topic of What is African Literature?

  3. Pingback: Wizard of Crow by N’gugi Wa Thiong’o | Under the neem Tree·

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