In his book Decolonizing the Mind, the renowned Kenyan intellectual and postcolonial theorist Ngugi Wa Thiong’o claims that language is a medium through which the world is perceived at large. He asserts that the formation of one’s identity is significantly impacted by the relationship a person has to one’s own culture and primary language.
Through several anecdotal evidence, the writer suggests that the English language has been utilised as a means of further oppression for the people of nations who have been survivors of European colonialism. Several critics, including Frantz Fanon and Edward Said, have written extensively about the ‘othering’ and aftermath of colonialism in the minds and lives of the colonised people even generations after the colonisers have physically left the territories they exploited.
Thiong’o, through his poignant essay, brings home the point that for the colonised people of Africa, the derogation of indigenous languages to the natives in imperial education systems led to the further alienation of these people from an enormously crucial component of their respective cultures. The imposition of European languages and British literature as canon in the educational structure of African colonial schools not only reinforced the idea of British superiority over the African tradition and languages but also further contributed to the cultural erasure of African people. Teaching European literature as a part of the mainstream education in the colonised countries superseded the traditional native culture of folk tales, folk songs, and drastically reduced their significance in a system that labelled anything from the East as ‘savage’, which additionally helped propagate the agenda of the colonial powers.
Of course, colonialism drained the economy and exploited the wealth and labour of several African nations as well as South Asian countries like India. However, writers like Fanon and Thiong’o bring forth the fact that it is much more complex than just that. The European colonisers methodically indoctrinated entire populations into believing that they were not ‘civilised’ enough, perpetuating the infamous myth of Western supremacy and sophistication that unfortunately is so internalised that it is popular even to this day. Furthermore, the idea that formerly colonised nations in Africa and Asia lived in a primitive ‘barbaric’ fashion before the onset of British imperialism lends an illusion of benevolence to the horrific violence and cruelty of colonialism when there was actually none.
I vividly remember our class teacher in my middle school who threatened to charge us a fine every time we would be caught speaking in any language other than English during school hours, and that she entrusted two representatives to report any disobedience regarding the same. This anecdote came to my mind while reading Thiong’o’s essay and it is intriguing to me how closely my story resonates with his, despite being worlds and generations apart. I am fully aware of how dramatic it must sound but that act of students being expected to spy and snitch on each other if someone fails to adhere to the mandated use of the English language still gives me goosebumps and makes me wonder if my Class 7 classroom depicted a microcosm of the divide-and-rule policy of colonial India where fear and suspicion were the norms.
People from previously colonised nations are so isolated from their culture and languages that their identity is never fully realised and remains rooted in an inferiority complex. Frantz Fanon argues in Black Skin, White Masks that these feeble attempts at seeking validation from the West by constant comparison are a gigantic issue. Fanon asserts through various studies in the postcolonial context that abandoning one’s native languages and culture to replace it with the colonial culture just to fit into the Western aesthetics ultimately leads to a loss of identity of the colonised individual.
Whether it is the idealised lens through which English is viewed in places like India and Africa or blindly allowing the Eurocentric standards of beauty to rule the mainstream media, theorists like Fanon and Thiong’o urge the native people to become aware of their personal cognitive biases and reclaim their identity by rejecting the coloniser’s rules of language. This inevitably should bring our attention to E.K. Braithwaite, who despite writing in English, did not follow the conventions of the standard English language in his poems like “Negus” and “Ananse”.
Laying emphasis on the African traditions of oral literature and drawing vibrant imageries from African mythology and culture, Braithwaite does not shy away from reconstructing the identity of the colonised people of Africa. He consciously dismantled the conventions and rules of the coloniser’s written language. His poems also zoom in on the relationship between the coloniser and the colonised by emphasising that the material comforts as products of European capitalism “is not enough” (Braithwaite) and that he is ready to bring back his rich culture lost to colonialism by reclaiming his real identity.
Postcolonial critics like Thiong’o and Fanon endorsed cultural reclamation where African culture is acknowledged for what it inherently is, rather than being pushed to the peripheries. Thiong’o suggests that one must eradicate the influence of the imperialist culture as much as possible to revive their authentic African identities. In an attempt to legitimise and bring back a form of dignified acceptance of his native tongue against the mainstream English language in the colonial schools, Thiong’o decided to abandon writing in English and almost entirely wrote in Gikuyu.
A Button Poetry poet from India Diksha Bijlani writes in her poem “Translated Disney” that speaking fluent English in India is not just about knowledge, it is a symbol of higher status and economic privilege, or more aptly like owning a “verbal Mercedes”.
Whether it is in a far-off East African country like Kenya or a remote corner in India, it is a widely experienced fact that colonisation has a systemic way of diminishing the legitimacy of indigenous languages. The very fact that I am not nearly as fluent in reading or writing in my mother tongue Bangla as much as I am in English is a testament to the fact that regional languages were not considered important enough or ‘global’ enough to be included seriously in my academic curriculum.
Sometimes, it is inevitable to wonder what the saddest aspect of being able to speak the coloniser’s tongue fluently is: that one can never be fluent enough or that the older generations will always feel inferior even if they are very well-read in their regional languages. To even be able to spend time thinking about it might be considered a privilege. However, lately, whenever I want to read a book, I have been consciously picking up the original writings of Rabindranath Tagore or Ashapoorna Devi from my mother’s shelf, and even though it is far from what Fanon and Thiong’o envisioned, I consider it a step closer to the reclamation of my own cultural identity.
Poulomi Chandra is an English Literature scholar from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. She is keen on writing essays and loves to scribble poetry when she can’t seem to hold it all in. Other than that, she’s very eager to read anything she can get her hands on when she is not obsessing over spicy food or taking long naps.
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