Language and the Decolonization of the Mind

Matthijs Bijl
Apr 12 · 5 min read

When you look outside, what words do you choose to describe your surroundings? What thoughts enter into your mind as you identify colors, objects, structures and look for similarities with the patterns you have spotted before? Without a doubt, the process of matching the past written in your brain with the present you encounter is literally a trip down memory lane.

We interpret the world by repeating the process of identification and changing in the process our minds as they were. We learn new things, take part in new experiences, embrace different opinions as our own. In short, we evolve.

We express this evolution of our minds through language, the bedrock of humanity. And carry it through generations upon generations.

However, the linguistic cycle of identification and interpretation can get distorted by the force of colonialism, as the Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s shows in Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature (1986).

Ngũgĩ argues colonialism’s most powerful weapon against peoples’ collective defiance is, what he calls, the “cultural bomb.”

Ngũgĩ attributes two functions to language: it is both a means of communication and a carrier of culture. We use it to define ourselves and others. It mediates our relationships with ourselves and others. It forms and transmits images of the world and reality. It is a “collective memory bank of a people’s experience in history.” And as a product of history, it in turn reflects it through the paradigm it has to offer us.

While colonial powers succeeded in physical subjugation through the bullet, language was the means of “spiritual subjugation.”

Spiritual subjugation was brought about through the destruction or undervaluing of a people’s culture and “the conscious elevation of the language of the coloniser.” Ngũgĩ argues:

He experienced this process himself growing up in Kenya. Speaking Gikuyu as a kid, he was forced through schooling to relinquish his mother tongue. Punishment and humiliation awaited students that spoke Gikuyu while any achievement in spoken or written English was rewarded.

English became the decisive determinant of a child’s progress up the ladder of formal education. Entering the upper bases of the colonial education pyramid required English fluency, making it the “official vehicle and the magic formula to colonial elitedom.” This, of course, worked as a vicious cycle, with the dominance of the language reinforcing itself while (oral) literature in Kenyan languages stopped.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

The colonial power conditions a child to approach the world with images and expressions from a different language. This leads to a state of colonial alienation, for there is a disassociation between the natural and social environment and the written world. The language of a child’s education is not the same as the language of its culture. The written world, moreover, contains strong racist inferiority imagery which a child could integrate when approaching its own natural and social environment. Ngũgĩ gives an example of this:

The late Nigerian activist and scholar Obi Wali was one of the first prominent voices to posit that African literature should be written in African languages. In his essay The Dead End of African Literature? (1963), Wali argues that “an African writer who thinks and feels in his own language must write in that language.” Writing in a foreign language could only give an approximation of the ideas and concepts expressed. It could only be a copy of them rather than convey the ‘original’ imagination. Thus, Wali claims that:

This position instigated discussion, with renowned writers like Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe arguing that using European languages allowed both for communication across different African languages and enabled writers to reach Western audiences. According to this side, European languages could be Africanized so that it carried and advanced the African experiences.

Ngũgĩ disagrees with this claim, arguing Europe now stole “treasures of the mind” from Africa through language. He agrees with Wali that African literature written in European languages was an “appendage” to the main stream of European literature, and dubbed it Afro-European literature to denote their alienation from Africa.

Ngũgĩ’s fight is against the linguistic yoke still present in post-colonial societies, with African literature and orature, and in turn culture, being debased through the assumed linguistic superiority of English, French or Portuguese.

According to him, writers should return to their native languages rather than express themselves in European languages. For, as he writes in a later essay bundle, “to starve or kill a language is to starve and kill a people’s memory bank.”

With language, culture and politics being intricately interwoven, how could liberation from the colonial era be achieved without a return to and revitalization of that memory bank? True decolonalization extends beyond the removal of physical objects of oppression, such as cannons. It involves a return to and advancement of one’s own identity shaped through language.

To conclude with the words of Ngũgĩ’s son Mukomi Wa:

Matthijs Bijl

Written by

Studying in China, interested in Sino-African and Afrasian relations. Contact for research/writing opportunities: