Professor Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o receives Degree of Doctor of Letters
World-renowned Kenyan writer and academic Professor Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was conferred the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters at the University of Edinburgh Graduation on 8 July 2019.
Dr Thomas Molony from the School of Social and Political Science presented Ngũgĩ to the Academic Senate. His full laureation address is below.
In his response, Ngũgĩ pointed to how his unschooled mother inspired him to pursue an education, and how the Scottish novelist and poet Robert Louis Stevenson inspired his love of reading.
Ngũgĩ noted the long list of other Africans who have graduated from Edinburgh, including the University’s first African graduate, the physician, historian and political theorist James Africanus Beale Horton, the feminist author Florence Nwapa and Tanzanian politician and anti-colonial activist Julius Nyerere
DEGREE OF DOCTOR OF LETTERS
NGŨGĨ WA THIONG’O
Laureation Address – Monday 8th July 2019
Laureator – Dr Thomas Molony
Mr Vice-Chancellor, in the name and by the authority of the Senatus Academicus,
I have the honour to present for the degree of Doctor of Letters, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.
Mabibi na Mabwana, kama ingekuwa maamuzi ya Ngũgĩ, hotuba hii ingekuwa katika lugha nyingine.
Loosely translated, that is Swahili for: ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, if Ngũgĩ had it his way, this speech would be in another language’.
But it would be impractical – though surely a first – for me to proceed with this address in Swahili, Gaelic, or Ngũgĩ’s native Gikuyu.
It would also be impractical if I were to read this address from loo roll! More on that soon…
A playwright, novelist, essayist, and academic, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o was born in 1938 in Kamiriithu, near Limuru, in Kenya’s Kiambu District, as the fifth child of the third of his father's four wives. Ngũgĩ attended the mission-run school at Kamaandura in Limuru, Karinga school in Maanguu, and Alliance High School in Kikuyu. During these years Ngũgĩ was a practising Christian, but then underwent the Gikuyu rite of passage ceremony.
As an adolescent, he lived through the Mau Mau War of Independence, which – along with the inclusion of many a Scottish missionary – is a major theme in his early works. His debut novel, Weep Not, Child, was published in May 1964, and became the first novel in English to be published by an East African writer. Having studied English at Uganda's Makerere University College in Kampala, Ngũgĩ then went on to an MA at Leeds, when his second novel, The River Between, came out in 1965. With its background the Mau Mau War of Independence, the story depicted an unhappy love affair in a rural community divided between Christian converts and non-Christians.
The publication of A Grain of Wheat in 1967 marked Ngũgĩ's break with cultural nationalism and his embracing of African Marxism. The book was for many years a set literature text in the Rise and Demise of Imperialism course in our History department. Ngũgĩ refers in the title to the biblical theme of self-sacrifice, a part of the new birth: "unless a grain of wheat die." The allegorical story – of one man’s mistaken heroism and a search for the betrayer of a Mau Mau leader – is set in a village destroyed in the war. It draws clear parallels to Ngũgĩ's own life: his older brother joined Mau Mau, his stepbrother was killed, and his mother was arrested and tortured.
Ngũgĩ subsequently renounced: Christianity, writing in English, and his baptismal name (James Ngũgĩ) – all as colonialist. He changed his name to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, and began to write in his native Gikuyu and Swahili.
In 1967, Ngũgĩ began lecturing in English literature at the University of Nairobi. There he argued for the change of the department's name from 'English' to simply 'Literature', to better reflect world literature with African and third world literatures at the centre. With colleagues, he co-authored the polemical declaration, ‘On the Abolition of the English Department’, setting in motion a continental and global debate and practices that later became the heart of postcolonial theories.
Much of Ngũgĩ’s work has explored language as an instrument of subversion of personal identities and cultures through colonization. The colonized were denied the tool of their self-definition, and disassociated from their history-carried-in-language. Ngũgĩ coined the term “securing the base” – an investment in one’s own culture and resources – in pointing to the contestation between Afrocentric or Eurocentric perspectives.
My colleagues in the Centre of African Studies are attempting to address some of the imbalances raised by those calling for the academy to be decolonized – and our students are very receptive. One measure, begun a good number of years ago, is the teaching of Swahili language. European Centres of African Studies are starting to address some of the imbalances too. One leading European centre of African Studies is planning a conference for next year with a weighty section on Decolonizing the minds: examining the African knowledge connections with Europe.
But there is sometimes still a tendency to think of the decolonize the academy movement as new. Ngũgĩ’s Decolonizing the Mind was published in 1986 but, as he explains in the book, was an elaboration of statements made and viewpoints expressed over a period of 20 years. Ngũgĩ was many decades ahead of the wave.
Decolonizing the Mind was a key text when I came to the Centre of African Studies in the late 1990s, but it is to our discredit that the University offers little by way of study of African literature. It is perhaps a sign of the times that students from across the world – including Africa – come to us to study ‘development’, but baulk at the prospect of reading entire novels as part of their curriculum. Fortunately, most of our scholars from Africa are still brought up reading African authors – often as part of their school curriculum – and Ngũgĩ usually features along with Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe. Other students are now turning to more seasoned writers such as Ngũgĩ thanks to the likes of Nnedi Okorafor – known to many for her writing for Black Panther – and Chimamanda Adichie – also a recipient of an honorary degree from this university. Chimamanda herself has praised Ngũgĩ’s as ‘one of the greatest writers of our time’. He is at once ever mindful of the past, while contemporary, and futuristic.
Ngũgĩ’s contribution has extended beyond novels – and essays – though. Professor Christopher Odhiambo, Chair of the Kenya National Drama and Film Festival Committee, recently summarised Ngũgĩ’s contribution as also having ‘transformed theatre not only in Kenya but globally by subverting the modes of conventional Western theatre through the privileging of African community theatre aesthetics, forms and content’.
Ngũgĩ last visited us in August for the Edinburgh International Book Festival, when he read from Wrestling with the Devil, his memoir of prison in the late 1970s. An excerpt featured on the BBC’s ‘Edinburgh Nights with Nish Kumar’ television programme, in which the presenter introduces Ngũgĩ as ‘a Nobel Prize-nominee talking about toilet paper’. As Ngũgĩ told us then, he wrote Devil on the Cross ‘in the Gikuyu language, in [Kenya's Kamiti maximum security] prison, on hoarded toilet paper … not because I wanted to’. It is the only paper to which he had access. He was under 24-hour surveillance, and radios, books, pens and paper were prohibited. Writing was one of Ngũgĩ’s forms of resistance – and has continued to be throughout his career, most recently with Secure the Base, and Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing.
Ngũgĩ was never charged, tried or sentenced, but he had written plays, such as Ngaahika Ndeenda (‘I Will Marry When I Want’), that were deemed subversive by the authoritarian government of Jomo Kenyatta – and they held a danger in that they were performed by locals within the community who had no acting experience. The danger, perhaps, is that these mere peasants might be emboldened by this new empowering experience of a play in their own native Gikuyu.
The writing of Devil on the Cross in prison ‘has been one way of keeping my mind and heart together,’ Ngũgĩ wrote, recalling the brutality of British colonial life in Kenya: ‘a racist ruling-class culture of fear, the culture of an oppressing minority desperately trying to impose total silence on a restive oppressed minority’. His experience, he shows in his prison memoir, was but one link in the manacle of African internments under the colonial and postcolonial regimes. He documents the terror of torture used by Kenyatta senior’s government as a weapon to ensure his fear and silence, and that of the 18 other political prisoners who suffered from beatings, starvation, and were denied outside contact during their incarceration.
While Ngũgĩ was in Britain for the launch and promotion of Devil on the Cross, he learned about the Moi regime’s plot to eliminate him on his return. This forced him into exile, first in Britain in the 1980s, and later in the United States, where he has held various teaching posts at Yale and New York University. He is currently Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine.
In Ngũgĩ’s prison diaries he reminds us that freedom is about sustaining a spirit of resistance and freeing the imagination. As he put it to us last year: we must embrace ‘the power of imagination to free us from confinement’.
We are not behind bars – but our psyche can be. The University of Edinburgh recognises Ngũgĩ’s significant role in leading a shift in the focus and language of African writing. We wish to acknowledge Ngũgĩ’s assistance in encouraging us to use words – written and spoken, in any language – to decolonize our minds.
I have sincere pleasure, Mr Vice-Chancellor, in inviting you to confer on Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, the degree of Doctor of Letters.