Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o discusses the power of language at SFU Woodward’s

The renowned writer and activist gave an insightful talk on the intersection of language and political power

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was a keynote speaker for the 2019 Afrocentrism Conference in Vancouver this September. Image courtesy of Steve Zylius / University of California, Irvine.

By: Isabella Wang, SFU Student

25/10/2019: This story was corrected from an older version. In a previous version, Ayan Ismail’s name was incorrectly spelled as “Ayan Ismaili.”

Editor’s note: This article covers the September 23 event titled “The Political Power of Language and Literature,” held at SFU’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts. For information on the 2019 Afrocentrism Conference, please see The Ubyssey’s coverage of the conference.

On Monday, September 23, a full house gathered at the Djavad Mowafaghian World Art Centre at SFU’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts for an evening with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, in conversation with Juliane Okot Bitek. The night’s talk was titled “The Political Power of Language and Literature.”

Ngũgĩ is a Kenyan writer and activist, a Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine, and the recipient of 11 honourary doctorates. Okot Bitek is a Vancouver-based writer, activist, and poet, whose poetry collection 100 Days was shortlisted for several writing prizes, including the 2017 Pat Lowther Award and the 2017 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. 

The evening began with a warm introduction by Ayan Ismaili and Jackie Obungah, two SFU students who helped organize the event. As part of a thoughtful and deliberate speech delivered to the applause of the audience, Obungah said, “we wanted to recognize that Black African students are contributing to universities in ways more than diversity statistics.”

The Afrocentrism Conference, which supported this event and took place at SFU Harbour Centre a day earlier, was meant to centre the experiences of Black African students and staff, and it was what brought Ngũgĩ to Vancouver as a guest speaker. As stated on their website, the goal of the conference was to “challenge our Eurocentric frameworks and understanding of the complex socio-political and economic relationship between Canada, Africa and the diaspora.”

The evening began with a warm introduction from two members of the Afrocentrism Conference’s executive team. Ayan Ismail, SFU Sponsorship Coordinator, and Jackie Obungah, SFU Administrative Coordinator, are both SFU students who helped organize the event. As part of a thoughtful and deliberate speech delivered to the applause of the audience, Obungah said, “we wanted to recognize that Black African students are contributing to universities in ways more than diversity statistics.”

The Afrocentrism Conference, which supported this event and took place at SFU Harbour Centre a day earlier, was meant to centre the experiences of Black African students and staff, and it was what brought Ngũgĩ to Vancouver as a guest speaker. 

At this event, Ngũgĩ gave a memorable reading of two poems in Gikuyu, his mother tongue. His poems  on going to Venice for the first time were accompanied by music and vocals mimicking the sound of wind. Following the first readings, the poems were then read in translation; first in Italian, then in English. The performance was a demonstration of how bringing musicality, translation, and poetry into one room allowed for the dissemination of a “common language,” one that everyone had access to. On this, Ngũgĩ pointed to the fact that translation is a common language — the language of languages that allows for peoples and cultures to communicate. As he explained, it is only when certain languages are structured into a hierarchy that words become a weapon for propagating colonial causes, war, violence, and injustice against others within the same shared community.  

“Carbon monoxide,” Ngũgĩ began. “You know it’s a very dangerous thing. Monolinguism is the carbon monoxide of cultures.” To this remark, there was laughter in the audience. “Multiculturalism is the oxygen [ . . . ] but when they meet on a hierarchy, that is a parasitic relationship,” Ngũgĩ continued.

On monolingualism, Okot Bitek responded, “What about for those of us living in one language, who never had a mother tongue because it was not taught or taken away from us?”

Ngũgĩ paused for a moment, then went on to tell the story of how historically, English speaking people could not conquer Ireland while trying to settle the country. Eventually, an English writer published a book that gave insight into the tactics that would allow the colonizers to conquer Ireland, accomplished “through memory,” as Ngũgĩ explained. The first thing that the English erased was the naming system, through which stories are traditionally told and passed down. Next came the erasure of language. 

For people who have lost their mother tongue, who no longer speak it, or who have had it taken from them, Ngũgĩ showed how a new language could erupt through song, culture, and storytelling; so that in the end, it is not so much loss, but rather, resistance. Ngũgĩ ended his point by saying that knowing multiple languages is powerful, particularly when you are able to build upon your mother tongue — or first language — in a mutually interlocking way for communication and connection. 

The talk, having traversed the grounds of equality and relations, was brought to a close on the topic of the political power of language to unite peoples, languages, and song. To end the night, Okot Bitek asked Ngũgĩ what justice looks like for him. Ngũgĩ responded that we need to realize that “a glass castle for few, at the expense of imprisonment for many” is not justice. 

“Splendour for few, and depravity for many,” Ngũgĩ continued, is not justice. 

The night was concluded with this sobering thought, giving all of us a new idea to reflect on.