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A Look At Ngugi Wa Thiongo

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 5649 words Published: 5th May 2017

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Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, a Kenyan writer of Gikuyu descent, began a very successful career writing in English before turning to work almost entirely in his native Gikuyu. In 1986 Decolonising the Mind, his “farewell to English,” Ngugi describes language as a way people have not only of describing the world, but of understanding themselves. For him, English in Africa is a “cultural bomb” that continues a process of erasing memories of pre-colonial cultures and history and as a way of installing the dominance of new, more insidious forms of colonialism. Writing in Gikuyu, then, is Ngugi’s way not only of harkening back to Gikuyu traditions, but also of acknowledging and communicating their present. In a general statement, Ngugi points out that language and culture are inseparable, and that therefore the loss of the former results in the loss of the latter:

“[A] specific culture is not transmitted through language in its universality, but in its particularity as the language of a specific community with a specific history. Written literature and orature are the main means by which a particular language transmits the images of the world contained in the culture it carries.

Language as communication and as culture are then products of each other. . . . Language carries culture, and culture carries, particularly through orature and literature, the entire body of values by which we perceive ourselves and our place in the world. . . . Language is thus inseparable from ourselves as a community of human beings with a specific form and character, a specific history, a specific relationship to the world.” [1] 

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Ngugi’s 1986 production “Decolonizing the Mind” is a collection of essays through which he proposes a program of radical decolonization. It points out specific ways that the language of African literature manifests the dominance of the empire. It also reveals the political, economic, and social circumstances that formed the sensibility of most African writers and illuminates the various types of mentalities or ideologies that inform African literature. Moreover, it helps in the debate on the definition of African literature that makes it possible to analyze African literature dealing with pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial phases of African history. As Ngugi says: “This book is part of a continuing debate all over the continent about the destiny of Africa” [2] 

Pakistan also has a colonial past that’s why most of the Pakistani writers and poets interact with the traditional colonial discourse by indirectly referring to it under the layers of symbols and metaphors. They allude to the changes in social and economic institutions and deliberately talk about racial and social oppression at certain levels.

This research paper deals with the social and political status of pre and post-colonial Africa and Pakistan by comparatively analyzing the views of Ngugi Wa Thiong presented in ‘Decolonizing the Mind’ and a Pakistan’s leading diasporic writer Bapsi Sidhwa with particular respect to her novel “Ice-Candy-Man” (1988) and article entitled’ “New Neighbours”.

Born in Karachi and raised in Lahore, Bapsi Sidhwa was lauded as Pakistan’s finest novelist. She is the author of four novels: “The (Pakistani) Bride”, “Crow-Eaters”, “Ice-Candy Man” and “An American Brat”. Moreover, she is the recipient of ‘Sitara-e-Imtiaz’, Pakistan’s highest honour in arts, and many other awards at the international level. Most of her production is above all an attempt to bring women’s issues of the sub-continent into public discussion. She as a young girl witnessed the fatal Partition of 1947, which was caused by a complicated set of social and political factors including religious differences and the end of colonialism in India.

England having colonized India at its leisure, granted it independence with unseemly haste even its most outspoken nationalists were taken aback when Lord Mountbatten, the Brirish Viceroy, unexpectedly announced that the date for independence was a few months, not a few years, in the future. The British decision to pull out by Augest’15’1947, left a country with no orderly way to deal with rivalries between Hindus and Muslims. Consequently, the Partition of India along religious lines led to a huge mass genocide, blood shed, massacres and “the largest and most terrible exchange of population known to history.”

Sidhwa’s 1988 production “Ice-Candy-Man”, simultaneously, presents the perspective of an individual and traces the experiences of population as a collective unit, during the partition of India 1947. The story is written from the point of view of a child with her adult voice, who has an access to the interactions of a variety of people from different ethnicities, classes and religions during a period marked by immeasurable violence.

‘New Neighbours’ is a autobiographical essay in which Sidhwa expresses her personal experiences of Partition. 1947, Partition of India was a state of interregnum, a liminal period between the colonial and post-colonial stages of the country. It was not only a division of land but also a process of segregating people: families and communities— a dissection of self and society. In other words, it was more a psychological displacement, fundamentally, caused by the colonial rule.

Ngugi holds that it is not the diversity of African culture that is responsible for conflict in the society but colonialism and its strong impacts. Although Africa was religiously and culturally a diverse country before the arrival of the missionaries also, yet a definite sense of harmony and unity existed among its people. It was the Whiteman who appeared with the ‘Bible and the Sword’ [3] in his hand, pretending to guide the Blackman with Christianity and to move him out of the ‘darkness of pre-colonial past to the light of Christian present’. [4] Ngugi’s metaphorical use of ‘Bible and Sword’ in his writings reveals the contrast between what the colonizer claimed and his original motives and how he used religion as a tool to manipulate the simplicity of African people. As he puts in his “Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary”:

Religion is not the same thing as God.

When the British imperialists came here in 1895,

All the missionaries of all the churches

Held the Bible in the left hand,

And the gun in the right hand.

The white man wanted us

To be drunk with religion

While he,

In the meantime,

Was mapping and grabbing our land

And starting factories and businesses

On our sweat. [5] 

This is how, the European exploiters, oppressors and grabbers use Christianity as a weapon to explain the manifest contradictions portrayed in African literature because of the working out of broader historical forces.

Sidhwa also presents how colonialism gave birth to religious differences when people started rebelling against the tyrannical rule of the colonizer. “One day everybody is themselves… and the next day they are Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian.” [6] Atrocities were carried out on the name of religion. She writes in ‘New Neighbours’: “Thousands of women were kidnapped: Muslims women by Hindus and Sikhs, Hindu women by Muslims”. (pg 3)

Ngugi writes that the first weapon which the colonizer ‘unleashed’ was the ‘cultural Bomb’ [7] — English language. His critique centers on the political nature of language and the role it plays in the process of cultural alienation. He upholds the idea of a linguistic decolonization because language according to him is a governing factor over one’s feelings, imagination and observation and is also ‘the collective memory bank of a people’s experience of history’. [8] He puts in ‘Decolonizing the Mind’ that the colonizer dominates the mental universe of the colonized’ [9] Moreover, he calls economy the ‘language of real life’ and puts that the aim of colonialism was to ‘control the people’s wealth… to control the entire realm of the language of real life’. [10] 

Similarly, Sidhwa hints upon the fact in her writings that the colonizer imposed English language on the colonized which resulted in class distinction as well as disintegration— a fragmented existence. In ‘Ice-Candy Man’ she makes her lower-class characters speak their indigenous languages: Urdu and Punjabi, whereas the Elites are made to speak in English.

Talking about the impact of colonialism on a child’s life, Ngugi says that the disharmony between the language of a child’s upbringing at school and the spoken language at his home disharmonizes his psychological growth and social interaction. It results in the ‘dissociation of the sensibility of that child from his natural and social environment what we may call colonial alienation.’ [11] 

Sidhwa opens the article with the sentence: “I was a Child then.” which hints upon the fact that she herself was linguistically affected by colonialism. The disharmony between the language of her life at home and of social interaction resulted in her dual existence. In ‘Ice-Candy Man’ her autobiographical character, Lenny, is also made to speak in English at home and in Urdu with Ayah and her admirers. In other words, her medium of expression varies from people to people, belonging to different social classes. As a result, she suffers an identity crisis— duality of her being— ‘a colonial alienation’ as Ngugi calls it.

The term ‘Neocolonialism’ talks of the impact, influence and after effects of the colonizer’s culture on the colonized’s. According to Ngugi neocolonial Kenyan society could be generally divided in four sections:


Elite Bourgeoisie


Nationalistic Bourgeoisie

Peasants/ Working class

In the neocolonial Kenyan society, a very less number of imperialists are left, but their comprador section, the Elite bourgeoisie has formed a separate social class of their own. They are the ones who are directly linked with the imperialists and follow their systematic policies. So, elite bourgeoisie are people in power and authority. This class includes industrialists, politicians and other ruling elements of the country. Third section is ‘petty-bourgeoisie’ whom Ngugi calls ‘the comprador bourgeoisie’ because they provide a link between the elites and the peasants. Ngugi compares them with a ‘chameleon’ that they can take on the colour of any class to facilitate their ‘vacillating psychological make up’. [12] This section comprises another set of people whom Ngugi describes as ‘the Nationalistic Bourgeisie’. They are the ones who advocate patriotism which is mirrored in their literature also. The last and the lowest section of this society is the ‘working class/ proletariats’ who are purely national and are trying to preserve African culture, languages, norms and traditions.

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The colonial and post-colonial society that Sidhwa portrays in her novel and article also characterizes social hierarchy. It is divided in certain classes same like neo-colonial Kenya. The imperialists, here, are the colonists in first half of the article, who are the activators of these fatal partition activities. “…the Radcliff commission sorts out cities as if from a pack of cards.” (‘New Neighbors’ pg2) Similarly, in “Ice-Candy-Man”, in the first half of the book, there are certain references to the white colonizer and how he caused this harmful business of Partition. “India is going to be broken. Can you break a country? And what happens if they break it where our house is”, says Lenny.(ch.11, pg.97) Then, the elite bourgeoisie are the hypocritical politicians who manipulate the trust of masses and pretend to fight faithfully and honestly for their nation, but simultaneously, develop personal relationships with the British to get their own ways out. For, instance, in the novel, Sidhwa gives insights about Nehru’s hypocrisy that “He bandies words with Lady Mountbatten and is presumed to be her lover. He is charming too to Lord Mountbatten… carries about an aura of power and a presence that flatters anyone he compliments tenfold.” (ch.20, pg.168) Then come the petty-bourgeoisies, they are the people whom Sidhwa mentions as: “Mr.Singh…and our parents’ other Hindu and Sikh friends” in the article (pg 2). They are the ones who stand somewhere in the middle of elites and peasants— colonizer and the colonized. Moreover, Parsee community, including Sidhwa herself, belongs to the petty-bourgeoisie class because they held politically and religiously a neutral, position. As Sidhwa puts in the article: “I seldom feel at risk… partly because we are Parsee/ Zoroastrian.”(pg 1-2). The novel also provides evidence of the ‘chameleon’ like existence of Parsee community paralleled to Petty-bourgeoisie. Colonel Bharucha describes their policy to ‘run with the hound and hunt with the hare.” (ch. 5, pg.39). Bapsi Sidhwa herself belongs to this neutral class of the society which allowed her to witness the Partition from a safe religious and political distance. She says in an interview that “The struggle was between the Hindus and the Muslims, and as a Parsee, I felt I could give a dispassionate account of this huge, momentous struggle.

The lowest class in sub-continent was consisted of the people who were being exploited and violated the most by the Government. Ngugi believes that the empowerment of the proles can bring about a pleasant change in society and can wipe out the traces of colonialism, similarly, their exploitation can disintegrate the foundation of our culture and identity. Sidhwa also presents that the colonizer and other manipulative politicians make use of these proletariats as a tool to initiate religious differences in society. For example, in ‘Ice-Candy Man’, Ayah and her circle of admirers collapses due to the politically oriented religious differences. Here, in this article, she pictures the inhumane female exploitation to classify women also as members of the most victimized, marginalized and lowest sect of society. She says: “Why do these women cry like that? Because they are delivering unwanted babies.” (pg 3) “Victory is celebrated on a woman’s body; vengeance is taken on a woman’s body. That’s very much the way things are, particularly in my part of the world.” (Sidhwa’s ‘Graeber’)

In spite of cultural and religious diversity, there were no conflicts in pre-colonial Africa and subcontinent because people were not divided in classes. Social hierarchy is always an outcome of colonialism— the root cause of disharmony. As Ngugi said in one of his interviews: “Wherever there are classes in society there will always be conflicts in the world outlooks of the various social groups. In a world divided into a minority of nations that rule the majority of nations, there has to be a difference in outlook.” [13] 

Ngugi views literature as a mirror to society. He advocates that literature should be used as a reflection of our customs and traditions to universalize our culture. Moreover, according to him literature should play a role of an intermediary between the younger and the older generation. In other words, by reminiscing the past it should mirror history in order to make the new generation realize the richness of their pre-colonial culture. He writes: ‘In ‘Ngaahika Ndeena’… [I] showed how history can be brought to the fore through drama so that children may know what their past was like and so that they may help in building of a healthy society.” [14] 

Sidhwa, too, uses literature as a mirror to colonial and post-colonial Pakistani society. She writes about socio-political issues to unveil the hidden realities of her part of the world. Most of her writings deal with women issues: female-exploitation, sexual-harassment, vulnerability of women and physical as well as psychological dominance of men over women. Moreover, Sidhwa uses literature as a tool to promote Pakistani culture and traditions. A perfect example of this notion is her book entitled “Pakistani Bride”. Other than that, this very article: “New Neighbours” written in the context of Partition 1947, is also an attempt to reveal certain social evils like religious differences, racial prejudices and political tensions and how these factors cause the fragmentation of self and dismemberment of society. ‘Ice-Candy Man’ also exemplifies Sidhwa’s technique of mirroring history of Pakistan as a colonial state, the days of Partition and post-colonial/ post-partition plight of the country.

For Ngugi, language has a dual character. He views it as (1) Communication and as (2) a carrier of culture. Communication evolves culture thus both are indistinguishable. If we lose in language, we lose in culture and so in identity. Ngugi believes that cultural appropriation and assimilation result in a language death.

Sidhwa’s work itself supports the idea of a linguistic appropriation and assimilation. Pakistan’s national language is Urdu but she used English as a medium of literary expression. Her language could be called ‘new English’ as Ngugi terms it in ‘Decolonizing the Mind’. For him, it’s not acceptable to write in the colonizer’s language. His question is: ‘Can a foreign language exactly picture the true flavour and essence of our culture which literature is meant to present? He argues that writing in foreign languages perpetuates neocolonialism that all literature in English is Euro-African literature and not African Literature. For him writers like Achebe and Okara are not African but Euro-African writers. Similarly, Sidhwa’s style according to Ngugi’s perspective would not be Asian but a Euro-Asian style of writing. As he writes in the preface to his collection of essays ‘Decolonizing the Mind’: “In these essays I criticize the Afro-European (or- Euroafrican) choice of our linguistic praxis… I am lamenting a neo-colonial situation which has meant the European bourgeoisie once again stealing our talents and geniuses as they have stolen our economies. In the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries Europe stole art from Africa to decorate their houses and museums; in the twentieth century Europe is stealing the treasures of the mind to enrich their languages and cultures. Africa needs back its economy, its politics, its culture, its languages and its patriotic writers.”(pg xii)

Ngugi, basically, wants us to realize the fact that the colonizer finally succeeded in making the colonized accept “the fatalistic logic of the unassailable position of English in [their] literature, in culture and in politics.” [15] 

Ngugi enlists the problems of a neo-colonial society as: Marginality, liminality and the quest for identity. These issues are fundamentally caused by the colonial rule, because colonialism “continuously press-ganging the African hand to the plough to turn the soil over, and putting blinkers on him to make him view the path ahead only as determined for him by the master armed with the Bible and the sword.” [16] 

The colonizer not only marginalizes and devalues the colonized by the imposition of his language but also subordinates him in social, cultural, political and economic status. Sidhwa also brings in the issue of marginality in almost all her writings. Here, particularly, in this article she portrays women as the most marginalized members of the society. She paints the graphic picturesque images of the rehabilitation refugee camps and the ‘abandoned servant quarters’ from where the terrible sounds of grief and pain erupt at night.’ These are the ‘so called recovered women’ painfully crying while delivering ‘unwanted babies’. This is how these women were ostracized as undesirable creatures in the subcontinent. They were treated as nothing more than a lifeless object. Moreover, in ‘Ice-Candy-Man’ Ayah is perfect example of female-marginalization in subcontinent. Towards the end, her virtually broken spirit represents the physical and psychological destruction of thousands of women who went through the same fate during that traumatic period. The episode of ‘fallen women’ and Hamida’s story in the text also support this idea where she says: “This is my kismat that is no good… we are Khutputli, puppets, in the hands of fate.” (ch 27, pg 232).

Other than that, Sidhwa presents the lower strata of society also as a marginalized set of people in the novel. She makes them speak in their native languages whereas the upper-class characters are made to speak in English which shows the mental and psychological dominance of colonizer on the colonized.

Ngugi believes that in a colonial empire, the colonizer and the colonized both remain in a state of liminality, because both dwell on a margin of two cultures and two societies. Sidhwa, too, presents the sub-continental colonized society having a liminal status. The cultural assimilation and linguistic appropriation have reduced their lives to an uncertain stationed existence. Moreover, belonging to a Parsee community, Sidhwa herself was living a life of liminality. The Parsees held a liminal status somewhere in the middle of colonizer and the colonized.

Marginality and liminality are the factors that initiate a quest for identity in the masses. “Values are the basis of a people’s identity, their sense of particularity as members of human race.” [17] Therefore, marginality as well as liminality of their values and culture makes them struggle for the attainment of a separate identity.

Sidhwa, both in her article and novel, is picturing India during the days of Partition 1947. Partition itself was a fight for separate identity of the colonized against the colonizer.

Ngugi makes a debate on the subject: ‘Euro-centric vs. Afro-centric’ in the last part of ‘Decolonizing the Mind’. “To see ourselves clearly in relationship to ourselves and then to the other selves in the universe” is Ngugi’s definition of the term Afro-centric. [18] While analyzing Sidhwa’s writing style with reference to Ngugi’s debate, we notice that she has a dual approach in that matter: on one hand she centralizes the European culture by using the English language as a medium of expression because for Ngugi language and culture are the one. While on the other hand, she places the Asian culture in the center and relates the West to it. For example, in her novel ‘An American Brat’ she promotes the centrality of Asian culture by relating the American life style to it. In fact, her entire literary production is an exploration of Asian culture in general and Pakistani culture in particular from different angles.

Ngugi is a fervent follower of Marxism and supports a number of Marxist views in his writings. In ‘Decolonizing the Mind’ he advocates Marxist ideology of the empowerment of proles. He holds that peasants/ proletariats are the ones who could be called ‘African people’ in a true sense. He calls them the ‘guardians of language’ because they kept their indigenous languages alive in the daily speech and tried to preserve the African culture, norms and traditions. Sidhwa also upholds the idea of empowerment of the ‘weak’ but she makes women her subject instead of proles. The subtitle of her article supports this point as it says: “Partition brought the scarred and the terrified to a child’s Lahore, but also a hint of the strength of sub-continental women” in this article, Sidhwa aims to trace the events of female exploitation that gave the women a spark and spirit to bloom out “… into judges, journalists, ngo officials, filmmakers, doctors and writers… women who today are shaping opinions and challenging stereotypes.” (Article pg 3) in the last paragraph of the article she again presents the image of Queen Victoria’s statue as an emblem of woman dominance and authority. Similarly, in ‘Ice-Candy-Man’ the character of Godmother symbolizes female strength and control. She is an influential woman, a Marxist character, picturing a strong female persona who has an authority to wipe out masculine brutality from the society.

Another Marxist ideology that promotes in the last part of “Decolonizing the Mind” is the desirability of truly humane approach. He shares the notion with Carl Marx that the humanistic principles should be the foundation of mankind and that we can bring about any change in the society only if we are human beings in a true sense because then we can ‘exchange love for only love, trust for trust’. [19] 

Ngugi says in an interview: “- Like all artists, I am interested in human relationships and their quality. This is what I explore in my work. Human relationships do not occur in a vacuum. They develop in the context of ecology, economics, politics, culture, and psyche. All these aspects of our society affect those relationships profoundly. These aspects are inseparable. They are connected. The most intimate is connected with the most earthly. As an artist you examine the particulars to explore the interconnection of phenomena to open a window into the human soul. The material of life opens out into the spirituality of human life.” [20] 

Sidhwa also supports the same idea as her aim to portray all the political turmoil, violence and brutality of the masses during the Partition 1947 was to make us realize that humanity stands before religion, politics, social classes and personal fulfillments. So it’s not justified if we carry out atrocities at the name of these elements. Godmother again demonstrates this point in the novel, as she is the one who regards humanity above race, religion and politics. Inspite of being a Parsee herself, she takes an action against the exploitation of women belonging to different religions and comes to the rescue of a Hindu woman, Shanta (Lenny’s Ayah).

Ngugi created a new form of fiction with the amalgamation of form and content. He tried to introduce features in his fiction that the African people were familiar with. For instance; oral tradition, conversational tone, fables, stories, folk tales and other traditional features were made use of. He used a poetic and tonal linguistic style and brought in Biblical allusions to his writings. He also used the technique of ‘stream of consciousness’ as he wrote stories within stories in his novels ‘A Grain of Wheat’ and ‘Petals of Blood’.

Most of these characteristics of Ngugi’s fiction are found in Sidhwa’s writings also. She gives a trational colour to almost all her works in order to make it more visual and comprehensible for her own people. Moreover, there is a definite sense of melody and poetic rhythm in her language. The technique of ‘stories within stories’ has also been used in Ice-Candy-Man.

‘Decolonizing the Mind’ was Ngugi’s farewell to English language. After this he permanently adopted Gikuyu and Kiswahili as medium of expression. He believed that literature produced in native language promotes oral tradition, gets an instant reaction and initiates discussions.

At this point Sidhwa’s writing style is not the one Ngugi advocates. She, like Achebe, promotes the Asian culture through literature but uses English language as a medium of expression, which according to Ngugi should be called a Euro-Asian literature. Sidhwa belongs to the school of thought that upholds the idea of universality of one’s culture through the international language. writers belonging to this group use English as a literary medium to (1) make their voice heard by the entire world exactly the way they have produced it and to (2) show their talent and potential to the colonizer. As Brandon Brown says in his commentary entitled, ‘Subversion Vs. Rejection’: ” The post-colonial voice can decide to resist imperial linguistic domination in two ways— by rejecting the language of the colonizer or by subverting the empire by writing back in a European language.”

After having comparatively analyzed the views and ideas of two post colonial writers, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Bapsi Sidhwa, it could be concluded that the African and Pakistani society share most of the issues regarding colonialism, post-colonialism and neo-colonialism. These were the subjects Ngugi decided to write about. His aim was to make the African people realize the richness of their pre-colonial past and hold upon the centre that was falling apart. He again puts in his interview 2004 with Michael Pozo: “A writer or artist has to simultaneously swim in the river and also sit at the bank to see it flow. I am a product of the community and I would like to contribute something to that community… Twenty two years of exile will come to an end. But in a spiritual sense I have never left Kenya. Kenya and Africa are always in my mind. But I look forward to a physical reunion with Kenya, my beloved country.”

Similarly, Sidhwa’s purpose to reminisce the history was to remind her people of their strength of nerves with which they enabled themselves to bring about one of the greatest revolutions in the world: the Partition 1947. In the words of the Indian Ministry of external affairs at Augest’15’1947: “For the first time and perhaps the only time in history, the power of a mighty globe empire on which the ‘sun never set’ had been challenged and overcome by the moral might of a people armed only with ideals and courage.” This was the courage and strength of this nation which Sidhwa, like Ngugi, wanted to show her people and tried to challenge the stereotypes. As she says in her interview in Massachusetts 1990: “I feel if there’s one little thing I can do, is to make people realize: We are not worthless because we inhabit a country which is seen by Western eyes as primitive, fundamentalist country only… I mean, we are a rich mixture of all sorts of forces as well, and our lives are very much worth living.”


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