Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms

Ngugi wa Thiongo is a giant in the decolonization community, in 1986 he wrote Decolonizing the Mind, he also wrote Theory and the Politics of Knowing, Secure the Base, Something Torn and New, amongst many others (including a list of fiction works). This post shares some notes from his 1993 book Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms. Several notes from this excellent book:

"I am concerned with moving the centre in two senses at least. One is the need to move the centre from its assumed location in the West to a multiplicity of spheres in all the cultures of the world... The second sense is even more important although it is not explored extensively in these essays. Within nearly all nations today the centre is located in the dominant social stratum, a male bourgeois minority. But since many of the male bourgeois minorities in the world are still dominated by the West we are talking about the domination of the world, including the West, by a Eurocentric bourgeois, male and racial minority. Hence the need to move the centre from all minority class establishments within nations to the real creative centres among the working people in condition of gender, racial and religious equality." (p. xvi-xvii)

"The political struggles to move the centre, the vast decolonisation process changing the political map of the post-war world, had also a radicalising effect in the West particularly among the young and this was best symbolised by the support the Vietnamese struggle was enjoying among the youth of the sixties. This radical tradition had in turn an impact on the African students at Leeds making them look even more critically at the content rather than the form of the decolonisation process... In the area of culture, the struggle to move the centre was reflected in the tri-continental literature of Asia, Africa and South America. It was more dramatic in the case of Africa and the Caribbean countries where the post-war world saw a new literature in English and French consolidating itself into a tradition." (p. 3)

"Hegelian Africa was a European myth. The literature was challenging the Eurocentric basis of the vision of other worlds even when this was of writers who were not necessarily in agreement with what Europe was doing to the rest of the world. It was not a question of substituting one centre for the other. The problem arose only when people tried to use the vision from any one centre and generalise it as the universal reality." (p. 4)

"I have noted from a spell of teaching in the USA that Third World literatures tend to be treated as something outside the mainstream. Many epithets and labels ranging from 'ethnic studies' to 'minority discourses' are often used to legitimate their claims to academic attention.. It is therefore not really a question of studying that which is removed from ourselves wherever we are located in the twentieth century but rather one of understanding all the voices coming from what is essentially a plurality of centres all over the world." (p. 10-11)

"The wealth of a common global culture will then be expressed in the particularities of our different languages and cultures very much like a universal garden of many-coloured flowers. The 'flowerness' of the different flowers is expressed in their very diversity. But there is cross-fertilisation between them. And what is more they all contain in themselves the seeds of a new tomorrow." (p. 24)

"Scandinavians know English. But they do not learn English in order for it to become the means of communication among themselves in their own countries, or for it to become the carrier of their own national cultures, or for it to become the means by which foreign culture is imposed on them. They learn English to help them in their interactions with English people, or with speakers of English, to facilitate commerce, trade, tourism, and other links with foreign nations. For them English is only a means of communication with the outside world. The Japanese, the West Germans, and a good number of other peoples fall in the same category as the Scandinavians: English is not a substitute for their own languages." (p. 30-31)

"The encounter between English and most so-called Third World languages did not occur under conditions of independence and equality. English, French, and Portuguese came to the Third World to announce the arrival of the Bible and the sword. They came clamouring for gold, black gold-in chains, or gold that shines as sweat in factories and plantations. If it was the gun which made possible the mining of this gold and which effected the political captivity of their owners, it was language which held captive their cultures, their values, and hence their minds. The latter was attempted in two ways, both of which are part of the same process. The first was to suppress the languages of the captive nations. The culture and the history carried by these languages were thereby thrown onto the rubbish heap and left there to perish. These languages were experienced as incomprehensible noise from the dark Tower of Babel. In the secondary school that I went to in Kenya, one of the hymns we were taught to sing was a desperate cry for deliverance from that darkness. Every morning, after we paraded our physical cleanliness for inspection in front of the Union Jack, the whole school would troop down to the chapel to sing: `Lead kindly light amidst the encircling gloom, lead thou me on.' Our languages were part of that gloom. Our languages were suppressed so that we, the captives, would not have our own mirrors in which to observe ourselves and our enemies. The second mode of captivation was that of elevating the language of the conqueror. It became the language of the elect. Those inducted into the school system, after having been sifted from the masses of the people, were furnished with new mirrors in which to see themselves and their people as well as those who had provided the new mirrors. In short, they were given a language called English or French or Portuguese. Thus equipped with the linguistic means of escape from the dark Tower of Babel, the newly ordained, or those ready to be ordained as servants of the new order, had their minds systematically removed from the world and the history carried by their original languages. They looked, or were made to look, to a distant neon light on a faraway hill flashing out the word EUROPE. Henceforth Europe and its languages would be the centre of the universe." (p. 31-32)

"Fortunately things will never go the way intended by the oppressor for the simple reason that the dominated have always resisted and will always resist. In fact imperialism would never have taken so much trouble to invest so heavily in its repressive machinery or in cultural engineering if the exploited and the oppressed had themselves merely succumbed to their economic fate of fforever being the unquestioning drawers and hewers of wood" (p. 54)

"Culture carries the values, ethical, moral and aesthetic by which people conceptualise or see themselves and their place in history and the universe. These values are the basis of a society's consciousness and outlook, the whole area of a society's make-up, its identity. A sense of belonging, a sense of identity is part of our psychological survival. Colonialism through racism tried to turn us into societies without heads. Racism, whose highest institutionalised form is apartheid, is not an accident. It is an ideology of control through divide and rule, obscurantism, a weakening of resistance through a weakening of a sense of who we are. Thus psychological survival is necessary. We need values that do not distort our identity, our conception of our rightful place in history, in the universe of the natural and human." (p. 77) 

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An African Renaissance: Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Ngugi wa Thiong'o is one of the most important voices on language and decolonization. His works include Decolonizing the Mind (1986) and Theory and Politics of Knowing (2012). This post shares some notes on his 2009 Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance (copy appears available here).

"colonialists did not literally cut off the heads of the colonized or physically bury them alive. Rather, they dismembered the colonized from memory, turning their heads upside down and burying all the memories they carried. Wherever they went, in their voyages of land, sea, and mind, Europeans planted their own memories on whatever they contacted." (p. 7)

"In his attempt to remake the land and its peoples in his image, the conqueror acquires and asserts the right to name the land and its subjects, demanding that the subjugated accept the names and culture of the conqueror. When Japan occupied Korea in 1906, it banned Korean names and required the colonized to take on Japanese ones. But one might ask: What is in a name? It is said that a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet; however, the truth is that its identity would no longer be expressed in terms of roses but, instead, would assume that of the new name. Names have everything to do with how we identify objects, classify them, and remember them." (p. 9)

"Africans, in the diaspora and on the continent, were soon to be the recipients of this linguistic logic of conquest, with two results: linguicide in the case of the diaspora and linguistic famine, or linguifam, on the continent." (p. 17)

"In the continent as a whole, the postcolonial slumber would not be disturbed by memories of the African holocaust. Slavery and colonialism become events of shame, of guilt. Their memory is shut up in a crypt, a collective psychic tomb, which is what Oduche symbolically does when he shuts the python, a central image of his people's cosmic view, in a box." (p. 61)

"Pan-Africanism has not outlived its mission. Seen as an economic, political, cultural, and psychological re-membering vision, it should continue to guide remembering practices. Economic Pan-Africanism will translate into a network of communications—air, sea, land, telephone, Internet—that ease intracontinental movements of peoples, goods, businesses, and services. Africa becomes a power bloc able to negotiate on an equal basis with all other global economies. But this is impossible without a powerful political union, as championed by Kwame Nkrumah." (p. 88-89)

"In the year 2000, a number of African scholars and writers met in Eritrea and came up with the Asmara Declaration on African Languages and Literatures, a ten-point document that begins by calling on African languages to take on the duty, challenge, and responsibility of speaking for the continent. It then lists nine other conditions—including recognition of the vitality, equality, and diversity of African languages as a basis for the future empowerment of African peoples; the necessity of communication among African languages and their development at all levels of the schooling system; promotion of research, science, and technology in African languages; and the necessity of democracy and gender equality in the development of African languages—and it concludes by emphasizing that African languages are essential for the decolonization of African minds as well as for the African renaissance." (p. 93)

"Memory resides in language and is clarified by language. By incorporating the colonial world into the international capitalist order and relations, with itself as the center of such order and relations, the imperialist West also subjected the rest of the world to its memory through a vast naming system. It planted its memory on our landscape. Egoli became Johannesburg. The great East African Lake, known by the Luo people as Namlolwe, became Lake Victoria." (p. 113)

"We have languages, but our keepers of memory feel that they cannot store knowledge, emotions, and intellect in African languages. It is like possessing a granary but, at harvest, storing your produce in somebody else's granary." (p. 114)

"We must produce knowledge in African languages and then use translation as a means of conversation in and among African languages. We must also translate from European and Asian languages into our own, for our languages must not remain isolated from the mainstream of progressive human thought in the languages and cultures of the globe." (p. 124)

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Language & Governance in the African Experience

Notes from The Power of Babel: Language & Governance in the African Experience (1998) by Ali A. Mazrui and Alamin M. Mazrui"

"One of the gross linguistic anomalies of post-colonial Africa, in fact, is that whole classes of countries are named after the imperial language they have adopted as their official language. We do constantly refer to 'Francophone Africa,' 'English-speaking Africa,' 'Lusophone Africa' and the like. Asia, too, was colonized; and yet nobody refers to 'Anglophone Asia' or 'French-speaking Asian countries.' (p. 6)

"… how much of a choice of synonyms do I have when I want to discuss blackmail? Or something sold on the black market? It is true that most of the time when we are using these words we are not connecting them with any racist tradition with associates black with evil and white with goodness. The metaphor is so much part of the English language, beautifully integrated, ready for use unconsciously in a spontaneous flow. As metaphor, black has carried repeatedly, and in a variety of contexts, decidedly negative connotations. White has ambivalent connotations but, more often than not, favourable ones. The connotations have been stabilized that users of the language are unconscious of those wider links with racist traditions. But does not the unconsciousness make the situation even worse?" (p. 25)

"What all this suggests, then, is that language as an instrument of liberation must be based, not on a reversal of values accorded to European versus African languages on the basis of a preconceived paradigm of linguistic determinism, but on disalienation that seeks to pose new terms of reference altogether. For as long as the struggle for mental liberation is defined in terms that confirm to the European ideal of humanity and civilization it will only turn out to be an upward spiral to further alienation and conceptual imprisonment." (p. 62)

"It appears, then, that democracy would develop on firmer foundations on the systemic, economic, social, and cultural planes if African nations pursued language policies that reduced dependence on Western languages, push African languages more towards the centre of the political and economic arenas, and consolidated the use and development of their local languages of wider communication." (p. 107)

"Not using indigenous African languages in the legal process is damaging not only to the rule of law but also, of course, to the indigenous languages themselves. The languages are marginalized in some of the fundamental areas of civil society – law and order, governance and civil liberties." (p. 114)

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Secular Translations

A couple of notes from Talal Asad's "Secular Translations: Nation-State, Modern Self and Calculative Reason" (2018):

  • "Today an important failure is our inability to create a form of collective life on this planet radically different from the liberal capitalist states in which we live. The failure seems to be due not to any lack of imagination or will: there are many highly intelligent and determined people who have presented visions of an attractive future. It has in great measure to do with inherited languages that disallow us form understanding our own institutional and psychological blockages and the resolution they call for. Of course we can recognize and describe instances of cruelty and kindness, of betrayal and self-sacrifice, of suffering and happiness. But we don't have a language to speak adequately about the changes occurring in our collective life resulting from where we have gone wrong, and the things of value we may be losing irretrievably." (p. 157)
  • "When I referred in the past to Islamic traditions like amr bi-l-ma'ruf (which implies that mutual responsibility among friends includes persuading one another to do what is right and avoid what is wrong), I did so mainly to try and unthink our language of sovereign power, with its calculative, logical obsessions and the race to progress that that language invites us to join." (p. 158)
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