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) 

Claim No Easy Victories
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