DECOLONIZING THE MIND, AND LUCKY CONCIDENCES: REFLECTIONS ON A TALK BY NGUGI WA THIONG’O

As so many of the KIN blog posts have already alluded to, staying focused and able to continue the PhD journey is a challenge that we students face with humility and determination most days. It was only recently that I became aware that in choosing to do this degree and vie for an academic position in a university meant I had in effect chosen a career as a professional writer. I mean what was I thinking? It makes sense that most people will forge a career based on where their talents and interests lie, and in my small way this choice supports the latter. I really like teaching and working with Māori, Pacific and Indigenous students, and sentence by sentence I am learning how to be a better writer! I am grateful for the choice to learn at this level, and very often I have to remember it is a choice and that I chose my choice. I also acknowledge the opportunities and privileges that embarking on this pathway has allowed.

 

One of those opportunities came and blessed me in a string of lucky coincidences. My first luck and gratitude started with my free ticket to listen to Dr Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. Dr Hinekura Smith one of KIN contributors and a dear friend offered up her ticket to go to the Auckland Writers Festival because she had other commitments. My second lucky encounter was on the bus. I left home without an umbrella and it was starting to rain heavily outside. There on the seat across the way was a beautiful compact size designer umbrella. At that point I thought about all the lovely donations I’d left abandoned on the buses and blessed the ‘friend’ who had left it behind. My third lucky coincidence happened at the event. I was making my way down to the front to try my luck for a single seat near the front. But as I reached the reserved section, the friendly Pacific usher beckoned me to take a seat right up there in the front. Without realising she was mistaken with my invite to the reserved section I said, “Oh no! I’m not special”. I had a standard ticket. She said, “Yes you are” as she looked at my wrist. “Sit where ever you like” she said. I thought I’d better go with it and sat right in the middle of the second row like an imposter. I read the pink silicone band on my wrist “Reo Space” and a second red one read “Crank it up! Leaders go first!” As I sat down I noticed my neighbours had a similarly coloured orange silicon band on their wrists and mine had been mistakenly identified as orange. Oh well I thought, it’s my lucky day just go with it.

 

Ngugi’s (Googi’s) presentation was called “Wrestling the devil” and the devil he was referring to in this case was the coloniser. He was one of the international stars to bless the Auckland Writer’s Festival held 18 May 2018. It was a pity that the legendary storyteller was only given an hour to speak, as he had just gotten through his introduction and locating himself in time and the Kenyan context before organisers were signalling to wind up his talk with a performance from his people. Part of his talk was sharing his connection to Aotearoa New Zealand and his closeness to the Māori people. This relationship went back to 1984 Robb Lectures hosted by Auckland University where he received feedback from Māori in the audience that his lecture was actually talking about the Māori people. The lecture series led to his seminal book Decolonising the Mind. At the time of his visit, Māori were embarking on a cultural renaissance, it was Māori language week, and the Ngugi’s message spoke directly to the heart of Māori self-determination and language reclamation.

 

Influenced by Karl Marx, Frantz Fanon, and other critical thinkers, one of the key concepts that Thiong’o asserts in Decolonising the Mind is that colonialism imposes the deliberate undermining, undervaluing, and under appreciation of the oppressed people’s language, culture and selves. To that end, “its most important area of domination was the mental universe of the colonised, the control, through culture of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world. Economic and political control can never be complete or effective without mental control. To control a people’s culture is to control their tools of self-definition in relationship to others” (Thiong’o, 1986, p. 16). The other aspect of the same process equally as important was to replace the colonised people’s language with the language of the coloniser enabling them to insist it was better, more sophisticated, and commercially viable. The way Thiong’o dealt with that was centre African literature and to produce literature in his native Kīkūyū language. Reclaiming his mother tongue as the medium to share his thoughts, novels, plays and literature was empowering and revelatory to how he viewed himself. As a result Thiong’o then a Professor of Literature was jailed in a maximum security prison. He decolonised his mind in jail, where he wrote Devil on the Cross on toilet paper. When you hear a story like that you realise the struggles you might be having with your own writing, you are able to put everything in perspective.

 

One of biggest influences and special stories Thiong’o shared was about his mother. An intelligent woman who never had the chance to be educated herself. She had a talent for asking her son questions that shaped how he saw himself, the way he related to others, and enabled him to push beyond his comfort zone. Her favourite question to ask was, “Did you put your best into it?” and this question helped him push forward when times were tough. The reality on this PhD journey is that we need strategies to help us push forward and much of that support comes from our families. My mum and brother have been so supportive in many ways on my journey. It is a daily job to decolonise our minds and it takes a lot of energy to be vigilant. Sometimes I am the coloniser in my own mind. Most days decolonising my mind is a moment by moment thing and shutting up the ngangara, imposter monster parroting negativity in my ear is a job. Some days it makes life a lot easier when we have a few lucky coincidences to help us through, like the day I was lucky enough to see Ngugi in Auckland.

 

Reference

Thiong’o, N. W. (1986). Decolonizing the mind: The politics of language in African literature. London: James Curry.

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