Leading change

(Re)moving the centre

Prof Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

The theme was (Re)moving the centre: Building a new Africa and establishing cultural freedom. Sharing the stage with him were Prof Muxe Nkondo, Prof Kole Omotoso, Prof Phalandwa Mulaudzi, Prof Puleng Segalo, Zandisiwe Radebe, Prof Pitika Ntuli, and Prof Andries Olifant.

The theme was drawn from Wa Thiong’o’s book Moving the centre: The struggle for cultural freedoms. He noted that in the late 1960s he was disturbed to note that English Literature was still dominant at the University of Kenya despite the gaining of independence. He acknowledged that the late South African academic Professor Es’kia Mphahlele was already involved in efforts to place texts written by Africans in the curriculum. The marginalisation of literature written by non-Europeans led him and other colleagues to call for the abolishment of the English Department.

Wa Thiong’o emphasised that his call for the centralisation of African languages and African literatures was not an expression of hostility to European languages and European literatures. Rather, he said, he found it inappropriate that European literatures and languages should be at the centre while African languages and literatures were on the margins. He pointed out that the issue of language was not merely an issue of aesthetics but also an issue of economics.

He illustrated this argument by pointing out that when Europeans came to Africa they gave Africans their “accent” in exchange for “access” to African resources. By this he meant that while Africans were mesmerised by speaking European languages, which the former regarded as a sign of prestige and privilege, the latter gained the riches of Africa. He pointed out that the act of reclaiming African languages was the first step towards the reclamation of African resources and genuine independence.

*By Simphiwe Sesanti