Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, considered the founding father of decolonialisation discourse, delivered a lecture titled "Secure the Base, Decolonise the Mind" at Wits University on Thursday evening.
The university's Great Hall 1000+ seating was filled beyond capacity, with many people left standing or taking up seats at two spillover spaces.
Wa Thiong'o, who coined the term "decolonising the mind" following his 1986 book "Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature", holds the title of Distinguished Professor of the Departments of Comparative Literature and English at the University of California, Irvine. He has written two autobiographical works, "Dreams in a Time of War: a Childhood Memoir" and "In the House of the Interpreter: A Memoir", in addition to a collection of seminal texts foundational to the decolonisation school of thought and fiction.
Wa Thiong'o began his lecture explaining that to understand the world and Africa's place in it, "we must understand ourselves". He developed this idea with facts about Africa's geographical size relative to the size of the former colonial powers. The former colonial countries all fit into Africa, and yet, the geographical maps of the early colonial cartographers depict Africa as smaller and less significant. He spoke about the language of "tribe" versus "nation".
"How are 300,000 Icelanders a nation, but 40 million Yoruba are tribesmen?" he asked.
Here are 9 of the most powerful things he said:
- "We must be careful with the vocabulary that defines us ... to not internalise the negativity."
- "Let us call people by what they call themselves."
- "...Black intellectual tradition has given so much to the rest of the world ... but this is often invisible".
- "African languages are not on a lower rung on a ladder to an English heaven...
- Use English... but don't let English use you..."
- "In colonial conquest, language did to the mind what the sword did to the bodies of the colonised"
- "Accents for access: ... While African leaders perfected their accents, Europeans sharpened tools for access to their [Africa's] resources"
- "It is not African languages that threaten English. But postcolonial African policy makers will often insist that they do."
- "If you know all the languages of the world but not your mother tongue, that is enslavement. Knowing your mother tongue and all other languages too is empowerment."