“This Is Cancer.”

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12

I got a call. The man on the other end of the line said. “Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o is coming into town next month. Would you like to sit down with him?”

“Sure. For the Business Daily?” I asked.

“No, for your blog.”

Of course I said I’d love to sit down with him. It would be a great honour. I mean, are there people who would have said, “Ngugi? What does he want?”

After the phone call, I sat there thinking, Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o? Blimey! How do you interview Ngugi wa Thiong’o? What can you possibly write about him that will capture his width, his person? Who are you to write about the godfather of literature? Should I write my piece and send it to him to mark? What the hell do you wear to meet Ngugi wa Thiong’o? What do you eat for breakfast before you go? You don’t want to eat something that will cause your stomach to make noises in the middle of the interview and force you to stop Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o mid-sentence (gasp) to go find the washroom. “I will eat a piece of mushroom,” I decided.

There are people you refer to with one name – Obama, Oprah, Kagame, Rehema (she sells me socks), Rudisha – but then there are others that, out of reverence, you have to refer to by both names. You can’t go around calling Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o Ngugi, as if he’s an uber driver. He’s a distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature.  He has written seven novels. Four plays. Six non-fiction books. Three children’s books. He has four honorary degrees. Seven international literature awards. Amidst all this, he made time to have and helped raise nine children. (Yeah, what’s your excuse?). He’s the lighthouse of literature. I mean, when Weep Not Child came out in 1964, my father was still a student.

The man on the phone told me that they would inform me when “Prof” (that’s how they refer to him) would be in town, and  block his calendar for me. So I waited. I waited like it was a date. A month passed. Then I thought, ah, Prof must have checked out my blog and work and changed his mind. Maybe he wanted a serious writer, someone who doesn’t use cuss words in his writing. Because saying “shit” must be somewhat a betrayal of our African-ness. (I wonder how our great great grandfathers cursed?) Or maybe he had asked his people, “Why are you sending someone called Jackson Biko to interview me? Can’t we get someone without an English name?” Like Makau Mbula. Or Kariuki Kariuki. Nyongesa Nafula.

One afternoon, the gentleman calls again and says, “Prof is here. He has Saturday morning and Thursday afternoon open, what works for you?” I choose Saturday morning. I will be required to go out to Karen where he’s staying during this visit. The gentleman says he will send me directions Saturday morning.

That morning I drive out with my son, Kim, because Tamms is out on her Saturday horse riding classes. These schools entice our children with these activities. I don’t see how useful riding a horse will be for her in future. I don’t see her living on a sprawling farm. Does horse riding teach children to “stay on the saddle?” Does it teach them not to “look at a gift horse in the mouth?” Will she be as “hungry as a horse” to eat life with a big spoon?

Anyway, I take Kim along because one day I will want Kim to keep the picture of me, Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o and himself in his house and tell his guests, “This was me. I was only 5-years when I met Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o.”

“Which year was this?”

“This was 2019.” There will be gasps because it will be 2050. Someone will ask, “What is that your dad is wearing; my God, shady! And what did they use to take that picture, an iPhone 8?” and they will laugh because an iPhone 8 will be like a landline then.

Kim loves the idea of getting to a place with the help of Google Maps and hearing the lady say, “In two hundred meters, turn left into Chui Lane.” He likes to think he’s the one leading us. It makes him feel like those explorers who came to Africa and declared themselves to be the first people to discover Lake Victoria.

We stop at a massive gate of a gated community. Kim, obviously never having been to a place like that says, almost suspiciously, “Papa, your friend lives here?” I say, “He’s not my friend. I’m going to interview him.” He says, “You will write about him?” I say, “Only if he’s as interesting as you.” He smiles hard. Kim is easy to impress. I never have to work hard to get a smile. Plus he’s vain.

We drive in, past elegant homes with green lawns, trimmed hedges, driveways with cars the size of small hills, men watering flowers, sprinklers shimmering in the morning sun. Finally the app says, “You have arrived at your destination.” A guard opens the gate for me. The car has attracted the attention of a couple of dogs, which come to stare at the car expectantly. Kim, who you’d imagine would protect his father from harm, looks at me worriedly. I want to tell him, “Oh, you get out first. Maybe they don’t like human meat.”

We get out. He clings onto my hand. A young man who looks like he hadn’t been awake for long receives us and takes us to the backyard where he settles us on the verandah and says Prof. will be out in a moment. A few minutes later he returns and says, “It’s too cold for Prof. to sit outside, so perhaps we can go inside?” Inside turns out to be a study with walls upon walls of books: African Philosophy by Theophile Obenga, Chinua Achebe, Sowing the Mustard Seed by YK Museveni, Nothing But the Truth by Yusuk K Dawood, Tom Mboya by David Goldsworthy, The Land Belongs to Us by Peter Delius, The Poetry of Robert Frost, My Life by Bill Clinton, One Life by Richard Leakey, An Appraisal by Wole Soyinka, Black Writers, White Audience by Egejuru; it’s books upon books, endless in their journey of words. I run my fingers against their spines.

There are framed pictures on the wall of Moi and Jomo Kenyatta and the owner of the home. A heater on the floor  warms the room. We sit and wait. Rather, I sit. Kim runs off into the other room to explore, discover and claim. I have a notepad and a pen. I don’t have questions. I never have questions until the moment arrives. My phone is on flight mode. The recorder is ready. I do this thing I read about where you can completely let the muscles of your whole body go limp while you only focus on only breathing. I call it “going into power saving mode.” It helps me get calm. I check my heart rate on my watch;  75 BPM. Not bad, I guess.

Kim comes in and says, “I want a cookie.” I tell him to grow up. No, I don’t. I tell him he’ll get one when we leave. He darts off again, like a dog off to fetch a bone. I sit for two minutes when suddenly a shadow shows up at the door. I rise to my feet. It’s Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o in the flesh. The first thing that strikes me is his height; he’s short and small-bodied. There is no gale blowing through the room. The next thing I notice is that he’s old. Yes, he’s 81-years old but you never imagine that legends age. You almost imagine that even time would be scared to touch them.

He shuffles into the room with immense presence, coming in like a man who is used to walking into rooms that wait for him, a man who never has to touch the handle of a door. He’s wearing a brown woollen coat over an expensive and comfortable-looking blue cotton tracksuit. He’s wearing open sandals. His hair is peppered with white. His handshake is warm and leathery. His eyes look like they are lubricated by warm milk. Even Kim must realise that he’s in the presence of greatness because he sits next to Prof. and they start playing, ignoring me. Prof. tells him, “You are now going to be called Ngugi and I will be called Kim.” Kim squeals, “Nooo!” Prof says, “Yes, don’t you like the name Ngugi?” Kim says, “Noo, I like my name. You are Ngugi.” He’s poking Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o in the arm. Prof says, “No, I’m Kim and you are Ngugi.” Kim laughs and says, “Nooo, that’s my name.” It goes on like this. I want to tell Kim to just interview him then. Finally, the young man brings Kim cookies and juice and that distracts him.

When the niceties are over, I ask Prof if he misses his name James and how James Ngugi is different from Ngugi wa Thiong’o. He starts off with an interesting story because he’s the über storyteller. He says, “Do you know the history of Ireland?” I don’t, but I think everybody remembers bombs going off in Belfast and the Irish being called “terrorists.”

He says, “Oh, where do I even begin? Names have a long history. Names and colonial domination go together. British settlers for a long time could not conquer the Irish. They knew they were not going to conquer them using arms. So they came up with ways, one of which was the naming system. Your name is your identity; get rid of their identity and soon they will forget who they are. In other words, it becomes a program, really, for deletion of the Irish memory. I’m not saying it necessarily succeeded, I’m just saying that you can see it being used consciously as a weapon against the mind of the conquered.”

He’s just warming up. I can tell he likes these kinds of conversations.

“Take the Africans who were taken to be enslaved in plantations in the Caribbean and America. Apart from the capture and other terrible things done to our bodies, the first thing to go were names! Each enslaved person had to abandon their own name and was given the name of the plantation owner. If they changed masters from Brown to Smith, they became Smith. African languages were banned in the plantation and people were even hanged for speaking African languages. When I realized that slaves were forced to acquire the names of their slave masters, I said ‘No, not James for me anymore.’ I dropped the name. They used their names to brand us, like you would brand cows. For me, James had to go. I put it in an envelope and wrote on the top, ‘Return to sender.’ ” He laughs.

How does Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o laugh, you may ask? Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o laughs like Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

Kim leaves the room.

I tell Prof, “Here you are fighting the ideologies and methods of the white man, then things get hairy in your homeland and you run off to this same white man’s land, and perhaps you had to conform in many ways to survive in his land. How was that for you and is there some irony there?

He smirks. “Remember that I was forced into exile. I did not choose exile, exile chose me. I wanted to work here, in the village with peasants, I wanted to teach in the university…but instead I was shipwrecked in exile. I was staying alive in exile. Kenya has always been my base.”

In 1967, the same year he renounced his name, James, he also released the novel A Grain of Wheat, and also renounced Christianity and writing in English. I ask him what his reasons for renouncing Christianity were. “I am not a Christian but I believe in spirituality,” he says. “Beyond materiality, we strive for something higher. I believe all religions, at the centre of their being, embody this search for spirituality. They come up with rituals to help people in their spiritual strivings. But later, the rituals become more important than the spirituality, consequently drowning it. So a lot of established religions are actually devoid of the spirituality that is the real thing. Spirituality is very important. It’s what makes us. Usually, it is what makes us human and what makes human life. Human life is not simply about eating and reproducing. It started for something more than the materiality of just living.”

Having said that, he doesn’t go to church. He’s not averse to the idea of attending church entirely; he will if the occasion calls for his presence, just as he will visit a mosque. He has been to a Hindu temple and to a synagogue. He prays. “Prayer is just prayer. When we pray, we are talking about our own issues, right? What we are articulating are our wishes for a better life.”

He asks me if Kim is my only child and I tell him I have another one. A prettier one who is at a school activity. That gives me the cue to ask him if he thinks he was a good father to his nine children. “I wish I was the best,” he laughs. “I know that for now I can’t claim that. Only they can tell. Only they can talk about it. But I know my family has suffered a lot because of my political choices. You make certain choices but those choices also affect your family and children. If you are in prison, they have no father around. When you are forced into exile it means a father not around or a father drowning them into conditioned exile…yeah.”

In 1977, he, together with some chap called Ngugi wa Mirii wrote the play I Will Marry When I Want. The powers of the day were pissed off and in an office, Vice President Arap Moi pounded the table angrily and said, “How dare that smartass be allowed to run around writing offensive plays? Don’t just stand there with your wooden rifles, do something!” So Ngugi was thrown in jail under charges of “activities” and “utterances” dangerous for the good of the Government of Kenya and its institutions. He was hosted in Kamiti Maximum prison for a year. There, he killed time by writing the book Devil On The Cross. He wrote the entire book on toilet paper.

I ask him if he was bitter or angry writing that book under grey, dead light. “My book, Detained, which I have reissued in America under the title Wrestling with the Devil is a bit more of an accurate theme for that period,” he says. “I say this because I was wrestling with the demons of bitterness, and you don’t want to let bitterness overcome you. Bitterness can be very corrosive. You don’t want that. You don’t want self-pity either. Or anger. But there are other things that you can’t adequately imprison, like creativity and imagination. My memoir, Wrestling with the Devil, is really more or less in praise of imagination. Imagination is what saved me in prison. It is what makes us more human because we can imagine houses and build them, we can imagine a past, we can imagine conversing with God [giggles]. You know we can imagine heaven, right? We can do so many things with our imagination.”

“Have you ever met that gentleman up there?” I ask, pointing at Moi’s portrait on the wall, staring down at us defiantly with that cold badass look. I was sure he would point us with that club of his and say, “Nyinyi, acheni kuongea juu yangu.”

“No, I have never met him,” he says.

“Ever?”

“No.”

“Have you ever corresponded with him?”

“No.”

“Have you forgiven him?”

“There is nothing to forgive.” He sighs and says, “Honestly, some things may be difficult to describe. I don’t think my clashes with him were personal. It’s not as if we were quarrelling over property. [He laughs] It was more ideological. I wish I could convert him to how I look at things, you know?! But, well, not everybody has to have the same outlook. So, I’m not angry with him. I refused to carry the burden of trying to individualize the issues because we only had ideological differences.”

I wonder what it feels like to be him. To have such a great body of work. To be self-actualized. To have nine children, all with African names except one. To be 81. To have people want to take pictures together with you and their son as a memento, something to cherish and keep and gloat about. What would one regret at that stage in their life? “What would you do differently?” I ask, and he comes alive with that question. He says, The one thing I regret is that I did not start writing in Gikuyu from the beginning. I don’t mourn about it, but I wish I had. I’m glad I wrote The River Between, Weep Not, Child and all that. I was able to show that East Africa can also write novels. But if there is one thing I would change if I was in control of the circumstances it would be to be able to have started writing in Gikuyu right from the beginning. Why can’t we write in our African languages and still be visible to the world? You know, there is an element of regret…or rather a sense of feeling like I may have contributed to the misleading of the younger generation by my visibility as a writer in English. That’s the one thing I could change if I was to change something about my life.”

He is big on African language. Never use the word “local languages” near him, he will slap you on the wrist. He detests the words “local” and “tribe.” Is English a local language in New York? Local sounds inferior. You don’t say local, you say Kenyan. You don’t say tribe, you say community. You don’t say bread, you say Superloaf. (I loved that tagline).

“Why does the intellectual community in Kenya and Africa do their intellectual production in European languages?” he asks looking at me through those probing eyes. I’m sitting there thinking, “Oh, I’m not the bad guy here, I can speak my language and write it. Hell, if I could write this blog in Luo and people would understand I would.”

“We have to look at the colonial roots,“ he continues. “It is an inheritance, an inheritance of the colonial distortions about languages. This is a cancer. The soul of Kenya will shrivel if we continue with this trend. We should sing in our language. We should write in our language. We should talk in our language. It says we are proud to be Africans and we are proud of our language. It’s great that the government has reintroduced African languages in Kenyan schools, and that is why, by the way, I’m here; to help in promoting books which have been published by the East African Education Publishers to meet the reading needs of those who read the African languages and the needs of the new curriculum.”

My time is up – an hour and half later –  because Kim is tired and bored. I ask him if there is any of his books he wishes he hadn’t written. “Not really, because you learn from the experience. When you are doing a novel, you are doing the best you can. I will do the best novel that I can or the best short story that I can, and every time I complete one I feel that I could have done it better. That perfection eludes me. So I write another book and I keep wanting to get it right each time.

He’s closing the conversation and he wants to say just one more thing before we drop anchor. “I will keep repeating this, because I think it sums up everything I’m saying; If you know all the languages of the world and you don’t know your mother tongue, that is mental, it is enslavement, self-enslavement. But if you know your mother tongue and add all the other languages of the world, that is empowerment.’”

He doesn’t see why we can’t be proud of our languages. Why we feel that speaking English makes you be seen in better light than speaking your community language. Why give your child all African names and make them learn French or Spanish and not their Kenyan language? He gets up slowly, like only a 81-year old can. We go outside in the morning sun and take pictures.

***

I have no announcement to make here today other than to ask anyone if they know many fun ways in which someone can make guacamole in five minutes.

[Also; Men and Marriage resumes next week with a happy marriage].

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181 Comments
        1. I am not boarding on that African languages. I am a child of the world,I will speak whichever language I am comfortable with,marry from another community or country, forgive the colonialists, integrate with other cultures,imbibe other cultures,compete on global level.This will wipe out tribalism that is a cancer in Kenya and racism that is a cancer globally.I do me,the same way he chose to be Ngugi was Thiong’o.This is 2019,the world is thinking of Pan-Africanism and global oneness.

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    1. Mantu ya ya thirikari e riirurua yarienda play ya iu siathuririe Former H.E Moi. Bathure buru…

      Translation:
      The government issues we have today need to be addressed using a play like the one that pisses of H.E Moi. Let then get as angry as possible….

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  1. If you know all the languages of the world and you don’t know your mother tongue, that is mental, it is enslavement, self-enslavement. But if you know your mother tongue and add all the other languages of the world, that is empowerment.’”

    I will have failed as a parent if my children don’t converse in Kisii

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  2. If you know all the languages of the world and you don’t know your mother tongue, that is mental, it is enslavement, self-enslavement. But if you know your mother tongue and add all the other languages of the world, that is empowerment.’”
    Still resounding in my ears. I have to copy paste…..who writes after Biko has written about the father of literature. But couldn’t you write anything about his love life or at least his mother??

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  3. “If you know all the languages of the world and you don’t know your mother tongue, that is mental, it is enslavement, self-enslavement. But if you know your mother tongue and add all the other languages of the world, that is empowerment.”
    Here is where I nod, take notes and just say thank you as I ponder. When wisdom oozes in a single piece, you swim and enjoy its splendor. Ero kamano Biko! Twacokia gatho kwa Ngungi Wa Thiong’o!

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  4. If you know all the languages of the world and you don’t know your mother tongue, that is mental, it is enslavement, self-enslavement. But if you know your mother tongue and add all the other languages of the world, that is empowerment.

    That sums it all up.

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  5. ” If you know all the languages of the world and you don’t know your mother tongue, that is mental, it is enslavement, self-enslavement. But if you know your mother tongue and add all the other languages of the world, that is empowerment.”…

    Profound

    1. Hi Chiku, our names are beautiful right! I’m Chiku too and I hardly come across it. People confuse it with ‘Ciku’
      Anyway, I took that statement and ran with it.

  6. Aha, i usually read Biko’s articles in Nick Ndeda,s voice except when it is someone i know, for instance in this case I read Moi in Moi,s voice and laughed. Excellent work here Biko.
    Eagerly waiting for next week already. You said it is going to be something about a happy marriage….

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  7. I have loved Ngugi!!!

    I was seated at my table scrolling through Facebook when I saw this post. I opened wondering why it’s not in my email yet, then I saw Ngugi!! I stood and went out the my balcony. It’s the only way to read about Ngugi!

    I completely agree with him on spirituality. Religion has been choked with so many self righteous differences and the need to think of oneself right/better than the next as opposed to really just be accepting of everyone.

    The white man really made us feel like everything that defined us was filthy.
    Our way of worship, our identity, our name, when really we were still spiritual even then. And because the universe is ever expanding, we would have evolved still!
    We would have learnt. We would have tarnished backward rituals, we would have grown!!

    The truth is, at the vote of humanity, we all yearn for something to believe in, to place our faith on, to justify certain acts, to cleanse us. Maybe when we all know that the root is the same and religion is just a distraction from the core purpose of humanity, this world would be a better place.

    I had honestly missed Kim. He’s growing. I hope he learns Luo fast, seems like a sharp guy. I mean, if he understands the navigations of Google Maps….

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  8. Tammy had horse riding what???? iPhone 8???..

    Biko…take us slow..

    Anyway, great piece… I hope one day I will shuffle into the room with immense presence, coming in like a lady who is used to walking into rooms that wait for her, a lady who never has to touch the handle of a door.

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  9. Wonderful read! What an honor it was Biko for you to interview prof! Would like to sit at his feet and learn from this wise man one day. Yes let us appreciate our Kenyan languages and our rich cultures. None of my kids has an English name and yes we do not speak English in my house. Wacha wafunzwe huko shuleni kama french and other foreign languages.

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  10. Jaduong’ Prof Ngugi ochwado point matut ahinya in this article. Ong’e kaka ng’ato nyalo wachoni okia dhogi but othumo kisungu momuony nyaka gi lewe. Mano wach marach ahinya. Hatariiii malich. #Fortheculture

    Translation -> I hope to write one day like Prof Ngugi Wathiong’o.

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    1. Inega tikli Cliff the Tall, alemoni mondo obong’o nyakalaga imii rieko mar ndiko kaka Ngugi, we amuony dholuo mos #culturepreservation

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    2. It’s quite sad to see some parents pride in in children who speak fluent English or Swahili but not a word in their mother tongue. Such will comfortably say “haelewi dholuo” during get togethers in ushago… Osina…Anto mara omong’ amonga dholuo owada even though he’s half luhya

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      1. So true Emmy, during get togethers in shags, iyudo ka deye chachni ni gi Kiswahili gi Kisungo nikech nyikwayo kia dhogi.
        Enslavement.

  11. I have so much to say about this post and its misleading title but let me just chew on it. What has taken me aback though, is about Kim being 5! When did he become 5?

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  12. Wow!!! I must learn to speak my mother tongue better and hopefully teach my children the same.
    Such a beautiful read ❤️

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  13. This is a great read. Prof Ngugi Wa Thiongo has always been profound and a firm believer in our African-ness. And he is right. There’s nothing to be proud of in knowing all these foreign languages yet be clueless about our own native languages. So write on in Luo Biko, then we’ll have to look for a gazillion interpreters, or better still learn the beautiful language that is Luo

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  14. That TITLE is very misleading. I had thought it’s a Men and Marriage story already before i opened it.

    The interview with Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o is insightful.

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  15. “You don’t say local, you say Kenyan”
    ..not tribe, its community.
    Prof Ngugi wa Thiongo sounds more of the rastafarian religion and I love his sustainance of the real african culture.
    Ninyedete “Matigari” Ngugi.

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    1. Pare nitie joma odonge town magombo wuoyo dholuo fluently to otamowa okni wasungre…writing this took me quite some minutes *sigh*

  16. Ngugi is an icon in literature. I read his books at a very young age and I can still remember how excited they made me feel. And the truth is that you can’t forget how encounters make you feel.

    I hope we turn one of his books into a film. I would want to watch The River Between at iMax someday.

    African films based off kick-ass African literature for the global market.

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  17. Loved the exchange between Prof & Kim. Imagine the employment opportunities (translators) created if African leaders appreciated African languages.

  18. I find it interesting when kids call their fathers “Papa”. Reminds me when we were the only ones in our village calling our Papa “Daddy” and now years later the whole village still calls him Daddy!

  19. Good read Mr Biko, i wonder why some people think speaking their native language is being backward. niwega ni kurehe Ngugi giikaroine giki. Munyue Kihanya Handu hakwa.

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  20. Insightful read. Indigenous pieces from Prof Ngugi. I didn’t expect he’s not a Christian though.

    Kongoi Biko eng Serutik che onyiny.

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  21. Its such a lovely piece i wish there was more ,am still yawning for more my thirst is still on.its always an honor to be filled by such wise people who see westernization culture not over the top as most want to rate it.i love my culture and try to learn as much as i can.this west people are trying so hard to burn off our culture and it makes my blood boil its up to us to understand what we have can as well be admired all over the world.am not only proud to be a Kenyan but proud Kikuyu as well.If only we could be more interested in learning other kenyan languages before learning this western languages.its a shame what they did to our minds.
    Such a wonderful piece

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  22. ”….If you know all the languages of the world and you don’t know your mother tongue, that is mental, it is enslavement, self-enslavement. But if you know your mother tongue and add all the other languages of the world, that is empowerment.”…. This is everything. Am constantly ashamed that I can’t speak Luo or Luhya. But then I always go if I can’t speak my language,no way am learning another ones.

  23. “I will keep repeating this, because I think it sums up everything I’m saying; If you know all the languages of the world and you don’t know your mother tongue, that is mental, it is enslavement, self-enslavement. But if you know your mother tongue and add all the other languages of the world, that is empowerment.’’
    Powerful.

  24. I just found myself singing that song in my Kenyan language: “Usiseme mkate, sema Superloaf”

    On my namesake’s point, do we as a community and as Africans understand that we have been bilingual, trilingual and other -linguals all our lives? That boils down to one important thing: We have an edge over our monolingual peers 🙂

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  25. If language is cancer then we as Africans are suffering from stage 4 cancer. Our language, our way of worship, our food, our homes, our clothes, our education system etc….there’s no longer anything African about it.

    Is there hope? We strive to be a developed country and that means shunning everything that makes us African, should we therefore stop? Should we stop dressing like the white man? Should we stop building like them? Driving their cars? Studying in their countries in pursuit of a better future?

    Should we stop importing white man gadgets? Listening to their music? How do we teach our children what being an African is yet it mostly represents ‘backwardness’ because since colonization we have been in big and small ways evolving into the white man and we therefore had no chance to develop our own identity?

    I have so many questions for the Prof….however to sum it up, how do we do it? It’s for sure a cancer and you can never cure cancer…you only go into remission.

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  26. If language is cancer then we as Africans are suffering from stage 4 cancer. Our language, our way of worship, our food, our homes, our clothes, our education system etc….there’s no longer anything African about it.

    Is there hope? We strive to be a developed country and that means shunning everything that makes us African, should we therefore stop? Should we stop dressing like the white man? Should we stop building like them? Driving their cars? Studying in their countries in pursuit of a better future?

    Should we stop importing white man gadgets? Listening to their music? How do we teach our children what being an African is yet it mostly represents ‘backwardness’ because since colonization we have been in big and small ways evolving into the white man and we therefore had no chance to develop our own identity?

    I have so many questions for the Prof….however to sum it up, how do we do it? It’s for sure a cancer and you can never cure cancer…you only go into remission.

  27. I love prof Ngugi wa thiong’o.

    ” sounds like next week I wont have fun reading about ” happy marriage” am one of those sociopath who hates happy stories. I want to read about women cheating on their husbands

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  28. If language is cancer then we as Africans are suffering from stage 4 cancer. Our language, our way of worship, our food, our homes, our clothes, our education system etc….there’s no longer anything African about it.

    Is there hope? We strive to be a developed country and that means shunning everything that makes us African, should we therefore stop? Should we stop dressing like the white man? Should we stop building like them? Driving their cars? Studying in their countries in pursuit of a better future?

    Should we stop importing white man gadgets? Listening to their music?

    How do we teach our children what being an African is yet it mostly represents ‘backwardness’ because since colonization we have been in big and small ways evolving into the white man and we therefore had no chance to develop our own identity?

    I have so many questions for the Prof….however to sum it up, how do we do it? It’s for sure a cancer and you can never cure cancer…you only go into remission.

    2
  29. If language is cancer then we as Africans are suffering from stage 4 cancer. Our language, our way of worship, our food, our homes, our clothes, our education system etc….there’s no longer anything African about it.

    Is there hope? We strive to be a developed country and that means shunning everything that makes us African, should we therefore stop? Should we stop dressing like the white man? Should we stop building like them? Driving their cars? Studying in their countries in pursuit of a better future? Should we stop importing white man gadgets? Listening to their music?

    How do we teach our children what being an African is yet it mostly represents ‘backwardness’ because since colonization we have been in big and small ways evolving into the white man and we therefore had no chance to develop our own identity?

    I have so many questions for the Prof….however to sum it up, how do we do it? It’s for sure a cancer and you can never cure cancer…you only go into remission.

  30. If language is cancer then we as Africans are suffering from stage 4 cancer. Our language, our way of worship, our food, our homes, our clothes, our education system etc….there’s no longer anything African about it.

    Is there hope? We strive to be a developed country and that means shunning everything that makes us African, should we therefore stop? Should we stop dressing like the white man? Should we stop building like them? Driving their cars? Studying in their countries in pursuit of a better future? Should we stop importing white man gadgets? Listening to their music?

    How do we teach our children what being an African is yet it mostly represents ‘backwardness’ because since colonization we have been in big and small ways evolving into the white man and we therefore had no chance to develop our own identity?

    I have so many questions for the Prof….however to sum it up, how do we do it? It’s for sure a cancer and you can never cure cancer…you only go into remission whether for ten days, twelve months, a decade or a lifetime.

  31. If language is cancer then we as Africans are suffering from stage 4 cancer. Our language, our way of worship, our food, our homes, our clothes, our education system etc….there’s no longer anything African about it.

    Is there hope? We strive to be a developed country and that means shunning everything that makes us African, should we therefore stop? Should we stop dressing like the white man? Should we stop building like them? Driving their cars? Studying in their countries in pursuit of a better future? Should we stop importing white man gadgets? Listening to their music?

    How do we teach our children what being an African is yet it mostly represents ‘backwardness’ because since colonization we have been in big and small ways evolving into the white man and we therefore had no chance to develop our own identity?

    I have so many questions for the Prof….however to sum it up, how do we do it? It’s for sure a cancer and you can never cure cancer…you only go into remission whether for ten days, twelve months, a decade or a lifetime.

    3
  32. Insightful interview..very rich words of wisdom dropped therein.
    I don’t think people deliberately choose English over their mother tongues though, just as no one chooses what names they are given upon birth. They just realize one fine day that everyone summons them by a name and that is it.
    I doubt when some of our parents were getting new additions to their family, and planning on first names; that they thought long and hard about ‘colonial domination..’ I think for some, they just bought a names book and spotted fancy shmancy names and decided that these would be suitable first names for their children.
    Then they looked at the great people who had gone ahead of them, and decided that their children would bear these great grandparents names.
    So we have second names that are “African.” As well community names according to the time of day that we were born.
    People shouldn’t be guilt-tripped for knowing their community languages a little less than “languages that came over by ship.” It could be attributed to a child’s surroundings as they grew up, and not necessarily the said child cherry-picking which language to use and which not to. It could also be attributed to the fact that when they spoke the language, instead of being corrected, they would be laughed at, and told how they’ve massacred the language.
    We’re all for learning and making improvements to our lives, but note that one’s “Africaness” really can’t be measured..there is simply nothing to gauge how Africa one is.
    Even those that bear full African names, I bet my last dollar that they’re being ferried around in German machines, they’re adorned with French designed clothes, their furniture is either Italian or Swedish, their macbooks are American and their favourite dishes are Chinese.

    18
    1. Meryl, what you’ve said is really true. You can’t measure someone’s ‘Africanness’. If you know your mother tongue, good for you. If you don’t, hey, you’ve not stopped being human. Maybe your parents can teach your child the language, who knows? Attitude matters though. Being proud of your identity and origin is so, so important for everyone, whatever language you’re speaking.

      2
    2. Indeed we should not feel guilty because we don’t know how to speak in our vernacular language. The environment we were brought up shaped us how we will be. It also comes down to enthusiasm, if you are willing to learn your vernacular, you can also choose to learn Kamba, luo or another tribe. Even some whitemen can speak better vernacular than most locals. It’s all about your attitude.

  33. Wow! It’s an honor to meet and interview this great man. Though I disagree with him and anyone else who insists that we should all learn our mother tongue, this is because if we all wrote and spoke our mother toungue it would divide us. Hence in Kenya English and Swahili bring us together. But still he remains a great man. On the horse and iPhone 8 Biko did you have to men from the lake side.

    2
  34. Prof. Ngugi wa Thiongo is a legendary ….
    Just trying to imagine reading books written in community language, how well will we recognize our writers? Mother tongue is good every parent should make an effort for the kids to learn.
    @ Biko you have good reads even in cuss wordings you do stand out .

  35. “I say this because I was wrestling with the demons of bitterness, and you don’t want to let bitterness overcome you. Bitterness can be very corrosive. You don’t want that. You don’t want self-pity either. Or anger. But there are other things that you can’t adequately imprison, like creativity and imagination.

    1
  36. I usually say if I ever get married to someone of a different community (Ngugi said no to ‘tribe’ ) our kids will have to learn both languages..no shortcut. That enslavement of young adults who are like ‘ I speak Swahili ata tukienda shags’, will never be a part of them. Even if we’ll be living overseas, they must learn. Anyway, usiseme maziwa sema ng’ombe. Nice read, Biko.

    2
  37. He is big on African language. Never use the word “local languages” near him, he will slap you on the wrist. He detests the words “local” and “tribe.” Is English a local language in New York? Local sounds inferior. You don’t say local, you say Kenyan. You don’t say tribe, you say community. You don’t say bread, you say Superloaf. (I loved that tagline).

    Nice read!

    2
  38. “I am not a Christian but I believe in spirituality,” he says. “Beyond materiality, we strive for something higher. I believe all religions, at the centre of their being, embody this search for spirituality. They come up with rituals to help people in their spiritual strivings. But later, the rituals become more important than the spirituality, consequently drowning it. So a lot of established religions are actually devoid of the spirituality that is the real thing. Spirituality is very important. It’s what makes us. Usually, it is what makes us human and what makes human life. Human life is not simply about eating and reproducing. It started for something more than the materiality of just living.”

    1
  39. The introduction got me feeling like Ngugi wa Thiong’o would bail out. The title got me a bit jittery for his health. Thankfully, my doubts were proved wrong. Ngugi wa Thiong’o is an icon.

    2
  40. ” If you know all the languages of the world and you don’t know your mother tongue, that is mental, it is enslavement, self-enslavement. But if you know your mother tongue and add all the other languages of the world, that is empowerment.”…
    so legendary when you look at it in literature language.
    say jambo to Kim

  41. This one took me on a whole different journey and emotions. A brilliant piece it is! Feels like I just met Prof. Ngugi personally.

    1. It would be an honor to meet Ngugi wa Thiongo. While in high school we did his book, ‘River Between’ and his work is just amazing on how he empathises on embracing African culture. Personally I would want to embrace it by starting to talk and showing interests in speaking it

  42. Nice article Biko but i got to say i am disappointed at how hypocritical Prof sounds. but now we know what his views really are. if our african languages and names are still what he is peeved about to this date, that is sad and even sadder because he has young audience who will be led astray by his ideologies. at the heart of his ideologies is pride. He should take another look and see what people with african names and who speak african languages fluently have done to their own people for 56 years ! Before you start to judge young people for not being able to fluently speak their mother tongues

    2
  43. Wow,! This is a nice paused
    Ngugi wa Thiong’o is my father of literature and I have a lot to dig out of his books.
    I have read 5 of his books and The River Between is exceptional.

  44. Ask Somalia. Their language is used everywhere. English only appears as a translation. The language is taught in primary school

    1
  45. Mwacha mila ni mtumwa, Like Ngugi I do think that the new CBC will be a game changer in how the next generation learns and most importantly perceives who they are. Us who were brought up using the British learning system have been neo colonised and this way we stay enslaved. It is time we embrace our languages, explore us for what we are a great people. It is sad that it takes an octogenarian who has done so much for the world of literature to point out to us that we need to be proud of our language for if we are not appreciative and protective of it it will dissappear. Na nee ndarekiaa rugano rwakwa, thai thathaiya Ngai thai turocokia ruee mukaro kamuira rue rumeete na tuhuke ta rurere.

    1
  46. You lift me high
    You stretch me wide
    I am greater, because of you.
    You lift me high
    You stretch me wide
    I am bigger, because of You

    Saahi That’s how great you are
    Ahh-Tasha Cobbs

  47. The intro made me feel like this was not going to be a 1 post, post.
    Expected next week to start with something like, ‘previously on Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o…’
    Nice read.

  48. Other than his African name, virtually everything else about Makau Mbula, Kariuki Kariuki and Nyongesa Nafula is Western.
    Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit.

  49. Other than their African names, virtually everything else about Makau Mbula, Kariuki Kariuki and Nyongesa Nafula is Western. Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit.

  50. I beg to differ about writing in one’s language, then you will only reach the 2,000 people from your ”community” who are literate and care about any sort of reading.
    No disrespect to at all, but it is this kinda shit that blocked the completion of the tower of Babel. (If it truly existed I don’t care for religion either LOL)

    1
  51. Am obliged to change my names and talking mannerisms. I have heard and read of Prof. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s ararguments and now I feel it’s time we picked a line or two…Biko starting with dropping a word or two in our Kenyan tongue…’Luo’.

  52. Your comment*
    “I will keep repeating this, because I think it sums up everything I’m saying; If you know all the languages of the world and you don’t know your mother tongue, that is mental, it is enslavement, self-enslavement. But if you know your mother tongue and add all the other languages of the world, that is empowerment.’”

    Awesome piece Biko

  53. Arîa mekwenda gûthoma na kwandîka ruthiomi rwitû rwega rwa Gîkûyû no mane kamweke ndî mathomithie.

    Nî nií,

    Mûmbi wa Mûciri

    1
  54. The squad that says “ I can hear but I can’t speak my mother tongue” please let’s meet behind the tent….

    Conoka-ni!

    1
  55. Prof. Ngugi Wa Thiongo is an icon in literature, not religious matters. So I would politely dismiss his sentiments on matters religion.

  56. Biko Zulu you are an amazing writer! The manner in which you conjugate grammar and common Swahili startles me. Your writings will ever inspire us. Keep it real!

    1
  57. If Biko has ever written words soooo deep, sooo weighty, sooo rich, soooo ancient, sooooo futuristic, sooooo ‘now’, soooo truthful, sooooo SIGH!

    It is now. Here.
    Thank you Mzee Prof. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, for Yesterday.
    Thank you Kim Biko for Tomorrow.
    Thank you Jackson Biko for Today.
    THIS. IS. CANCER.

  58. This piece left me itching for more. Biko, there has to be more from that interview!!
    Or maybe you can have another interview with Ngugi?

  59. Sometimes I sit down and wonder. Am I kenyan enough? I feel bad for not learning my language.
    As everyone, we’ll sum this up with this. If you know all the languages of the world and you don’t know your mother tongue, that is mental, it is enslavement, self-enslavement. But if you know your mother tongue and add all the other languages of the world, that is empowerment.

  60. You don’t say bread, you say Superloaf. (I loved that tagline).
    Really Biko??? 🙂 really?? 🙂 🙂

    I was passionately reading till I saw this..

  61. Love love love this read..Prof is so spot on abt colonialist enslavement. And I for one have made a pact with myself that my kids will all hav African names.

  62. A weird kind of fan, having ignored the subscription email reminders for posts since last year ,this anthology is probably overdue for reading. This one however smells like that one story that resonates with every fiber of your being and begs you to live it out! ah, back to my back button

  63. “I wonder how our great great grandfathers cursed?”
    Answer: “gati” meaning ass. My grandma and her gang used that Kuk cuss word, alot!

  64. I think we have reached a point in the world where we can decide what we want to learn and not be discriminated for it. It is great to know your community language but what if you don’t? What if you grew up in circumstances that could not enable you to learn it? Is the point here ability to communicate or how well we know our African languages? Should the rest of us who can hear but not speak these languages disappear from the face of the earth because we are slaves? In as much as that’s a powerful line, it needs to be analyzed from very many angles before it is passed around as wisdom. Children are fast learners and when they grow up, we cannot call them out and say they refused to take up their language. Maybe, they never got to interact with it. The fact that they can communicate should be enough. I feel these sentiments are alienating us from ourselves. What we should all learn is SIGN LANGUAGE!

    https://reshonlineblog.wordpress.com/2019/04/23/black-sheep/

    1
  65. “You don’t say local, you say Kenyan. You don’t say tribe, you say community. You don’t say bread, you say Superloaf”

    Powerful read!

  66. one thing that gnaws me is the relic of our names.you had a name and you were a son of/daughter of then the name of
    your parent.surname was an appendage from the colonialists and sorry to say however much we want to dispose
    of it seems we are stuck in the rut

  67. It would be an honor to meet Ngugi wa Thiongo. While in high school we did his book, ‘River Between’ and his work is just amazing on how he empathises on embracing African culture. Personally I would want to embrace it by starting to talk and showing interests in speaking it

  68. This is an amazing piece. Reminds me of K. Wiredu. He also encourages Africans to teach their philosophy in their own language and not to undermine their culture. Bravo Biko.