Ngaahika Ndeenda, a theatrical piece about a wealthy farmer, a peasant and his marriageable young daughter, was a commercial success when it appeared in 1977 in Kenya. But because it appeared in Gikuyu, the author’s mother tongue, it angered the government which slapped the authors – Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Ngũgĩ wa Mirii – in jail.
Set in post-independence Kenya, the play looks at the legacies of colonialism and the difficulties Kenyans faced at the time. It was performed for six continuous weeks before being shut down.
But that was just the beginning of a storied career for the famed writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o whose perspectives on the role of language in combatting imperialism and the conditions of neocolonialism came to light in his book “Decolonizing the Mind”, published in 1986.
This month he received the 31st Premi International Catalunya, a prize awarded by the Catalan government in Spain, “for his distinguished and courageous literary work and his defense of African languages, based on the notion of language as culture and collective memory.” In line with his famous call for all to communicate in their mother tongue, he gave his acceptance speech in Gikuyu and dedicated it to his mother Wanjiku.
“Mother Wanjiku,” he said in his dedication, “wherever your soul rests, I beg you to forgive me for all the years I had abandoned the tongue you gave me at birth; the language through which you sang me lullabies; and told me stories that thrilled the heart. I have come back home: I embrace my mother tongue. The prodigal son is back.”
Ngugi learned of the award which comes with a $94,000 cash prize while at the UC Medical Center where he had just undergone major heart surgery. “I had already written my will. So when I received news of the award, I felt as if I was being met with ululations of a welcome back home from the land of the Dead.”
“In accepting this prize,” he said, “I do so with joy and in celebration of both Gikuyu and Catalan and all the other languages in Africa and the world which have been marginalized by the self-proclaimed, imperial languages.”
Ngugi’s latest work titled: Kenda Muiyuru: Rugano rwa Gikuyu na Mumbi appears this month in an English translation under the title: The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gikuyu and Mumbi.