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‘Decolonising the Tribe’: Kenyan Crisis, Yale Trophies, and the Carrion of Indigenous African Languages

Image: Public domain remixed

There is no guessing what stand Wole Soyinka, Naguib Mahfouz, Nadine Gordimer, and J.M. Coetzee would take in the current Kenyan crisis, where a proscribed sect dons official police regalia and butchers those who “do not belong” (Fin24, August 16, 2017). He is four years older. And therefore, should ideally be less energetic than the other. Yet I bet that Soyinka’s white hair would be bristling in the sun as I saw it do early 2010 after President Musa Yar’Adua’s death stalemate in Nigeria. Instead, Kenyan Marxists who bide their time in the West (Daily Nation, May 26, 2017) are happier grabbing Capitalist awards. The irony is there. However, the solid lesson would be that all human beings are the same everywhere no matter how hard we try to sound different.

I would take it as an epiphany. Those unlucky catwalks for the Nobel Prize in Literature – I sincerely wish that he wins one day – would be chances for me to accept the reality of the metaphor of coexistence in regards to even world languages.  Because language issues look simple, but they impact young nations in Africa.

The English language conquered the world. But not on the basis of any cast-on-stone linguistic fundamentalism on its part. Quite the opposite. Of all European languages, English boasts one of the most rapacious appetites for largescale appropriation of even the “primitive” tongues of its former colonies (“veranda” – Indian; “boomerang” – Australian; “mumbo-jumbo” – West African; “safari” – East African).

Reverse appropriation continues in Africa with or without our accepting it.  In Kenya’s former Central Province itself – where the British committed one of the worst human atrocities on the Kikuyu nation in the Empire during the Emergency (1952-1960) – the Gikuyu word “Thengiũ” long replaced “Nĩ wega” in today’s usage for “Thank you.” That African tongues have made European languages their own should be obvious (I think the term ‘Vernacular radio stations’ is gravely inaccurate in Africa).

Such linguistic evolution is natural. Those who try to stop it remain standing like Lot’s wife. The current goodwill for Kiswahili (ostensibly because it is the most widely spoken “African” language) is proof that the world understands only one language: borrowing. I quote “African” because “bendera” is the Swahili word for “flag” – coming directly from Portuguese, “bandeira”. I see no right on your part to beat your chest and claim a language as purely “African”, one which was harvested after many centuries of planting from African, Portuguese, Turkish, Arabic, Hindu…traders along the East African Coast.

It must be a big lie to claim that not knowing your language is to forget your history, culture, and identity as carried in certain books (1986). Only if you mean that black Sheedis of India and Makranis of Pakistan speak one of the East African Coast’s languages; African-Americans Igbo and Yoruba; and black Brazilians the Luba language in Congo. Yet all these people know that they came from certain parts of Africa. Jamaica (a tiny island of barely 3 million people) has a stronger cultural identity than Kenya’s 50 million. Which African language does Usain Bolt speak – Zulu? Julius Nyerere, V. Y. Mudimbe, Sedar Senghor, and Alexis Kagame do/did not philosophise in African languages; therefore, it is also grossly inaccurate to claim that African modes of thought cannot fit in Western models and vice versa.

Even if I took the opposing argument, I would still meet the reason why retaining a romantic view of African languages in their pure forms is perhaps only meant to inflate the flaccid egos of losers. That Africa had empires is true. Old Ghana, Oyo, Songhai, Great Zimbabwe, Nok Culture, Nile Valley…we can double whatever number it is. If these books (1986) are right about the primacy of language in the African context then the fact that European cultural expansionism shattered and annihilated all these grand empires and civilisations must be blamed squarely on techno-pragmatic lapses inherent in African languages, and also on those who think that these languages are so strong and saintly as to stand alone like virgins.

Echoes of footsteps of these inherent weaknesses have hardly died out from the African ear. Recently they used to provide the philosophical grounding where a different skin tone is butchered for wealth creation in Tanzania and Mozambique; for setting twins afloat in Nigerian ponds; for children to be stoned to death after being declared witches in Ghana – languages meant largely for betraying one’s own people. African languages in any form have generally failed to cut and negotiate the tough ropes of globalisation.

NEVER LOOK YOUR ELDER IN THE EYE is probably a universal moral injunction in Africa. THOU SHALT NOT ANSWER BACK. Well. Fair enough. But there are times the elder is clearly wrong. These are statements intended to instil fear. Deeply ingrained in the African psyche through language. The many euphemisms in African languages – especially those that refer to forces more powerful than us – are pregnant with this fear. Dholuo “thuol” is the “snake.” But often it is “tond buya” (“the rope of the bush”), or “gik ma lak gi bund iye gi” (“they that crawl on their belly”).

Perhaps a direct result of this penchant for euphemisms and similar barren injunctions is the general failure to confront, which is dramatized on the national space by African politics’ perennial habit of skirting around issues rather than injecting practical solutions. Dissembling and buck-passing.

That is how I understand the several centuries of ‘African history’ which these books (1986) want me to believe in: Betrayal and Selfishness.  In over two hundred years of slave trade it is black faces colluding to sell their own in exchange for a mirror. In over sixty years of colonialism it is loyalist African faces in Central Kenya colluding with the coloniser to exterminate between 150, 000 and 300, 000 Africans (2005), thereby defeating Mau Mau completely. In South Africa under apartheid it is black faces drinking the blood of fellow black people by acting as spies. You can count how many African liberators were either arrested, or assassinated on ‘tip-offs’ from fellow Africans. Even in slave-holding America there was always a clear distinction between “house nigger” and “field slave.”

What is currently happening in The Great Lakes Region (DR Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda), where autocrats are reluctant to leave power, is a poignant re-enactment of centuries of greed and betrayal of Africans by Africans.

In today’s Kenya it is the African writer failing to privilege the nation over tribe.

Soyinka once warned on BBC World Book Club sometime in 2007, that advocating for indigenous African languages in African Literature – or wherever – is practically inviting civil war. I agree. Those who do not should explain why Cameroon is viciously split between English and French. We have seen police brutality, maiming, and killing in contestations over two European languages between Bamenda and Yaoundé. I think that is a tiny hare. An elephant of it would surely arrive if national policies on language in the continent entered the smoky huts of actual African tongues – Gikuyu and Dholuo in Kenya?

Something defines West Africa more than it does East: pragmatism. West African writers long buried the indigenous languages’ corpse even when it was their own (Chinweizu et al, Obi Wali) who first gave it life (writers there wisely operate “inside”, rather than “outside”, European languages).

But at midnight a Kenyan writer tiptoed to the graveyard. Exhumed the carrion for purely selfish reasons. Keeps its rancid stench at his archaic table for literary self-amusement and for selling to the West. James Currey (2008) writes that Achebe was the long-time Muse for Heinemann’s African Writers Series (AWS). When a then young Kenyan was appointed to serve in similar capacity, the youthful one hurriedly dropped it because “it was going to interfere with his writing” – the selfishness I have been referring to.

I reject the notion of actual African languages for African Literature. Specifically, because those who proposed it did not anticipate a veritable threat to nationhood. Not in the “Soyinkesque” understanding. Rather – as the Kenyan case now shows – in the postcolonial African writer’s stark inability to critique the system when the language in which he operates occupies state power. How are they to do it – critique the state – in the face of emotional attachment to mother-tongue in a context where other mother-tongues compete in the sport of state capture?

As has happened in Kenya since 2003, I am not certain that Okot p’Bitek would have spoken out against an autocratic Ugandan regime presided over by Archbishop Janani Luwum, a speaker of Okot’s Acholi mother-tongue. Okot would possibly have blamed Luwum’s glaring shortcomings on the Baganda community’s Kabaka. Which is what has recently happened in Kenya ( August 22, 2017) where the ethnic intolerance of Uhuru Kenyatta’s misrule is being rinsed in the old, thin, diminished waters of the Moi regime, but no reference whatsoever is made to the naked, ethnic gluttonousness of the Jomo Kenyatta one. For how long will Africans go on entertaining the bad lie that African leaders are generally good people, that only those surrounding them are bad?

Not many Americans know that 500, 000 acres of Kenya’s 17.2 per cent arable land surface is owned by the extended Kenyatta family, and that this painful anomaly is behind the sensitive land issue in Kenya.

Ivy League universities in the West are citadels of knowledge. However, that knowledge rarely seems to extend beyond a tiny grasp of actual ethnic dimensions specific to respective African countries. For instance, Yale might not know that the former President Daniel Arap Moi is often the target of some Kenyan Literature simply because his mother-tongue is Tugen (a sub-group of the larger Kalenjin language). Books such as Wizard of the Crow (2006) – naturally obsessed with the weaknesses of the Moi regime – came out four years after the end of Moi’s misrule. If we love standards then why have we not read any Kenyan novel about the ethnically hegemonic mega-scandals of the Mwai Kibaki regime (2002-2013) that ended over four years ago? From these same writers, will we be lucky to read any novels on the mindless ethnic divisions that Uhuru Kenyatta has entrenched in the Kenyan psyche in the past five years alone, whether the end of Uhuru’s misrule comes on October 26, 2017, or in 2022?

Cristiana Pugliese (2003) observes that literature from Kenya’s former Central Province has always been ethnically insular. My impression is that the reason the literature remains largely inward-looking has little to do with what its purveyors do today. Primordial precedents were set in the late 1940s by earlier writers, pamphleteers and journalists, who included Henry Muoria Mwaniki, Gakaara wa Wanjau, Mwaniki Mugweru, Mathenge Wachira, and Mbugua Njama (hence, I give several claps to the few fiercely daring, home-grown Central Province intellectuals who continue to widen the boundaries of nationhood in the Kenyan space even today, against ethnic bloodletting by the state).

The most ethnophobic of these early Central Province pamphleteers was Henry Muoria Mwaniki. Pugliese explains that Muoria penned lines like: “When people go on a journey there are those who lead and those who follow…we Gikuyu must be…brave leaders so the other black peoples will acknowledge us and hence follow us…It is the responsibility of every mature Gikuyu to preach to all other black peoples to have the same thinking as the Gikuyu” (101-102).

A deadly kind of ethnic fear in these books was reserved for one particular community. A section of Mau Mau practised what was being preached. Bethwell Ogot (2003) writes: “Even when a respectable Luo leader, Ambrose Michael Ofafa, who was a businessman, the KAU [Kenya African Union] treasurer, and a member of the Nairobi city council since 1948, was killed by Mau Mau activists on 21 November 1953 at Kaloleni in Nairobi, the Luo refused to be used to start a war against the Kikuyu, in spite of strong government pressure” (21).

Yale is unaware of “uthamaki” (kingship) myth in the current Kenyan context. It is the myth alluded to in such books as Jomo Kenyatta’s Facing Mount Kenya (1938), and tangentially in tomes of literature by major writers from Central Kenya. The myth holds that political power in the country is the sovereign and divine birth right of just one community. In certain novels (1965), for instance, protagonists are taken to the top of the mountain by their ailing fathers, and told: This land is all yours to rule.

Marshall Clough (2003) writes that after the bitter, Cold-War clash between President Jomo Kenyatta and his Vice, Oginga Odinga, in 1969 (in which scores of Luo were gunned down in Kisumu), Kenyatta ran home and administered a ritual oath in his Gatundu homestead in Central Province, where even Embu and Meru communities’ politicians took ritual oath to safeguard Kenya’s political leadership from the leering eyes of other Kenyan communities.

The uthamaki myth is at the nerve centre of Kenyan politics today (especially now that it is the actual sons of Kenyatta and Odinga on the ballot). In 2007 it prevailed – chiefly because of the Mungiki sect which now dons police uniform – even when Mwai Kibaki clearly lost. In the August 8, 2017 elections the ICT Manager at Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) could mysteriously be murdered a few days to the election (Daily Nation August, 2, 2017). Kenya’s Supreme Court has since confirmed that there were damning irregularities in that vote. Thirty-one human beings were killed by the “police” in the course of peaceful protest. It is not new (Daily Nation June 10, 2016).

Is it on the basis of the honour of indigenous languages that certain African writers become blind to these grim threats to nationhood, blaming them on past presidents – whose main sins are probably not speaking these writers’ mother-tongues – and not on current autocrats who actually perpetrate them? If this is what it means to pine for African languages in African Literature then every African writer must reject it.


Yale University is too far away to know what has been happening in Kenya lately. That it is these days possible for African writers who wagtail about ‘national culture’ to not realise that practically all the front seats at the inauguration of a national theatre are occupied by just one language (The Standard Sep 7, 2015). That African writers who don revolutionary airs these days enter Kenya’s State House and possibly sip wine (The Star Jun 8, 2015). That when it is other languages occupying the presidency then the African writer is a wagtail bird flying from roof to roof, “Ah, Ethnicity! Eh, Corruption! Ih, Dictatorship! Oh, Autocracy! Uh, Ethnicity!” But when our own mother-tongue occupies State House, the African writer is a colluding, nostalgic bull toad ensconced under a cool tribe-pot in the dry spell, the white flesh of its lower-jaw dancing to the visceral drums of tribe.

There are always “literary” reasons why many black peoples in Africa still rely on flimsy myths to murder fellow countrymen merely on the basis of tribe sixty years after the Continent’s independence. In Kenya it’s a proscribed sect – feeding from “literature” – in official police uniform beheading in honour of the narrowest ethnic ideology. It’s a bitter, dark, dispiriting aberration.




Clough, M. S. 2003. “Mau Mau & the Contest for Memory.” In: Odhiambo, E. S. A. &  Lonsdale, J. (eds) Mau Mau & Nationhood: Arms, Authority & Narration. Nairobi: EAEP.

Currey, J. 2008. Africa Writes Back. Oxford: James Currey.

Ekins, C. 2005. Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya. London: Jonathan Cape.

Kenyatta, J.1938. Facing Mount Kenya. London: Vintage.

Kiai, M. 2017.The Real Winner of the Recent Presidential Elections is Daniel Arap Moi, not Uhuru” – Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o says. 22 Aug.

———-2016. When it comes to Luoland, police force converts itself into a militia. Daily Nation. 10 Jun.

Kimani, P. 2017. Ngugi sits among giants to receive doctorate from Yale. Daily  Nation, 26 may.

Mukinda, M. and Menya, W. 2017. Detectives retrace Chris Msando’s final steps. Daily Nation, 2 Aug.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o. 2015. ‘Liberated’ Kenya National Theatre should fulfil our deferred

dreams. The Standard, 7 Sep.

———-2006. Wizard of the Crow. New York: Pantheon Books.

———-1986. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African

          Literature. London: James Currey.

———-1965. The River Between. Nairobi: Heinemann.

Njini, F. and Cohen, M. 2017. Fear Stalks Nairobi slum in ugly twist to Kenya vote impasse.

Fin24, 8 Aug.

Ogot, B. A. 2003. “Mau Mau & Nationhood: The Untold Story.” In: Odhiambo, E. S. A. &  Lonsdale, J. (eds) Mau Mau & Nationhood: Arms, Authority & Narration. Nairobi: EAEP.

Pugliese, C. 2003. “Complementary or Contending Nationhoods? Kikuyu Pamphlets and Songs, 1945-52. In: Odhiambo, E. S. A. & Lonsdale, J. (eds) Mau Mau & Nationhood:  Arms, Authority & Narration. Nairobi: EAEP.

Star Reporter. 2015. Uhuru hosts Ngugi wa Thiong’o at State House, 38 years after being jailed by Jomo’s regime. The Star, 8 Jun.

Abenea Ndago
Abenea Ndago
Abenea Ndago is a Kenyan writer/scholar. He has published Voices (2017), Crossing the Border (2018), Lord Kitchener (2023), and several short stories.


  1. Considerable pointer to the visibly hidden inspirational fire stoking contemporary Kenya’s political hegemony!
    Among the Ibo, every masked ancestral spirit dancer is always silently known by his tell tale gait. Ndago has surely beheld one in the vast village festival arena!

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