Language as an Anti-Colonial Tool. A Conceptual Peep into Chinua Achebe's "English and the African Writer" and Ngugi Wa Thiogo's "The Language of African Literature"

Essay, 2020

11 Pages, Grade: A



'The most powerful weapon through which the occident (the coloniser) grabs the orient (the colonised) is the language'1. From this in-depth sentence, this study finds its way, since the role of language in cultural identities cannot be underrated. Language is not just a means of communication, but also the spirit and a carrier of cultural experience and cosmology of the people. It is an age-long tradition and one of the ways of the expansionists in which they impose their language as well as other cultural elements on the conquered people. However, the nexus between language and identity construction is undeniable. This is because the language of a particular people unveils, without any doubt, their ethnic, cultural affinities, as well as other features. A book title that says 'you are what you speak'2 best explains this phenomenon; for it shows that people's language and the way they speak show their real 'self' and go in the long-run to reveal their intellectual prowess. To corroborate this point, I would like to cite an example from my personal experience. While I was seated in the DI cafeteria, a boy who was being asked by an Egyptian student to guess where he came from. To my surprise, the boy guessed right by saying 'are you from Egypt'. This example emphasises the fact that language plays a major in revealing one's identity, just as the way the Americans speak differs from how the British do.

Besides, the imperialists have drawn their analogies from the significance of language in cultural identities. This is the reason why they did not only subjugate the colonised through physical means but also by their spiritual essence, amongst which is language. However, with the emergence of the anti-colonial movements towards the end of the fifth decade of the twentieth century, the field known as post-colonialism evolved. It includes writings from various scholars as well as critics from what is termed as 'Third World' countries whose aims are to liberate the Occident from what has been attributed to it through the Eurocentric depiction through historical, literary, as well as philosophic writings. Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, as well as other Eurocentric-based writings, culminated into the emergence of writers who could be said to have entered into an 'intellectual refutation' of the imperial portrayal of the Occident such as Africa, Asia as 'savages', 'uncivilised', etc. which lead to the publication of what is considered postcolonial writings like Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1958), a novel that revolves around the Igbos of Nigeria in the pre-colonial era and its aftermath3 ; Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth that discusses the psychiatric and psychologic analysis of the dehumanisation of the colonised people, its effects upon the individual and the nation as well as the broader social, cultural, and political implications that apply to establishing a social movement for the liberation of a person and of a people4 ; and Bhabha's essay titled Of Mimicry and Man, which critiques the colonial encounter of the Indians with the British that have made them neither Indians nor British through the concept of mimicry5.

Of worthy of note is that resistance against colonialism through the use of language constitutes one of the significant issues of interest to post-colonial theorists and writers. Critics like Chinua Achebe (1930-2013), Gabriel Okara (1921-2019), Christopher Okigbo (1932-1967), Wole Soyinka (b. 1934), J.P. Clerk (b. 1935), Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o (b. 1938), Niyi Osundare (b. 1947), Salman Rushdie (b. 1947) etc. who wrote extensively and creatively and used the English language in a way that corroborates their indigenous culture, make the list. In other words, these scholars have successfully done what could be dubbed as 'domestication' of the English language. Therefore, this study seeks to explore the conceptual theories that surround language resistance adopted by African postcolonial writers. As such, they have devised a kind of hybridized English to create awareness and to carry their cultural experience by incorporation of their indigenous proverbs, native idioms and words, as well as a direct translation of native expressions into their writings. On the other hand, some of them have chosen to write in their indigenous language thereby rejecting the idea of writing in the language of the imperialists. This study shall draw some comparisons between the main categories of the African writers via Achebe's essay titled English and the African Writer as well as Ngugi's book chapter titled The Language of African Literature.

Language of African Literature between Achebe and Ngugi

The debate over the appropriate language of African literature has generated heated arguments and essays amongst the post-colonial theorists and writers. This, however, finds its root from the liberation process which does not only aim at attaining independence of the colonised nations but also has to do with cultural, economic as well as a psychological form of decolonisation. Decolonisation through language is considered one of the crucial aspects of cultural liberation from the colonialism, which, as some critics call it, the spiritual and the essence of the people. Language is not just a means of communication but also their essence and cultural carrier6. Many essays and theses revolve around this subject-matter, but for this paper, we shall limit ourselves within the intellectual realms of both Achebe and Ngugi.

One of the tactics of the orient to support colonisation is to produce intellectual write-ups that aim at the bad portrayal of the occident which on the long-run serves as an impetus of their so-called colonial adventure. These intellectual portrayals usually describe their 'preys' as savage, barbarians, uncivilised, and people who 'cannot govern themselves'7 and thus need liberation. This adventure started, according to Ngugi, in 1884 at the Berlin convention when Africa amongst many other colonies' fate was decided by the imperialist8. Achebe happened to be amongst the readers of disturbing novels on the bad depiction of the African people. Novels like Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness as well as Graham Greene's Heart of the Matter, and Joyce Cary's Mister Johnson 9 constitute some examples of what serves as an impetus for the emergence of anti-colonial writers like Achebe, Ngugi, Salman Rushdie, to mention but a few. These writers devoted their writings to a true depiction of their people as well as the objective critique of their own culture. The renowned novel of Achebe, Things Fall Apart, for instance, does not only describe the Igbo experience in both pre-colonial and colonial eras but also presents a serious critique of the bad side of the Igbo cultural practices.

Since the bullet was the means of physical subjugation, and language was the means of the spiritual subjugation10, Ngugi writes, the issue of language use in African literature is of great importance to the post-colonial writers. While some see the necessity of writing African literature in the indigenous languages, others view that taking it to the next level by writing it in 'world languages' such as English, French, etc. to have a wide readership, would be the best option.

The bone of contention begins from the definition of African literature itself. Is it the literature produced in Africa? Is it the one written by an African writer? Must it be written in an African language to qualify being called African literature? Is it just literature written in any language but revolves around the African cultures? These are some of the questions that were debated at the conference held at Makerere University. Ngugi's concern started with questioning the title of the conference which states 'A Conference of African Writers of English Expression', and of which Ngugi observes that excluded the writers of African literatures in African languages. Also, he, then as a student, qualified to participate in the conference because of some short stories he had already published in English. But neither Shabaan Robert, the great East African poet nor Chief Fagunwa, the greatest Nigerian writer has written several published novels in Yoruba was eligible11. Ngugi sees this as an unjust categorisation of what is termed as African literature that does not recognise pieces of literature in their original languages but gives credence to those written in the imperial languages. To him, this is hypocrisy and betrayal of the African culture, which is in consonance to the opinion of Achebe at some points12. Contrary to the Makerere Conference, another conference that was held at Fourah Bay produced a tentative definition of African literature, which goes as thus: "Creative writing in which an African setting is authentically handled or to which experiences originating in Africa are integral13 ". This definition spells out that what is eligible to be dubbed as African literature must not necessarily be written in the indigenous languages of Africa, hence it could be written in a foreign language in as much as it delves into the African experience.

To further emphasise the question of language use, Ngugi argues that the choice of language is central to people's definition of themselves vis-a-vis their natural and social environment as well as the entire universe14. As such, he sees using any language other than the indigenous languages as something that cannot replace the latter. In other words, the indigenous literary works written in African languages can never be replaced by the ones written in foreign languages, because the languages carry cultural features that cannot be expressed in other languages. This argument, I suppose, could be likened to that of the translation process. Translation or interpretation of thought into another language rather than its original language cannot be accurate and thus it cannot convey the original message. This is because, during translation, some cultural and connotative features would be lost. This is in accordance to the argument put forward by some Muslim scholars that when we talk about the translation of the Qur'an or any other holy scripture, its rendition into another language cannot be equated to the original form. Thus, the English, French, or Chinese Translation of the Qur'an can never be as the original Arabic Qur'an. In a similar vein, African literature cannot be written in an imperial language and still claims to be African. And this makes one of the reasons why Ngugi started writing in Gikuyu since 1977 after seventeen years of writing in English15.

However, just like Achebe, Ngugi believes in the utilisation of African ideas and philosophy, and African folklore and imagery16, but he differs with him in the fact that in order to realise that effectively, the literature has to be written in the indigenous languages. The use of imperial languages has gained more reputation more than the indigenous ones, and Ngugi views this phenomenon as one of the colonial tactics to weaken the spiritual essence of the colonized. On top of that, 'English became the measure of intelligence and ability in the arts, the sciences, and all the other branches of learning. English became the main determinant of a child's progress- up the ladder of formal education.17 " Ngugi laments as he recalls one of his colleagues in the class of 1954 who had distinctions in all subjects save English. The boy was pronounced to have failed simply because he failed English as a subject. On the other, he (Ngugi) who passed English was able to proceed to the high school18. This vividly pinpoints the fact that we have been made to believe that knowing the English language is the measure of intelligent. Those whom the colonial masters portrayed as savages, and nonentities had poets, artists, as well as philosophers among them, and this makes someone wonder why the imperialist did not admit their intelligence. Is it because of their ignorance of the imperial language? This question and its likes beg for answers.

The above argument on the use of imperial language at the expense of the indigenous ones relates to the Ife Six-Year Primary Project that was chaired by the then Minister of Education in Nigeria, Prof Aliu Babs Fafunwa. The research project was conducted in 1970, at the Institute of Education of the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife) in the Osun State of Nigeria. The 'Ife Six-Year Primary Project' was designed to use the Yoruba language as the language of education in primary schools in the Osun State of Nigeria. This project was based on the premise that in Europe, North America, USSR, China, and other leading countries, children were taught in their mother tongue hence the importance of adopting a similar method in Nigeria. During the research, there were two experiments; some groups of pupils were taught all subjects in Yoruba language and took English as a subject while other groups were taught in English except Yoruba. The project revealed that those who had all the subjects taught in their mother tongue performed better than those who were taught in English19. The significance of the indigenous languages links up with the fact they are both means of communication and the cultural carrier of the people of Africa, of which no other language can perform.

As such, Ngugi draws an analogy of the English language being spoken in Britain, Sweden, and Denmark. While it is only means of communication to the Swedish and Danish people, it is both communication means and cultural carrier to the British20. For instance, the word ' osuka ' used by the Yoruba people of Nigeria can be difficult to translate into English or any other foreign language. This is because some cultural conditions accompany the word. The word, in Yoruba culture, as well as other indigenous cultures, is used to mean a piece of folded cloth or rag that is used to support one's head upon carrying something like water, a heavy load, etc. Hence, finding a suitable word for this in English might be somewhat difficult because of its cultural relevance. The English culture, I suppose, does not possess the practice of carrying a heavy item on their head which makes finding an equivalent difficult. The same word was posted to a Nigerian online platform and members were asked to state its equivalent in English. While some explained the word in a sentence, some mentioned words such as 'headgear', 'balancer', 'load supporter', to mention a few. Another user later concluded that some words cannot be actually translated into English because of the unavailability of their equivalents in the target language21. This, amongst other things, I believe, is what resulted in the project of the Dictionary of Untranslatables edited by Barbara Cassin, Emily Apter et al.22 and this could be said to be the bedrock of Ngugi's thesis on the language of African literature.

Moreover, Achebe follows another trajectory on this matter. For him, it is an irrefutable fact that the imperial language has dominated our regions, and accordingly we need to use the language to document our own literature. Thus, we have to use their 'weapon' against them. His stance could be more attributed to viewing English as well as other foreign languages as instrumental. In other words, he sees English and the likes as just tools for writing what we call 'African literature'. More than that, the colonial language has done what could be regarded as the unification of several multicultural environments. And thus, he argues that national literature is the one that 'takes the whole nation for its province, and has realized or potential audience throughout its territory23 ', hence it is the one that was written in a national language. That is national language is the central or common intelligible language in a certain nation. In Nigeria for example, the national language is English, so any literature written in this language is considered to be national literature. Whereas any literature, otherwise written an ethnic language like Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo, Edo, etc. is considered as ethnic literature and not a national24. Achebe considers the fact that in Nigeria where there are more than four hundred languages25, it might be somewhat unrealistic to say that every ethnic group should keep writing in its language and still be considered as national literature. To support his stance, Achebe states that he went to East Africa where he met with Shabaan Robert26. The poet gave him some of the books of poems which he could not read then until he has learned Swahili. This clearly shows that to have what can be tagged as African literature, it has to be written in a world language that connects all.


1 Nath, L., Postcolonial Resistance in Regional Language: With Special Reference to Assamese Language (India: MZU Journal of Literature and Cultural Studies,2017), 218.

2 Greene, R.L., You are What You Speak: Grammar, Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity, (New York: Delacorte Press, 2011), 9-15.

3 Achebe., Things Fall Apart, (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1995), 1-69.

4 Fanon, F., The Wretched of the Earth, (trans) Farrington, C., (New York: Grove Press, 1963), 311-316.

5 Bhabha, H., Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Discipleship: A Special Issue on Psychoanalysis, Vol. 28, 1984), 126.

6 Wa Thiogo, U., Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, (Harare: Zimbabwe Publishing House, 1981), 13.

7 Said, E., Orientalism, (London: Penguin Group, 1977), 32.

8 Ibid, 4.

9 Achebe, C., English and the African Writer, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, Transition, No. 75(76), The Anniversary Issue, 1997), 342. Accessed April 23, 2020, from

10 Wa Thiongo, U., Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, (Harare: Zimbabwe Publishing House, 1981), 10.

11 ibid, 5.

12 Achebe, C., English and the African Writer, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, Transition, No. 75(76), The Anniversary Issue, 1997), 348. Accessed April 23, 2020, from

13 Ibid, 342.

14 Wa Thiongo, U., Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, (Harare: Zimbabwe Publishing House, 1981), 5.

15 Wa Thiongo, U., Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, (Harare: Zimbabwe Publishing House, 1981), 28.

16 Ibid, 8

17 Ibid, 12.

18 Ibid, 12.

19 Fafunwa, A.B., The Ife Six-Year Primary Project, in Education in Mother Tongue: The Ife Primary Education Research Project 1970-1978 (ed.) Fafunwa, A.B., et al. (Ibadan: University Press Limited, 1989), 21-27. Accessed from on December 3, 2020.

20 Wa Thiongo, U., Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, (Harare: Zimbabwe Publishing House, 1981), 13.

21 Accessed from on December 5, 2020.

22 Accessed from On December 5, 2020.

23 Achebe, C., English and the African Writer, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, Transition, No. 75(76), The Anniversary Issue, 1997), 343. Accessed April 23, 2020, from

24 Ibid, 343.

25 Aito, E., National and Official Languages in Nigeria: Reflections on Linguistic Interference and the Impact of Language Policy and Politics on Minority Languages, (Somerville, MA: Cascadilla, Press Proceedings of the 4th International Symposium on Bilingualism, 2005), 18. Accessed from on December 5, 2020.

26 Achebe, C., English and the African Writer, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, Transition, No. 75(76), The Anniversary Issue, 1997), 345. Accessed April 23, 2020, from

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Language as an Anti-Colonial Tool. A Conceptual Peep into Chinua Achebe's "English and the African Writer" and Ngugi Wa Thiogo's "The Language of African Literature"
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anti-colonial, conceptual, achebe, African writer, resistance
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Ismail Ibrahim Ibrahim (Author), 2020, Language as an Anti-Colonial Tool. A Conceptual Peep into Chinua Achebe's "English and the African Writer" and Ngugi Wa Thiogo's "The Language of African Literature", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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