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Recognition of the Influence of African Languages in African Literature by the German University of Bayreuth

May 07th, 2014
Kenyan Writer.jpg

News from Berlin - On Monday, May the 5th, the German University of Bayreuth awarded the famous writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o an honorary doctorate for his “outstanding contribution to the profiling of African literature, especially in African language”.

Indeed, the African author is one of the most famous on the continent, and has been advocating for the use of African languages in literature.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o received a B.A. from the Ugandan university of Makerere in Kampala, before attending the University of Leeds in the UK. There, he wrote his first novel, “Weep not, Child”, the first novel ever to be published in English by an East African author.

Through his work, Ngugi wa Thiong’o took a strong political stand for democracy, and offered a very critical view on the Kenyan political system, which led to his imprisonment for more than a year in 1976. There, he wrote his first novel in Kikuyu, his native language, on prison-issued toilet paper. Ever since, he has been one of the fiercest advocates of the use of African languages in African literature, deeming that the continuing use of colonial languages is a symbol of neo colonial oppression, taking a strong stand in one of the most salient debates in African literature circles.

Indeed, the question of languages is most important in issues related to African cultures and identities. Some authors, such as the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, continued to use European languages in their work, arguing that most African languages remain yet spoken languages, and that European languages can also carry the weight of African experience, when mastered. To Ngugi wa Thiong’o however, literary pieces of work in colonial languages can not really qualify as African literature, but rather as “Euro-African literature”, and therefore belong to a different tradition, a “hybrid tradition” as he names it.

This literary debate finds a broader resonance in political issues as well, as many African countries that use old colonial languages as their official language. In Kenya for example, Kikuyu is not an official language of the country, even though around 6 million people speak it as their first language. In literature as well as in politics, this situation leads to many people from the masses, who don’t necessarily master European languages, being excluded from participation in public life. This issue also strongly echoes matters of African identity, as hybridization has been a salient feature of it, due to historical circumstances. The question of languages is prominent in issues of nation building, as they are one of the major differentiating features between ethnic groups within African nations.

The award bestowed to the Kenyan author by the German University of Bayreuth was an important recognition of the influence of African languages in modern African literature, and of the relevance of such literature in the preservation of African specific cultures and identities, in an ever more globalizing world in which borders between cultures tend to blur. It also illustrates the commitment of Germany to highlight and stand by other cultures from all over the world.

News from Berlin – Berlin Global