In “The Politics and Politicians of Language in African Literature” (1989) Chinua Achebe of Nigeria defends his practice as an African writer of writing in a European tongue, English.
The title is a take-off on a book by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, “Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature” (1986). Ngũgĩ gave up writing in English. He said that to be truly free of Africa’s old European masters one must write in an African language, that Europe forced its languages on Africa to control it, that Senghor and Achebe, by writing in European languages, are handmaidens of imperialism.
Ngũgĩ tells of his boyhood in Kenya, of how he was taught in his native Kikuyu language at school when suddenly in 1952 the British authorities forced schools to teach in English instead. Proof that Europe forced its languages on Africa.
Achebe says it was not quite that simple, that Ngũgĩ is not being completely honest, that he is using language to play politics.
The truth is the British, both as rulers and Christian missionaries, generally taught Africans in their own languages. They had little interest in teaching English in Africa. The demand for European languages came mainly from the Africans themselves.
- In Kenya the Scottish missionaries taught the Kikuyu in Kikuyu. It was the Kikuyu themselves who set up English-language schools.
- In Nigeria African demand for English instruction goes as far back as the early 1800s.
- In Angola it was the Marxists who fought against white rule who pushed Portuguese as the country’s main language.
When Achebe was editor of the African Writers Series in the 1960s he received a huge amount of writing – all of it in English!
And yet he wrote in English too. What was going on?
Achebe writes in English not because he wants to write to the world in a world language – or to write to white people in a white language. He wants to write to Nigerians and can only do that in English. If he wrote in his native Igbo he would only be writing to part of Nigeria.
Achebe understands that the British drew the borders of Nigeria, making English necessary as a side effect. But he also knows they are borders for which millions of his fellow Igbos died in the civil war of the 1960s. Nigeria is a land divided by three large languages and 200 little ones. English is the only language that can hold it all together without favouring any one part of the country.
And it is not just Nigeria. Ghana is the same way: English is the only language common to the whole country. And so on for many other African countries.
Elsewhere Achebe admits that sometimes it is hard to express African thought in English, but he has used that to shape English instead of letting a white English shape him or limit what he can say.
– Abagond, 2011.