Different Angers: English and Kiswahili

Ngugi wa Thiong’o tells an eloquent, painful story, in English, about learning English. In school, students who spoke in Gikuyu would be forced to wear signs around their necks that proclaimed “I am a donkey,” a punishment for breaking English-only codes. Speaking African languages, in Ngugi’s generation, became associated with animality. As his essays and books over the years have testified, Ngugi’s relationship to English is ambivalent, haunted and scarred by the brutal language-changing, knowledge-creating regimes in his personal histories.

Broad and then narrow.

Within Africanist studies, Ngugi represents one side of the so-called language debate, whereas Chinua Achebe represents the other. For Achebe, English is a tool, one that we cannot but use, as anglophone Africans, precisely because it speaks to multiple audiences, not least those across the continent. It remains a fact that African connections are mediated through Euro-languages, though we must also be aware of how those Euro-languages are not simply accented but actively translated in their encounters with African epistemologies. The Kenyan “Me, I” directly translates the object-subject of the Gikuyu nii. And Tutuola’s language occupies the still-healing suture of Africanized English.

(I must acknowledge, here, the role working on diaspora brings to my stance on the language debates; learning about Creole was re-orienting)

At stake here, to return to Ngugi, is the claim that African-derived languages necessarily offer greater flexibility, and are more expressive of so-called African realities—and, here, we cannot forget that Ngugi’s turn to the peasant and peasant values which, no matter how complex, still is Herderian in its romanticism.

At stake is also postcolonial melancholia—that attachment to loss that has so much traction in Africanist studies and certain kinds of postcolonial studies. Less remarked upon is what different languages make possible, at least in the so-called language debates.


Unlike Ngugi, I grew up bilingual. There was no “first language” and “second language,” as the language acquisition people have it, no sequence of nouns and verbs that had to be translated into another form. Language was always blended, an easy switch from one to the other, understanding that certain words, normally interjections, the aterere and ati, flavored speech.

That agony of which Ngugi speaks so eloquently was markedly absent from my life.


We have yet to take seriously how bi-lingualism creates postcolonial subjects who are quite distinct from colonial subjects.


Language disciplines. We accept this.

However, within the terms we have inherited from postcolonial discourse, we have been less attentive to which languages discipline, and where, accepting blanket condemnations of Euro-languages.

Kiswahili was my school language. It was the language that we did not speak at home, that I picked up in books, was ridiculed in, and became distanced from. To write this is to confess what is rarely confessed, and to court ridicule, especially from those who coalesced around Kiswahili, building high, impenetrable walls, from which they complained about my own walls—we shouted across towers, and we still do.

Kiswahili was not my site of freedom or possibility, but a list of rules, of prefixes and suffixes and teachers and fellow students who laughed at me because my accent would not bend in the right way—I was told I read Kiswahili like a white person. And it was difficult to explain then, as it is now, how foreign this language felt to me. It was truly a second language, and one marked not by play or pleasure, but by shame and humiliation.

This is not a sanctioned narrative.


The politics of post-independent Africa’s bi-lingualism are complex, and those of language use and acquisition almost impossible to navigate. And I think there are lessons to take from my discomfort with Kiswahili, lessons about what it means to be “at home” in one’s country, and the ethics of uncomfortable belonging.

What if the function of a “home” language is distinct from the function of a “nation” language? What if a “home” language sutures different relations from those sutured by a “nation” language? What if one’s inability to fully occupy a “nation” language is a precondition to the ethics of shared obligation one might term citizenship?

Here citizenship does not entail “sacrifice,” but loss, including, in this instance, lost fluency.

To think of citizenship as a kind of stutter with all the emotional complexities that accompany stuttering requires a different orientation to the home-ing of languages and the languaging of home. It requires, in fact, creating new languages through which to apprehend homing and homelessness, languages that Ngugi creates in his intricately punning, highly invented Gikuyu.

An instance where theory has yet to catch up to practice.


A friend tells me that Kiswahili offered her fluency, lubricated her social, and so she embraced it as a good and as a gift. And, certainly, the endlessly inventive and invented lived Kiswahili has an oblique relationship to textbook Kiswahili, though this topic lies beyond my expertise.

Her “experience” demands a Joan Scott approach to experience: to texture my own experience and forge a complex understanding that would account for how our differing Kiswahili lives are marked by the intertwined politics of class and location. How, that is, our pre-histories prepared us to receive Kiswahili as we did.


The idea of “school language” in Kenya is broad and complex. Many in my parents’ generation—and in some areas today—began school in their native languages, and then transitioned, gradually, with more or less trauma, into English and Kiswahili. Others of us learned to distinguish, early, between “home” and “school” languages, both in terms of what we learned and where we learned it: for some, Gikuyu in Church, not in school. For others, like me, Kiswahili in school, not at home.

Yet, even this explanation is overly simplistic, for many of us grew up with hybridized languages, elaborate patterns of flavoring speech with certain words, expressions, inflexions, accentual patterns, and rhythmic orchestrations. My Gikuyu-flavored English is quite distinct, for instance, from my U.S.-inflected English.

What happens if rather than positing a distinction between “native African” and “foreign European” languages we re-cast the terms as between “home” and “school” languages”? What experiences become visible and demand attention? Might the Afro-Caribbean distinctions between Creole and official Euro-languages offer usable paradigms for us to track the postcolonial terrains of language use as it shapes and is shaped by location?

My goal here is not to displace or replace one site of trauma with another, nor to claim my post-independence experiences equal Ngugi’s colonial experiences. That claim would be clumsy. It is, however, to track the unfolding histories that comprise the colonial-postcolonial axis, and to refuse to let arguments sediment and ossify, with the assumption that “the language debates” are already well known and behind us.

8 thoughts on “Different Angers: English and Kiswahili

  1. Really fascinating stuff here. Evan M. is also exploring this notion, and gave a talk last spring based on a paper he was writing about linguistic negotiation, translation and related topics in contemporary Kenyan literature. Ngugi was a touchstone in the talk.

  2. Oh man, I wrote and rewrote so many responses to this particular post (finally settling on this sure-to-be-mediocre meditation), because this is something that I had always wanted to talk to you about but lacked the courage (basically because I do not know you very well and did not want to seem too forward ;)). The language debates will not end for the foreseeable future, I agree (to move outside of Kenya or Nigeria, just look at India since 47), and your attempts to locate a new dichotomy between ‘home’ and ‘school’ language is an idea that I find more accurate than ‘foreign’ and ‘African’ dichotomies. Perhaps because of my own post-structuralist interpretations (some might say perversions) of West African history, I never saw pidgen English or crioulu as anything but ‘African’ languages expressing ‘African’ realities. Language changes over time, and I believe that everyday people find ways to express themselves within any language. I also fundamentally question the linguistic determinism of those on the Ngugi side. In any case, I recall hearing rather fiery debates in Ghana about what the true national language of the country should be if not English. When a dude from Kumasi says that everyone should speak Twi or shut up, my Ga friends would go nuts (and rightfully so). Kiswahili was not the natural language of East Africa but it had to have been pushed and molded to become the national language of but a few countries there, and some of the effects of its totalizing linguistic unity (in Tanzania especially) were pretty similar to European colonialism (I WILL make a clumsy comparison). I will not say that Kiswahili is a ‘better’ language because that would imply that there are bad languages and a best language that people MUST speak, a proposition I am pretty uncomfortable with. Kiswahili is not bad, mind you, but it is part of the nation-building project, where schools are but tools of the state, and should not be viewed as a more ‘authentic’ and unproblematic mode of expression. I just feel that these issues are part of a continuum of language identity rather than polar opposites never to meet. This does, of course, have very real implications for governance (if a minority of the people speak the language of government) but I favor mass education and letting each country sort out its linguistic policy organically (while leaving room for home languages) rather than blanket calls for one over the other.

  3. I smell a research project for the future-hold on to it.

    In part, of course, we can’t lose sight of the generational aspect to this issue. My experience differs from Ngugi’s precisely because of a generational divide, because of history.

    And, of course, class. Kiswahili was enabling and non-school for many Kenyans my age and my generation, but not for all of us. That “many” and “not for all of us” complicates my admittedly clumsy attempt to think of “school” and “home” languages, precisely because for “many others” English was a school language and Kiswahili a home language. So, it’s the delicate art of negotiation that must be mastered, more careful, site-specific studies.

    Of course, a Kiswahili specialist like Kimani Njogu would probably vehemently disagree with my claims, and that would be an interesting conversation to have.

    Yes, Winslow, research project. Make sure you keep this one. It will serve you well.

  4. Ha, I could not do a project like this justice without Swahili (which people swear is pretty easy to learn, but I have read some Swahili Coast poetry and the high-level stuff is ridiculously subtle). I tend to find that many of the sort of people who would vehemetly disagree with you (Ngugi, Mugo, et al and I am sorry to say I never heard of Njogu,) are all East African from a certain generation… which goes to show how freaking right you are. Forget a research project, this sounds like a stellar autobiography (though you will probably get pilloried for for it a la KA Appiah).

  5. Think bigger: a project on the unfolding histories of generational change as registered in cultural practices, chief among them English, but also cultural forms, including rap and hip hop.

    And, also, a project that maps generational change along the axes of changes in history: what do the post-independence and post-globalization generations have to say or think that is related to but also diverges from the still dominant colonial-era generations?

  6. eloquently expressed. i’m particularly intrigued by chartering the colonial/post-colonial, home/school and social class divides in use of language in Kenya. it would also be interesting to explore how sheng and pidgin are interwoven into this reality.

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