Kenyan writer and activist Ngugi wa Thiong’o was awarded the 31st Catalonia International Prize for his “distinguished and courageous” literary work and for his defense of African languages.
In a ceremony held on 3 September and chaired by Quim Torra, (former) president of the Catalan Government, wa Thiong’o has received the award and paid tribute to not only Kikuyu (his mother tongue, in which he has been writing since the eighties after abandoning English), but also Catalan and all the minority languages in the world. Thiong’o, who had visited Barcelona in 2011 and offered a seminar in collaboration with Linguapax, explained that the poem Canigó, by Jacint Verdaguer, has inspired his latest work, an epic poem entitled Kenda Muiyuru: Rugano rwa Gikuyu na Mumbi which is about to be published in English under the title The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gikuyu and Mumbi. “Therefore, I accept this prize and I do so with joy, and in celebration of both Kikuyu and Catalan, and also all the other languages in Africa and in the world, that have been marginalised by the self-proclaimed, imperial languages”, said the writer via video conference. Subsequently, he continued with a critical sociolinguistic reflection:
We live in a world built on systems of hierarchies, where the splendor of a few is often built on the misery of many others; a world where billions in the hands of a few have been gained at the expense of billions of poor people. This hierarchy can be better seen in the relationship between languages. Many languages must cease to exist so that a few can live. These few languages are considered to be “more of a language” than other languages and cultures. They stand as kings of languages. This was the case of Catalonia under Franco. The same was done with Native American languages. Also in New Zealand, Australia and Ireland. In Asia, too. Also in Kenya and Africa. Imperial languages such as English, French, Spanish and Portuguese proclaimed themselves as kings of languages. I believe that languages, regardless of the number of speakers, can and should relate not in terms of hierarchy, but in terms of equal give and take in a network. Monolingualism is the carbon monoxide of cultures; multilingualism is the oxygen of cultures. By relating in a network of give and take, languages give life to each other.
Thiong’o, born in Kenya in 1938, has focused his literary and essay production on reflections on the academic concept of African cultures and literature. Therefore, his approaches have paved the way for many postcolonial theories, and have encouraged the enhancement of the cultural character of African territories after colonialism. He has been imprisoned and persecuted for his critical stance on Kenyan political, cultural and social problems, and from 1982 to 2002 he was forced into exile. He is currently professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine. He has published about thirty literary works, including Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986) and Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms (2017), among many others. Some of his works have been translated and published in Catalan by Raig Verd publishing house.