Saturday, December 06, 2008

moving the centre

In Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms, Ngũgĩ, a Kenyan intellectual and writer, offers several important insights into the revitalization of Indigenous societies in the wake of colonialism and the current turbulence of neocolonialism. Like Nkrumah before him, Ngũgĩ offers a powerful critique of the ongoing exploitative reality of neocolonialism and the political, economic and cultural underpinnings of this persistent imperial enterprise. While not excluding the importance of the political and economic realms, Ngũgĩ draws our attention to the often-ignored cultural elements of the neocolonial relationship including Eurocentrism, the persistence colonial legacies, and racism. Ngugi’s insistence on the revival of indigenous languages has been exemplified by his own writings in his native Gikuyu language. Ngũgĩ’s criticisms are not merely rooted in intellectual and scholastic endeavours, however. Members of his family were directly involved in the struggle for independence led by the Mau Mau in the 1950s and 1960s, and Ngũgĩ himself has been jailed numerous times for his anti-neocolonial writing, causing him to live a life of exile for the past thirty years. Despite these enormous contributions rooted in community and praxis, Ngũgĩ’s writings, at least as they are expressed in Moving the Centre, suffer from two significant shortcomings.

First, he completely ignores the struggle for freedom by Indigenous peoples, specifically in North America. His only references to North America speak of solidarity with African-Americans, white workers, women, peace and environmental activists. Even his repeated mention of the potential for alliances of people of the Tricontinental seem ignore the existence of a continued struggle for liberation by the Indigenous peoples of those lands, particularly in Asia and South America. Certainly, his focus on the shift from colonialism to neocolonialism can include these discussions, and not merely limit their scope to a critique of Western Imperialism. Second, Ngũgĩ’s sense of liberation is somewhat rooted in Socialism, which also complicates matters vis-à-vis Indigenous worldviews and values. Granted, “African socialism” as extolled by C.L.R James, Kwame Nkrumah, Amilcar Cabral and others adapted socialism models to their unique situations, socialist values, despite their anti-imperial rhetoric are often at odds with Indigenous values, not the least of which is the insistence on the state and its apparatus. This state-centric issue leads me to my final concern, that Ngũgĩ, among others has underestimated the flexibility and resilience of neocolonialism as it has shifted into the current incarnation of neoliberalism. Not only elites, or "comprador collaborators" as Ngũgĩ points out that fall prey to the dominant ideology, but the common person is also increasingly afflicted with the values of neoliberalism.

With these criticisms in mind, I would like refocus on a few of Ngũgĩ’s most important contributions to libratory literature and practice. Ngũgĩ writes in the Preface, “Eurocentrism is most dangerous to the self-confidence of Third World peoples when it becomes internalized in their intellectual conception of the universe.” Ngũgĩ goes into great detail describing how the colonial and neocolonial environments repress Indigenous cultures and psyches through literature, theatre, and education in addition to political and economic influence. As a response to this, Ngũgĩ stresses the importance of reviving an Indigenous intellectual tradition rooted in Indigenous languages. He writes further, “knowing oneself and one’s environment was the correct basis of absorbing the world.” In the African context, Ngũgĩ also stresses the importance of rooting a revival in oral traditions, not just the written word. As for Intellectuals Ngugi writes, "A consistent anti-imperialist position – that is, a position that struggles against or that exposes the continued neo-colonial control of African economics and cultures by the Western bourgeoisie – is the minimum necessary for a committed, responsible scholarship in Africa, or anywhere in the Third World."

The road is tough for Indigenous writers in a neocolonial context, as Ngũgĩ’s own life can attest. He comments, “Write and risk damnation. Avoid Damnation and cease to be a writer.” Ngũgĩ’s writes, “Workers in the west are the natural allies to the working people of the ‘Third World.’” Again, this is reminiscent of socialist rhetoric in the vein of Marx’s “Workers of the world unite!” Unfortunately, Marx was dreadfully wrong in his predictions about a proletarian revolution – where socialist revolutions were successful they were led largely by peasants (Russia, China), or they were not openly socialist in the beginning (Cuba). In an Indigenous context in the Americas, I believe Ngũgĩ’s most poignant contributions lie in his analyses of culture and language. As it relates to research and Indigenous communities, Ngũgĩ’s emphasis on Indigenous languages are as critical as his commentaries on the struggles with neocolonial cultural, economic, and political domination and persistent racism. Despite my belief that Ngũgĩ underestimates the persistence of capitalism (not an uncommon socialist ideological flaw), I believe he speaks the truth when he writes, “Peace is impossible in a world dominated by imperialism. Peace is impossible in a world guided by the ideology and practice of racism. Hence, the struggle for peace in the world must be a concerted struggle against racism and imperialism.”


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