December 16, 2010 – The Kwani? Litfest kicked off its literary sessions last night with a healthy argument by Ngugi Wa Thion’go: “Are some languages more superior than others?”
Sitting on a panel politely facing off with his son at the Nairobi National Museum and challenging other young writers, the acclaimed novelist who nearly won a Nobel Literature prize in October, said ideas by local authors were being processed through the “English Linguistic House” and this was not right.
As moderator and emcee John Sibi-Okumu tried to argue that such a concept was not feasible in the modern world and that English was a necessary tool for creatives and writers alike, Ngugi insisted that the idea of language networking rather than language hierarchy should be explored.
He read a poem translated from Spanish to Kikuyu to illustrate his example.
Ngugi questioned why people were impressed when languages like French and Polish were learnt and why the same people were puzzled if someone chose to learn Kisii and Dholuo.
“If you say you know those (local) languages, people ask, ‘why’?”
His son Mukoma agreed that there was beauty in language, and displayed his own prowess by reading out a poem he wrote in Zulu, but he argued that there was still need to capture the essence of places in English, a common language.
Ngugi however reiterated that the problem of languages is not peculiar to Africa and gave examples of Welsh, Irish and Gaelic, which have been overtaken by English.
It was a lively argument and could go back and forth for a week, but it raised some pertinent questions if not solutions. Do you look down on your language? Would you be proud if you spoke flawless Swahili or mother-tongue? Do you think vernacular has no place in the future? Should Swahili grow on the ‘graveyard of other languages’? Do people in the village who speak vernacular, read poetry?
Kwani? is hoping to answer all these questions in a week-long Lit-fest that will be taking place in Nairobi. Check out a detailed programme here. (http://www.kwani.org/events/litfest.htm)
With a star studded cast of novelists sharing their thoughts, struggles and experiences, experts will be on hand to answer questions and the best of Kenyan literature will be on aggressive display.