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Ngugi wa Thiong'o receives 2019 Erich-Maria-Remarque Peace Prize

  • Published at 04:49 pm June 11th, 2019
Ngugi wa Thiong'o
Ngugi wa Thiong’o | Photo: Steve Zylius / UCI

Lit news 

As the world waits in anticipation for Ngugi wa Thiong’o to win the Nobel Prize in literature, the Kenyan author has bagged the 15th Erich-Maria-Remarque Peace Prize for his most prominent work of nonfiction, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. According to the African Vibes, the award, worth 25,000 euros, represents those who “demonstrate an exemplary commitment to peace, humanity and freedom” in the fields of fiction, journalism or science. The biennial Peace Prize has been conferred on distinguished authors and scientists all over the world since 1991 in honor of German novelist Erich Maria Remarque, famously known for his All Quiet on the Western Front

For nearly 50 years, Thiong’o has been a strong voice against Western colonialism and its residual effects in the post-colonial East Africa. In his widely acclaimed anthology of essays Decolonising the Mind (1986), he advocates the use of African languages in its literature, renouncing English to employ Gikuyu for creative expression. Being part of a nationalist movement, Thiong’o was one of the driving forces to transform the “Department of English” into the “Department of African Languages and Literature” at the University of Nairobi. Not only did he give up English to write in his mother tongue, he discarded his own Christian name (James) only to assume ‘Ngugi’ as a protest against the colonial legacy.  For his steadfast resistance against the oppressive rule of Daniel arap Moi, the author has been subsequently jailed for over a year. And thus being incarcerated, exiled and declined the right to teach in the University of Nairobi after being released from prison, the author has never ceased to campaign against the oppression of the government and has worked relentlessly for the decolonization of the African mind.  

Beginning with Weep Not, Child (1964), Ngugi has written a number of critical essays, stage plays, novels and short stories that have been translated into different languages across the globe. He had developed an interactive African theatre that later landed him in jail after staging a political play I Will Marry When I Want (1977). Could imprisonment stop him from writing? Incarcerated and deprived of writing accessories, Ngugi wrote his first modern novel Devil on the Cross (1980) on a toilet paper! He is quoted in an article published in the website of WVPE Public Radio, a US-based radio station, as saying “The first play that I write in Gikuyu, my mother tongue, I am put in a maximum security prison not by a colonial government — by an African government… the first thing they [the oppressor] do, is take away the language of the oppressed.” 

The author is internationally revered for his scholarship. He has taught as a professor at Yale University, New York University and the University of California, Irvine.  As his contribution in literature reflects the vision of Erich-Maria-Remarque Peace Prize, a jury of the prize committee states, 

“With Ngugi wa Thiong’o we are honouring a writer who is concerned with the self-determination of African cultures and with a dissociation from colonial constraints. His attempt to create a dialogue through literature in spite of or indeed because of the different languages evokes understanding for this continent and can thus contribute towards peace.”