Language, Power, Exclusion and Decoloniality in Africa


by Lily Mburu, Inaugural Fellow – ALU


On 8th April 2017, African Leadership University (ALU) students with support from the ALU community organized Kwibuka23, to commemorate the lives lost during the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda. The rallying call of ‘never again’ reverberated through the assembly space on the Mauritius campus, with sombre musical harmonies in Kinyarwanda, Swahili and English. A student play depicting the turn of events leading to the genocide was a chilling reminder of the horrifying 100-day massacre of over 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Prior to colonialism, ethnic identities in Africa were dynamic in character and overlapped with multiple social identities (1). Colonialism changed the fluid nature of ethnic identities by enforcing administrative classification of these identities into distinct ‘tribes’ (2). Examining the colonial legacy of reconstruction of Hutu and Tutsi identities is instructive to understand how these identities evolved in post-colonial Rwanda. Distortion of Hutu and Tutsi identities during colonialism emerged from racialized notions of superiority of Tutsi over Hutu based on lineage and in spite of commonality of language (3). This reconstruction of racialized identities resulted in Tutsi being labelled as ‘alien’ and Hutu as ‘indigenous’. The issuance of ethnic identity cards by Belgian authorities cemented these identities which morphed into “distinct legal and political identities” (4).  Notably, such “static, fixed identity categories that hold with them stereotyping and ‘othering’ tend to be at the root of violence” (5). Rwanda’s path to reconciliation over the last two decades has included abolishment of all official classification of Rwandans based on ethnic affiliation.

Language is interwoven with cultural identity and has been viewed as “storehouse for ethnicity” (6). Commonality of language and ethnicity is said to create unity, a sense of belonging and kinship bonds. The underbelly of language merits evaluation through the prism of power and identity as exemplified by the Rwandan context. What then is the role of language in the tapestry of identity, power and exclusion? Ngugi wa Thiong’o illustrates the centrality of language during the colonial conquest in Africa which he describes as having been a means of “spiritual subjugation” (7). The dual nature of language as a mode of communication and embodiment of culture is underscored in Ngugi’s seminal work on Decolonising the Mind in which he interrogates the systematic subordination of African languages, and makes a strong case for decolonisation of language.

Ngugi’s choice to write his literary work in his Kikuyu mother tongue was precisely to counteract the imperialistic and pervasive post-colonial suppression of indigenous languages. A salient question emerges: is the promotion of African languages in and of itself emancipatory? Is there an underlying risk of essentializing African languages while overlooking the nuanced ways in which language as an expression of ethnicity perpetuates exclusion? Ngugi himself echoes the limitations of writing literature in African languages noting that this “will not itself bring about the renaissance in African cultures if that literature does not carry the content of our people’s anti-imperialist struggles to liberate their productive forces from foreign control” (8). The exercise of power and the manner in which this intersects with language and ethnicity is therefore instrumental in examining the extent to which decolonising language might- contrary to its pursuit, result in ‘othering’ and exclusion.

One of the pernicious features of colonialism was the dichotomy between the concepts of ‘indigenous’ and ‘western’ which falsely conflated the latter as meaning ‘civilized’ and the former as ‘uncivilized.’ The Eurocentric “modernization theory” sought to explain poverty in Africa by locating poor countries as being in the early stages of development with evolution to ‘modernity’  projected to occur over time (9). This undermined African heritage whilst elevating western externalities leading to what Ngugi describes as a state of “colonial alienation”. Decoloniality could therefore be understood as a process that encompasses reclamation of cultural heritage and liberation from colonial systems of oppression which remain prevalent.

The Social Science architecture at ALU is envisioned to be “fundamentally decolonial from its inception” as expounded in the inaugural blog post by Auerbach. The decoloniality reading group was one of the most intellectually stimulating spaces I was a part of during my time at ALU. Students and staff primarily from Social Sciences meet every fortnight to dissect literature on decolonisation (Wa Thiong’o 1987, Biko 2005) (10),  share reflections, draw meaning from individual experiences as well as insights on fostering decolonial thinking and action not only within ALU but also on the African continent and beyond. The late evening conversations take place on a rooftop overlooking starry skies, the splendid view reminiscent of the beauty and depth of the discourse.

While discussing Ngugi’s Decolonising the Mind, a Nigerian student of Yoruba descent expressed how he often questioned the privilege attached to English. He pointed out that a student with good academic credentials who speaks Yoruba and is not proficient in English would be disqualified from accessing scholarship opportunities solely on account of language. He posed a question: if the relegation of Yoruba is premised on the classification of the language as ‘vernacular’, what precludes this classification from being reversed? He further pointed out that Ngugi’s writing gave him a theoretical underpinning of decoloniality on issues that he had been grappling with but for which he did not have a label. Decoloniality thus presented an overarching framework to locate his disaffection of language as a means of fomenting exclusion. On the same occasion, a Tanzanian student expressed her frustration at depictions of Tanzania as backward or ‘being in the dark’ due to the status of Swahili rather than English as the national language in the country. She highlighted that this stemmed from misrepresentation of English in terms of enlightenment which consequently attached a perverted connotation of African languages as backward. A repercussion of this has been the debasing of informal knowledge systems rooted in African traditions.


language wall

The language wall in the Ngugi wa Thiong’o Social Sciences Lab at ALU: students, staff, and visitors are invited to write on the wall whenever they choose, sparking dialogue, often heated, and often not in English, and serving as a teaching tool in a variety of contexts. 

As a Pan-African institution aspiring to transform leadership on the continent, there is merit in giving consideration to the role of African languages at ALU. The Social Sciences team is already considering the introduction of ‘language tables’ which would create spaces in which languages such as Swahili, Arabic and Mauritian Creole can be taught at ALU. These spaces can also facilitate knowledge sharing in various languages. Another worthwhile consideration is with respect to students whose first language is not English: to what extent is their academic progress prejudiced by limitations of proficiency in English and how can ALU support these students to bolster their learning? The construction of a decolonial Social Science program at ALU is laudable and ought to go further by permeating the decoloniality discourse in other spheres at ALU. The decoloniality reading group for instance need not be confined to the ‘social sciences corner’- contribution of the wider ALU community to the discourse would be valuable. Participation of students majoring in Business Management in the reading group has been heartening in this regard.  


(1) Berman, J. B. (1998) Ethnicity, Patronage and the African State: The Politics of Uncivil Nationalism African Affairs, Vol. 97, No. 388, pp. 305-341

(2) Lynch, G (2006) Negotiating Ethnicity: Identity Politics in Contemporary Kenya Review of African Political Economy, Vol. 33, No. 107, pp. 49-65

(3) Wielenga, C (2011) Genocide and Identity: Stereotyping, ‘othering’ and Violence in Rwanda

(4) Mamdani, M (2003) Making Sense of Political Violence in Postcolonial Africa Socialist Register, Vol. 39, pp. 132-151

(5) Wielenga, C (2011) at p. 2

(6) Fishman, J (1999) Handbook of Language and Ethnicity. Oxford University Press

(7) Wa Thiong’o, N (1987) Decolonising the Mind The Politics of Language in African Literature. Zimbabwe Publishing House

(8) Ibid at p. 29

(9) Ferguson, J (2006) Decomposing Modernity: History and Hierarchy after Development, Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order

(10) Biko, S (2005) I Write What I Like. University of Chicago Press  



Response to Conversation Article

It’s been a wonderful few days! Many people have written to us or followed this blog in response to the article in The Conversation, and many have asked to be involved. We are a tiny program at the moment – on Wednesday we welcome our third faculty member, and we only begin our second official term next week. We are still building our program from the ground up, and are often completely preoccupied with the nuts and bolts of curriculum design, teaching, and assessments.
That said, there are ways that those interested in joining us can directly be involved:
1) Join our global advisory group. This will simply be a database of individuals who we reach out to from time to time with questions pertaining to the program that we feel merit wider discussion. In cases where our students have particular research interests, we might approach individuals on that list for direct mentorship. We hope to keep the level of email traffic relatively low. If you are interested in joining this list, please email me your name, contact details, institutional affiliation (if you have one), and a brief bio. 
2) We are looking for new and interesting contributions to  this blog – we’d love to have you write one! Please email all contributions directly to me.
3) If you have publications that you would like to add to our open source project, please email them to me too! Alternatively, if you have objects that you think would be appropriate for teaching with, let us know.
4) ALU has several job openings. There is a posting for a position in Social Science, but until our student numbers grow we are unlikely to be hiring directly. Please do submit a CV, I’d just encourage you to consider other roles in the organisation as well as it seems important to be realistic with regards to our size and actual impact at the moment.
5) If you’d like to visit us and share your work and insight with our students and our community, let us know.
5) If you’d like to be involved in a way we haven’t thought of yet, please feel free to reach out. This is partly just to help manage the email traffic whilst also continuing to prepare for a very busy teaching term!
Many thanks and warmest wishes,
Jess Auerbach