ISSN NO. 2581-9070 ONLINE

Demography of language in Arrow of God and The Trial of Dedan Kimathi: Arpitha Kadiyam

Demography of language in Arrow of God and The Trial of Dedan Kimathi


When facing extinction, it’s the language spoken by the people of that culture or nation that face the brunt of the force of eradication. In context of African literature, it was the arrival of the English colonials that posed a threat to the African culture. The native languages were unacceptable to the colonisers and as a result they (English) carried out ways and means to impose their own language in place of the native language. This acted as a burden on the natives who had to adopt the new language and at the same time that had to excel in it too, or else they were looked down upon. The difference in accents while speaking the colonizers language made them stand apart and this made the differences between the two cultures quite distinct.

Language is not merely a means for communication; rather it is an intricate form of expression. The primary motive of a language is its constant revival with the progression of time. Thus, the language of any culture undergoes metamorphosis in order to keep up with the constant changes that occur. Language is a mirror to the culture, the society and tells a story of the origins of that particular community. Language is complex and in constant race to restructure itself. It faces new revivals or is faced with the threat of extinction. But in all of the cases, language never loses the influence it has had over an individual.

The significance of a language is realized when the culture is threatened due to certain circumstances. Language in not just a discourse to communicate, it’s deeply rooted in the history of a culture. The development of any language can be traced with the help of literature and its approval by various critics. The language of any literary text defines the background of the nation it belongs to. The upheavals and the changes that language has undergone in due time in the quest for identity struggle by the people belonging to that culture.

In the above light, with the understanding of the significance of language in tracing the progress of any culture, the literary works therefore hold all the more importance. In the case of post- colonial African literature, the concept of language becomes all the more vital to the struggle they have had to face for independence. With the English colonizers crushing them in their thirst for power, their culture was at a risk of being wiped out. The grasp of the English masters over, politics, religion and language had posed a question on their future, spelling doom on their culture.

This threat had a strong influence on the literature produced thereafter, for the roots that they belonged to were being pulled out, snatching away their source to access. In an attempt to go back to their baser identities, writers like Achebe and Ngugi, through their written words have been able to bring back the importance of their own language. The two writers are regarded as the crown jewels with regard to African literature. They have succeeded in retaliating back against the English masters through their works. They chose to answer back and describe to the world, the atrocities that were being inflicted on them in the name of colonization.

Chinua Achebe, a Nigerian author, took it upon himself to describe the destruction of the Igbo society at the hands of the white colonizers in his work Things Fall Apart. This portrayal was continued in his work titled, Arrow of God. Achebe in this work explores the downfall of traditional religion at the hands of the Christian missionaries. This is possible only when the English colonists are able to shake their faith and firm belief they had in their religion, their priest and their God. Achebe’s work thus defends the religion of their ancestors, and describes the religious suppression they had to suffer. On the contrary, Ngugi explores the political struggle put up by the natives in order to defend and fight for their rights. The fight of Kimathi, for his countrymen and those that chose to betray their nation shows another picture of suffering.

Achebe and Ngugi, as writers have been successful in bringing out the true picture of the African culture that had to undergo drastic changes in order to resurface from the blows of colonization. While Achebe is praised for his use of Igbo words in order to draw attention towards the legacy that the Igbo people lose in their fight against the colonizers. Achebe uses the master’s language, and hits them on the spot when they claim to have advantage over the natives on the basis of their superior race and culture. According to Achebe, using the master’s own language to show them a mirror about their wrongdoings. He put to use his knowledge, the education he receives and decided to spread the word to a larger number of audience.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o, unlike Achebe, discarded the language of the master and chose to express in his own native language, Gikuyu. His approach involved answering back the colonial masters using the language that belonged to the natives. Ngugi therefore puts forth his own language and therefore his identity to the forefront and retaliates against the white colonizers.

The contrasting approaches of the two writers with the same aim of revolting against the colonizers and their unjust rule shows the power language has over people. The paper hereafter will explore this role of language in expressing the identity of any culture and the diverse methods that have been implemented in order to bring out the dying culture to light with the use of language –the native’s and the master’s.

That language is the heart and soul of a culture is a universal truth. The existence of any culture is under serious threat if its language is questioned. The first and foremost threat that any language faces is if the culture or nation is in danger to be suppressed by another authoritative power. The language that a culture identifies with is not just the written language but the spoken words as well. It’s the spoken words that give birth to any written script of a language.

Franz Fanon explains this difference and its consequences in Black Skin, White Masks where he gives a detailed result of the imposition of English on a colony, in this context, the African culture. Fanon says that any black man who learns English develops two personalities, one that is his own natural self and the other that comes out when he’s in the company of a white man. Thus a black man in his race to adapt according to the colonisers splits into two, for he is unable to fully adapt to the new language and cannot shun his native identity as well. The black man is rooted to his own culture while at the same time he looks down on his own fellow beings who do not give in to the master’s language. He considers his tongue to be an inferior element. In doing so, he does away with his own culture, and is cut off from his roots. His acceptance of the English language makes him a class apart, as he apes the white man perfectly.

In light of these facts, analysing the works of Achebe and Ngugi takes a new turn. Their motives behind choosing a language to write against the colonial masters becomes clearer. This dichotomy that was created by the English colonisers encourages the two writers to speak up against their atrocities. Achebe chose to tread on the path of rebellion using the master’s language, and at the same time he makes use of words of the Igbo society to retain the identity of the native culture. The various customs and their elaborate descriptions in Arrow of God, places emphasis on their significance in the lives of native Africans. On the other hand, Ngugi chose to opt for Gikuyu as his language for his work and aimed at altering the mind-set of the whites wherein they believe that English is solely their language. His decision to show the political corruption of the English colonisers is done in his own native language so that he can expose the real face of these authoritative powers.

Fanon explains that this creates a clash between the centre and margin, in terms of language in literature. While writers like Achebe, who choose the master’s language, occupy the centre; those like Ngugi who take up the native language, are placed at the margins due to their rejection of the master’s language. Differences on the basis of language are made not only when it comes to spoken language but also in the field of literature.Writers who insist on using and developing the cultural language are looked down upon and not given due credit. Any work written in English has a wider approach to the readers and easily comprehensible, while that in the native language has a limited audience to hear its voice.

In this context, the success of Achebe’s Arrow of God can be compared to Ngugi’s The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, for it is Achebe who got his ideologies spread far and wide unlike Ngugi. In agreement with Fanon, Ngugi elucidates the significance of language as an image forming agent. We identify ourselves through our words and thus language, spoken or written, becomes the ultimate mirror that shows us our reflection. If the fundamental knowledge of a language has been twisted then the identity of a person is completely altered. Language defines the identity of a culture and therefore when Achebe shows the supremacy of the whites it is through the loss of native language and hence their deep roots are pulled out.

Language shows the reality of the outside world, where the masters rule over the tongue. English has become then, “the master piece”, a means to survival. All the learnings need to be done in the master’s language. The effect is that in doing otherwise the black man accuses himself of having failed his master, he is never free from self-loathing. Therefore, in Arrow of God, Achebe shows the conflict that the people of the Igbo community face when they are confronted with the white colonisers. Their language is put to test and the doubt that they have on their religion further worsens their struggle against the outsiders. As a result, literature is scrutinised in the worst manner, the best of works is put under question.

Despite all the criticism, Achebe and Ngugi, try their best to reinvent the glorious past of Africa and its culture; Ngugi became one of the privileged writers. Yet, there exists a certain misinterpretation of the language even through the written works. The main objective of African literature is to get the message of Africa’s native culture across the world. And, Achebe and Ngugi have been successful in getting the message to the readers. African literature has seen a new light all due to writers like these. African English, as some might call it, is replete with African words and has been accepted by many critics. Their literature aims to portray the challenges that African literature and their language faces as result of their colonial past and the colonisers.

Both the texts describe the plight of the African natives, their search for identity, and fight against the loss of language, traditional practices and rituals. In lieu of this, it becomes necessary for African writers to bring to the forefront the issues that the present native Africans have to deal with. The constant use of native folklores, stories and customs shows the devotion of the writers towards projecting a positive image of their culture. Ngugi has been able to keep the readers in line with the political struggle of the natives, so that the historical essence of their struggle is not lost with time.

Therefore, the significance of language with respect to writers such as Achebe and Ngugi can be traced with context to the criticism received by African literature. And thus, it becomes vital for readers and critics alike to value the importance of language as a bearer of African culture and their identity, the fundamentals of any culture which motivates them against the English colonisers and the superior intellect that is a trademark of English language.










Achebe, Chinua. Arrow of God. Penguin Publications. United Kingdom. 2010. Print.

Wa Thiong’o, Ngugi. The Trial of Dedan Kimathi. Ed. Nandita Sinha. Asia Book Club. New Delhi. 2005. Print.


Fanon, Franz. Black Skin, White Masks. “On Colour Prejudice”. Worldview Publications. Delhi. 1952. Print.

Wa Thiong’o, Ngugi. The Language of African Literature. “Decolonising the Mind”. Worldview Publications. Delhi. 1986. Print.

K Guthrie, Abigail. Language and Identity in Postcolonial African Literature. 2011. Print.

Edwards, John. Language and Identity. New York: Cambridge, University Publication. 2009. Print.