This collection of essays by Ngugi wa Thiong’o is a meditation upon Africa and its place in the modern world. There are two facts that underpin all these essays and they are the two fundamental facts about African history: the Atlantic slave trade and colonialism. It is impossible to consider the history and development of Africa into post-colonial independence without having a grasp of these issues. It is impossible to understand what independence in the post-colonial era actually entails without taking these two facts into account. They are the building blocks on which the history of modern Africa has been built.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s argument starts from a base that should be obvious, although it is brushed under the carpet. The Atlantic Slave Trade was a crime against humanity. It allowed the burgeoning capitalist economies of Western Europe and what became the United States. It was driven by the need to have cheap labour to produce sugar, tobacco and cotton. Slaves only needed enough food, clothing and housing to keep them, literally, producing the goods, and if they died more slaves could be purchased. Ngugi recognises that the kingdoms of the West African littoral by waging war on their neighbours, seizing captives and selling them to European traders, whether they were Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch or English. [The Scots did not benefit from the slave trade until the Act of Union of 1707, but they seem to have taken to it like ducks to water. Glasgow is built on money from the slave trade and the slave plantations]. Obviously, this loss of population and the disruption it caused had a detrimental effect on the development of Africa.
One of the things that Ngugi argues should be considered is the trauma to the African psyche. This was compounded by the trauma of colonialism, and the barbarity with which African societies were destroyed so that resources could be extracted from the continent for the benefit of the colonial power. Part of the consequence of colonialism was that European languages became the languages of power, and that is still the case in sub-Saharan Africa, even in countries where an African language, or more than one, has been given official status. [Arabic is a separate case. It is not in origin an African language but it has been spoken in the continent for something like 1,500 years].
In these essays, Ngugi issues a call to arms. He calls upon African intellectuals to write in their own tongues. He asks for schools to teach in African languages. He challenges the use of the word “tribe”, and asks why 40,000,000 Yoruba form a tribe, but 300,000 Icelanders or 5 million Danes form a nation. The answer is both obvious and inherently racist. All you have to do is look at racial classification in apartheid South Africa where 5,000,000 whites, despite speaking different languages, formed one racial group whereas Nguni speakers, despite using variants of the same language, formed, I think, 5 racial groups.
Ngugi argues that Africans need to accord their own languages respect. The argument that there are no words in African languages for the technological advances that have been made over the last two hundred years, is one that he demolishes as nonsense. He points out that the same was said of English and French, when they began to replace Latin as the language of intellectual discourse. He could also have pointed out that there is no English word for “television”. It is derived from Greek and Latin. Words can be invented and they frequently are. Shakespeare was an expert at this.
Ngugi also argues that African achievements are overlooked in the world. He rightly argues that the greatest threat to our planet is nuclear weaponry, and that the most pressing need for securing the future of our planet is the decommissioning of those weapons. He then adds that two countries have already done this, and that they are both African countries – South Africa and Libya. One has never been credited with doing so, and the other was invaded, its infrastructure destroyed and an ongoing refugee crisis created. I remember someone on Facebook arguing in 2014 that if Scotland became independent it would be the first country to decommission its nuclear weapons, and I replied that this would not be the case because South African and Libya had already done it. The argument was based on ignorance, but it is symptomatic of the fact that Africa, when it does something good, does not get coverage in the western media.
Another argument that Ngugi puts forward is that the world is divided between the wealthy and the poor. He argues that, if the world is to live at peace and in prosperity, then those resources must be shared equally. He argues that this cannot be achieved by tinkering with the world economy, as the Christian missionaries die in the colonial period and as the NGOs do now, but needs a structural change. He argues for a world without borders, or, at least, the kind of borders that we have in place now. He argues for a world in which we ensure that the hungry are fed, the poor clothed, the homeless housed, the sick are healed and the refugees are welcomed. He argues against the expenditure by the rich nations of this world on armaments. This is a cry from the heart against the neo-colonial world in which we live. It is an argument that we have a duty to consider. I think he is right.