For the Joy of Reading: John MacLean

John MacLean is one of the folk heroes of the West of Scotland, and he should be better known than he is, internationally. Henry Bell has tried to restore that balance by writing a short, accessible, well-researched and well-argued biography of the man.
So, who was he? That is not a question that has any easy answers. He came of Highland stock and it is likely that both his parents spoke the Gaelic, but he was brought up in Glasgow and he did not. His parents both came to Glasgow because their families had been expelled from their homes during the Highland Clearances of the mid-nineteenth century. His parents were both staunch, churchgoing Presbyterians and they brought their children up very firmly within the Christian ethic that you should “love your neighbour as yourself”. This was a message that was to stay with him all his life, and it can be argued that his politics were based on that ethic.
John MacLean was, to put it very simply, a political agitator, a revolutionary, a communist. His name is mentioned in the annals of the early twentieth century along with Lenin, Trotsky, James Connolly, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and a host of other revolutionaries who brought down the dynasties of the Romanovs, the Hohenzollerns and the Habsburgs. He very much wanted Glasgow to be a centre of revolution in the same way as Petrograd in 1917 and Kiel, Berlin and Vienna in 1918. He wanted this because he knew, from personal experience, the appalling conditions in which ordinary working people in Glasgow and the rest of Scotland lived at the time. On his 6-mile daily walk from his home on the south of the River Clyde to the Scottish Labour College in Woodlands Road he would have seen the slums in which ordinary people lived and the houses of the rich along the hillside of that road. This was what convinced him to learn about and then to teach Marxism. This was what convinced him to become a revolutionary.
What follows is an account of the events on “Red Clydeside” and the significant role that John MacLean played in them. John MacLean delivered an extraordinary speech from the dock, accusing capitalism of crimes. He was then sent to prison leaving a wife and two daughters to fend for themselves. This was repeated by Nelson Mandela when he delivered his speech from the dock, accusing apartheid of crimes, and was then sent to prison leaving a wife and two daughters to fend for themselves. In one of his speeches at the end of the war John Maclean predicted that British and German capital would find it necessary to go to war again. MacLean said in fifteen years. He had underestimated it by five years, but his analysis was correct.
John MacLean campaigned against bad landlords and evictions in Glasgow just as the “Living Rents” campaign is doing now. John MacLean campaigned for the 40-hour working week, which is currently being undermined by people working long hours, and the government’s austerity programme. He wanted to see people properly fed and hated the “charity” of soup kitchens, which we now call food banks. If we compare his campaigns with what is happening now, things have not changed a great deal. That is why this book is important.
If I go into John MacLean’s career in any more detail, I may spoil the book for those of you who know nothing about him. There is one thing however that does have to be mentioned: did he have a nervous breakdown in Peterhead Prison, where he was incarcerated for several years. He certainly accused the prison authorities of poisoning his food, which could be proof of paranoia. It is certainly possible that his food was laced with bromide to reduce his sexual urges, as this seems to have been a common practice at the time, especially within the armed services. What we know is that some of his comrades said that he suffered a nervous breakdown and that he was not the same man when he came out of prison. They only did this after he had a political fallout with them, so their motives can be called into question. The British Secret Service also spread this story, and there can be no doubt that their motive was to undermine MacLean. The problem is, whatever the motives of those who said it were, it does not mean that it is untrue. What we know is that the prison doctors refused to certify him as insane. This was, possibly, because that would have meant that their treatment of him, especially force-feeding, may have be brought under scrutiny. What we do know is that MacLean had respiratory problems all his life, that his health was seriously undermined in prison and that this was probably a cause of his early death.
John MacLean is remembered on the left in Scotland as a man who was committed to the liberation of the working class, as a man who would not compromise his principles, as a man who fought the good fight with all his might. It is fitting to end with a quote from one of the songs about him – “The Freedom Come All Ye” by Hamish Henderson:-
“When MacLean’s wi’ his frends in Springburn
A’ the roses and geans shall turn tae bloom”.
And we still live for that day when the roses and cherry blossom bloom, and the working class shall be treated with respect.


For the Joy of Reading: The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela

This is an extraordinary book, giving an insight into the man over the 27 years that he was imprisoned. It also gives an insight into the small-minded, petty, vicious officialdom of the prison regime of the apartheid state. There are basically four types of letter: those to friends and family, those to universities whose degree subjects he was studying, those to prison officials setting out their legal obligations to prisoners, and those dealing with the affairs of the Thembu Royal Family, of which Mandela was a member. The letters are all signed appropriately, depending on who he was writing to. Mandela was a man with many names. His birth name was Rolihlahla, his school name, given to him by his teacher, was Nelson. His circumcision, or adult name, was Dalibunga, and his clan title was Madiba. The letters are signed using any of these names, except Rolihlahla. He was also Tata (Dad) and Tatakhulu (Grandad).

The letters to his family, and especially to Winnie, are deeply personal and show the difficulty and frustration that he felt in trying to be supportive and to give guidance when he was in prison, and could not be of any effective help. They are full of compassion and concern, and express his horror at the levels of harassment to which she was subjected, which included physical attacks on her and her home, threats to the children, arrest, torture, solitary confinement, prosecutions and internal banishment. The letters to the children are more about their need to pursue their education, and quite remarkably he was as insistent upon the importance of education to the girls as well as the boys. He wrote to Makaziwe, his eldest daughter, by his first wife Evelyn, encouraging her in her wish to study mathematics, telling her that it is a difficult but important subject, and that it is good that she wishes to specialise in it. There are similar letters to Zenani and Zindiswe, his daughters by Winnie. The two boys, Themba and Makgatho, by his first wife, are advised against giving up their studies to earn money, which is advice that neither of them took, because of their financial responsibilities to the family.

The letters that are the most heartrending are the letters of thanks to the people who organised the funerals of his mother, Nosekeni, and his son, Themba. Mandela was refused permission to attend either funeral, and they happened within ten months of each other. This is an illustration of both the cruelty of the apartheid state, and of its fear of Nelson Mandela. They did not want to give him a public profile by letting him honour his dead.

The letters to the various ministers and officials of the apartheid state are a different matter entirely. They are dignified statements of the rights of prisoners, under the law, and insist that the law should be adhered to. They object to the petty whims and spitefulness of the prison officials being the basis on which the lives of the prisoners are governed. They are forceful assertions of human dignity, in the face of the arrogance and racism of the prison officials. There are complaints that letters have been withheld for long periods, that letters have been mangled by the censors, that letters have not been delivered. It has to be remembered that prisoners were not allowed to send or receive many letters in the first place, and that the failure to deliver many of the letters sent and received had a profound impact on relationships. This was especially the case when Winnie too was imprisoned and the children were effectively orphaned because they did not have access to either parent. If it is difficult to grasp the full impact of the malign viciousness of the apartheid state all you have to do is remember that this is just one instance.

The letters to various academic bodies are mainly about the difficulties of studying in prison. The lack of access to books on recommended reading lists was an obvious difficulty, especially as the prison authorities interfered in the access to books on what appears to be an arbitrary basis, even though Mandela was purchasing these books from his own funds, through Juta, a South African publisher and bookseller. Fortunately, the University of London and other academic bodies were much more understanding of Mandela’s predicament in this regard than the apartheid prison authorities and he eventually completed his law degree, in the late 1980s. [It may be significant that by the time he completed his law degree that Mandela was involved in “talks about talks” with Kobie Coetzee, the Minister of Justice and that there was a loosening of restrictions, but the letters do not indicate that].

The letters about the Thembu Royal Family, of which Mandela was a member of a cadet branch, show how seriously he took his position as a counsellor and show how much of a traditionalist he actually was. There are times when he fell out with members of the Thembu royalty, as when his nephew Kaiser Matanzima led the Transkei Bantustan into so-called “independence” which was a clear breach with ANC policy. He clearly sided with the King, Sabata Dalindyebo, who opposed the move. There are also surprises, like cordial letters to Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the leader of Inkatha (later the Inkatha Freedom Party). Mandela clearly regretted the breakdown in the relations between the ANC and Inkatha that occurred during the 1980s. One of the things that becomes clear is that Mandela looked back to his childhood in Mvezo and Qunu with fondness, and he recognised his debt to the Prince Regent, Jongintaba, who took on responsibility for his upbringing when Mandela’s father died. Another thing that becomes clear is that Mandela took his duty of initiating his sons and grandsons into manhood, through the rite of circumcision, very seriously and, even though he was in prison, he did his best to fulfil his responsibilities in this regard. This view of Mandela, as a traditionalist supporting the customs and ceremonies of the Xhosa, is not one that is generally recognised in the West.

I think that my favourite letter is one to Winnie in which he extols the importance of women leaders. He names a few of these female leaders – Isabella of Spain, Elizabeth of England and Catherine the Great of Russia, and then adds “how great she really was, I don’t know”. He also mentions the Batlokwa Queen Mantatisi, the enemy of Shaka, the Zulu King and Moshoeshoe, the Sotho King. He then says that all of these women gained their thrones through heredity. [This was certainly not the case with Catherine the Great who usurped the throne, murdered two of her predecessors (Peter III, her husband and Ivan VI, his cousin) and held power for 30 odd years, launching wars of aggression in which Poland was destroyed and annexed by agreement between its neighbours.] He then goes on to mention modern women rulers such as Indira Gandhi, Simone Weil and Margaret Thatcher and says of Britain “Despite the collapse of her world-wide Empire & her emergence from the Second World War as a 3rd-rate power, Britain is in many respects still the centre of the world. What happens there attracts attention from far & wide”. This is an assessment that we need to remember.

Why I like this letter is simple. It shows the range and depth of Mandela’s knowledge of history and the world in general. It shows his ability to make an accurate political assessment. It shows, through his praise of women leaders, how modern and forward thinking he could be. It also shows his humanity in his relation to his family, with the references to his daughter, Makaziwe, and to his son, Makgatho. It shows us the man.

One final thing to say about these letters: many of them were not delivered. If you want to know how afraid the apartheid state was of Mandela, even though they had him locked up in maximum security prisons, then the evidence is there in that simple fact. They did not dare to deliver many of these letters. They did not want him to communicate with the outside world. They did not understand that the very fact that he was there in prison was all that the outside world needed to know.

For the Joy of Reading: House of Stone

Gukurahundi is not a word that is known in this country, at least not in the way that we know the words Holocaust or Genocide or Massacre. It is, however, a seminal event in the history of Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe. It was when Robert Mugabe sent the fifth brigade of the Zimbabwe Army, a brigade that had been trained by the North Koreans, into the area around Bulawayo and murdered thousands of his political opponents in the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU). It was an event that set Zimbabwe along a path of repression from the mis-1980s until last year when Mugabe was forcibly removed from power. It is an event that stills hangs its shadow over Zimbabwe. It is an event that is central to this book, although the book is not set in the actual time of the massacres. It is set in the present day, looking at how Zimbabwe and particularly the people around Bulawayo are dealing with the consequences of what happened.

Bukhosi has gone missing. His parents, Abed and Agnes, begin to look for him. It gives nothing away to say that Bukhosi has fallen a victim to those opposed to his secessionist politics. This is made clear from the start. It is just that Abed and Agnes do not realise this, and do not look in the right places. What follows is a story of deception, of power plays and of people struggling to do the right thing, if only for themselves.

To describe the main character as manipulative gives no real idea of how self-serving and self-obsessed he actually is. His whole purpose is to make sure that his life is a comfortable as it possibly can be, even if that means lying about the whereabouts of Bukhosi, which he does with consummate skill.

I will not say any more about the plot. Let us look at the language. There is no doubt that Novuyo Rosa Tshuma is a skilled writer. She uses language that sweeps you along with the story, and she never lets you forget that Gukurahundi is the underlying theme of the story, the motor on which everything else depends.

There is one difficulty with the language. There is no glossary for the Ndebele words that are peppered throughout the tale. This was not a problem for me because I have spent a considerable amount of my life around the offices of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, and I know what words like bhundu (the sticks) and mfana (boy) mean. Most people will not have a clue, and that will make it difficult for them to understand some parts of the book. This, however, is a fault of the publisher and not of the author. It would not have been difficult to provide a glossary, and it should have been done.

Apart from that, however, anyone who wants to understand what is happening in modern Zimbabwe, or even modern Africa, should read this book. It will give you an insight that others will not have.

For the Joy of Reading: Oliver Tambo: Beyond the Engeli Mountains

Oliver Tambo is deserving of a biography. He is the man who held the African National Congress (ANC) together throughout all the years of exile, when Nelson Mandela was in prison. He is the man who ensured that there was an organisation in place for Nelson Mandela to lead when he was released from prison. He is the man who nurtured and encouraged the resistance to apartheid both in South Africa and throughout the world from 1962 to 1990. He is the man who encouraged generation upon generation to believe that we could win, when the world told us we were wasting our time.

He is certainly deserving of a biography. This one is not new. It was first published in 2004, to coincide with the tenth anniversary of freedom in South Africa. One of the questions that I have to ask myself therefore is this: Why has it taken me so long to read this book? Part of the reason is that the book was quite difficult to get hold of in this country. But that is an excuse. I worried that I had been too close to the events, and I had only really been on the periphery, and that it would be difficult to make an objective judgement. It is now 25 years since Oliver Tambo died, and I think that I am in a position to make that judgement.

I should explain. I was chair of the London Anti-Apartheid Committee in the 1980s. I met Oliver Tambo on a few occasions. It would be untrue to say that I was acquainted with him, although I spoke to him directly on occasion and I think that he was aware of who I was. I was certainly known to his wife, Adelaide, and to his children, Thembi, Dali and Tselane. I played with his grandchildren, Thembi’s boys, Sasha and Oliver on occasion. I was a volunteer at the ANC Office in 28 Penton Street and at the Department of Information and Publicity Office in Mackenzie Road. This latter was a secret office, and you really had to be trusted to be allowed to work there. I attended the ANC International Solidarity Conferences at Arusha in Tanzania in 1987, and in Johannesburg in 1993. I worked as a volunteer in the ANC Office in Jeppe Street, Johannesburg, during the 1994 election. I cannot claim that I was neutral, and this is why I was worried about reading this book.

Of course, I did not need to worry. Oliver Tambo may have been a self-effacing man and certainly not self-promoting, but he had an acuity of mind that made his judgement good. If Oliver Tambo thought that Luli Callinicos was a suitable person to write his biography that is simply because she was. It is a task that she takes on with sensitivity and understanding, recognising his merits and dealing with the difficulties that arose, of which there were many.

Callinicos begins with his upbringing in the village of Kantolo, district of Bizana, in Pondoland on the far east of the then Cape Province (now the Eastern Cape). Tambo was born into a traditional Mpondo family. His father had a number of wives, and children by all of them. Oliver had his mother and his “other mothers”. The community lived by farming, until the introduction of the Poll Tax which necessitated the men to go away to earn money in order to pay the tax. This was disruptive and some of the men were injured or, in the case of one of Oliver’s uncles, killed because of the unsafe conditions in the mines. Oliver’s father was determined that his son would be educated so that this would not happen to him, and so his son was sent away to missionary schools. By then, he had already learned the tradition of African leadership, of listening to a discussion, of summarising it at the end and of leading people to a decision. This tradition of ubuntu after an indaba was something that he was to practice throughout the whole of his political career.

The other major factor about Tambo’s character was his deep commitment to Christianity and specifically to the Anglican Church. This partly came about through the education that he received at St. Peter’s school, a Community of the Resurrection school, in Johannesburg. It is also partly because of his enduring friendship with Trevor Huddleston, a member of the Community, and a deeply passionate campaigner against apartheid. It was mainly, however, because of his deep spirituality and the strength that he gained from this belief, which helped him to lead the ANC through all the difficult years of exile.

I can only really comment on the accuracy of the description of events that happened in London in the late 1980s when I was a volunteer in the ANC Offices. They do seem accurate to me. I was aware of events simply because I was in the ANC office when things happened. If you see Thabo Mbeki on the stairs, then you know he is in London. If you are asked to make a cup of tea and take it in to Dirk Coetzee, you know he is in the ANC Offices talking to someone. I knew things that I probably should not have known, and I can say that the description of those events is accurate. I therefore assume that the description of events in Africa and elsewhere are also accurate. They are certainly detailed. Undoubtedly, there will be some people who do not agree with the interpretation, or who may have nuances that they want considered.

It is interesting that when Tambo faced difficulties, he did not try to impose his will. He required that ANC to take a decision as an organisation. That is what led to the calling of the Morogoro and Kabwe conferences, and for the extended consultations with the NEC and other relevant bodies. It was his style of leadership. It was not that he did not lead. He involved everyone in the decision-making process. He listened and then advised on what was to be done. Almost inevitably, this meant that the decision went his way. And there were difficulties. Those who wanted to keep other races out of the ANC were faced down at Morogoro, and those who wanted to keep other races off the National Executive Committee were dealt with at Kabwe. The excesses of the ANC security at Quattro in Angola were brought under control. The need to prepare for the future was dealt with by decisions like the appointment of a group to work on a constitution for the new South Africa. And there were the daily difficulties of running the organisation, making diplomatic representations, feeding and clothing people, weeding out infiltrators, training and equipping an army, campaigning for the release of political prisoners, maintaining underground links to the organisation in South Africa, and everything else that was needed.

For this, Tambo sacrificed both his family and his health. His wife, Adelaide, set up home in London with the three children and, although he visited, his schedule simply did not allow him to live there. His base was first Dar-es-Salaam and then Lusaka. Adelaide was the subject of spiteful remarks. It was said that she lived in a big house in Muswell Hill, in north London. This was a matter of perspective. If, like me, you were brought up in north-east London, it was not a big house. If you were brought up in a township or rural area of South Africa, it was enormous. It had one large reception room which was used to host diplomatic events for the ANC, especially when Tambo was in London. It was said that Adelaide sent her children to boarding schools. She did. This was after a man was found in the garden looking up at the room of a 12-year-old Thembi. It was said that he was a “Peeping Tom” but he could have been an apartheid agent. People forgot that the Tambo children were under daily threat of kidnap. I know that these things were said, because they were said to me and got very short shrift. So, with the whole range of issues pressing upon him, Tambo had to deal with difficulties like this as well.

What we have is a remarkable story about a remarkable man. He was patient and kind. He was not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. He never insisted on his own way. He was not irritable or resentful. He did not rejoice in wrongdoing, but in the truth. He bore all things, he hoped for all things, he endured all things. Oliver Tambo made a significant and indelible contribution to the liberation of his country. He was one of the great leaders of the twentieth century.

For the Joy of Reading: Hell

This is Alasdair Gray’s long-anticipated translation of Dante’s Inferno into what Gray describes as “prosaic English”. So, the first thing to say is that there is nothing prosaic about Gray’s English. It grabs you by the throat and pulls you along at a merry rate, gleefully recounting the descent into Hell. This is exactly what you would expect from the creator of “Lanark” which, after all, is its own descent of this kind.

The story is well-known. Dante, the poet, has lost his way in a terrible and hostile wood when he meets Virgil who leads him on a journey into the inferno because it has been ordained in Heaven that a mortal poet should see Hell, and then describe it. The fear of the punishments of Hell should persuade others to live “a righteous, sober and godly life” rather suffer eternal torment. That is the task that Dante is given and the purpose of his journey, led by Virgil, through the circles of hell.

There are a number of things that Alasdair Gray makes very clear in his translation. The reason why Dante encounters so many Tuscans in hell is that he can speak their language, especially if they are Florentine. This accounts for the obscurity of many of the figures that we come across. Dante’s audience would know who Filippo Argenti or the tyrant Azzolino or Guido Guerra are, but we do not. It is like having a hell populated by Angela Leadsom, Nigel Farage and the like. They may be well-known now, but in a few hundred years’ time, I doubt it.

There are the figures from Greek mythology in particular, and these are known because they are still part of the popular culture, especially Hercules, Achilles and the many others mentioned. There are notorious figures from history, such as Attila the Hun. The point however is to show us that they are at the mercy of Harpies and Furies and Gorgons, of Demons and fiends, and that they are subjected to unspeakable and unremitting torment.

The crime of the century (the fourteenth century) gets a mention. Guy de Montfort, a grandson of King John of England, is in hell for the murder of his cousin in the Cathedral of Viterbo, as do other spectacular crimes from throughout the centuries. Brutus and Cassius are confined in the lowest circle of hell, alongside Judas Iscariot. There are whole chapters on the doom of sectarians, falsifiers, forgers, rebels and traitors, which Alasdair Gray gleefully translates into doom-laden prose.

The denunciation of capitalism “which is judged as foul as sodomy” is a particular delight, and will cause offence to people on all sides of the argument about modern morality. It is easy to get the feeling that Alasdair Gray was enjoying himself enormously at that point. It is of course Dante who is making the comparison, but Gray is clearly revelling in it.

There are some comparisons that, in my view, do not work. Gray translates Guelph (supporters of the Pope) and Ghibelline (supporters of the Emperor) as Whig and Tory, and says that the similarity between the two is the difference between old and new money. My view is that this is both a misreading of fourteenth- and eighteenth-century history, but that does not really matter. The real problem is that only one of those terms is in use today, and that the comparison will not make sense to the ordinary reader. That having been said, I cannot think of a better one.

What Gray has given us is an exciting, ribald and exuberant translation of Dante’s Inferno into English. It is a translation for the modern reader. Enjoy it.

For the Joy of Reading: Gutter 18

Listen do you want to know a secret. Gutter Magazine is an essential read, especially if you are a librarian or a bookseller, and you want to know who the up and coming voices are in Scottish Literature. Of course, this assumes that you have not outsourced your purchasing so that you can cut costs to the bare minimum, and reduce the number of professional staff that are employed in your outlets. Gutter has survived the tribulations of the last year or so, and it has produced a wonderful issue for Autumn 2018, timed to appear at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and coupled with the Freedom Papers, sponsored by the Festival, to celebrate the centenary of women getting the vote in the UK and the birth of Nelson Mandela.
All you have to do is look at the content. There is an interview with Louise Welsh on the art of writing crime stories, showing that crime novels are an examination of the human psyche, and that they are much more than a Cluedo-type mystery. There is a story by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, ostensibly about body parts deciding to co-operate for the greater good, but really about how the individual cannot function without the community, the African concept of ubuntu. This stories has been translated into Shetlandic and English from Gikuyu. I would recommend reading the Shetlandic first, not because I can really understand it because you can hear it rolling off the tongue.
William Letford has written a short story that is essentially about how we, as a society, deal with manhood and masculinity, and how they are not the same thing. William Letford is a poet that I came across through Gutter and the Discombobulate evenings at the Arches in Glasgow. All I can say about him is that he is brilliant and if you have not read his poetry collections, Bevel and Dirt, then you have a treat in store. And that is something that can also be said about Gutter.
Then there is the poetry. These are names that are worth discovering: Penny Boxall, David Hale, Bridget Khursheed, Lavry Butler, Charles Lang, David Ross Linklater, Jay Whittaker, Kevin Williamson, Ross Wilson, Hamish Scott, Sara Clark, Maria Sledmore, Iona Lee, Lucy Cathcart Froden, Rosa Campbell, Hannah Van Hove, Vahni Capildeo, Caroline Hume, Ingrid Grieve, Barbara Johnston and that old favourite, Anonymous. All of these will be names worth watching out for. If publishers have any sense, all of these will be names worth nurturing. I presume that the same can be said for Marcas Mac an Tuairneir, but I do not know because this poem is in Gaelic, and I cannot read it.
Even the reviews tell you what to look out for. You do not have to agree with them. Indeed, how can you if you have not read the books, but if a book is reviewed in Gutter then that is a good indication that it is worth reading.
Gutter Magazine is a phenomenon. Just be glad that it has survived the last year. Read it. Make sure that it survives to continue promoting good Scottish literature. Libraries should buy it, if only for their purchasing staff. Readers should read it so they know the names to look out for.
If you have not read Gutter, have never come across it, and you love books, then this is a treat and you should wallow in it.

For the Joy of Reading: Secure the Base

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.