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The Enduring Rhythm of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

March 30, 2016

by Josh Myers


The African future. Many have mused about its meaning. Many have predicted its possibilities. Few have considered its philosophical basis. Even fewer have considered its spiritual foundation.[1] What will be the moral compass that guides the African future? Who will determine what is good for Africa? For Africans? For those willing to answer these questions in ways that privilege the humanity and cultural authority of African peoples, for those unwilling to subject the African future to the whims of those who would answer these questions from political cultures beholden to the traditional sources of African doom—above all capital, and for those whose orientation is guided by what Anderson Thompson once called “the African principle,”[2] we cannot begin to answer these questions without a deep engagement with the intellectual work of the Kenyan writer, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.

Among the most significant literary and cultural voices among an expansive tradition of Pan-African “Grand Theorists,”[3] his work continues to powerfully resonate for African peoples unwilling and unable to submit to the cultural imperialism of those who believed that capitalist modernity was and is an irrevocable leap forward for humanity. At the core of this contribution has been the idea that the political projects regnant of the freedom dreams of African peoples must in fact be grounded in the cultural identity of those for whom freedom is to be won. The study of African languages as more than simply an anthropological relic, but as the recovery and use of such languages as carriers of what it means to be—to be free— has guided and continues to guide this oeuvre. For decades Ngũgĩ’s writings have kept this consistent rhythm, and the beat goes on. It carries the logic of resistance, of renaissance.[4]

There is a tendency to separate modernity into eras, and though each epoch constituted important shifts, they nevertheless maintained another rhythm, the rhythm of our suffering. So the beat goes on. The celebrations of “flag independence” were met with the African brain drain, the introduction of “religious” wars, the African command (AFRICOM), the “new” China—the beat goes on; so, our beat must go on. Ngũgĩ’s work is music to our lost ears, pointing us to our destiny.

His recently published testament, Secure the Base (2016), broadens his deep thought, expanding it to areas it has not yet touched. A collection of seven speeches, the earliest given in 1982 and the most recent in 2009, this book offers in a highly readable format a concise orientation to the themes that have driven Ngũgĩ’s work. Though each essay tackles a particular issue, the core, which represents his vision, animates each speech and could easily be read as a single thought. The rhythm that sets the tone of each composition, his engagement with the question of “what is to be done” is applied to a diverse set of concerns from neoliberalism to nuclear disarmament to questions of philosophy of science and the meaning of memory. In the introduction to the volume, Ngũgĩ states that the central thread ordering his approach to these particular questions is, “the position of the ruling middle class vis-à-vis the people and the external forces” (ix). Indeed, throughout, Ngũgĩ forces us to confront the nature of hierarchal societies that have created cleavages between “the Haves and the Have Nots” and as a result have stifled attempts to restore that which cultural imperialism has forced us to lose. But this is no simple paean to the Marxist prediction that freedom might result from an inevitable class confrontation. For Ngũgĩ, the confrontation is different. It is the confrontation between “those who know” or are seeking to know and those who have given up this “grand quest for wholeness.”[5] Attached to calls to understand and end the “capitalist fundamentalism” that is compromising Africa’s ability to self-determine, are calls to abandon European (and all non or anti-African) visions of the world: “The fact is, for the last 400 years, Europe and the West have been Africa’s hell, with Africa a European haven. Africa must become Africa’s heaven. But it is only Africa that can realize this for itself, lift itself into being…” (xv-xvi). We must decolonize not only the state apparatus, we must decolonize the land, we must decolonize culture, we must decolonize our given means for communicating with each other, we must decolonize the mind.

The longest speech in the volume—a 2004 mediation on this capitalist fundamentalism—builds on Fanon’s admonition to resist the imitation of the colonizer: “Current Europe and the rest of the West are not an ideal to aspire for but a failure of vision from which to learn a lesson. Hopefully, the lesson is one that will intensify the ongoing people-based struggles and lead to a grand alliance of global people power. Africa will then find its true identity in contributing and drawing equally from a common global human endeavor” (60-61). A more humane future must be imagined and created with the help of “Black hands, fashioned by Black heads…”[6]

The third speech, given before CODESRIA in 2003, charts the process for the achievement of such aims. Here, Ngũgĩ appeals to intellectuals to recognize the relationship between the social sciences and the colonial gaze, and to ground themselves in the philosophical ideals and linguistic idioms that reflect their cultural inheritance. “Science” is rebranded as the instantiation of European intellectual imperialism reducing even the best African intellectuals to outsiders in their own land. The solution is at first glance simple, yet quite profound: Break the chains. Language is the medium.

This idea of course is essential to those expressed in his earlier Something Torn and New (2009), and Secure the Base offers another meditation on the meaning of memory and of mourning with the fifth of the speeches. The call to “move forward,” the call to “forgive and forget,” is rooted in the political demands and the spiritual emptiness of authoritarian cultures who themselves, have forgotten the importance of rituals of mourning. Ngũgĩ argues that one of the reasons things are the way that they are is that we have not yet done this deeply spiritual work, we have not yet confronted what has happened to us and until we do we cannot begin “the collective journey towards that ‘wholiness” (97). Truth must guide these practices. Ritual reminds us that we have to face the consequences of our actions and our inaction. But Ngũgĩ does not end there, he asks us to question how state actors have neglected to speak and act honestly on their actions and what this inability means; how is it that they have not yet acknowledged or made amends for what kinds of worlds African enslavement wrought? Is it because the “very foundation of modern capitalism” originates in the moments of African enslavement? Is it because such an acknowledgment would remind us that the current acts of “moral perversion,” of “the possibilities of mass death on a global scale” stem from the same political foundations that benefited from the enslavement of Africans (94)?

Possible answers to these questions guide Ngũgĩ’s forays into global foreign policy. It is here where his analysis is most prescient, for he argues that the policies that govern who is afforded protection under the “the responsibility to protect (R2P)” doctrine or who determines who can own nuclear weapons are not merely contradictions, but moral failures. This approach reveals the frailty of the idea of the nation-state system itself. Perhaps they, in design, make possible the manifestation of immorality? What after all is their function? Ngũgĩ argues, “The nation-state, the form in which capitalist modernity organized its power, was born with notions of ownership in general and of territory in particular. The European nation-state, the slave plantation, the colony and the prison are simultaneous products of the same moment in history” (45). As the U.S. Africans’ claims that #BlackLivesMatter are filtered through the electoral agendas of the two capitalist political parties of America, as claims to “do something” about mass incarceration, about police brutality, ring through street protests, we might learn from the connections made here. As voters throughout the diaspora currently struggle to change their reality, we might think together about how the state itself is kind of a prison. Globalization is law and order. These themes do much to animate the current political contexts facing Africans, but as gestured to above, they are a part of the same general rhythm; the beat goes on. It is time to play our own song.

We can glean many lessons from Ngũgĩ’s work and its relationship to other political struggles for self-determination. The Senegalese polymath Cheikh Anta Diop’s name appears in one of the essays, which is significant for a range of different reasons, no less their similar emphasis on language and the need to liberate scientific knowledge from those who use it to colonize, both of which comprised the basis of Diop’s intellectual production. We can learn much from the power of intellectual work, be it art, music, or Ngũgĩ’s chosen medium: the word. It is here where we might pause to reflect again about the meaning of our future and the place of the word:

“Political authoritarianism is terrified of the power of the word that has become flesh. It loves the word that has been dislodged from flesh. The challenge for the intellectual is to make words become flesh, to make them breathe distinctly. Theory must always return to the earth to get recharged. For the word that breathes life is still needed to challenge the one that carries death and devastation. Works of imagination and critical theories can only weaken themselves by pulling back from that challenge.” (112)

Listen to the rhythm.

Josh Myers teaches Africana Studies in the Department of Afro-American Studies at Howard University and is a board member of the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations and Positive Black Folks in Action. He is on twitter at @ddehewty and blogs at He can be contacted at



[1] An important example of a work which does is Wole Soyinka’s Of Africa (2012).

[2] See his “Developing an African Historiography” (1971) in The African World History Project: The Preliminary Challenge, eds. Jacob Carruthers and Leon Harris (1997)

[3] A conceptual category of intellectual work gleaned from the work of Greg Carr, “What Black Studies is Not: Moving from Crisis to Liberation in Africana Intellectual Work” (2011).

[4] For a discussion of renaissance, see his Something Torn and New (2009).

[5] Those who know is Amadou Hampate Ba’s translation of doma, a category of intellectual worker stemming from the Bambara tradition. See his “The Living Tradition” (1981), a contribution to UNESCO’s General History of Africa. “Grand quest for wholeness” is adapted from Ngũgĩ’ wa Thiong’o’s Something Torn and New (2009).

[6] From W.E.B. Du Bois’s “Conservation of Races” (1897).

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