Towards the end of Secure the Base, Ngugi wa Thiong'o recalls visiting Hiroshima in 1974. As he traces the impact that nuclear detonation has left on the city, he makes a connection to his own past, writing that "I was born under the shadow of the atomic bomb". The assertion is surprising in that Kenya, where Ngugi was born, has little obvious link to the history of nuclear armament.
But Secure the Base is full of hidden connections. Born in 1938, Ngugi is one of Africa's most venerable literary figures. In this short, tightly argued collection of lectures and essays, he writes with the aim of "making Africa visible in the world" by tracing the lattice of political and moral ties that stretch across the globe and back to Africa.
As Ngugi points out, for instance, Africa may have no obvious stake in the history of the nuclear race, but it has played a role in the development of atomic weaponry all the same. France carried out its first nuclear tests on the continent, as allegedly did Israel, on Prince Edward Island, during the apartheid era. Africa is a key source of uranium – making countries like Niger the target of rapacious multinationals.
There is also "the larger historical irony" that the three leading western nuclear nations – the US, Britain and France – have a slaving and colonial past. "In a way, slavery, colonialism and nuclear armament are driven by the same instinct," writes Ngugi, "contempt of other lives, particularly black lives". Secure the Base is full of such vaults from the personal to the geopolitical. And it is all the more relevant a work for that. The writings in the book predate recent events such as Europe's refugee crisis, America's Black Lives Matter movement and Britain's EU referendum vote, which is fuelled in part by voter anxieties about immigration. But they set the context for Ngugi's words all the same and lend additional urgency to his mission to bring a long historical view to bear on modern racial politics.
Africa, as he reflects, has been presented as a barbarous counterpart to Western civilisation since the age of empire. Even today, the continent's nations and communities are still described as tribes, with all the connotations of the primitive and the premodern inherent in that term. Such a situation, in which 300,000 Icelanders are considered to constitute a nation but 30 million Nigerian Igbos are said to make up a tribe, would be comic if it didn't also have tragic consequences. Explaining African politics and identity through definitions of kinship is to imply that the continent's problems are intractable ones written deep into the biological make-up of its people, argues Ngugi. "This attitude may explain, in part, why people – including Africans – can watch genocide in Rwanda and Darfur and not feel the urgency to act, as if they were waiting for biology to sort itself out."
The West was founded on the slaughter of millions of people of colour, from the genocide of Native Americans in the US to Europe's various acts of butchery and repression in Algeria, Kenya, the Congo and elsewhere in Africa. For Ngugi, the horror of such violence is made all the more bitter by being dressed up in narratives of progress and enlightenment. "The fact is, for the last 400 years, Europe and the West have been Africa's hell, with Africa a European heaven," writes Ngugi. The West has always insisted that the opposite is true. Secure the Base aims to make visible the real state of affairs.
Seagull Books, £17.50. Order at £15 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop
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