Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o during an interview in Sandton. Pictures: Matthews Baloyi/ANA Pictures
Audiences have been feasting on author's 'Secure the Base' missives, writes Don Makatile.

As an academic treatise, the notion of “Securing the Base” sounds very high fallutin’ until one sits at the feet of the grandfatherly Professor Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o to hear him unpack it first hand. This is actually the title of one of his books, Secure the Base: Making Africa Visible in the Globe.

An earlier book, Decolonising the Mind, has become almost an African anthem given its reach and influence.

Now of late, audiences have been eating off the palm of his hands as he presented papers combining parts of both titles.

The celebrated Kenyan author delivered a public lecture in March at Wits University, called "Decolonise the Mind, Secure the Base", to wild applause.

A few days later at UCT, the same lecture was briefly interrupted by a few student hotheads who demanded that Wa Thiong’o tell the “oppressors” – clearly a reference to white students – to leave the venue before his address could begin. They did not prevail.

Now aged 79, like one’s adored grandpa, he uses the analogy of the home to patiently explain this idea of securing the base.

“Your own father cannot tell you what you must do in your house, where your wife must sleep. You will tell him No,” the greying Wa Thiong’o says.

And as head of the household “you’d never think of stealing from that household”.

“You don’t see your house from the eyes of an outsider. You treat your house as your base. It is from there that you can meet with the heads of other households.”

The same as with Africa, he says, warming up to the point he is making. “Do we see it as a home, or as a place from which we can come steal?” Many of Africa’s leaders have come to view their ‘home’ as a hunting ground from which they can steal: “If somebody came to steal from your home; you’d fight you’d protect it.”

African leaders go a step further, he says: they invite outsiders to come plunder their home.

For the first time he laughs – a hearty from-the-heart type of laughter typical of a grandfather regaling his young audience with a tale.

“You can never go outside to tell people how you robbed your house the previous night, and stole 10 shirts. But the people you invited to carry out the robbery were so kind they gave you two of the shirts.”

He continues laughing as he says how this plunderer then brags to his wife and children that he was better dressed than them, from the proceeds of his crime.

This, Wa Thiong’o says is the thinking of Africa’s leaders: “They are taking from their own home to build mansions in Brazil.”

He ponders his point a while to let it settle then says: “We invite robbers in.

"They dictate how we must mine.” He says this analogy of the home “will give us clues as to what is wrong with the continent”.

You can never think of exploiting your own home, he says. “You can never.”

We should fight tooth and nail to protect Africa, he says. It is only after “securing the base” thus that we can then relate to other countries, to the world.

“On terms of equality. My home is no less a home than your home.” This is the same message Wa Thiong’o, who was in the country this week at the invitation of Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa, has taken to his speaking engagements. As part of the Africa Month colloquium series, the department hosted a public lecture on Languages and Decolonisation with the minister and Wa Thiong’o at the Thulamela Main Library, Thulamela Municipality in Thohoyandou, Venda on Friday.

On Wednesday night, he was at Unisa, speaking on “Moving the Centre”. He says moving the centre is about shifting the focus of Africa’s development from Europe to locate it at home.

That’s where language comes in, he says.

“Taking on European languages as a base in Africa makes us look at the world through the prism of the outside world.

"We should anchor ourselves in our languages first, then relate to the world.

"If you want to empower a community, you connect with the language of that community first.”

The author of countless novels, essays, plays and memoirs in English, Wa Thiong’o, who is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature and English at the University of California, Irvine, has now reverted to writing in his native Kikuyu language.

He laughs out loud again when asked if writing in a Kenyan language does not deny those not conversant in it access to his works.

“We never ask an Italian or Russian writer: why do you write in Italian or Russian; you deny me as a Zulu speaker access to your book.

"We’ve normalised absurdities,” he says. The Italian or Russian writer would refer the reader to translations of his work, he says. His latest memoirs The Upright Revolution is written in Kikuyu.

It has since been translated into 64 languages, 57 of which are African.

“The translations are also in six Indian languages.

“The journey to knowledge begins where we are.

"We have to know our own languages; how they link to each other and then how they link to the rest of the world.

"Our starting point is knowing the rivers around us. Understand our base.”

He says this is what decolonised education is about: you have to know where you are.

He laments the South African malady of children at the former Model C schools not knowing their mother tongue at all as “crazy”.

When he says it, the word sounds even crazier.

“That child will be a leader tomorrow. He will be a stranger to his people. Look at our sheer obsession with perfecting English and French in our schools.

“We’re tightening the psychological bond. I’m not against English all languages of the world are powerful tools.

"But there’s nothing that says to master English or French must mean the abandonment of your language.

“If someone tells you that that is enslavement; if you accept that, you accept enslavement.

"This is just a mere part of the reason why he went back to writing in his native tongue," he says.

But chiefly, he says, he saw the centrality of language in that phrase of his, “colonisation of the mind”.

Let me give you two examples, he says, then talks at great length about how the French and English went about entrenching their language among the colonised.

He backs up what he says with examples, like how the Alliance Française was set up in the event that French colonies gained independence in the future.

The French wanted to bind their colonies “by a strong psychological bond in language, thought and culture against the time they are independent”.

This is in a book by Walter Rodney called How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.

“A very important book to be read by schools colleges,” Wa Thiong’o says. He adds: “This was no different from what McCauley said in 1834.”

Paraphrasing McCauley, Wa Thiong’o says the Englishman said they needed to “set up a class of Indians; Indian in name, in colour, in everything but with an English mind, so that these may stand between us and the vast mass of the population we govern”.

He adds: “The British were in India for a longer time.

"They used the policies in India in the rest of the countries they governed.”

Their language must be an addition to what we know, not a replacement.

“But they want a replacement.” Once we see the linkage between language, as represented by the mental process, and economics, we understand the importance of protecting our own, he advices.

“If you bind the mind of the colonised, all they will think about is conditioned by the linguistic universe of the oppressor.

“If you know all the languages of the world, and you don’t know your mother tongue or language of your culture, that is enslavement.

"But if you know your mother tongue and add other languages of the world, that is empowerment.”

He laments the fact that Europe has turned itself into a centre through which Africa sees itself.

He then talks some more about his 2006 book Wizard of the Crow, indulging this reporter.

The fictitious Free Republic of Aburiria in the book is what many African nations have become, with Life Presidents who pilfer from their economies to line their pockets.

The Ruler in the book is sadly someone many African leaders are, selfish and uncaring.

“As a novelist I like people to draw their own conclusions.

"When my work speaks to the experience of individuals of communities, or nations, then I think my work has done its job.

"I try as much as I can not to interpret my work. I want it to speak for itself.

“But in terms of the world of Wizard of the Crow, we talk of a world where there’s almost corporate takeover of the continent, this country called Abururia.”

Let alone read him, but it should be a bucket list priority to hear Wa Thiong’o speak, the holder of 12 honorary doctorates from around the world.

The one he values the most came in 2003 from the Walter Sisulu University: “It was the first from the African continent.”

Outside these pages, he spoke at length about a lot more issues Africa can and should do to stake her claim among her peers in the world.

The Sunday Independent