Connect with us

Insight

White-man’s Africa in literature

Published

on

There exist uniform ways of negatively depicting Africa and other non-European people in different literary works by European writers of the nineteenth century. Europe developed systematic ways of looking at “other people.”
There is clearly an ideology from which the writers of such books operated. The negative depiction of Africa is basically done through ethnocentrism. This is all to do with depicting Africans and other non-Europeans as objects that are not completely as human as Europeans.

There are numerous ways in which these forms of negative depictions are enacted in the works of European travellers and those of early white settlers. The negative depictions are very subtle so much so that an unwary reader can let them pass.
As a small African boy, I was also an active victim. I loved reading many of these novels about white people coming to Africa for the first time or white people on farms in Africa. All I wanted was to improve my English language.

The first and simplest form of this negative depiction is the absence of Africans from novels set in situations in which Africans are the majority and even where Africans are part of the issues which the European characters are engaging.
An example is Olive Schreiner’s iconic novel called The Story of An African Farm. Of course, Schreiner’s novel is not about race relations, but, the idea that natives only appear in the story once in a while – as servants who walk in and out with food or pass by a kopje behind which whites are having a dialogue – is enough denigration of the Africans.

This negative depiction can also come in the form of the author’s descriptive language which tends to show lack of respect for Africans. For example, Karen Blixen in her Out of Africa describes Kamante, the Kenyan cook thus:
“Kamante could have no idea as to how a dish of ours (white people) ought to taste, and he was, in spite of his conversion, and his connexion with civilization, at heart an errant Kikuyu, rooted in the traditions of his tribe and his faith in them, as in the…of living worthy of a human being. He did at times taste the food that he cooked, but then with a distrustful face, like a witch who takes a sip out of her cauldron.”

Negative depiction occurs through what some white characters erroneously say and think about non-Europeans, even when the author himself might not seem racist at all. In Schreiner’s The Story of An African Farm, for example, the independent white lady, Lyndall, attempting some “philosophic” talk, speaks thus about an African who passes by:
“Well, let me see,” she said, closing her book and folding her hands on it. “There at the foot of the kopje goes a kaffir, he has nothing on but a blanket; he is a splendid fellow –six feet high, with a magnificent pair of legs…he is going… and I suppose to kick his wife with his beautiful legs when he gets home. He has a right to; he bought her for two oxen. There is a lean dog going after him, to whom I suppose he never gives more than a bone from which he has sucked the marrow; but his dog loves him as his wife does.”

Negative depiction can be in the form of the African character’s mysterious and often inexplicable behaviour. For instance, in Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing, a novel from Rhodesia, it is not clear why Moses kills Mary Turner and why Moses does not run away after his crime. Instead, Moses hands himself over to the police in a manner that definitely suggests the futility and irrationality of the African personality. Complex as Lessing might want the circumstances surrounding Mary’s murder to be, Lessing unconsciously renders Moses’ rationality, the African rationality, questionable.

Even the African terrain itself is often not spared some negative depiction. Often, it is shown as empty and uninhabited as seen in Doris Lessing’s short story, “A sunrise on the Veld.” Here a white boy runs across the African terrain and claims, through interior monologue, that if the terrain is empty, he (a new comer and white boy) should own it.
At a more alarming level, the African environment, as in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, is portrayed as frightening, treacherous and having ‘ill will’ towards the white intruder:

“Trees, trees, millions of trees, massive, immense, running up high; and at their foot, hugging the bank against the stream. It made you feel very small, very lost, and yet it was not altogether depressing that feeling… The reaches opened before us and closed behind us, as if the forest had stepped leisurely across the water to bar the way for our return. We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness.”
Perhaps the worst form of negative depiction of non-Europeans is binarism.

This is a mode of thought predicated on seemingly stable oppositions such as good and evil or male and female. Binarism is demonstrated in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, the eighteenth century novel, which is the prototype for all literature on non-Europeans. In a clear binary style, “European” stands for Christian, kindness, all-conquering and all-knowing whilst “non-European” stands for savage, cannibal and the-soon-to-be-conquered-and-civilised.

This binarism is also evident in later texts like J. Buchan’s Prester John and Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines. The parrot in Robson Crusoe is taught to speak back to Crusoe in Crusoe’s English. Crusoe teaches the cannibal survivor, Friday, the English language too and refers to him as “my man Friday.” The good-bad binarism, it should be noted, is always in favour of Europe.
To historian, Peter Fryer, this kind of image of Africa is meant to justify exploration into non-European regions, slavery and subsequent colonialism. This benefited the rising European capitalist system. The capitalist class “required a violent racism not merely as an ideological rationale but as a psychological imperative,” Fryer adds.

This is not difficult to confirm if one looks at the rise of the adventure and romance genres over the centuries. Stories from Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (19719) to Scott’s Waverly (1814) through to the later writers like Robert Stevenson, J. Conrad, J. Buchan and Kipling are full of the occurrences “of traditionally romantic features” found in Defoe. In many of the travel romances one finds that the landscape is charged with grandeur. It is a literature of the capitalist hunt.

A tradition of what became known as the “colonial text” including not only literary works, but writings like “political treaties, diaries, acts and edicts, administrative records, gazetteers and missionary reports” was established.
These were all “infused with imperial ideas of race pride and national prowess.” Prowess, it should be noted, has a tendency to depend on one’s subjugation of the other. In the case of Europe, it depended partly on her writers depicting European ventures abroad as heroic acts in the lands of darkness, cannibals, savages and mysteries.

Demand is interrelated with supply and B.V. Street notes, “The Growth of Empire at this time and the literature of experiences of so many travellers in distant exotic lands, provided a readymade alternative (to conventional literature) and from the 1870s onwards the fiction took up this theme.” And for as long as any style, be it dance or dress, becomes fashionable, the tendency is that it is reproduced unanimously and taken to with little critical attention, if any at all.

Negative depiction of non-European people and Africans in particular, in literature, fed the ego of capital and imperialist ventures. In its popular version, transmitted through schools, cheap newspapers, juvenile literature and the musical-hall, racism told the British Working Class that black people were savages whom British rule was rescuing from heathenism and internecine strife.

Modern Europe, through conquest, became hostile to all images that were not like its own image. Europe became the centre and measure of standards. It manipulated the concept of “civilization” and yet, before active imperialism, Africa had centuries of self-sustained life.
Asked by his colleague whether he thought it is “sport” at all to kill Africans, a white soldier during the 1896 Shona-Ndebele rebellions, says the following words to his friend in Schreiner’s Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland:

“Oh, they don’t feel, these niggers, not as we (whites) should, you known. I’ve seen a (black) man going to be shot, looking full at the guns, and falling like that! – without a sound. They’ve no feeling, these niggers; I don’t suppose they care much whether they live or dies, not as we (whites) should, you know.”

It is important to note that the writers themselves, besides writing only were sometimes part of the imperial project on the ground. They worked for it and survived out of it. For instance, Rudyard Kipling is synonymous with the British ventures in the Far East that he is often referred to as “the poet of Empire.” He never saw himself as separate from the colonial venture.
In his 1897 poem, “Recessional,” Kipling expresses the idea that British imperialism conquers the world on behalf of God himself. Part of it reads:

“God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far flung battle-line,
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine –
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!”

Conrad, John Buchan and R. Haggard were part of the adventures and “hunting” trips in Southern and Central Africa. In some cases, they held administrative posts and presented academic writings to “navigate” direction that the colonial ventures should take. Buchan, for instance, wrote The African Colony: Studies in the Reconstruction, published in 1903, expressing colonial ideas and attempting to chart a way forward.

These kinds of stories were even read aloud in school to while away time. This type of literature became the alternative to the conventional Victorian novel by Dickens and others who would dwell on the English life and environment. Cohen argues, “it (the new novel) let the reader turn his back on the troublesome, the small, the sordid and it took him… to the frontier to perform mighty deeds.”

Even the conventional nineteenth century European novel on Africa itself, at times, refers directly to the stifling European life-style. For instance, in Haggard’s Allan Quatermain, Sir Henry complains to his friends (in order to justify the new adventure they would like to undertake to the region around Mt Kenya in Africa):

I’m tired of it too, dead-tired of doing nothing except
pay the squire in a country that is sick of squires. For
a year or more I have been getting restless… I am
sick of shooting peasants and patridges and want to
have a go at some large game again…

In that situation, Africa is not seen as a place that has its unique civilization. It is seen as the alternative world, a rehabilitation space where those who are in search of danger as a form of mental rejuvenation should go. It is therefore very tempting for the writer to paint that space with fantasies and mysteries. Both the European writer and the reader are not looking for real Africa. They are looking for their own Africa and in most cases they find it because they create it.

Although this literature was written with the juvenile European reader in mind, this literature later found its way in the African schools. As Ngugi-Wa-Thiongo points out, texts like Prester John and King Solomon’s Mines were made key readers in the African schools. In most cases, the black student identified with colonials in the story because the narrative justified the colonials’ activities. Ngugi confesses to have become a companion of the explorers in Treasure Island.

Although Ngugi has survived this ideological bombardment and can describe the function of its tentacles, some people have not recovered. Unfortunately, some of these could be leading African politicians, scholars and even writers.
To those who are discerning, the nineteenth century European literature on Africa, is a reference point to the magnitude at which literature can relate with the ideas of its day. It is also a pointer at how subtle ideology can be, blending with the arts until one does not clearly identify it immediately for what it is.

Memory Chirere

Continue Reading
Advertisement

Insight

We need a coordinated approach on youth challenges

Published

on

For a number of good reasons, all of us are concerned about problems that face Lesotho’s young people, particularly youth unemployment, and the increasing tendency towards anti-social behaviour among sections of Lesotho youth including their increasing admiration for criminality.

Not only do members of such groups admire criminality and actually commit crimes but they commit crimes without much care as to the harm and other costs that their actions inflict on immediate victims and on society-at-large.

Evidence of public concern about these problems includes the fact that within society individuals, groups and public and private institutions have all expressed concerns over problems facing the youth, with some of these parties making attempts to come up with ideas and measures to assist.

However, a number of problems seem to be emerging on, at least, three fronts. Firstly, a seeming lack of coordination in addressing problems that face young people. Secondly, lack of clarity on questions of whether (a) parties that seek to assist are basing their interventions on credibly identified sources of problems that face young people; and (b) whether any credible assessments are made to ensure that interventions such parties are proposing and implementing have potential to solve problems that face Lesotho’s young people.

There are many examples of what may seem to us, members of the general public, to be lack of coordination in approaches to solve problems facing young people. One such example may be sufficient. On January 8, 2024, Lesotho TV broadcast a statement in which the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) authorities announced establishment of some army facility where Basotho young people would be taught some values, including patriotism.

The very next day, on January 9, 2024, Lesotho TV broadcast another statement, this time by the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) authorities, announcing the LMPS’s plan to establish a police facility at which young people would be taught anti-crime and other values. In their essence, the LMPS’s plan sounded not totally dissimilar to LDF’s.
Apart from the LDF and LMPS’s plans for Lesotho’s youth, there are also public and private sector initiatives to nurture and support entrepreneurial talents of Lesotho’s youth with a view, among others, to fight youth unemployment and develop the country’s private sector.

Politicians have also been seen to sponsor football games for young people in their constituencies with a view, they say, to keep young people from crime and narcotics. These events cannot be criticised too much but given that they are one, or two-day events that take place during specific times, they look more like publicity stunts.

National sports federations are now complaining that politicians who sponsor these events put too much stress on sports as a means to fight crime. What federations want is that, if politicians want to help, they should stress the importance of sports as careers, and sponsor young people to develop their sporting talents accordingly.

Amidst expressions of concerns and various parties’ attempts to address problems facing Lesotho youth, public authorities that we have not heard from, or from who we do not hear enough, are those charged with responsibilities over precisely problems facing young people; that is, authorities at the Ministry of Youth.

Admittedly, we do not know if the initiatives of the LDF, LMPS, and others are carried out in consultation with or with the blessing of the Ministry of Youth.

The worry ought to be not only whether interventions of the LDF, LMPS, and others have the blessings of the Ministry of Youth. Instead, the worry should extend to the question of whether the Ministry has any national plan to address problems facing young people. And, if such a plan exists, we would expect that it identifies the LDF and LMPS as places where young place can be coached; and initiatives of these and other institutions would align with such a plan.

Without an identification of the army and the police as implementing agencies of the Ministry’s plan, and without the army and police’s initiatives alignment with the Ministry’s plan, at least two things are likely to result: duplication of effort — as seems to be the case with the LDF and LPMS plans; or, at worst, LDF and LMPS plans might contradict and undermine national plans entrusted to the Ministry of Youth.

In the worst case scenario that a national plan does not exist, we face the danger that anybody wishing to address problems facing Lesotho’s young people can do so, basing herself, or himself on a personal or group perception, and implementing plans and solutions based on such perception.

As in the case of too many people stirring the same cooking pot without coordination, undesirable consequences can be expected from a situation where just about anybody can apply a solution to a public problem.

As hinted above, a good national plan aimed at addressing problems that face Lesotho’s young people would have two characteristics, at least. First, it would be based on our assertion of the kind of society we want to be; an investigation of problems that stand in the way of achieving such a society; how such problems can be overcome, say, through school curricula; and how, in general, from Early Childhood Care & Development (ECCD), young people can be brought up and socialised in ways that ensure they will be useful members of a society we wish to be.

Any action that is not based on an investigation of the problems that stand in the way of achieving a society we want to be has little chances of success. Such action would be based on some understanding that the young who are anti-social, unpatriotic and criminals are naturally bad people.

It is, of course, not as simple as that. For example, one possible explanation for the absence of patriotism among young people may have something to do with socio-economic inequality in Lesotho: those who are closed out of, and excluded from, benefiting from Lesotho’s wealth and power cannot be expected to be patriots.

A second characteristic of a plan aimed at addressing problems that face Lesotho’s young people is that, such a plan should identify and/or establish institutions designed — and with appropriate skills — to implement ideas and proposals that come out of credible investigations.

It is unclear whether the LDF and LMPS plans have resulted from something like considerations suggested above. While it is admitted that these institutions’ initiatives are limited to addressing problems of lack of patriotism and criminality among the young people, one clear problem with their plans and solutions is that, it might be the case that they are catching young people a little late, when schooling and general socialisation have already entrenched anti-social values that we see among sections of young people; namely, individualism and the inability to think of others.

In one word, these institutions catch these young people when tendencies towards criminality, anti-social behaviour, and lack of patriotism might have already hardened.
Perhaps the biggest hope we should have is that the army and the police will have full complement of resources necessary for providing full and wholesome mentoring to young people who undergo army and police mentoring.

Short of adequate resources necessary for achieving what the army and the police have in mind, we might end up with cohorts of young people with a faulty army and police culture that may come back to haunt us. Inserting a faulty army culture among a section of young people brought us bitter results in the 1970s and 1980s that should not be repeated.

To conclude, no one can argue against all of us being concerned with problems of youth unemployment; increasing tendencies of young people’s admiration of criminality and their participation in crime. And no one can argue against all of us coming up with ideas and proposals of how to address these problems.

However, our concerns and proposals ought to be based on:
a nationally-agreed assertion of society we want to be;
a credible investigation of difficulties that stand in the way of us becoming society we want to be;

and coordination of proposals and ideas aimed at becoming society we want to be.

As with other specific instances of socio-economic development in Lesotho, problems facing the country’s young people cry out for the long-neglected establishment of the National Planning Board, as prescribed in Section 105 of the Constitution of Lesotho.

Prof Motlatsi Thabane

Continue Reading

Insight

Call that a muffin?

Published

on

In Oscar Wilde’s short story “The Canterville Ghost” (1887) one of the characters says about the British, “We have everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.” Between American English and British English there are many, many differences. Which is not to say that either American or British English are standardised; there are multiple varieties within each. As a south-western Brit I can find it difficult to fully understand what someone from Liverpool or Newcastle is saying.

I remember one year during the NUL’s International Theatre for Development project we had a student from the islands of Scotland. She was brilliant and hard-working and full of good ideas — if only one could understand the ideas when she introduced them. The NUL students grouped together and asked me: “Chris, can you translate what Kirsty is saying for us?” and I replied: “I’m as lost as you are.”

Between American and British English it’s not just a matter of pronunciation but also of vocabulary (I’ll be coming to muffins — see the title of this piece — in a while) and spelling.
In the biographical film Prick Up Your Ears British, dramatist Joe Orton shares a room with Ken Halliwell and they decide to write a novel together. Ken asks Joe “can you spell?” and Joe replies “yes, but not accurately.”

This is hardly a surprise, given that he’s a Brit. The American spelling system is far more regular and rational than the British. (Readers with laptops will have noticed that your spell-check gives the option of British or American spelling, but that doesn’t help you as in Lesotho the British system is used, so for the time being you’re stuck with it).

I mean, what can you say about a spelling system where “plough” rhymes with “now”, but “tough” rhymes with “stuff”– and “now” doesn’t rhyme with “low.” Yipes (as the Americans say). When I was lecturing in Lesotho and in Nigeria and marking assignments I was always very lenient over spelling, because I know what a mountain it is to climb (the latter word rhyming with “time”, of course).

Then there is the matter of vocabulary or denotation (a term I hope readers remember from a few weeks back). There are many examples of things that are denoted by different words in British and American English: lift / elevator; pavement / sidewalk; windscreen / windshield; petrol / gas; cinema / movie theater (and look at the American spelling of (Brit) “theatre”– a lot easier). And some of these reflect our different histories.

For example, there’s a vegetable, a kind of small marrow, the British call it a courgette (one of my favourite vegetables, in case any of you are planning to invite me for dinner). That’s a word that British English has borrowed directly from French — that is, a loan word (I’m not sure we plan to give it back).

The Americans on the other hand call it a zucchini, a loan word from Italian, which I guess reflects the size and influence of the Italian community in the USA. (Speaking of vegetables, I can’t give you an explanation for why the Brits call an aubergine an aubergine — another loan word from French — but the Americans call it an egg-plant).

Next week I’ll get around to muffins — a sore point — and I’ll move on to differences between English and French and between Sesotho and Setswana. Bet you can’t wait.

Chris Dunton is a former Professor of English and Dean of Humanities at the National University of Lesotho.

Continue Reading

Insight

Lessons from Israel: Part 3

Published

on

I shall round off my account of my 1995 trip to Israel by putting on my tour guide cap. Staying in Tel Aviv, most days were fully taken up by the conference, which was my reason for being there. Tel Aviv in July is scorchingly hot, so there were walks along the beach only before breakfast and after sunset. I did take a little time off to go with South African author Stephen Gray to an art gallery that had a painting he wanted to see (a portrait by Modigliani of Beatrice Hastings, whose biography Stephen was then writing).

I wasn’t especially keen on the hotel restaurant, where dinner comprised meat served by the ton (surprisingly little fish, given that we were on the coast. By contrast, I had always been surprised and happy that Maseru restaurants are so good on fish, despite the fact that Lesotho isn’t exactly maritime). But I discovered a little Russian Jewish restaurant that offered Beluga caviar at an amazingly cheap price. I suspect it had fallen off the back of a lorry, as we say in the UK — i.e. that it was contraband, acquired illegally. I just blinked innocently and enjoyed myself. I can’t think of a more delicious way of starting a meal than with caviar, freshly-made blinis and a large glass of deeply chilled Wyberowa vodka — no ice, please. (I only say all this to show you what a very cosmopolitan chap I am).

The conference ran to a packed schedule and we worked hard (no, really). Half-way through we were given a day off and taken to Jerusalem. On arrival I teamed up with an old Nigerian friend and a friend of his from Senegal and we took ourselves first to the Dome of the Rock, the main mosque, which is splendid and radiant (wow, the mosaics!) Then we saw the Wailing Wall.

Then we trudged up the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Via marks the route along which Christ was forced to carry his cross on the way to his crucifixion (dolorosa means something like “of miseries”). I had expected it to be lined with sculptures showing the Stations of the Cross (rather like the lovely ones at Fatima, near Ramabanta).

Instead it was one tourist gift shop after another. Here I came across one of the most repugnant things I’ve seen in my life. Proudly displayed for sale, a wall clock with the face adorned with the image of the head of Christ, the two clock hands protruding from his nose.

At the top of the Via Dolorosa, the fourth century Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest site in the world for Christians, which is breathtakingly beautiful. The interior is (not visibly) divided into sections, the upkeep of each of which is the responsibility of one of the major denominations: Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Greek Orthodox, Egyptian Coptic, and so on. I had had the impression this was an arrangement worked out under the colonial regime of British Palestine, but Google tells me it dates back to the Status Quo of 1757.

My companions had done their homework and suggested we head first for the roof, which had been allocated to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (dare one possibly suggest a tinge of racism in this marginalisation?). There we found a cluster of monkish cells, each inhabited by an elderly Ethiopian monk, at least two of whom spoke English or French. They were delighted to see us, and utterly sweet, hospitable, and in their accounts of their pastoral work spellbinding.

To be concluded

Chris Dunton

Continue Reading
Advertisement

ADVERTISEMENT

Advertisement
Advertisement

Trending