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The Old Chief Mshlanga

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Matilde Negri

on 5 April 2014

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Transcript of The Old Chief Mshlanga

Doris Lessing

was born in 1919 and was a British novelist, poet, biographer and short story writer.
In 1925, the family moved to the British colony of Southern Rhodesia.
In 1973 Lessing published "This Was the Old Chief's Country: Collected African Stories" .
She was also awarded the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature.
She died on 17 November 2013, aged 94, at her home in London.
RHODESIA
The Old Chief Mshlanga
Structure
Chief Mshlanga's territory had been occupied by English prospectors and explorer, so he and his people had to move from their ownership. The usurper didn't rename the place to cover up the illegal appropriation, so they continued to name it “the old Chief's Country”.
Characters
Subject matter
The story begins with a description of the setting and the introduction of the protagonist, a white girl;

After, we're presented to the black people's situation after the white man's colonization. Moreover, the author describes the girl's education;

The girl describes her first meeting with the Old Chief Mshlanga;

She looks for information about Chief Mshlanga's land. While she is reading a book, she starts to understand the injustices on black people;

She goes to Chief Mshlanga's village to search him;

Girl's father confiscated Chief's goats because he supports that them have destroyed his farm;

After some time, the Chief had to move to a Native Reserve because he has been deprived of his land.
Country
This was the the Old Chief's
Great Britain annexed Zimbabwe (called Southern Rhodesia) in 1923.

White immigrant farmers held the vast majority of fertile land in large farms.

In many of the native Zimbabwean’s grew a deep resentment for the new white farmers: any land that was not being farmed was declared as “waste” and that land was given to English companies.

Also, extremely high and unfair taxes were imposed on the African populations.
Thus the African were forced to take whatever low paying, humiliating jobs that the white farmers offered.

In 1980, Southern Rhodesia gained independence from the British and renamed itself as Zimbabwe.
the title
the plot
The plot is made of an introduction and a second part which is presented by an internal point of view.
The story is centered around a girl who changes her vision about black people's conditions.

The events are presented in chronological sequence but there are some pauses where the girl explains her thoughts.
Moreover, she describes the English mentality about natives and their right of dominate them.
The Girl
The Protagonist is a girl whose name is not mentioned in the story.
We can make some assumptions about the choice of the author:
There is an identification between the author and the narrator.
The fact she always called "Nkosikaas" to underline the respect of the black people to her.
Since this is a common story in Africa, this events could be happened to anybody.

The text doesn't present any physical description because the author is more concentrated on the girl's mental changes. In fact the figure of the girl is dynamic character.
The Old Chief Mshlanga
There is no physical description but the Chief is presented as a man "with an air of dignity" an equal in order tf importance.
He is represented like a wise man who lives in harmony with nature.
Moreover he speaks in his own language, so we can infer that there is a deliberated incommunicability among two ethnicity.
The parents
They are secondary characters but they mirrors the whole English society. In fact, they believe in their supremacy on the native and they represent the colonizing mentality.
The Cook
The cook is the Chief Mshlanga's son and he represents the possible connection between the two parts because in the final event he has to translate the argument.
Protagonist/ natives
At the beginning, the relationship between the two parts is conflictual: the girl believes in her parent's teachings: black people are only servants, who have to do anything she wants. Her security comes from the dogs and the gun she brings with her. With them she never feel scared.
Protagonist/ white people
After an initial identification with the people who belongs to, the girl starts to understand white people's injustices against black people and nature.
White settlers/ Natives
White people don't change their relationship with natives as the girl. In fact, they all feel superior so they act like natives aren't worthy to do respectable job or be at their same level.
The role of the male and female characters
We can understand the role of the female in the society of the time in the final event of the story. In fact, when the father pretends the payment to the Chief, she doesn't say anything to help him.
The male characters are all authoritative and fixed in their beliefs.
Setting
Landscape is used in this story to show the behavior of the whites who have inhabited Rhodesia. It also underlines the different behaviors of the Africans and whites; a behavior that creates divisions, impossible to overcome.

" a gaunt and a violent landscape"

At the beginning, the girl takes distance from her land, because she feels like a stranger. This is shown in the way she imagines the cold northern forests and rivers.

"This child could not see a msasa tree, or the thorn, for what they were. Her books held tales of alien fairies, her rivers ran slow and peaceful, and she knew the shape of the leaves of an ash or an oak."

Nevertheless, she compares her white father’s farm to a bush because large parts of the farm were not used. This shows that also large parts of the land were owned by the whites but they don't take care of them.

"like every white farm, was largely unused, broken only occasionally by a small patches of cultivation. In between, nothing but trees, the long sparse grass, thorn and cactus and gully, grass and thorn"

After the girl learns kindness and respect, she begins to feel an affinity with the landscape that seems to be more hospitable.

"and slowly that other landscape in my mind faded, and my feet struck directly

on the African soil, and I saw the shapes of tree and hill clearly"
The Africans are compared to birds. Birds are often considered as defenseless and unintelligent animals, which don't pose any threat, so are the Africans to the colonialists.
Moreover, after visiting the chief, the narrator hears the birds sing. This song represents the end of the native's lifestyle and their powerlessness. This means that Africans despite standing long time of oppression can also revenge.

“It was now late sunset, the sky a welter of colors, the birds singing their last songs”
It is only a deadly spirit that seems to come out of the cries of the birds and this comes from the trees and rocks. This is used to mean that the words and wishes of the Africans are all dead. Just as the trees and rocks can not communicate, so are the Africans and whites. The Africans do not have the opportunities to voice out their cries.
"How the bigness and silence of Africa, under the ancient sun, grows dense and takes shape in the mind, till even the birds seem to call menacingly, and a deadly spirit comes out of the trees and the rocks"
The author also uses animals to show how Africans are being viewed as useless and sub-human. The Africans are described as a mass of faceless tadpoles. just as animals can be manipulated and beaten.
“they were an amorphous black mass, mingling and thinning and massing tadpole”
When the white girl goes to visit the old chief in his Kraal, she greatly feels isolated. Nature suggests this feeling of isolation because is described as an hostile and inhospitable landscape.

“queer hostility in the landscape, a cold, hard, sullen indomitability that walked with me, as strong as a wall, as intangible as smoke; it seemed to say to me: you walk here as a destroyer”

Natives take care of their land, conversely to white people. In fact they live in harmony with nature, which reward them. They also believe that the lands belong to whom cares about them.

"I had entered a completely fresh type of landscape. It was a wide green valley, where a small river sparkled, and a vivid water-birds darted over the rushes. The grass was thick and soft to my calves, the trees stood tall and shapely"

"I saw the huts were lovingly decorated with patterns of yellow and red and ocher mud on the walls; and the thatch was tied in place with plaits of straw"

"My father says: all this land, this land you call yours, is his land, and belongs to our people"
Narrative technique
The story begins in the third person point of view, with a general description of the setting.
Then, the author switches to the first point of view, so one can better understand the changes taking place in the young girl by viewing the story through her eyes.

The narrator
The Tone
The tone is:

specific because the presence of words of native origins which refers to the landscape or to characteristic nouns of the place.

"Nkosikaas" "Msasa trees" "kraal"

Descriptive and detailed because the presence of large description of the landscape and figure of speech.

"A white child, opening its eyes curiously in a sun-suffused landscape, might be supposed to accept it as her own"
"One evening, when I was about fourteen, I was walking.."
"One of those old prospectors used the phrase: "This was the Old Chief's Country". That was his name for our district. He did not use our name for it- a new phrase which held no implication of usurped ownership"
Content
The themes of the story are:

Prejudices

The girl, who has been brought up without regard for the natives or the land, expects deferential treatment from the blacks.

English Domination and Oppression

For example, the father demands the goats in payment of the damage done, though the chief despairs that his people will starve over the winter.

The abuse of the territory

The land belongs to those who nurture it. In fact, for the chief's people, it was not about owning the land, but caring for it. Instead, the land of the girl's father is a ramshackle homestead and barely cultivated.

Incommunicability

The two parts can not have a dialogue because the pride and the hostility.

"the old man spoke in his own language"

"Perhaps he was afflicted with my own shyness, due to being unable to find the right forms of courtesy for the occasion."

"indifferent village"

"My father could not speak dialect, but only kitchen kaffir"

"The young man spoke without emotion, in a mechanical way, his eyes lowered, but showing how he felt his position by a hostile uncomfortable set of the shoulders"

"he walked off into the bush after his father"
Doris Lessing has been an active participant in the struggle for black liberation, a socialist and a feminist. Her stories are largely concerned with people and problems involved in the social and political upheavals of twentieth century Africa.


The story of The Old Chief Mshlanga tends to be autobiographical.
The impressions of Nkosikaas seems to be Doris Lessing's memories when she lived in Africa.
Another similarity between the two is loneliness of both. The narrator spends most of her time walking with a gun over her shoulder and her dogs following her through the various grasslands and hills.

The author thought that Africa gives us the knowledge that a man is a small creature, among other creatures, in a large landscape. At the end of the story, in fact, the main character realizes that she is only a small creature.
Doris Lessing's Aims
Content
In the story the aspects of Colonialism (as racism, slavery, exploitation, oppression and denigration) are underline to clarify the real interests of white people in Africa.
"The black people were an amorphous black mass, mingling and thinning and massing like tadpoles, faceless, who existed merely to serve, to take their money and go."

"The child was taught to take them for granted: the servants in the house would come running a hundred yards to pick up a book if she dropped it."

"If a native came into sight along the kaffir paths, the dogs would flush him up a tree. If one was in a good mood, it could be a matter for laughter. Otherwise one passed on, hardly glacing at the angry man in the tree"

"they could tease a small black child as if he was a puppy"

"Certain questions presented theme selves in the child's mind; and because the answers were not easy to accept, they were silenced by an even greater arrogance of manner"

"I said politely, finding the politeness difficult, from lack of use."

"The phrase 'ask his permission' was so extraordinary to white child, brought up to consider all natives as things to use"

"My father sat himself down in his big chair [..] the old man squatted on the ground before him.
Who Is Next (To Move)?
Charles Nkomo
Charles was thinking about all the people who have moved out of Zimbabwe because the difficult economy situation.
The painting shows a long line of people, all those who have been forced to leave their homeland.
Language
This short story contains
similes:

“The black people on the farm were as remote as trees and the rocks”
this sentence means that the natives are distant from the girl's reality;
“the dogs would flush him up a tree as if he were a bird”
and
“they could tease a small black child as if he were a puppy”
these sentences mean that the natives are associated to animals;
“it was if I stood aside to watch a slow intimate dance of landscape and men, a very old dance, whose steps I could not learn”
this sentence means that the girl understands that black people have a different culture to her and that she realizes that she would never have been part of that;

“as strong as a wall, as intangible as a smoke”
this sentence means that the girl wants to emphasize the hostility between her and the landscape.

“I had learned that if one cannot call a country to heel like a dog, neither can one dismiss the past with a smile in an easy gush feeling”
this sentence means that the girl understands that she cannot easily change the past, after an age of dictatorship.

The metaphors are:
“They were an amorphous black mass”, “mingling...like tadpoles” and “faceless”
these sentences express the conception of the English man of natives;
“the dogs and the gun were an armour against fear”
this sentence mean that the dogs and gun are a strong support both psychological and physical for the girl;
The oxymoron is:
“violent landscape”
;

In the text, the language has an important role: colonizers want to impose their supremacy even through language. In fact, natives are obliged to learn English. At the same time, white people know few African words. This is the basis of a strong contrast that starts from the impossibility to communicate.

In the story there’re reference to mainstream culture especially in the language and in the landscape.
When the girl goes to Chief’s village she see their

“huts decorated with patterns of yellow and red and ochre mud on the walls; and thatch was tied in place with plaits of straw”

“patches of mealies and pumpkins and millet”

“a small black boy, who was playing a stringed gourd”.
Full transcript