Old Chief Mshlanga Essay Definition

One theme that strikes me is prejudice and oppression: based upon skin color rather than personal merit.

In the short story, "The Old Chief Mshlanga," by Doris Lessing (who was raised in Africa), the young protagonist—called "little Nkosikaas,"—has been brought up without regard for the natives or the land. She expects deferential treatment from the blacks, and it is not until she meets the old chief that she becomes acquainted with true greatness—something notassociated...

One theme that strikes me is prejudice and oppression: based upon skin color rather than personal merit.

In the short story, "The Old Chief Mshlanga," by Doris Lessing (who was raised in Africa), the young protagonist—called "little Nkosikaas,"—has been brought up without regard for the natives or the land. She expects deferential treatment from the blacks, and it is not until she meets the old chief that she becomes acquainted with true greatness—something not associated with skin color (as she has always believed), but by the character of a person:

A Chief! I thought, understanding the pride that made the old man stand before me like an equal—more than an equal, for he showed courtesy, and I showed none.

Without resentment, the girl understands that she has no authority over this man: that he is a man deserving respect, though none of the white adults (e.g., her parents) around her would ever have said so. Somehow, the girl comprehends that this is someone meriting her regard:

The old man spoke...wearing dignity like an inherited garment...

The respect that he deserves seems to come, as the girl sees it, from another time: for it is as if he wears his "dignity" like something he has received from another—something old, passed down over generations. This parallels the chief's belief—though they try to live in harmony with the whites—that this land has been theirs for countless years. It does not belong to the whites simply because they have taken it and/or oppress the natives with superior physical force.

The young girl realizes that she cannot fit into the world of the natives. (Ironically, the respect of the villagers for the land is seen in how they lovingly care for their homes and tend their gardens, while the property her father owns is dirty and poorly maintained, seeming to reflect not a love of land but the ability to exert power over the land and its original inhabitants.) She has only begun to understand that there are significant cultural differences between her and the chief and his people.

But it becomes disturbingly clear when goats from the chief's village roam onto her father's land, damaging some of his crops. The girl's father sees his ramshackle homestead and barely cultivated land as something that empowers him. The color of his skin (and that of the lawkeepers in this land) allow him to make demands of the old man and his people that the chief cannot fight. In a display again of the tragic subjugation of the native people, the father demands the goats in payment of the damage done, though the chief despairs that his people will starve over the winter. Ultimately, as her father later shares the incident with a white policeman, the chief and his people are moved off of their lush and caringly cultivated land, and placed on "a proper native reserve" hundreds of miles away. Lessing infers that the land, if true ownership is to be observed, belongs to those who nurture it. The chief's son notes:

My father says: All this land, this land you call yours, is his land, and belongs to our people.

A year later the girl sees the old village and knows the white settlers will never be able to appreciate it as its native inhabitants had: for the chief's people, it was not about owning the land, but caring for it. This is something she has come to understand, but knows that the new "owners" will only be able to wonder about the land's intrinsic value: for the natives know it must be cherished.

Colonialism The Barrier of Inequality in The Old Chief Mshlanga



Colonialism: The Barrier of Inequality in "The Old Chief Mshlanga"
From about the fifteenth century to almost present day, the Western world has often indulged itself in a type of foreign policy common called "colonialism". In it, people from one country would settle and create "colonies" in the land of another country, often one that was both technologically inferior and unable to mount any sort of significant organized and armed resistance. These "colonies" though, were little more than easy ways for countries to deal with their own social and economic problems  such as a way to exile criminals and exploit another countrys natural resources. In "The Old Chief Mshlanga", we view colonialism through the eyes of one of the colonials, a young white girl. The story focuses her encounter with an African chieftain that causes her to see the differences between her people and the natives of land they occupy. The author, Doris Lessing, uses the narrative to tell the reader that friendship and even co-existence between the two is unattainable. By analyzing the images, metaphors, and similes used to tell the story, Lessing communicates the reality of colonialism: that as long as it exists, the divisions it creates and maintains are impossible to overcome.
From the very opening of the story we are given a sense of the narrators detachment from Africa and its people through Lessings detailed description of the landscape. Brian Hart notes, "Africa isportrayed as a hostile, undesirable, and unruly place" The image of the "jutting piece of rock" (824) gives us the picture of an "intruder" in the landscape  in a field of sparse vegetation, this rock is thrusting up out of the soil. We are given this image that this lone rock is an intrusion in the scenery, an eyesore. In the same way, whites are intruders, trespassers unwelcome in Africa  their presence is out place.
Perhaps at the beginning of the story, even the narrator, as a young child, recognizes this fact. Lessing gives us a number of sensory images of the narrator imagining that she is in Europe with "a pale gleaming castle", "cold Northern forests", and "the gnarled roots of an oak" (824). Here the young child longs to be in place where she belongs instead of Africa. Instead of view the setting around her, Africa, the narrator instead chooses to disassociate her from Africa, to the point where she even consciously warps her own perception of reality.
More important, however, are the ideas that the young girl has been taught about the natives of the land. The narrator states, "black people on the farm were as remote as the trees and the rocks." (824) This reflects the separation between the narrator and Africa and its people. Because she has no association at all with the Africans, its unsurprising to hear that she views them as a group rather than individuals  "They [the Africans] were an amorphous black mass, mingling and thinning and massing tadpoles, faceless" (824) The "tadpole" comment also reflects the white colonial attitude that the Africans were sub-human, closer to animals than humanity. The Africans, to the colonials, "existed merely to serve" (824)
The "Africans as animals" idea is further expanded as narrator later describes how "If a native came into sightthe dogs would flush him up the tree as if he were a bird." (824) This description of an African as a bird gives the reader several pictures. We often think of birds as annoying animals, both unsophisticated and unintelligent. People also consider birds to be at our mercy  defenseless animals that are no threat. Both of these associations with the image of a bird are views held by the colonists about the African natives. The Africans are thought of as "uncivilized"  therefore, the colonists reason, they are both dumb and lacking intelligence. And just as a bird poses no real threat to a human being, so the colonists thought that the natives held no threat to them.
Besides the "bird" simile, another comparison the narrator makes is that natives are like dogs  animals that can be trained and used for amusement. In one description the she says, "they [white children] could tease a small

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Related Topics

Cultural geographyColonialismInternational relations theoryDoris LessingShe: A History of AdventureAfricaNarration

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