Thursday, July 10, 2014

Two Books on Africa


It is a coincidence that two of the books I have 'read' over the past weeks have both been on Africa.

The first was Chinua Achebe's 1958 classic, "Things Fall Apart", and the second one, Dorris Lessing's part fiction, part memoir, "Alfred and Emily". Both the books were connected in strange ways.

The Achebe's book is set in the pre-colonial Nigeria of 1890's. It is about a warrior named Okonkwo whose life and social standing is altered by the arrival of the White Man. The first one who turns up an amiable, gentle priest who wants to introduce Christianity to the remote villages of the Niger delta. He is something of a curiosity, worthy of being engaged and disdained at the same time. By the time it dawns on Okonkwo's community that this is just a soft, probing tentacle of a formidable British colonial administration, it is too late. Guns and machete's have been drawn, blood is spilt, tribes have been set against each other....and Things Fall Apart.



In Lessing's narrative, the view is from the other side of the fence, a few decades later. Countries like Kenya and Rhodesia have emerged out of the the same process that transformed West Africa. An apartheid system is well entrenched. The white farmer now lords over large tracts of land and employs locals as farm laborers, cooks, servants and menials. Tribal hierarchies have been decimated and the most coveted position a local can aspire to is that of the "Boss-Boy", an overseer to other laborers.

For the European settlers, this is a heaven they wouldn't trade for anything that Europe has to offer. Yet, once again, change is just around the corner. African freedom movements sweep aside the white settlers and the rich farmlands return to the bush. Things fall apart once again but for the ordinary Africans who want to pick up the pieces and start over again, there are no social structures to fall back on.

These two books tell stories that have perhaps been repeated a thousand times over in Asia, the Americas and Australia...
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