17 December 2007
Africa, an innocent virgin waiting for the right lover, who will initiate her willing body into womanhood, an old world mother who dearly loves her children, but whose traditions and values leaves them ill-prepared for the new world or is she for sale, to used and manipulated..
In Joseph’s Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, his protagonist Marlowe describes Africa’s Congo River, “But there was in it one river especially, a mighty big river that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land. And as I looked at the map of it in a shop window, it fascinated me as a snake would a bird-a silly little bird” (Conrad 5, 6). Marlowe seems to yearn for something, an experience he yet understands, but is drawn to it, like an adolescents burgeoning sexuality, only able to fully articulate its desires after the experience. Marlowe admittedly has been drawn to the Congo since boyhood, “When I was a little chap I had a passion for maps, I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on the map (but they all had that look) I would put my finger on it and say “when I grow up I will go there-there was one yet, the biggest, the most blank, so to speak, that I had a hankering after” (Conrad 5). What is this “hankering” that Marlowe speaks of, how will Africa, the Congo satisfy his needs; is it love, companionship, or a baseless lust that beckons him beyond his mission, tempting him with the as the serpent tempted our guileless mother in the Garden of Eden.
“The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there-there you could look at the thing monstrous and free” (Conrad 32). Conrad’s Africa is delivered to us through Marlowe’s dark seething heart, lust driving him, and pushing him deeper into Africa. “Its inhabitants howl and leap, and spun and made horrid faces” (Conrad 32). Africa’s resistance to Marlowe does stop him, he continues with his unwanted penetration “cries soar through the air and stop, only to be replaced by unexpected savage discord.” (Conrad 35). Conrad places Marlowe in the position of the victim inside of a nightmarish Africa where the senses of sight and sound are muted, aphasic and blinded from anything peaceful, but it’s Marlowe who commits the crime, leaving his victim nonplussed, “her face had a tragic and fierce aspect of wild sorrow and of dumb pain mingled with the fear of some struggling, half shaped resolve. She stood looking over an inscrutable purpose” (Conrad 56).
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness gives us a dominating, sadistic, and cruel Africa. Maybe Conrad was warning his readers, to be aware of one’s own heart of darkness, for it may be obliged, leaving one to fleeing for their life desperate to protect it any cost, “she turned away slowly, walked on, following the bank, and passed into the bushes to the left. Once only her eyes gleamed back at us in the dusk of thickets before she disappeared. If she had offered to come aboard, I really think I would have tried to shoot her” (Conrad 56)
“My roots go down through the veins of lead and silver, through damp marshy places that exhale odor’s, to a knot made of oak roots bound together in the centre” (Woolf 95). In Chinua Achebe’s, Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo is not an intruder like Conrad’s Marlowe, but is bound to Africa, raised from her roots, birthed from her womb. Achebe gives us a vision of Africa steeped in culture, history and tradition, and arguably old world values and superstitions that mark the beginning of the end of her to her and her children’s freedom. Achebe’s Africa provides us with purpose, like a parent teaching their child the value of hardwork, “Yam the king of crops, was a very exacting king. For three or four moons it demanded hard work and attention from cock to crow till the chickens went back to roast.” (Achebe 33). Achebe’s Africa is viewed from inside the womb, through its protagonist Okonkwo. Unlike, Conrad’s simplistic and external descriptions of the Africa that Marlowe encounters, Achebe’s Africa is alive; physically and emotionally, struggling with her conscious through Achebe’s protagonist Okonkwo. Okonkwo is a man desperate not to live the life of his father “Unoka, for that was his father’s name, had died ten years ago. In his day he was lazy and improvident and was quite incapable of thinking about tomorrow” (Achebe 4).
Achebe layers his Africa with maternal giving and reprimand; supplying her children with yams, fish, palm oil, and wine, but also pouring down crop destroying rains as punishment for an offense committed against her rules. Okonkwo commits and offense against the earth goddess by accidentally killing a boy forcing him to flee for sanctity of Mbanta, the land of his birth “And if the clan did not exact punishment for an offense against the great goddess, her wrath was loosed on all, the land and not just on the offender. As the elders said, if one finger brought oil, it soiled the others” (Achebe 125). Although Okonkwo’s has makes a grievous offense onto the earth goddess he is not without refuge, “Okonkwo was well received by his mother’s kinsmen in Mbanta” (Achebe 129). Through Okonkwo, we experience an Africa balanced with reward and punishment, alive, with drums beating, sights and sounds unified in purposeful unbound expression. Okonkwo belongs to this place, his origins rooted in her soil, blanketed by her high skies, nursed by her waters and feed from her land. Achebe’s Africa is an aware complex environment, not a savage naked European fantasy. Achebe’s Africa is not without flaws, its superstitious, old fashion and at times uncompromising, but at its heart is not darkness, but genuine love and care of her children.
“The sexual provender which lies to hand is staggering in its variety and profusion. You would never mistake it for a happy place” (Durell 14). In Nadine Gordimer’s, The Conservationist, we witness Africa again, intruded upon, invaded, and molested. Gordimer’s, protagonist Mehring seems to carry on a lover affair, with a lover who is unmoved and even despised by his touch, “The windmill is turning and he releases the chain and arm…although it noses creakily, it does not begin to turn because there is no wind today, the air is still” (Gordimer 20).
This time we are transported South Africa and Gordimer’s protagonist Mehring tries to force a submission from Africa under his will, but Africa remains obstinate; passively and aggressively. Her land, sky and water carry on often uninterrupted by the needs and wants of Mehring’s farm, even uniting in a final conspiratorial resistance. Mehring’s farm pierces and tears at the land, implanting fence posts into its top skin, imposing barriers dividing its spacious landscape and forcing claim over it, “the other three fingers fluently joined the forefinger between the thighs and then unexpectedly (it must have been for her) lost coherence free trailed back and forth over the mound of one thigh” (Gordimer 129). Gordimer offers us an aggressive and disobedient Africa. This Africa is a projected whore, nor is it a mother from the old country tending to her children, or a willing lover, Gordimer’s Africa feels young and beautiful in its rejection of Mehring. This Africa is vocal in her irritated objection of its intruder; “for the first of seven summers the river is at its full height, and can hear its accelerated pace, its raised voice above the sounds of birds and reeds and grasses” (Gordimer 227). Nadine Gordimer’s Africa is also patient, waiting for the proper moment to attack. Mehring and Africa engage in a battle of wills. Merhing forces himself onto her, Africa draws Merhing in with the possibility of her submission, but then hits his farm with a drought and then a flood, bringing Mehring and his farm into submission, “just as it was about to gain the rise, something burst out there; one of many tributary streams that fed the vlei and shot into the lake.” (Gordimer 238). Gordimer’s Africa is calculating appearing to comply with Merhing and his farm, not wanting to raise alarm, but the entire time waiting for the right moment to revolt and exact her retribution.
Nadine Gordimer’s Africa fights for her independence against the Mehring’s mentality, that over time and with enough force, she will submit. Mehring ignorantly overestimates his ability and underestimates Africa’s will and want for freedom, “although he had every reason to visit the scene-he was cut off from his farm by the washaway, after all it was greatly to his interest that the repairs to the road should be begun at once.” (Gordimer 236).
Is Africa our mother, our lover, our whore, or is Africa what we want her to be, created out of our wants and needs, extracted from the missing pieces of ourselves. “We try to discover in things, which become precious to us on what our soul has projected onto them; we are disillusioned when we find that they are in reality devoid of the charm which they owed, in our minds” (Proust 60).
Achebe, Chinua, Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor Books 1994.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: Dover Publications 1990.
Durrell, Lawrence. Justine. New York: Penguin Books 1991.
Proust, Marcel, Swann's Way. New York: Modern Library, 1956.
Godimer, Nadine, The Conservationist. England: Penguin Books, 1978.