Free online reading
Doris Lessing (born 1919) is one of the few writers whose literary style almost immediately strikes you as down-to-earth, and at the same time pathetic, pregnant with emotional tension and almost detective implications. D. Lessing was born in Iran, but as a she was a small girl, her family moved to Rhodesia (modern Zimbabwe), Africa. Her life there shaped her literary inclinations and tragic perception of reality, which is palpable in every story of hers. The heartfelt leitmotif of her stories and novels is the colonization of Africa and its tragic, partly unforeseen ramifications that mostly affected indigenous population of Africa.
The cultural, spiritual and social divide between Europe and Africa is the essence of both internal and external conflicts, as well as the unequal status of two diametrically opposed forces represented by human beings, whose skin colour prevents them from reaching a consensus. The colonization of Africa involved ruthless suppression and ousting of African people’s culture under the guise of importing a civilized way of life and European values, both of which proved to be alien to Africans, whose traditional tribal way of life turned out to be tenacious and not easily supplanted.
A festival of pumpkins evokes a sad picture: a festival is supposed to be something cheerful, gleeful and carefree, but in the framework of D. Lessing’s story it turns into a burlesque parody, a thwarted imitation of festivity that has nothing to do with a spiritual joy or elevation. In the context of the story “The Old Chief Mshlanga” it can be regarded as a sustained metaphor, used to describe a despondent site with the vestiges of the recent dwelling of a big African family that had been forced to retreat to a reserve specially designed for them. The vestiges are pumpkins that proved to be so tenacious as to evade all the efforts of uprooting them. This represents the entrenchment of the African family that were so unwilling to leave, because the place had literally belonged to them for generations and had felt so secure and comfortable. It also matters that the soil there was fertile, yielding enough crops several times a year. All this is to be abandoned, left behind and forgotten, because of the accident that involved the cattle treading upon the neighbouring kraal inhabited by white people. The picture of the ensuing relationship is neither simple nor one-sided, for the fact that half of the crop was trampled is not to be overlooked; the question, however, is whether the “punishment” fits the crime. It turns out that the demand for several heads of cattle is too much for the African kraal, because the remaining cattle would not be enough to feed the Africans. It is to be emphasized that Chief Mshlanga is very affirmative, he won’t meet the master’s demands half-way and chooses to retreat instead of giving in his cattle. This “choice” is the Hobson’s choice, however, because the loss of cattle will lead to hunger and famine or to the alternative of working for the white man in abject conditions. After the family moves, pumpkins are the only thing that reminds an occasional trespasser of the recent life, which had been burgeoning before “civilization” came and established the stick-and-carrot policy. This is how the narrator describes what is left of the kraal village: “I went to see the village again, about a year afterwards. There was nothing there. Mounds of red mud, where the huts had been, had long swathes of rotting thatch over them, veined with the red galleries of the white ants. The pumpkins vines rioted everywhere, over the bushes, up the lower branches of trees so that the great golden balls rolled underfoot and dangled overhead: it was a festival of pumpkins. The bushes were crowding up, the new grass sprang vivid green. The settler lucky enough to be allotted the lush warm valley (if he chose to cultivate this particular section) would find, suddenly, in the middle of a mealie filed, the plants were growing fifteen feet tall, the weight of the cobs dragging at the stalks, and wonder what unsuspected vein of richness he had struck” [Lessing, 1956:14]. The last words of the cited passage are key to understanding the author’s attitude towards the indigenous people, it could be summed up as follows: they are “a vein of richness”, unknown to the white, “civilized” settler, with whom the word “richness” strikes a different cord: richness is calculated in monetary value and no amount of pumpkins can be equivalent to it.