Analysis of Doris Lessing’s The Old Chief Mshlanga

One of Doris Lessing’s many stories concerning relations between white settlers in Southern Africa and the black communities they have displaced, “The Old Chief Mshlanga” was first published in 1964 in African Stories. The story recounts the awakening of a historical and political consciousness in a young white woman who has been inculcated to regard the South African landscape as her own and to regard the Africans who live in it as “an amorphous black mass . . . who existed merely to serve” (12). As a child, the narrator fails to see the African landscape as it really is, instead projecting a world she has taken from fairy tales and stories about England. She, along with the other white children, have been taught to view Africans through a “consciousness of danger” (12), a fear against which the children defend themselves by mocking and humiliating the black people they encounter. This part of the narrative, in which the young child walks through the veld accompanied by dogs and a gun for her protection, is narrated in the third person, perhaps to generalize her experience as an attitude held by many white children but perhaps also as if the narrator cannot quite bear to recognize her early attitudes as her own.

In a shift to the first-person, we learn of the adolescent girl’s encounter one day with the elderly Chief Mshlanga. The old chief’s quiet dignity and his courtesy as he speaks with the girl eventually lead to a change in her attitude. Now she sees that it is African soil she walks on and that the African people have an existence independent of her. Suddenly the discomfort she has felt in previous exchanges disappears: “it seemed it was only necessary to let free that respect I felt when I was talking with old Chief Mshlanga, to let both black and white people meet gently, with tolerance for each other’s differences: it seemed quite easy” (15). The narrator’s curiosity about the chief and his kraal (village) is intensified when she learns that the cook in her family’s home is the chief’s son. Setting out one day to find the kraal, she experiences an unprecedented “terror of isolation” (17) in the vastness of the veld. She arrives at the kraal only to have an awkward encounter with the chief: Divisions between African and white settler make genuine social interaction impossible, and she realizes she is an intruder in their village and on what was once their land. Her earlier experience of defamiliarization in the veld has been a prelude to her intellectual and emotional realization that the earth is not really owned by the white settlers at all.

The subtlety of Lessing’s depiction of her narrator’s evolution is that it shows her later position of “tolerance” to be a false solution to real problems. As is made clear by an incident related at the end, in which her father confiscates the chief’s goats and finally has his kraal removed from what is now the government’s land, the land that the white settlers consider their own has been taken from the Africans, who have no right of appeal to the legal system, which represents the interests of the whites: “ ‘Go to the police, then,’ said my father, and looked triumphant. There was, of course, no more to be said” (20). In the face of such historical and material injustice, the narrator’s previous belief in the “easiness” of relations between blacks and whites is revealed to be a complacent delusion that suppresses recent history and the stark inequalities it has produced. She has 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 of feeling, saying: I could not help it, I am also a victim” (19).

Analysis of Doris Lessing’s Stories

Lessing, Doris, This Was the Old Chief’s Country: Collected African Stories. Vol. 1. 1964. London: Michael Joseph, 1973

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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