The invisible black man in white Rhodesian literature

10 Sep, 2018 - 00:09 0 Views

The Herald

Gracious Madondo Correspondent
Ignorance is not bliss. Whoever said ignorance was bliss must have been high on something. Ignorance is dangerous because it can lead to suicidal decisions. Knowledge is power because it is through knowledge that one can navigate the vagaries of life with the rigour of an empowered mind.

It is ignorance that normally leads people to trivialise certain historical realities. A good example is colonial conquest. Basking in the lap of peace and freedom, it has become common nowadays to hear people saying colonialism was better and that the liberation struggle was a farce.

One needs to take a moment in not reading history as we know it but try reading fiction written by white Rhodesian writers during colonialism for one to understand and appreciate that indigenous black people were mere aberrations – some beings that were meant to remain in the shadows.

One such fictional account of life in Rhodesian is Pen Point 2, a collection of short stories by Rhodesian white writers published in 1976 by the Salisbury Writers’ Club. The first Pen Point was published in 1972 and was the work of a small group of writers forming the Salisbury Writers’ Club.

One needs to be a perceptive reader to really understand the racism and outright prejudice behind this consummation of Pen Point 1 and 2. The preface to Pen Point 2 is telling especially the paragraph that says:

“Our intention is to entertain our readers and, at the same time, stimulate Rhodesian writers to a greater efforts. Our only regret is that no African writer submitted work for consideration although approaches were made through a number of sources.”

One cannot fail to decipher the condescending attitude in the above quotation. The truth of the matter is that black writers were viewed as inferior in a racialised Rhodesian society. And surprisingly despite this systematic marginalisation and the resources that were availed to white writers, very few of Rhodesian writers rose to anything worthy noting. Only Doris Lessing, who later won a Nobel Prize for Literature, rose to worldwide acclaim mainly because of her book “The Grass is Singing” published in 1950.

The contempt that whites had towards black people is more apparent in Pen Point 2 where black people are entirely invisible or non-existent in most of the stories. Here is a bit of background for readers not in the know of Rhodesia.

Whites came to the then Rhodesia in 1890 and remained for 90 years, radically altering and disrupting the traditional lives of the indigenous people of the country. They bowed out in 1980, except for a residuum staying on as a powerless minority, after a war that escalated in ferocity over last fifteen years.

In spite of the fact that the majority inhabitants of the then Rhodesia were blacks, the presence of blacks in the work of white novelists, poets and playwrights was always a fleeting and tenuous. From the first published writers of the early 1950s, there has been a consistent failure, not just to other rounded characterisation of the black person and even to introduce him at all.

Even a transcendent talent as Lessing in “The Grass is Singing”, only treats the black man as a terrifying symbol in the white psyche. White fear of black is the dominant motif of the book. Much of the white avoidance of white characters, of course, stems from a certain cultural distaste created by the class divisions of the society.

Pen Point 2 is to a perceptive reader a book that symbolises pure alienation of the Rhodesian writer who despite being in the midst of a ferocious war pitting blacks against whites and other surrogate blacks, none of the writes distantly refers to that war.

In the first short story titled, “The Marriage Bed” by Cynthia Hind. Besides the writer being resident in Harare, the setting is North-Western Cape and is about a man called Oom Frikkie. A child narrator tells story. Frikkie is more of an eccentric guy but is presented as one conscious of the long ago Boer war and is said to have fought wars with the warriors of Dingani and Tshaka.

At the centre of the story is a non-fitting bed. The roof of his house had to be removed to let the gigantic bed in. Frikkie is satirised as almost an unthinking man. He has suffered a tragedy in which he lost his first wife due to floods. And has just married and the bed is a befitting asset to his wife.

Marriage is a critical element of white settler life and love is celebrated as an essential ingredient of that marriage. Despite his buffoonery character, Frikkie manages to remarry. What is interesting in this story is that the narrator talks about a long gone Boer war but fails to acknowledge a war raging in her own immediate environment in Rhodesia.

Another story that shows the systematic marginalisation of the black person is “The Hills of Drought” written by B. W. Murgatroyd. There are two distinct white settlers. One is one based in the rural area as a farmer and survives on tilling the land and keeping domestic livestock and the other is city dweller given to easy city life of tapped water and neon lights.

The story is told in the voice of the rural dweller who is presented as a weather-hardened individual. “The Hills of Drought” is a story of triumph against adversity. Karel is the main character. He is described as having “this disquieting air of a caged wild beast whose mind ignores the present, dwelling with restless pride in grander things past”.

The natives of the land, the Bushmen, are presented almost as animalistic who are an aberration to the comfort of whites.

The Bushman is an inconvenient intrusion into the lives of white people who are already suffering from a drought that has befallen the land. The Bushman has no name -more like a shadowy figure.

What is interesting is that the majority of the stories’ setting is not in Rhodesia though most of the writers resided in Rhodesia at the time of publishing the book. The common setting is South Africa, a country south of Rhodesia across the Limpopo River. There are probably two reasons to explain this absurdity. The first reason is that at a psychological level, South Africa represented the triumph or a model of colonial conquest – a country that was viewed with awe by most white Rhodesians. The second reason could be sheer alienation of writers who seemed immune or oblivious of the turmoil going on in their immediate surroundings.

One is forgiven for thinking that whites form the majority in the places that are depicted in the stories. Yet whether it’s South Africa or Rhodesia, the black person is part of the majority. Only one story, “Today I Bought a Basket” by Jane Meiring mentions black people. One is a driver (a domestic worker) and a nameless women selling reed woven baskets. One assumes the setting is urban given the references to traffic lights and cars criss-crossing the roads. But even in this story, the black figures bear no name as the exemplified by the narrator when she says: “The driver stopped on the other street. He got out of the car and whistled and called to her. She stopped and turned back to look at him. Slowly, with the basket, balanced perfectly on her head, turning slowly, like a vast jewel on a revolving pedestal.”

It appears that although the narrator is in need of what the African woman has, she resents any close contact with her. The only rapport that exist, that reaches out across all those barriers is made easy and possible by a so-called “educated African”.

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