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10-08-2015, 22:56

AFRICA: DARK OR RADIANT CONTINENT?

Colonialism camouflaged its economic objectives under the cloak of a “civilizing mission,” which in Africa was aimed at illuminating the so-called Dark Continent with Europe’s brilliant civilization. In 1899, the Polish-born English author Joseph Conrad (1857–1924) fictionalized his harrowing journey up the Congo River in the novella Heart of Darkness. Expressing views from his Victorian perspective, he portrayed an Africa that was incomprehensible, irrational, sensual, and therefore threatening. Conrad, however, was shocked by the horrific exploitation of the peoples of the Belgian Congo, presenting them with a compassion rarely seen during the heyday of imperialism. Over the years, Conrad’s work has provoked much debate, and many African writers have been prompted to counter his vision by reaffirming the dignity and purpose of the African people. One of the first to do so was the Guinean author Camara Laye (1928–1980), who in 1954 composed a brilliant novel, The Radiance of the King, which can be viewed as the mirror image of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In Laye’s work, another European protagonist undertakes a journey into the impenetrable heart of Africa. This time, however, he is enlightened by the process, thereby obtaining self-knowledge and ultimately salvation. JOSEPH CONRAD, HEART OF DARKNESS We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness. It was very quiet there. At night sometimes the roll of drums behind the curtain of trees would run up the river and remain sustained faintly, as if hovering in the air high over our heads, till the first break of day. Whether it meant war, peace, or prayer we could not tell. . . . But suddenly, as we struggled round a bend, there would be a glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grass-roofs, a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling, under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage. The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy. The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us—who could tell? We were cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings; we glided past like phantoms, wondering and secretly appalled, as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse. . . . It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity— like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a reponse to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you—you so remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend. And why not? The mind of man is capable of anything—because everything is in it, all the past as well as the future. What was there after all? Joy, fear, sorrrow, devotion, valour, rage— who can tell?—but truth—stripped of its cloak of time. CAMARA LAYE, THE RADIANCE OF THE KING “I enjoy life . . . ,” thought Clarence. “If I filed my teeth like the people of Aziana, no one could see any difference between me and them.” There was, of course, the difference in pigmentation in the skin. But what difference did that make? “It’s the soul that matters,” he kept telling himself. “And in that respect I am exactly as they are.” . . . But where was this radiance coming from? Clarence got up and went to the right-hand window, from which this radiance seemed to be streaming. . . . He saw the king. And then he knew where the extraordinary radiance was coming from. . . . And he had the feeling that all was lost. But had he not already lost everything? . . . He would remain for ever chained to the South, chained to his hut, chained to everything he had so thoughtlessly abandoned himself to. His solitude seemed to him so heavy, it burdened him with such a great weight of sorrow that his heart seemed about to break. . . . But at that very moment the king turned his head, turned it imperceptibly, and his glance fell upon Clarence. . . . “Yes, no one is as base as I, as naked as I,” he thought. “And you, lord, you are willing to rest your eyes upon me!” Or was it because of his very nakedness? . . . “Because of your very nakedness!” the look seemed to say. “That terrifying void that is within you and which opens to receive me; your hunger which calls to my hunger; your very baseness which did not exist until I gave it leave; and the great shame you feel. . . .” When he had come before the king, when he stood in the great radiance of the king, still ravaged by the tongue of fire, but alive still, and living only through the touch of that fire, Clarence fell upon his knees, for it seemed to him that he was finally at the end of his seeking, and at the end of all seekings. Sources: From Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Penguin Books, 1991. From The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye, tr lambasted the corruption and hypocrisy of Nigerian politics. Succeeding novels and plays have continued that tradition, resulting in a Nobel Prize in literature in 1986. The winner of the Nobel Prize in 2003 was J. M. Coetzee (b. 1940), whose novels, such as Disgrace (1999), exposed the social and psychological devastation of apartheid on South Africans. His plea for tolerance and compassion echoed the moral commitment to human dignity on the part of many white African authors. Some recent African authors, like the Somali writer Nuruddin Farah (b. 1945), argue that it is time for Africans to stop blaming their present political ills on either colonialism or on their own dictators. In his writings, such as the novel Sweet and Sour Milk, Farah urges Africans to stop lamenting the contamination of African society from the West and take charge of their own destiny. In so doing, Farah joins other African writers in serving as the social conscience of a continent still seeking its own identity. Among Africa’s most prominent writers today, a number are women. Traditionally, African women were valued for their talents as storytellers, but writing was strongly discouraged by both traditional and colonial authorities on the grounds that women should occupy themselves with their domestic obligations. In recent years, however, a number of women have emerged as prominent writers of African fiction. Two examples are Buchi Emecheta (b. 1940) of Nigeria and Ama Ata Aidoo (b. 1942) of Ghana. Beginning with Second Class Citizen (1975), which chronicled the breakdown of her own marriage, Emecheta has published numerous works exploring the role of women in contemporary African society and decrying the practice of polygamy. In her own writings, Aidoo has focused on the identity of today’s African women and the changing relations between men and women in society. Her novel Changes: A Love Story (1991) chronicles the lives of three women, none presented as a victim but all caught up in the struggle for survival and happiness. Sadly, the one who strays the furthest from traditional African values finds herself free but isolated and lonely. One of the overriding concerns confronting African intellectuals since independence has been the problem of language. Unlike Asian societies, Africans have not inherited a long written tradition from the precolonial era. As a result, many intellectuals have written in the colonial language, a practice that sometimes results in guilt and anxiety. As we have seen, some have reacted by writing in their local languages to reach a native audience. The market for such work is limited, however, because of the high illiteracy rate and also because novels written in African languages have no market abroad. Moreover, because of the deep financial crisis throughout the continent, there is little money for the publication of serious books. Many of Africa’s libraries and universities are almost literally without books. It is little wonder that many African authors, to their discomfort, continue to write and publish in foreign languages. Contemporary African music also reflects a hybridization or fusion with Western culture. Having traveled to the New World via the slave trade centuries earlier, African drum beats evolved into North American jazz and Latin American dance rhythms, only to return to reenergize African music. In fact, today music is one of Africans’ most effective weapons for social and political protest. Easily accessible to all, African music, whether Afro-beat in Nigeria, rai in Algeria, or reggae in Benin, represents the “weapon of the future,” contemporary musicians say; it “helped free Nelson Mandela” and “will put Africa back on the map.” Censored by all the African dictatorial regimes, these courageous musicians persist in their struggle against corruption, what one singer calls the second slavery, “the cancer that is eating away at the system.” Their voices echo the chorus “Together we can build a nation, / Because Africa has brains, youth, knowledge.”

 

 

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