This Was the Old Chief's Country, p.1Doris Lessing
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This Was the
Old Chief’s Country
Collected African Stories
Preface for the 1964 Collection
Preface for the 1973 Collection
The Old Chief Mshlanga
A Sunrise on the Veld
No Witchcraft for Sale
The Second Hut
The De Wets come to Kloof Grange
Old John’s Place
Winter in July
A Home for the Highland Cattle
Events in the Skies
About the Author
By the same author
The Grass is Singing
The Golden Notebook
The Good Terrorist
The Fifth Child
About the Publisher
This first volume of Doris Lessing’s Collected African Stories was published in hardcover by Michael Joseph in 1973. Apart from ‘A Home for the Highland Cattle’, ‘Eldorado’ and ‘The Antheap’ which appeared in Five (Michael Joseph, 1953), and ‘Events in the Skies’ which was first published in Granta in 1987, all the other stories in this volume appeared in the first collection entitled This Was the Old Chief’s Country (Michael Joseph, 1951). All these stories including five of those in The Sun Between Their Feet, the second volume of Collected African Stories, appeared in African Stories (Michael Joseph, 1964).
These stories have also appeared previously in paperback in the following editions: ‘The Old Chief Mshlanga’, ‘A Sunrise on the Veld’ and ‘No Witchcraft for Sale’ have appeared in The Black Madonna; the short novels ‘A Home for the Highland Cattle’, ‘Eldorado’ and ‘The Antheap’ are also published in Five; the rest of the stories in this volume appear in Winter in July.
Preface for the 1964 Collection
Most of these stories come from two earlier collections: This Was the Old Chief’s Country, and Five. The first has been out of print for some time. Some of its stories are among my favourites, and I am happy to have them around again.
The stories an author likes are not necessarily those chosen by other people. This happens to every writer. Because I was brought up in Southern Africa (Southern Rhodesia) a part of my work has been set there, and the salience of the colour clash has made it inevitable that those aspects which reflect ‘the colour problem’ should have overshadowed the rest. When my first novel, The Grass is Singing, came out, there were few novels about Africa. That book, and my second, This Was the Old Chief’s Country, were described by reviewers as about the colour problem … which is not how I see, or saw, them. But then, a decade ago, manifestations of race prejudice in Africa, terribly familiar to those of us who had to live with them, were still a surprise, apparently, to Britain. Or, to put it as cynically as some people feel it, indignation about the colour bar in Africa had not yet become part of the furniture of the progressive conscience. If people had been prepared to listen, two decades earlier, to the small, but shrill-enough, voices crying out for the world’s attention, perhaps the present suffering in South Africa and Southern Rhodesia could have been prevented. Britain, who is responsible, became conscious of her responsibility too late; and now the tragedy must play itself slowly out. Meanwhile there are dozens of novels, stories, plays about what one happy reviewer called ‘the colour bore’.
Writers brought up in Africa have many advantages – being at the centre of a modern battlefield; part of a society in rapid, dramatic change. But in a long run it can also be a handicap: to wake up every morning with one’s eyes on a fresh evidence of inhumanity; to be reminded twenty times a day of injustice, and always the same brand of it, can be limiting. There are other things in living besides injustice, even for the victims of it. I know an African short-story writer whose gift is for satirical comedy, and he says that he has to remind himself, when he sits down to write, that ‘as a human being he has the right to laugh’. Not only have white sympathizers criticized him for ‘making comedy out of oppression’, his compatriots do too. Yet I am sure that one day out of Africa will come a great comic novel to make the angels laugh, pressed as miraculously from the bitter savageries of the atrophy as was Dead Souls.
And while the cruelties of the white man towards the black man are among the heaviest counts in the indictment against humanity, colour prejudice is not our original fault, but only one aspect of the atrophy of the imagination that prevents us from seeing ourselves in every creature that breathes under the sun.
I believe that the chief gift from Africa to writers, white and black, is the continent itself, its presence which for some people is like an old fever, latent always in their blood; or like an old wound throbbing in the bones as the air changes. That is not a place to visit unless one chooses to be an exile ever afterwards from an inexplicable majestic silence lying just over the border of memory or of thought. Africa gives you the knowledge that man is a small creature, among other creatures, in a large landscape.
My favourites in This Was the Old Chief’s Country are not necessarily those that have been most translated, which are Little Tembi, The Old Chief Mshlanga, and No Witchcraft for Sale. A Sunrise on the Veld, for instance, and Winter in July are both larger stories than the directly social ones.
These stories have in common that they are set in Africa, but that is all they have in common. For one thing, while the Old Chief was a collection of real short stories, Five is five long stories, almost short novels. A most enjoyable form this, to write, the long story, although of course there is no way of getting them printed out of book form. There is space in them to take one’s time, to think aloud, to follow, for a paragraph or two, on a side-trail – none of which is possible in a real short story.
I hope these stories will be read with as much pleasure as I had in … but I mean it. I enjoy writing short stories very much, although fewer and fewer magazines print them, and for every twenty novel readers there is one who likes short stories.
Some writers I know stopped writing short stories because, as they say, ‘there is no market for them’. Others like myself, the addicts, go on, and I suspect would go on even if there really wasn’t any home for them but a private drawer.
Preface for the 1973 Collection
The first clutch of short stories I wrote was called This Was the Old Chief’s Country. Those stories, with three long ones from a collection called Five, make up Volume One of this new collection, which is again called This Was the Old Chief’s Country. It is a title which is accommodating: after all, it can be said of all white-dominated Africa that it was – and indeed still is – the Old Chief’s Country. So all the stories I write of a certain kind, I think of as belonging under that heading: tales about white people, sometimes about black people, living in a landscape that not so very long ago was settled by black tribes, living in complex societies that the white people are only just beginning to study, let alone understand. Truly to understand, we have to lose the arrogance that is the white man’s burden, to stop feeling superior, and this is only just beginning to happen now.
In the last decade or two, all over the world, the aggressive, thrusting, technical societies that killed, or starved out, or infected with disease, or allowed to die out from ignorance and lack of imagination the tribal societies they supplanted, have started
I am not able to write about what has been lost, which was and still is recorded orally. As a writer that is my biggest regret, as it is of all the white writers from Africa I have known. The tribal life that was broken seems now to have had more real dignity, more responsibility for what is important in people – their self-respect, more tolerance of individuality, than our way of living has. The breakup of that society, the time of chaos that followed it, is as dramatic a story as any; but if you are a white writer, it is a story that you are told by others.
All the stories here are set in a society which is more short-lived than most: white-dominated Africa cannot last very long.
But looking around the world now, there isn’t a way of living anywhere that doesn’t change and dissolve like clouds as you watch.
The Old Chief Mshlanga
They were good, the years of ranging the bush over her father’s farm which, like every white farm, was largely unused, broken only occasionally by small patches of cultivation. In between, nothing but trees, the long sparse grass, thorn and cactus and gully, grass and outcrop and thorn. And a jutting piece of rock which had been thrust up from the warm soil of Africa unimaginable eras of time ago, washed into hollows and whorls by sun and wind that had travelled so many thousands of miles of space and bush, would hold the weight of a small girl whose eyes were sightless for anything but a pale willowed river, a pale gleaming castle – a small girl singing: ‘Out flew the web and floated wide, the mirror cracked from side to side …’
Pushing her way through the green aisles of the mealie stalks, the leaves arching like cathedrals veined with sunlight far overhead, with the packed red earth underfoot, a fine lace of red-starred witchweed would summon up a black bent figure croaking premonitions: the Northern witch, bred of cold Northern forests, would stand before her among the mealie fields, and it was the mealie fields that faded and fled, leaving her among the gnarled roots of an oak, snow falling thick and soft and white, the woodcutter’s fire glowing red welcome through crowding tree trunks.
A white child, opening its eyes curiously on a sun-suffused landscape, a gaunt and violent landscape, might be supposed to accept it as her own, to take the msasa trees and the thorn trees as familiars, to feel her blood running free and responsive to the swing of the seasons.
This child could not see a msasa tree, or the thorn, for what they were. Her books held tales of alien fairies, her rivers ran slow and peaceful, and she knew the shape of the leaves of an ash or an oak, the names of the little creatures that lived in English streams, when the words ‘the veld’ meant strangeness, though she could remember nothing else.
Because of this, for many years, it was the veld that seemed unreal; the sun was a foreign sun, and the wind spoke a strange language.
The black people on the farm were as remote as the trees and the rocks. They were an amorphous black mass, mingling and thinning and massing like tadpoles, faceless, who existed merely to serve, to say ‘Yes, Baas,’ take their money and go. They changed season by season, moving from one farm to the next, according to their outlandish needs, which one did not have to understand, coming from perhaps hundreds of miles North or East, passing on after a few months – where? Perhaps even as far away as the fabled gold mines of Johannesburg, where the pay was so much better than the few shillings a month and the double handful of mealie meal twice a day which they earned in that part of Africa.
The child was taught to take them for granted: the servants in the house would come running a hundred yards to pick up a book if she dropped it. She was called ‘Nkosikaas’ – Chieftainess, even by the black children her own age.
Later, when the farm grew too small to hold her curiosity, she carried a gun in the crook of her arm and wandered miles a day, from vlei to vlei, from kopje to kopje, accompanied by two dogs: the dogs and the gun were an armour against fear. Because of them she never felt fear.
If a native came into sight along the kaffir paths half a mile away, the dogs would flush him up a tree as if he were a bird. If he expostulated (in his uncouth language which was by itself ridiculous) that was cheek. If one was in a good mood, it could be a matter for laughing. Otherwise one passed on, hardly glancing at the angry man in the tree.
On the rare occasions when white children met together they could amuse themselves by hailing a passing native in order to make a buffoon of him; they could set the dogs on him and watch him run; they could tease a small black child as if he were a puppy – save that they would not throw stones and sticks at a dog without a sense of guilt.
Later still, certain questions presented themselves in the child’s mind; and because the answers were not easy to accept, they were silenced by an even greater arrogance of manner.
It was even impossible to think of the black people who worked about the house as friends, for if she talked to one of them, her mother would come running anxiously: ‘Come away; you mustn’t talk to natives.’
It was this instilled consciousness of danger, of something unpleasant, that made it easy to laugh out loud, crudely, if a servant made a mistake in his English or if he failed to understand an order – there is a certain kind of laughter that is fear, afraid of itself.
One evening, when I was about fourteen, I was walking down the side of a mealie field that had been newly ploughed, so that the great red clods showed fresh and tumbling to the vlei beyond, like a choppy red sea; it was that hushed and listening hour, when the birds send long sad calls from tree to tree, and all the colours of earth and sky and leaf are deep and golden. I had my rifle in the curve of my arm, and the dogs were at my heels.
In front of me, perhaps a couple of hundred yards away, a group of three Africans came into sight around the side of a big antheap. I whistled the dogs close in to my skirts and let the gun swing in my hand, and advanced, waiting for them to move aside, off the path, in respect for my passing. But they came on steadily, and the dogs looked up at me for the command to chase. I was angry. It was ‘cheek’ for a native not to stand off a path, the moment he caught sight of you.
In front walked an old man, stooping his weight on to a stick, his hair grizzled white, a dark red blanket slung over his shoulders like a cloak. Behind him came two young men, carrying bundles of pots, assegais, hatchets.
The group was not a usual one. They were not natives seeking work. These had an air of dignity, of quietly following their own purpose. It was the dignity that checked my tongue. I walked quietly on, talking softly to the growling dogs, till I was ten paces away. Then the old man stopped, drawing his blanket close.
‘’Morning, Nkosikaas,’ he said, using the customary greeting for any time of the day.
‘Good morning,’ I said. ‘Where are you going?’ My voice was a little truculent.
The old man spoke in his own language, then one of the young men stepped forward politely and said in careful English: ‘My Chief travels to see his brothers beyond the river.’
A Chief! I thought, understanding the pride that made the old man stand before me like an equal – more than an equal, for he showed courtesy, and I showed none.
The old man spoke again, wearing dignity like an inherited garment, still standing ten paces off, flanked by his entourage, not looking at me (that would have been rude) but directing his eyes somewhere over my head at the trees.
‘You are the little Nkosikaas from the farm of Baas Jordan?’
‘That’s right,’ I said.
‘Perhaps your father does not remember,’ said the interpreter for the old man, ‘but there was an affair with some goats. I remember seeing you when you were …’ The young man held his han
We all smiled.
‘What is your name?’ I asked.
‘This is Chief Mshlanga,’ said the young man.
‘I will tell my father that I met you,’ I said.
The old man said: ‘My greetings to your father, little Nkosikaas.’
‘Good morning,’ I said politely, finding the politeness difficult, from lack of use.
‘’Morning, little Nkosikaas,’ said the old man, and stood aside to let me pass.
I went by, my gun hanging awkwardly, the dogs sniffing and growling, cheated of their favourite game of chasing natives like animals.
Not long afterwards I read in an old explorer’s book the phrase: ‘Chief Mshlanga’s country’. It went like this: ‘Our destination was Chief Mshlanga’s country, to the north of the river; and it was our desire to ask his permission to prospect for gold in his territory.’
The phrase ‘ask his permission’ was so extraordinary to a white child, brought up to consider all natives as things to use, that it revived those questions, which could not be suppressed: they fermented slowly in my mind.
On another occasion one of those old prospectors who still move over Africa looking for neglected reefs, with their hammers and tents, and pans for sifting gold from crushed rock, came to the farm and, in talking of the old days, used that phrase again: ‘This was the Old Chief’s country,’ he said. ‘It stretched from those mountains over there way back to the river, hundreds of miles of country.’ That was his name for our district: ‘The Old Chief’s Country’; he did not use our name for it – a new phrase which held no implication of usurped ownership.
As I read more books about the time when this part of Africa was opened up, not much more than fifty years before, I found Old Chief Mshlanga had been a famous man, known to all the explorers and prospectors. But then he had been young; or maybe it was his father or uncle they spoke of – I never found out.
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