Doris Lessing

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What is the theme of the short story "The Old Chief Mshlanga," from the collection entitled This Was the Old Chief's Country: Collected African Stories Volume One?

The theme of the short story "The Old Chief Mshlanga" is how children learn about the differences between individuals and racial categories.

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In Doris Lessing’s short story "The Old Chief Mshlanga," a young white girl of English heritage learns about the difference between knowing people as individuals and generalizing about people within racial categories. Through her brief encounters with people of different races and heritages, she learns about the central role of race within colonial rule.

The protagonist's family owns a farm in a unnamed British colony in southern Africa. Her upbringing and education are oriented toward English culture, literature, and natural history. The girl’s family has generally kept her separated from the black African people who live near their farm, some of whom work for the family. Not only does she have little opportunity to get to know any individuals, she can barely distinguish among them: “They were an amorphous black mass.” She is raised to take for granted the service of those who work in their home. With other white children, she is accustomed to laughing at, mocking, and tormenting African people.

During the course of the story, an internal conflict arises between the child’s questioning of her upbringing and her settling back into the “arrogance of manner” that her parents have instilled in her. As the perspective shifts from third-person to first-person narration, the reader learns that the narrator is the protagonist and that this change came when she was fourteen years old.

While out walking in the countryside, she has a random encounter with a group of African men who defer to the older man among them, rather than to the white girl as is customary. Through meeting this elderly man, Chief Mshlanga, she recognizes the superiority of his behavior, which is characterized by courtesy and dignity. This incident marks a dividing line in her understanding possibilities regarding interpersonal relationships between blacks and whites. It also prompts her later research into the history of the territory and how the English gained control.

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One theme that strikes me is prejudice and oppression: based upon skin color rather than personal merit.

In the short story, "The Old Chief Mshlanga," by Doris Lessing (who was raised in Africa), the young protagonist—called "little Nkosikaas,"—has been brought up without regard for the natives or the land. She expects deferential treatment from the blacks, and it is not until she meets the old chief that she becomes acquainted with true greatness—something not associated with skin color (as she has always believed), but by the character of a person:

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.

Without resentment, the girl understands that she has no authority over this man: that he is a man deserving respect, though none of the white adults (e.g., her parents) around her would ever have said so. Somehow, the girl comprehends that this is someone meriting her regard:

The old man spoke...wearing dignity like an inherited garment...

The respect that he deserves seems to come, as the girl sees it, from another time: for it is as if he wears his "dignity" like something he has received from another—something old, passed down over generations. This parallels the chief's belief—though they try to live in harmony with the whites—that this land has been theirs for countless years. It does not belong to the whites simply because they have taken it and/or oppress the natives with superior physical force.

The young girl realizes that she cannot fit into the world of the natives. (Ironically, the respect of the villagers for the land is seen in how they lovingly care for their homes and tend their gardens, while the property her father owns is dirty and poorly maintained, seeming to reflect not a love of land but the ability to exert power over the land and its original inhabitants.) She has only begun to understand that there are significant cultural differences between her and the chief and his people.

But it becomes disturbingly clear when goats from the chief's village roam onto her father's land, damaging some of his crops. The girl's father sees his ramshackle homestead and barely cultivated land as something that empowers him. The color of his skin (and that of the lawkeepers in this land) allow him to make demands of the old man and his people that the chief cannot fight. In a display again of the tragic subjugation of the native people, the father demands the goats in payment of the damage done, though the chief despairs that his people will starve over the winter. Ultimately, as her father later shares the incident with a white policeman, the chief and his people are moved off of their lush and caringly cultivated land, and placed on "a proper native reserve" hundreds of miles away. Lessing infers that the land, if true ownership is to be observed, belongs to those who nurture it. The chief's son notes:

My father says: All this land, this land you call yours, is his land, and belongs to our people.

A year later the girl sees the old village and knows the white settlers will never be able to appreciate it as its native inhabitants had: for the chief's people, it was not about owning the land, but caring for it. This is something she has come to understand, but knows that the new "owners" will only be able to wonder about the land's intrinsic value: for the natives know it must be cherished.


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