On the Great Man's Famous Conrad Essay
Wednesday, June 13, 2007.
By Rosemary Ekosso
I studied Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, as an undergraduate. The Norton edition of the novel I used at the time included several critical articles. One of them was Chinua Achebe’s essay, An image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Never have I, on reading something, agreed with someone so strongly that it brought the tears to my eyes. Never have I admired a writer more.
That was fifteen or so years ago. I have just reread the article again, and it has lost none of his power. It has caused me to start thinking of two main aspects of my relationship with the people on the continent of Europe.
I am referring to how much the people I rub shoulders with know about the world I come from - Africa. I am also referring to the things that make me different from them.
Achebe is an excellent writer. But though his style makes the article delightful to read, it is the content that is gripping. I can hardly describe the exhilaration that his words inspire.
For African lovers of football, imagine if your country were to win the world cup. Then think of this from an intellectual viewpoint. Think of it in terms of cogent, beautiful argument that allows no intelligent or honest riposte.
I still do not do it justice. I can only cast light on some bits of it for you. But before I do so, I would like to share some of the thoughts this article has brought to mind.
The white man knows all the plant species in my world, and can tell where oil will be discovered even before the organic matter has finished rotting. He has complete mastery of the extent of my resources, and can describe my diseases in great detail. If he is particularly knowledgeable, he might even be able to produce small, potted and sometimes wildly inaccurate histories of some of my people.
But he does not know who I am. I do not think he wants to know, because there is no money or superiority or power in knowing me. However, I know him better than he knows me. He studies my vital statistics, and I study his soul. One thing Achebe’s essay does for me is that it raises the question of who may or may not be guilty of racism and prejudice.
I go a step further. Who is bad for me? Is it the people who overtly call you a monkey and assume that because you are black, you will not know the things that should be known?
I am reminded in this instance of a white gentleman for whom I worked as a freelance interpreter. One day he was giving me a pre-conference briefing, and he said “I want to tell this guy that we are very perturbed.” Then he paused and looked at me. “You know the word perturbed, Rosemary? It means we are very upset; very disturbed.” I have thought about this, and decided that where he comes from, linguists do not know the word perturbed. It cannot be my problem that he does not realise what I know. It is his problem. It is not my mission in life to educate the white man. He has the resources for that. If he steps on my foot, I shall kick him.
To return to who is bad for me, is it the ones who would be deeply distressed if you suggested that they were racist, but whose lack of curiosity about your world makes them, at best, unwitting co-perpetrators in the crimes that are committed against your people?
Do these well-intentioned, law-abiding people who give generously to charities, who dutifully pay the taxes to sustain the governments that allow greedy multinationals to exploit us while claiming to bring development to us - as we are primitive and undeveloped - bear some of the blame for our sorrows? At what point does ignorance become culpable?
At what point does it become difficult for me to deal with people who have the time and resources to learn about things, and whose refusal or lack of interest in learning causes them to take decisions that cost lives in places that they neither know nor really care about? When does a person’s lack of knowledge or curiosity about where his coffee or the cotton in his shirt is farmed become dangerous self-absorption, at least from my viewpoint?
The bottom line is this: among the white people I know, who are my friends who understand and share my sorrows?
I am afraid that is a question I do not wish to answer.
The other thing this Achebe essay does is that it brings home to me more forcefully that usual just how different I am from Europeans, and how much effort is required of me to function properly in this setting. My experience is different from that of the average European woman of my age. We have undergone totally different influences, and we look at life from a completely different perspective.
For instance, I find some of their concerns unutterably trivial. The only way I can elucidate this point is to say that I think anorexia is a disease of someone who lives in a place where there is enough to eat.
What has struck me of late is that many of the people I meet here have no real awareness of what I need to do to seem passably normal, at least from their viewpoint, to them. They have no concept of the degree of adaptation it requires to leave my world and function in theirs. Somehow, I seem to be functioning tolerably well; that is, I am a tolerably competent professional at work, and I know how to use cutlery.
I am “Westernised”. When used in relation to me, I find this term infuriating in the extreme, because it erects this Westernisation of me on a pedestal whose edges I should count myself lucky to touch. I find little that is desirable in the idea.
But over and above the irritation with the unthinking superiority complex inherent in the assumed desirability of my “Westernisation”, I have come to one conclusion. I do not want to change. I do not want to grow a new accent. I like eating as much as possible of my chicken bones, and I shall go on doing so.
This does not mean that I will not engage with my new environment. I shall not be like those immigrants who have no life outside the immigrant community, and for all the new things they learn about new places, might as well have stayed in their home countries. One must always seek to be comfortable in one’s new environment. Furthermore, I have always found that life is pretty dull with nothing new to discover, and one of the largest unexplored territories I know is my response to new stimuli.
Nor does this mean that I am going to highlight and celebrate my difference as an “exotic” person. Generally, mention of my exoticism irritates me, because I find these people more exotic that can ever be imagined, but I control myself in that when I see someone with a particularly interesting shade of red hair, say, or green eyes flecked with gold, I do not then offer him a few Euros so I can take photographs of him to show my people when I return to my country.
This business of exoticism leads me to talk about my appearance in the warm months. I wear my African clothes when I can. I will grant that they are unusual here, and I understand the fact of their unusualness catching the eye, but I do not wear them because I want to be different. I have bought rather a lot of them over time, and it seems foolish to me not to go on wearing them. It simply makes economic sense. And these are my clothes. I like them.
I know some Africans who have stopped wearing their African clothes because it makes them stand out too much. I shall now make their lives more difficult by saying that the fact that you are a more or less interesting shade of brown in this place makes you stand more clearly that anything you could possibly wear. Get used to it. You’re different.
This is the thing with reading Mr. Achebe. He makes you think, and then you remember your anger. In part two of this article, I shall deal with his essay in detail.
Rosemary Ekosso is with the International Court of Justice, the Hague, Netherlands. She blogs at Ekosso.com
Main pic: Jerry Bauer
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