The Heart of Darkness

My first thought was that this book had to be a Sea Man’s story and yes it was. On a pleasure ship called Nellie, a narrator who remained unknown through the novel introduces us to men bonding on the sea; one of them was Marlow. Through casual mediation, Marlow reflects on the dark places of the earth as England would have been before the Romans visited it.

Charlie Marlow shares the glories of his exploration as a fresh-water sailor, wanderer seaman whose home is the sea with a passion for maps. He is familiar with living in the world of water and the silent surroundings. Fascinated by the delightful discovery of the unknown places, he finds an inviting place on the map and hankers after it.  It was that mighty big river resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land. The snake had charmed him; going there either by hook or by crook was irresistible. Marlow’s Enchantress was later identified as the Congo River.Heart of Darkness 1

Luckily he replaces the late Fresleven who was killed by a native Chief’s son in revenge after Fresleven had whacked his father mercilessly in front of his constituency over a quarrel on two black hens.

Marlow’s account of his voyage up the Congo River is the main narrative of the novel Heart of Darkness. It has been defined as an imperialist novel as it was written at a time when the British Empire controlled colonies around the world using economic, political and military coercion. Marlow’s meeting with men of varying European nationality as he journeys into the Congo tells that the English were not alone in the bloody and inhuman act of imperialism. The French, the Belgians whom Marlow was on this trip for among others were violently took advantage of a people and made of their wealth their private treasury.

Disembarking at the station, Marlow witnesses violence. In one event, there are black prisoners walking along in chains guarded by a uniformed black man with his rifle. On the other account, he finds the dying native laborers whom he offers biscuits. While Marlow showed a little concern to the situation of the natives, the other Europeans were not bothered in the bit.  It is while absorbing the happenings in this space that he learns of a Mr. Kurtz, the biggest ivory merchant who resides in the deep interior.

There is distrust among the Europeans and a conspiracy which Marlow feels may have been responsible for sinking his steamer. Dredging this ship and repairing it took Marlow 3 months. Thereafter Marlow prepares for a 2 months up-river trip into the interior to see Kurtz. This trip is difficult and almost impossible without the help of the maltreated Africans. This journey which Marlow shares as a journey into pre-historic earth gives room for further reflection between the primitive and the civilized. Through the difficult voyage, death skulked in the air, sea and bush. Marlow pondered more on the person of the controversial Mr. Kurtz. His eagerness to meet Kurtz draws him onward in his Journey. Perhaps his having a personal construction of the person of Mr. Kurtz will finally solve the puzzle of what happens to colonists in Africa’s Congo.

Finally the Inner Station in the interiors came into view. Arriving, he meets the Russian trader who feeds him more on yet another enigmatic depiction of Mr. Kurtz. Marlow remains helplessly fascinated by the eloquence of the Mystery man Kurtz whom he characterizes as ‘the voice’.

Mr. Kurtz eventually is an embodiment of the European’s keeping appearances and justification of imperialism, an irony of them being the light bearers for Africa. What Marlow finds is an Ivory hungry and greedy Mr. Kurtz who sets himself up as a god to the natives. Kurtz’s writing ‘Exterminate all the brutes’ speaks further on the conflict in his character and the flaws therein. He is an unscrupulous ivory hunter who could kill even his fellow European for a small stash of ivory. Marlow is further amazed by the discovery that some items he thought of as ornamental balls on the tops of fence posts in the station compound were only severed heads of rebels. Everything about Kurtz was an irony, even his name Kurtz means “short” in German, but Kurtz is tall.

Learning that Mr. Kurtz is now ill and that he Marlow has been charged with the responsibility of taking him back to Civilization in Europe defines the last part of Marlow’s journey. Kurtz’s personality and power creates further challenge for Marlow in carrying out this charge. Their being together finally creates room for some level of intimacy but one, overwhelmed by betrayal.  With a rough journey ahead, Kurtz health gets worse, displaying a sense of vulnerability fearing his own death, he hands over his documents; a symbol of his legacy to Marlow for safekeeping as he awaits death. Despite hearing his last hallucinatory words ‘the horror the horror’, Marlow keeps away from having to witness Mr. Kurtz last breath; a servant runs in shortly after to tell him, ‘Mistah Kurtz—he dead!’

Unlike the African who is thrown out into the sea when he died, Mr. Kurtz is finally buried and Marlow returns to Brussels to dispose of Mr. Kurtz legacies. This act exposes him to meeting other associates of Kurtz, revealing more about Mr. Kurtz and bringing the story to an end.

Generally, this Novella by Joseph Conrad has been classed as a symbolical imperialist work. Published in the late 18th century, it is one of the remarkable colonial literatures that has been engaged and critiqued. Of importance is its criticism as being racist and misogynist.

From the angle of the gender critics, this novella has been faulted for presenting women in the era it was written in very limited way, adopting the presentation of flat female characters with stereotypes. Marlow did encounter a number of women like his Aunt, the two women in Mr. Kurtz’s life and a few more. But none of these were admirable. His Aunt is out of touch with the truth, living in a different world from men, just like other women. Mr. Kurtz’s native mistress is only noted for her attractive looks, gracefully draped in ornaments and nothing more. He also attaches no significant importance to Kurtz’s fiancée who he meets at the end of the story.Chinua-Achebe10--AFP-

I read this novel taking notes of the sentiments of renowned African writer Chinua Achebe who said it was blinkered with xenophobia, he called it an offensive and deplorable book that de-humanizes Africans. More appropriate here is Achebe’s quote in a different instance saying he thinks ‘decency and civilization would insist that the writer take sides with the powerless. Clearly, there’s no moral obligation to write in any particular way. But there is a moral obligation, I think, not to ally oneself with power against the powerless. I think an artist, in my definition of that word, would not be someone who takes sides with the emperor against his powerless subjects.’

 Even though the writer Conrad and his character Marlow are noted to be fence-sitting on their position of colonization, there is a sense in which the narratives in this book promoted imperialism as a worthy enterprise, glamourizing racism and the violence of colonialism. According to Marlow,

The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only.’

Though Marlow expresses shock at the treatment of Africans, it is in no way clear how progressive he is on speaking against this issue. While there is a good appreciation of sceneries in this work, it is amazing that such rich descriptions are not extended to the Africans. Rather than project the humanity in them and give them a name at least, all through the novella, Marlow generously described Africans using words like ‘Negro, Natives, Nigger, Blackman and Savage. All of these rapes Africans of their humanity, their soul and identity.

Reading this book as an African, it is indeed difficult to disagree with Chinua Achebe. But we may be more lenient if we consider that this writer wrote for a time and for an audience. This book was not written for Africans, I doubt if the writer ever thought that a time will come when Africans will read and review his portrayal of their history as am doing today. Such books help me understand the fight of Congolese Matyr Patrice Lumumba.

While the politics of skin colour was overwhelmingly present in this book written in 1899, two centuries later, it still thrives in human interactions. The writer succeeded in contributing to the discourse for demoralizing imperialism as empty and an extortionist concept for exploitation. It fails in contemporary times because it was written from a heart of darkness which couldn’t see any light or soul beneath a black skin.

 

Written by ~  Adaobi Nkeokelonye

Is Xenophobia the new Racism?

‘When you call yourself an Indian… a Muslim… a Christian or a European… you are being violent because you are separating yourself from the rest of mankind.’ J. Krishnamurti

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En-wikipedia.com

As a tourist with the need to ‘belong’, I sometimes struggle negotiating to make my difference visible or not. In global spaces; airports,I experience mostly the fragility of my identity because I am what my passport says I am. The skin colour, the cloth, the accent, are spaces our identities are negotiated but more so our nationality is becoming even a stronger definer. Stereotypes are being constructed on different nationalities and the national tags automatically determines a persons trait. Some days in the face of perceived discrimination, I am happy to just be an African, allowing my continent shield my nationality but even this shield cannot cover much now as more people now know that Africa is not a country. Beyond our dressing and skin colour, our national identity now tells more of our roots. When made visible, it can sometimes give you a chilling reception as you witness your host burn the welcome mat.

Putting the paths and experiences of my sojourn in words and sketches has been creating an interesting travelogue. If I were to progress with themes, a poignant one will be Xenophobia. Xenophobia is that moment when host countries begin to play with hate for the alien foreigner among them. Little by little, it is no longer the skin colour that triggers intolerance but the fear of s/he who is foreign. In expressing Xenophobia, people vent a deep rooted hatred for foreigners blaming them for everything wrong in their space. They exalt their spaces and identity with presumed purity, hence discriminating others on the bases of an impure, corrupt, criminal stereotype.

In the bubbly city of the promised rainbow nation, Johannesburg, I am driven by a cheerful Afrikaans speaking driver, he was amazingly pleasant with questions about my root, a stack difference from some people I cross path with moving through the city. Earlier on, I had been accosted by an inquisitive airport police officer who in being friendly with barrage of questions, exhibited nothing more than Xenophobia.

Where are you from? Where are the Nigerian Girls, still missing? How is Goodluck or Badluck your President, I heard there was another bomb, I don’t understand it, do you just walk on the street casually and get bombed? Your country men, they are very bad, they claim Christianity and yet engage in all evil. Why do Nigerians talk so loud? Why do they suckle their fingers when they eat? You Nigerians are criminals especially the men, it is hard to befriend you. You pretend a lot!

He further reminds me that almost all the crime in South Africa are committed by Nigerians.  Like many other excuse IMG_4943given by xenophobic people, these crime rate perception of his have no clear documentation to substantiate it, but it has been largely expressed to my hearing by fellow Africans. It is clear that most people may have had a negative physical or emotional experience with some of my fellow comrades, but this is often over-generalized. My new acquaintance minced no words in expressing his hatred for my nationality, gendering his hatred more for my country men and excluding the ‘unmaterialistic Nigerian women’ which he assumes am one of. He allows me a picture with him as he proposed marriage. Hahaha…Marriage perhaps is the neutraliser that will save me from all impurity my nationality has bestowed on me.

Alas, I was free from him, distracted by a limping bird that came near. As I watched the bird fly off, I see a beauty in the fact that though this bird could be tagged deformed, its deformity does not stop it from flying. The things I observe, those things that are spoken or unspoken of, they make me see the lines of difference in the image of the rainbow am shown. Call it Xenophobia or racism; their expressions are deeply rooted in violence expressed in subtle ways. It’s in the sharp words we say; in those gestures we make that compromises a person’s dignity. We adopt such acts in obedience to the fear that locks us in past experiences. This type of violence is not out there, it is inward and each man must explore self and question the root of their violence, it’s our responsibility to uproot it.

A1wBeshmqBL._SL1500_My faith in literary fiction to reflect different social phenomenon never fail me as the difference between fiction and reality is often a thin disguise. If the character of Robinson Crusoe in Daniel Defoe’s widely successful novel where to be studied within this context, we may learn more. Defoe’s novel makes for an evidence-base for most landmark issues of development like slave trade, power relation, colonialism, cultural imperialism and more. Robinson’s general uneasiness at being a stranger in foreign land gives credence to issues of Xenophobia as has been captured by Rajani Sudan’s book Fair Exotics: Xenophobic Subjects in English Literature, 1720-1850. As observed in Robinson Crusoe’s anxiety on his clothing, his fetishization of skin which he polices to protect  its fairness while rejecting a mulatto skin shade that may come from sun heat makes us realise his constructions of ‘the other’ and the struggle to sustain an exalted identity in a foreign land. Another realistically introspective book ‘Xenophobia’ by Peter Cawdron is set in Africa’s Malawi, projecting a story of first contact gone wrong. This book which I am reading expresses the complexity of man’s inability to manage dialogue with fellow earth inhabitants, yet yearning for communication and contact with the terrestrials.

My case study South Africa makes me think that subconsciously we often give what we receive. Though violence of difference may have been expected to reduce after democracy was instituted in this rainbow country, xenophobia is on the rise. I believe that the deeply entrenched xenophobic records of South Africa stems from the influence of institutionalized racism; apartheid.

However its worthy of note that South Africa has no monopoly to Xenophobic acts. Many nations including Nigeria cannot be exempted. While South Africa expressed it in the ‘buyelekhaya’ ‘go back home’ campaign, Nigeria once expressed theirs in ‘Ghana must go’; both are campaigns of mass expulsion of the alien foreigners who are perceived to be milking the land of scarce milk of employment and other benefits.

For correctives, Paragraph 20 in the part two of the June 1993 VDPA (Vienna Declaration and  Programme of Action) advocates the need for penal measures by state parties  to combat all forms of xenophobia, racism or related intolerance. But like most United Nations declaration, it is only a paper tiger. In the realities of today’s emerging issues, it is wise that international organisations like UN should take issues of discrimination and intolerance seriously.

The politics of difference has been triggered even more by the gripping realities of the Ebola disease being from West African countries with a potential to spread globally.  At such time, we need not dim the spotlight on Xenophobia as the stigma of Ebola will surely excite more intolerance among nations who may in wanting to build fortress against this disease, make unwanted foreigners the punching bag of stigma.  This is a perspective that should not be ignored as it has high implications for tourism and overall global economic development.