Canon: The oppressor

I told you some time ago that Uhuru is back with her deep analysis of African literature and arts. This week she probes Mhudi by Sol Plaatjie

When literature was spoken of, the only written works that came to mind were literature from the west. African literature has been, for a long time, marginalized. The word literacy is embedded in literature hence the recorders of such a medium had to be literate; so the writing of African literature by Africans was a specialised activity. For a while it seemed like the phrase African literature was an oxymoron because most African were illiterate. It wasn’t acknowledged that even under the circumstances it didn’t mean that an African literature was non-existent; the art of oral (orature) tradition was dominant over the written art. As a result, the only African stories that were recorded in writing were from a white perspective; because they were not directly involved in the everyday life of Africans, the representation of such a life was opinion-based and not fact-based. For example, the stories, customs, traditions and beliefs of Africans were conveyed as barbaric and savage; a lot of these were mere imperialistic doctrines and Euro centric assumptions (based on a one-sided story of false observation). For instance, F.R Burton said: “the savage custom of going naked has denuded the mind and destroyed all decorum in the language; poetry there is none; no rhyme, no metre, nothing that stirs the intellect nor arouses the emotions.[1]” This is one of many arbitrary statements that write off African norms and traditions without understanding their origins; self-interest was always central to these notions.

Drastic measures had to be taken by an African people to make sure that their way of living is not slandered further. The responsibility of such counteraction lay upon those who have access (education, ancestral/historical knowledge) to the medium of conveying messages to the rest of the world. Plaatjie, being one of the first African writers to use English, also felt a responsibility to represent an African way of life in a corrective way. Hence, in the beginning of the novel, he portrays everyday life of the Barolong people as idyllic and emphasizes the dependence of their survival on the land upon which they live. He writes: “the peasants were content to live their monotonous lives… strange to relate, these simple folk were perfectly happy without money and without silver watches. Abject poverty was practically unknown…” (Page 27). He immediately gives us a contrast between a pre-colonial Barolong society and the boers’ way of life. Without a doubt, Plaatjies intentions in Mhudi is to, firstly, defend the traditional African way of life, secondly, to present a corrective view of history, thirdly, to comment on the 1830’s (the historical setting of the novel) as compared to early 20th century. “And when his novel begins with African traditional life being seen in Garden-of-Eden terms this is not entirely accidental for he is presenting an image of an idyllic society about to be disrupted by forces which were the genesis of South Africa’s problems as Plaatjie saw them in 1917.

It is important to Plaatjie that history be viewed ‘correctly’ to erase a lot of social misconceptions and inferiority complexes. He admits this in his preface when he says that Mhudi was written “to interpret to the reading public one phase of ‘the back of the native mind’”. He chooses the 1830’s to model his novel because many of the issues evident to him in 1917 were as a result of that era. “So Plaatjie, by choosing the 1830’s as the period of his novel, manages to examine the historical genesis of the problems facing his people in 1917 and, at the same time, he creates a model for contemporary events and can issue a strong, implicit warning.

Firstly it would seem like he portrays the Matebele in a negative way; the novels open with peaceful idyllic surroundings of the Barolong, which is soon to be invaded by “king of a ferocious tribe called the Matebele”(page 28). I think this is a deliberate contrast in the tribes to give the reader the idea that African societies are not the same (as opposed to how we are classified/generalized by imperialist doctrines); he is suggesting that the African society is a whole lot more complex than it appears. He, in the same context, writes that this tribe introduced manners which were extremely offensive even to these primitive people (Batswana): the victorious soldiers were in the habit of walking about in their birthday garb thereby forcing the modest Bechuana women and children to retire on each appearance of Matabele men.” This takes me aback to F.R Burton’s arbitrary statement about Africans and nudity; he might have been exposed and shocked by it, but it wasn’t enough for him to write off all African as savage, clearly it is not a norm practised by all Africans. So Plaatjie employs these indifferences to point out the diversity of his people.

Another instance is when Mhudi finally finds Ra-Thaga and Umnandi accompanies her (page 163). This woman is the queen of the Matebele, the same Matebele that invaded the village of their ancestors and killed all, the same Matebele that kill even women and children, and, finally, the same Matebele who kill anybody who is not their own (especially if he’s a Motswana); and now here is this ferocious tribe’s queen before them, but Ra-Thaga (who is hungry for revenge), calmed by Mhudi’s soothing description, ends up complimenting her by saying she’s a noble woman and therefore poses no danger to her. This shows that not all Africans are savage and bloodthirsty (diversity).

In his quest to give a corrective view of history, Plaatjie epitomizes the role of a woman in the society. He writes very highly of women and privileges three women (Mhudi, Umnandi, Hannetjie) from all the three tribes that are mentioned in the novel. This is to erase the unfounded ideology that the black man thinks nothing of his female counterpart; that the black man oppresses and treats his woman as his servant. Look at the advantages…marriage will give you two mothers—your own and your wife’s, the latter the greater of the two. …I shall go down to the field of carnage, bestride the old battlefield, and say: here fell the noble Rolong woman who mothered my wife, and nourished every fibre of her beautiful form”(page 157). Ra-thaga relates the importance of a woman in society and in a man’s life to De Villiers; I suspect Plaatjie did this deliberately to address the reader about the place of an African woman in society. This ‘confrontation’ is from an African man to a white man to put it in the context of Sol Plaatjie addressing white orientated misconceptions. He even goes as far as naming the novel after the heroine who is an extended praise of the Barolong.

[1] Burton, F.R. Wits and wisdom from West Africa. London, 1865

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