Itala Vivan

1. In the beginning was the tale
In Western tradition, since the times of classic Greek and Latin antiquity, geography - as well as history - was born as a tale, and appeared as a literary genre belonging to fiction through which a special form of knowledge was expressed1. And Umberto Eco also adds that
The term "fictional" should not be taken in a reductive sense. I [says Eco] am among those who think that fictional situations preside over all acts of comprehension of things, not only on the historical level but on the level of perception too. In order to understand any phenomenon, we try to identify a sequence which is somewhat "consistent"2.
Geography, then, whose origin must be seen as a description of reality, soon to be implemented by cartography, symbolic mimesis of that same reality. In geography and in maps writers have always found themes for their narration and a source for inspiration. This is due to the natural affinity rooted in the invention of a descriptive system masked as realism, and to the common origin in the gaze, linking to systems of thought and vision that are strictly interconnected.
The explicitly mimetic origin of the map is however an illusion, since in fact the map is a representation, or, rather, a metaphor. In the ironic comments of such writers as Lewis Carroll and Mark Twain, the map's fictitious character is unveiled by a sarcastic joke. Thus Carroll makes fun of it:
"What a useful thing a pocket-map is!" I remarked.
"That's another thing we have learned from your nation," said Mein Herr, "map-making. But wÈve carried it much further than you. What do you consider the largest map that would be really useful?"
"About six inches to the mile".
"Only six inches!" exclaimed Mein Herr."We very soon got to six yards to the mile. Then we tried a hundred yards to the mile. And then came the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!"
"Have you used it much?" I enquired.
"It has never been spread out, yet," said Mein Herr: "the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well"3.
Mark Twain gives Huck Finn the task of uncovering the lie of maps. He does so in the course of a conversation with Tom Sawyer who asks him how he managed to find out that the montgolfier (hot-air balloon) on which the two friends are travelling had not yet crossed the border of Illinois. Mark Twain too, as well as Lewis Carroll, starts from a condition of would-be naïveté in order to unveil the lie of the map, or, rather, its fictional nature. By doing so the map itself turns out to be below the character's tale:
"I know by the color [says Huck to Tom]. We are right over Illinois yet. And you can see for yourself that Indiana ain't in sight."
"I wonder what's the matter with you, Huck. You know by the color?"
"Yes, of course I do."
"What's the color got to do with it?"
"It's got everything to do with it. Illinois is green, Indiana is pink. You show me any pink down here, if you can. No, sir; it's green."
"Indiana pink? Why, what a lie!"
"It ain't no lie; I've seen it on the map, and it's pink." [...]
"Well, if it was such a numskull as you, Huck Finn, I would jump over. Seen it on the map! Huck Finn, did you reckon the states was the same color out-of-doors as they are on the map?"
"Tom Sawyer, what's a map for? Aint' it to learn you facts?"
"Of course."
"Well, then, how's it going to do that if it tells lies? That's what I want to know."4
The map is part and parcel of the game of representation and as such it may skip the reader's attention, in a way not dissimilar from that of narrative discourse. Both map and narrative adopt fictional techniques, and a strategy of veiling/unveiling leading from cartography to cryptography. In literature, the secret link is revealed by the striking and famous tale by Edgar Allan Poe The Purloined Letter, where detective Auguste Dupin analyses the logical process which led to the finding of the precious letter that was hidden/exhibited:
"There is a game of puzzlÈ, he resumed, "which is played upon a map. One party requires another to find a given word - the name of a town, river, state or empire - any word, in short, upon the motley and perplexed surface of the chart. A novice in the game generally seeks to embarrass his opponents by giving them the most minutely lettered names; but the adept selects such words as stretch, in large characters, from one end of the chart to the other. These, like the overlargely lettered signs and placards in the street, escape observation by dint of being excessively obvious: and here the physical oversight is precisely analogous with the moral inhapprehension by which the intellect suffers to pass unnoticed those considerations which are too obtrusively and too palpably self-evident."5
Through an enquiry based on analytical knowledge of systems of expressions, PoÈs detective Dupin throws light on a map which becomes the field for a game of fiction and representation. The map itself seems to acquire the role of character when, in PoÈs retelling of the event, it becomes perplexed, as if it were, so to speak, troubled and upset by the ambiguity of its roles and the issues implied by them. Edgar Allan Poe, initiator and master of fantastic fiction, adopts the means of rational consistency in order to construct his invention with a technique of deconstruction.
Joseph Conrad, on the other hand, is intrigued by the map's power of suggestion, its capacity to allude and evoke. In another canonic passage of western literature, taken from Heart of Darkness, restless Marlow describes his vocation as a traveller:
Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps.[...] At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map[...] I would put my finger on it and say, When I grow up I will go there.[...] Other places were scattered about the Equator... there was one yet - the biggest, the most blank, so to speak - that I had a hankering after.
True, by this time it was not a blank space any more. [...] It had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery - a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over. It had become a place of darkness. But there was in it one river especially, a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake recoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depth of the land6.
In the map of Africa and the river Congo opening before the eyes of a boy who will become an explorer there are holes: blanks that the omnivorous culture of European expansionism aims to close and fill up, and therefore to occupy. One century before this, Jonathan Swift's snarling sarcasm had already heaped scorn on such an attitude by mocking those cartographers of seventeenth-century Europe who "in their Afric-maps with savage pictures fill[ed] their gaps"7.
The contradictory nature and consistent ambivalence of the map which pretends to constitute the world's universal order, while it is actually based on the gnoseological axis of the West, are elements of the very structure of the cartographic discourse and are developments of the nature of the map as simulacrum, to use Roland Barthes" words. The participation of intellect in creating the simulacrum cannot be neutral. Its positioning as a centralizing centre is theoretically arbitrary, and therefore open to destabilization: and destabilization is exactly what happens through postcolonial counter-discourse and the ensuing deconstruction of colonial discourse . The map witnesses "a desire for control expressed by the power-group or groups responsible for the articulation of the map", as is implicit in the theory of mimicry and fallacy proposed by Homi Bhabha8.
At this point of theoretical analysis we see that the holes, the blanks observed by young Marlow on his map of Africa, get wider and wider in order to allow the discourse of the other to emerge, and with it the alterity of a former colonial object who now speaks out for him/herself and weaves his/her own tale. A tale which constructs their own territory and geography.
2. The prime meridian: East and West in the colonial order
The traveller climbing up the hill of Greenwich, and looking down on the great body of London carved by the winding ribbon of the river Thames, while walking on the green lawn where the historical Observatory rises, once the heart and eye of the universe of British empire, is caught by surprise when his foot stumbles on the meridian marking point zero. It is a long bar of shiny brass running straight and firm down the slope. In 1884 this fulgid rail became the cartographic axis of the earth: the Washington Conference of that very year stated that the Greenwich meridian should become the prime meridian, marker of longitude at point zero, and that it should thereafter serve as the measuring point for time all around the globe.
It was then the zenith of European expansionism, and the key moment in the scramble for Africa which led to the total partition and sharing out of the continent among the great European powers. It is not by chance that the statements of western writers on the meaning and sense of maps concentrate in those very years (Edgar Allan Poe back in 1844, Mark Twain in 1875, Lewis Carroll in 1893, Joseph Conrad in 1895), once the Berlin Conference had drawn the imperial map of Africa, as it were, on the writing desk of the meeting. The location of the prime meridian as the ultimate demarcation line of the earth and its time zones put an end to a long and heated argument among European nations, in the absent silence of others, excluded from the debate.
And now, the shiny blade of brass across the Greenwich lawn. You could play games around this bar. You could jump from one side to the other, or stand with one foot on each side, and you would wonder what there is after all in this antinomy, east versus west. If you look south, your face to the Equator, your left foot will end in the east and your right foot in the west. East and west therefore become tangible cultural constructs, and simulacra moving on a checkboard designed by the masters of the game. As a consequence of such a discovery, you will have Edward Said's deconstructionist analysis9 and a long sequence of theoretical works which now lead to a re-reading of literary works and their time locations in the focus of multicultural evaluations, and a relinquishing of the organizing principle of a universal canon, in spite of the strenuous resistance opposed by the former centre, which aimed to keep its totalizing character.
It was however thanks to the invention of America10 - which involved the invention of a utopic horizon - that the West enlarged its world beyond the Mediterranean and European hub, transforming the map in a prospect, that is, a representation of spatiality and at the same time of temporality. Utopia meant the future, and America was the future. One of the first important writers of the new America, Crèvecoeur, drew the outline of the American as a new man: he was an excellent cartographer, a great traveller and a keen observer of native Americans11. From the very beginning of the American adventure, the utopia of the New World, as an invention of Europe, went together with the transformation of the vision of territory into an Edenic landscape. This phenomenon is made obvious by the tradition of 19th century painting and the transfiguration of the native American into a noble sauvage, by the myth of Pocahontas, born with the creation of Virginia, and James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans (1826).
All this was taking place west - while the fabrication of the Orient, and with it of exotic orientalism, went on in the east. But down south the colonization of Africa progressed according to its own particular lines. There was no utopic drive there, nor were there projections of a radiant future on the face of the black continent whose presence was rather acknowledged as 'ancient', and static12. The African territory was gazed upon during journeys of exploration and discovery first, and then, in the course of looting raids which later developed a system of colonization basically limited to coastal areas and seldom if ever able to produce fixed settlements. All this created an exotic and distancing image in those literatures which were influenced by the English and French colonial adventure, even when those literatures were in fact a production of writers born and educated on the African land, but of European descent. If we were to outline the main features of such literature we should analyze Gustave Flaubert's Salammbô and André GidÈs Voyage au Congo, H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines and She, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Olive Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm, William Plomer's Turbott Wolfe, and maybe also Karen Blixen's Out of Africa.
The European gaze contemplating Africa in colonial times created stereotypes of immobility and primitivism which ideologically contributed to justify the "civilizing mission", but at the same time proved fascinating and seductive because they construed a cultural alterity. We only have to remember the beautiful incipit in Salammbô, "C'était à Megara, faubourg de Carthage, dans le jardin d'Hamilcar...", a stylistically high example of exoticism; or the dramatic scenarios typical of that novel, where Flaubert inscribes scenes of blood, sensuality, violence, atrocity13. In the British tradition, King Salomon's Mines (1885) is based on adventure and makes use of sensational backdrops marked by elements of horror, cruelty and fear. It was Rider Haggard who first invented the expression 'heart of darkness', later adopted by Conrad and now seen as an emblem of the colonial approach to the African world, which was seen as a dark, primordial alterity where the physical and human landscape would express instinctual levels of consciousness that might cause the regression of the civilized white man (Kurtz) to the "horror" engulfing Conrad's story14.
A quite different approach we find in Olive Schreiner, who was reprimanded by contemporary critics for her austerity, so that in the Preface to the second edition of The Story of an African Farm (1883) she decided to offer an explicit defense of 'her own Africa':
It has been suggested by a kind critic that he would better have liked the little book if it had been a history of wild adventure; of cattle driven into inaccessible 'krantzes' by Bushmen; 'of encounters with ravening lions, and hair-breadth escapes'. This could not be. Such works are best written in Piccadilly or the Strand; there the gift of creative imagination untrammelled by contact with any such fact, may spread their wings15.
Schreiner's distinction is particularly useful with regard to critical analysis because it marks a difference from contemporary fiction of adventure set against an exotic background - a genre which was very popular at the time, but still continues nowadays in the unstoppable flux of Wilbur Smith's writing - but it also becomes an ironic list of those ingredients that she would not use in her own writing, such as adventure, wild human races, sensational landscapes, dangerous and noble wild beasts, hidden dangers and especially, the classic duel with a lion. Schreiner suggests that such paraphernalia function as an exotic repertoire useful to favour the free outflow of the repressed in European (Victorian) civilization which puts up a primeval context likely to allow psychic regressions and an escape into reality. From Piccadilly you may then find an escape among lions and hunters in inhospitable lands of empty deserts and steep mountains. An oneiric scenery worthy of inclusion in a textbook of analytic psychology, to which the young South African opposes the otherness born out of 'real facts'.
Schreiner's novel therefore stands out in exemplary difference with respect to colonial literature set in an exotic remoteness, as it does not aim to transform its vision into an Edenic perspective of the wilderness or a pastoral sublimation (if compared, for instance, with Crèvecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer) and is rooted in the 'stark reality' which transforms it into an exemplary microcosm of the isolation of the Boer farm lost in the heart of the late 19th century South African karoo16.
Africa is represented here through the semidesertic territory covered by the wide dome of bright blue skies contrasting with the irregular soil, yellow ochre and reddish, furrowed by harsh slits and interrupted by rocky hills interspersed with rare euphorbia. In its physical features as well as in its anthropological connotations17, Schreiner's Africa is realistic and consistent, in the sense that it is seen through the eyes of the colonial settler locked up in his/her claustrophobic and obsessive cosmos. Yet in that farm, dreams arise of a different future - and they coincide with the distant vision of blue mountains on the remote horizon. In the novel we meet superb descriptions of striking landscapes - let us just recall the incipit, plunged in fabulous moonshine - yet we never find any of those typical European landscapes, ornamental and formalized, which from a long and well codified tradition have acquired a sort of self-reference and hegemonized the gaze in so many 19th century English novels.
Schreiner's icon of the African farm creates its own measure in time and space, is set against a vast Nature and extracts a colonized enclosure out of it. Such a setting generates a split, and therefore a schizophrenia, in the life of the characters, and predetermines their path of impossible integration and inevitable failure.
One century later, the South African writer John Coetzee worked upon the materials of Schreiner's imagination and revisited them intertextually in his novel In the Heart of the Country, where a young woman inhabits a farm isolated in the desertic karoo projecting her existence on an obsessive delirium18. The text, postmodern in structure, revisits Schreiner's claustrophobic themes and links back to her sociopolitical discourse:
What was once pastoral has become one of those stifling stories in which brother and sister, wife and daughter and concubine prowl and snarl in the bedside listening for the death-rattle, or stalk each other through the dark passages of the ancestral home.[...] Born into a vacuum of time, I have no understanding of changing forms [...] Let me annihilate myself [...] in a story with beginning and end in a country town with kind neighbours, a cat on the doormat, geraniums on the windowsledge, a tolerant sun! I was all a mistake! [...] I am I!19
In the shadowy hallway the clock ticks away day and night. I am the one who keeps it wound and who weekly, from sun and almanac, corrects it. Time on the farm is the time of the wide world [...] My pulse will throb with the steady one-second beat of civilization. One day some yet unknown scholar will recognize in the clock the machine that has tamed the wilds20.
The mark that has been left on me instead is the mark of intercourse with the wilds, with solitude and vacancy21.
Both these novels, Schreiner's and CoetzeÈs, suggest with their fiction the key to the protracted colonial drama of South Africa, resulting from an imprisonment of the original colonial dream of an open and free space: a dream of escape from social, economic and also physical constrictions of European civilization. Yet such a dream ended in failure. The search for freedom and absolute supremacy, the hunger for unlimited spaces, have resulted in a tragic trap - the double cage of apartheid - and the lonely separatedness of Europeans who feel surrounded by an emptiness generating paranoia.
Next to this interpretation of the colonial adventure there is another, different story, also coming from a white matrix - the story told by a Boer (i.e., Afrikaner) tradition encroached in the illusionistic Eden of domesticity set on a farm cut out from any contact with the outside world: the so-called plaasroman. A criticism of this sentimental vision of the colonial cosmos can be found in the tragic fiction of Pauline Smith22, but also, as an extreme conclusion, in Nadine Gordimer's novel The Conservationist 23.
In Gordimer as well as in Coetzee we find the representation of colonial solutions as tragic failure and deadlock, to which Gordimer adds the inacceptability of the dispossession of the land. The wealthy Afrikaner who, although by now completely urbanized, buys a farm in order to give new life to his volk's old dream of possessing land, ends by struggling with the corpse of an African who keeps surfacing from the fields at each flood, like a ghost coming back to teach a lesson and give the news that white people seem unable to absorb and retain: to say, in fact, that the land belongs to black people, Africa to the Africans, and those Europeans who settled there are but temporary and transient guests, inevitably alienated and excluded from a true ownership of the land.
The discourse on the territory is interwoven with many threads of the geographic and emotional imagination, as well as of economic and social realities. The complex plot issuing from all this creates another, different, space in the textual representations of the land in the works by black African writers or present in the rich oral production of poetry, epics and narratives.
A comparison of the representations of territory in colonial literature - both metropolitan and local - with the literary representations, both written and oral, by black authors, appears more fruitful and readable if we concentrate on South Africa. Here we have a long-standing European settlement beginning in 1652 and still present and very important in the region - a settlement which produced a rich harvest of indigenous literature. The African populations of the area, converted to literacy in the course of the evangelization campaigns beginning in the 19th century, have a great many writers whose writings are a precious source, while the oral production, very rich in the past but still living in our time, and whose influence is visible also in the written tradition, informed and still goes on informing its audiences on the relationship with the land and territory.
In this region of the African continent the land issue and the tortured and torturing geography of its ownership, born from the colonial invasion and presence, are inscribed in the popular cultural imagination and have been subjects of controversy, conflict and claim. The image of an Africa "belonging" to the African is rooted also in the African's peculiar awareness of his/her territory and in the way such awareness is articulated in words, both oral and written.
3. I am the land which is mine
I have never had to say
this land is mine
this land has always been mine
it is named after me
This land defines its structure by me
its sweat and blood are salted by me
I've strained muscled yoked
on the turning wheel of this land
I am this land of mine
I've never asked for a portion
therÈs never been a need to
I am the land24
This text by the contemporary South African poet Sipho Sepamla takes us suddenly into a different dimension, where the ownership of the land does not depend on colonial maps and cartographic representations but is simply acknowledged and confirmed by the word. The tradition of orality starts with asserting its own values, "this land is mine/[...]/it is called after me", then claims its own social and economic principles, "this land defines its structure by me/its sweat and blood are salted by me", and eventually reaches its own conclusions and acknowledgement of identity, "I am the land". The poet speaks up, his sweeping word erases a whole body of colonial constructs - occupation, appropriation, legitimation - and takes an "other" way, inscribed in his African culture.
We are suddenly transposed into a postcolonial context, where, as Salman Rushdie says, "the empire writes back"25. The power of the counter- discourse which rose from the former colonies of European empires is rooted in its diversity and states its right to tell a new tale of reality starting from a new beginning. It is till a tale, but based on different aesthetic and philosophic conceptions, and independent from the universalizing rules of the western canon. Such tale leaks out from the blanks of that famous Conradian map, spills over maps and charts and erases them by establishing an epistemologic order where the individual/body connects to the land.
Sepamla's contemporary voice renews ancient concepts - and this becomes obvious if we compare it with the extant tradition of oral poetry, where the land is embodied metaphysically in the identity of the individual human being. The debate on the land and identity presently on its way must therefore be associated with such perception of the world, an altogether different philosophy and Weltanschauung26.
If we consider some examples of oral poetry produced in the XIX century by Nguni and Sotho artists we find a marked awareness of belonging to the land, made explicit through frequent place references linked to the names of individuals and families, or even ancestors, friends and enemies. Such poetry indicates a culture of settlement27, but also of uninterrupted conquest and mobility - therefore these texts show repeated antinomies between stasis and movement, as exemplified here by a praise poem for Shaka king of the Zulus:
He went up on the ridge and down another
He returned by way of Boyiya son of Madakwa
He passed through the bones of the children of Tayi [...]
The hawk which I saw sweeping down from Mangcengenza;
When he came to Phungashe he disappeared [...]
He is like the cluster of stones at Nkandla
Which sheltered elephants when it had rained28.
A similar example dates back from a slightly older period, and it celebrates a Mkhize chief contemporary of Shaka's father:
Stabber who is on the inside of the hut at Diza
Our rock of Sijibeni
That makes a man slip even as he seems to be holding onto it
Giver without stint unlike the one from Ngoyameni29.
The poem makes places familiar to the audience, while people are placed in the description. Even when the author refers to a conquered territory, the latter appears known and familiar, instead of being remote and alien. And the sky, which in poems and painting from colonial cultures, both English and Afrikaner, is depicted as an empty entity above a wide territory which is also empty, becomes personalized and transformed into a benevolent element in a Sotho text, where we can hear the threatening notes of aggression and war:
Overarching sky, Lechena,
That arches over the nation,
Lately he entered the place of Majorobela and scorched it;
Lately he entered Masery and set it alight30:
The underlying epistemological pattern which allows us to understand the place is based on an aesthetics of nomination, while in European cultures the territory becomes 'landscapÈ through a visual process. Here it is the word which shapes and configurates the land.
In 19th century oral poetry it is possible to observe also an identification of characters with particular elements of the flora and fauna of the region, as we may see in a praise poem which defines Hintsa, a Xhosa chief who fell victim of an English ambush:
The sweet tall grass of Khala
Whose movements are a blessing
Who stares without blinking
Whose eyebrows reveal his anger.
It was spring and the wild olive trees were blooming,
The willows too and the blooms were on the twigs;
Among the grasses the most beautiful was the diritshwane,
Among the birds were such as the masked river bird31.
In the aesthetics of nomination the land becomes the person, and the very land becomes text of the body, while the historical and cultural self is transmitted through the land.
In the ancient oral poetry naming the land we perceive a self-assurance which in Sepamla resurfaces as angry statement and claim - a self assurance that had been worn down by years and years of movements, relocations and evictions aimed at dispossessing all the autochtonous populations of Southern Africa. This colonial policy and practice started early in the history of European settlement in the region and was systematically applied and brought to its extreme consequences by the apartheid regime, which developed the townships, true mono-racial ghettoes for blacks only. The chaotic map of the black town is often drawn by black fiction and poetry writers who see in it the result of compulsory emargination but also, at the same time, the marks of African culture. They therefore identify themselves with the township, in spite of their disgust and revulsion, in an unavoidably conflictual embrace. Mongane Wally Serote salutes and names Johannesburg in his poem City Johannesburg:
This way I salute you:
my hand pulses to my back trousers pocket
or into my inner jacket pocket
for my pass, my life,
Jo'burg City.
Jo'burg City, I salute you
when I run out, or roar in a bus to you,
I leave behind me, my love,
my comic houses and people, my dongas and my ever whirling dust,
my death
that's so related to me as a wink to the eye.
Jo'burg City
that is the time when I come to you,
when your neon flowers flaunt your electrical wind,
that is the time when I leave you,
when your neon flowers flaunt their way through the falling darkness
on your cement trees.
And as I go back, my love,
my dongas, my dust, my people, my death,
where death lurks in the dark like a blade in the flesh,
I can feel your roots, anchoring your might, my feebleness
in my flesh, in my mind, in my blood, and everything about says it,
that, that is all you need of me.
Jo'burg City, Johannesburg, Jo'burg City32.
Although the city's face has unpleasant features, the poet identifies with it and by naming it he states his ownership and the fact that he belongs to his own world, made by the people who inhabit it. Here the named place is a social reality which the poet embraces and owns as his, as one embraces life. Once again, the word redeems and saves an ostensibly degraded and repulsive universe and manages to interpret and decode its cultural space. The poet pours the deep emotion linking him to the place into epithets worthy of an oral poet, a praise singer of old times: the poet's choice is conceptual rather than stylistic, and the mark of a different aesthetics. This formal line is a constant element in the so-called 'Soweto Poetry' of the 1970-80 decade.
As it is accepted by specialists of African orality, the aesthetics of making by naming is not an invention of contemporary artists, but a way for them to inscribe their voice in the ancient oral tradition and especially to praise poetry of the kind called izibongo or lithoko 33.
Another poem by Sipho Sepamla - a famous one, written for his beloved Soweto - shows how the ghetto's disordered map, chaotic for a white eye, tells the African the meaning of the social group which inhabits it and the culture which characterizes it:
I have watched you grow
like fermented dough
and now that you overflow the bowl
I'm witness to the panic you have wrought
you were born an afterthought
on the by-paths of highways
and have lived like a foster child
whose wayward ways have broken hearts
you have been a quiet huge cemetery
where many have been buried by day
resurrected by night
to make calls at night-vigils
you have made of mourning
a way of life
the flowers that adorn your face
were born of mothers in grief
I love you Soweto
I've done so long before
the summer swallow deserted you
I have bemoaned the smell of death
hanging on your other neck like an albatross
but I have taken courage
in the thought that
those who mothers you back
will carry on the job
of building anew
a body of being
from the ashes in the ground34.
In another poem, Sepamla expresses and manifests the split running across the land ('homÈ) of the African:
TherÈs a time yes a time
I would have liked to say home
home even to rugged mountains
and trees huddled on hill sides
home to cupped lands but
how can I call this home
when others call it Doornkop Thornhill
Limehill or Vergenoeg35
From this poem we see how European geography and colonial toponymy are an obstacle preventing that naming which used to lead, and might still lead, to an identification with the place. The poet realizes the gap and reacts with rejection, indignation and revolt:
go measure the distance from Cape Town to Pretoria
and tell me the prescribed area I can work in
and when all this is done
let me tell you this
you'll never know how far I stand from you36
These texts which have so deeply marked the South African resistance of the '70s and '80s show the features of cultural continuity also with poetry written a few decades earlier, such as the works by Benedict Vilakazi - who composed in the Zulu language - or H.I.E. Dhlomo, who wrote in English, although his mother tongue was Zulu. In his long poem The Valley of a Thousand Hills (1941) Dhlomo draws a conceptual map of his nation by evoking and calling the names of the great heroes of the African past and then marks the boundaries of the Zulu land with a litany of names of rivers, inhabited centres and places:
Mfolozi Black and Mahlabathini!
Inkandhla, Nongoma and Ulundi!
Mfolozi White and Umkhambathini!
Mgungundhlovu and Sibubulundi!
O brave and magic names of Zululand...37
The stylistic technique employed here, a classic mode of oral Zulu poetry, allows the poet to link back to the past of his people and place geographically and culturally the call to the Zulu nation which follows at the end. The land named with familiar names and the pantheon of African heroes constitute a conceptual topos where exiles and landless can meet, and convey a layer of reality on the picture drawn by the poet.
From these sets of observations showing aspects consistent through time one can correctly infer that in bantu cultures of southern Africa there is a visible presence (maybe not so clear to the European eye) of a philosophical substratum which arranges and structures the knowledge of reality and its representations along lines markedly different from those which govern western traditions. In order to perceive and understand such elements, and analyze the ways of African thought, we need to face the problem of method and develop the transcultural tools such a work will require38.
The combination of many disciplines putting together their various competences in order to explore human cultures more thoroughly, is the main road to reach better results than those obtained until now in the study of African thought39.
It would be useful, however, to avoid using literature as a department store where to turn when materials are needed in order to build something else than literature. Literature can only be used in its primary value, as a form of knowledge, an interpretation and creation of reality by the means of cultural imagination40.
4. The territory of war and movement in the two earliest African novels
Our analysis continues in the chosen area of Southern Africa and turns to two novels by African writers which were the first to be published on the whole continent and appear now as the founding pillars of the new tradition of African fiction, Chaka by Thomas Mofolo, written in the Sesotho language and published in 1925, and Mhudi by Solomon (Sol) Plaatje written in English and published in 193041. Both Mofolo and Plaatje lived in the period between the British occupation of the South African territory, completed with the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1901, and the final eviction of the Africans from their land, legitimized by the Native Land Act in 1913. Created in the first two decades of the new century, the two novels represent a complex reply, structured in the form of fiction, to the total colonization of the African space. The two authors use their own cultural imagination in order to re-design a history and geography of the land and aiming at creating a 'homÈ inside the story.
Mofolo re-enacts past history by telling the epos of Chaka, the warlike Zulu king who ruled from 1816 to 1828. He draws his inspiration from both oral traditions and legends, as well as historical and ethnographic documents, religious literature and the English literary tradition, from Marlowe and Shakespeare to John Bunyan and down to Rider Haggard, for a novel which opens with an ethno-geographic incipit :
South Africa is a large headland situated between two oceans, one to the east and one to the west. The nations that inhabit it [...] easily divide themselves into three large groups: the nations settled along the western seaboard are of a yellow complexion. They are the San and the Khoi. The ones in the centre are the Batswana and the Basotho. Those to the east are the Bakone or the Matebele. The boundaries between them are prominent and visible; they are boundaries created by God, not man, because the nations to the west are separated from the ones in the centre by great sandy waterless deserts, and those in the centre are separated from those to the east by a massive mountain range of towering peaks rising in the Cape Colony and running parallel to the sea, yet far, far away from it42.
The opening description is a sort of great map drawn in the style of western geography (and historical chronicles, to begin with Caesar's Commentaries) in whose spaces the author inserts the names of the nations instead of giving the European toponymy. Soon after, however, the reader is naturally led into an African geography based on naming places after men and their genealogies:
When one travels downward between the sea and the Maloti, coming from the direction of Delagoa Bay, in the north, the first Bakone one comes upon are the Swazi nation. Across the Mfolozi-Mnyama River were settled the Ndwandwe people who were ruled by Zwide. Between the Mfolozi-Mnyama and the Nfolozi-Mhlophe, all the way to the sea, were the Bathethwa who were ruled by Jobe; or perhaps we may more fittingly mention the name of his son, Dingiswayo, who became more renowned than his father43.
The list/genealogy of nations continues and becomes long, just as it happens in Zulu and Sotho praise poetry:
Near to the Fenu-Iwenja were the Mangwane led by Matiwane, who once invadede Thaba-Bosiu. There were also the Maqwabe, the Mafuze, the Bathembu, the Makhuze, the Mahlubi, the Bakwamachibisa, the Mathuli (where the city of Durban now stands)44.
Using historical distance and differentiation, Mofolo organizes a coherent chronotope where places are named and defined in the African style. But he does not forget to offer general indications (rivers, but also cardinal points, contemporary cities) which allow him to superimpose on the ancient map - conceptual and ethnographic - the present map, descriptive-geographic, linked to colonial definitions and references and therefore resting on the prime meridian. Mofolo offers a European grid for his territory, but below it he organizes those elements of African cultural value and meaning which may allow any individual African reader to identify in the general history going to be told. With this proceeding, Mofolo acknowledges the fact that he is an accultured child of the empire, but at the same time exhibits his awareness of being an heir of the African conceptual discourse.
PlaatjÈs novel Mhudi, written shortly after Chaka, is also set in the 19th century and during the hegemony of the Zulu empire, but at a later stage, after Chaka's death. Its incipit is brusque and powerful:
Two centuries ago the Bechuana tribes inhabited the extensive areas between Central Transvaal and the Kalahari Desert. Their entire world lay in the geography covered by the story in these pages45.
Plaatje gives a general statement on his aims, indicating the geographic implications of his fiction and almost confessing to a geographic inspiration which focuses on a land and puts it at the centre of the story. What immediately follows is a detailed ethnographic presentation of African peoples as they were at the time, concluding with a meaningful remark:
Those peasants [Barolong of Kunana] were content to live their monotonous lives, and thought nothing of their oversea kinsmen who were making history on the plantations and harbours of Virginia and Mississippi at that time; nor did they know or care about the relations of the Hottentots and the Boers at Cape Town nearer home. The topography of the Cape Peninsula would have had no interest for them; and had anyone mentioned the beauty spots of the Cape and the glory of the silver-trees on their own subcontinent, they would have felt disappointed on hearing that they bore no edible fruit.
To them the limit of the world was Monomotapa [Portuguese East Africa] - a whiteman's country - which they had no ambition to see46.
Unexpectedly, the author plays on an intercontinental map and links the condition of his fellow Africans to that of African American slaves, hence showing how blind are the Barolong who could not 'seÈ how all around them the Europeans had enslaved Africans, from the Cape (Boers against Khoisan) to the remote Americas. Geography, history and sociopolitical analysis blend together on a grid which offers a bold insight into European colonial expansionism and opens the way to a fictional plot where African stories cross the itineraries of Boer ox wagons trekking to the north east.
The same passage suggests another observation of a more generally conceptual nature. These hints on social class ('peasants'), race ('Barolong'), economic connotations ('edible fruit') and aesthetic fruition ('beauty spots', 'the glory of the silver trees') seem a self aware allusion to the idea of landscape typical of late 19th century Britain. In fact, in 1870 John Ruskin wrote that:
Landscape can only be enjoyed by cultivated persons; and it is only by music, literature and painting that cultivation can be given. Also, the faculties which are thus received are hereditary; so that the child of an educated race has an innate instinct for beauty, derived from arts practiced hundreds of years before its birth:[...] A true peasant cannot see the beauty of cattle; but only the qualities expressive of their serviceableness47.
It is impossible to say whether Plaatje knew Ruskin's Lecture, but we cannot exclude it, because the African was a very well-read person. It is however obvious that, if compared with Ruskin, his text takes an even more ironical turn and a strongly subversive understatement, which is very much in his style, and more generally in the African approach to the colonial world.
Also in Mhudi, as well as in Chaka, the aesthetics of nomination enters the text. When Plaatje discusses the Matabele/Ndebele and their chief Mzilikazi, he starts explaining that
At length the Matabele established as their capital the city of Inzwinyani in Barhurutshe territory; the Bechuana inhabitants were permitted to remain on condition that their chiefs should pay tribute to Mzilikazi.[...] The Matabele enforced taxation first upon one and then another of the surrounding Bechuana clans, including the Barolong at Kunana, whose chief at the time was Tauana48.
Like Mofolo, Plaatje too uses the reference points provided by western maps, but he enters such maps with a political discourse. He does not go as far as to deconstruct the colonial discourse, which on the contrary he makes use of and which he considers a part of his inheritance as an educated person; but he uses it in order to enlighten his fellow Africans and inform them of the dangers impending on them, the conflicts and rifts dividing them, and he does that with a technique of subtle irony. Irony is always present in the novel, and occasionally suggested through intertextuality, by hinting at situations taken from Shakespeare and using them for his own ends, or by creating adventure setting later re-absorbed in the general texture of the novel, which on the whole is dry and serious, and strongly ideological in its inspiration. He goes as far as to set up attacks by ferocious lions, sometimes fought back by women (Mhudi, the courageous heroine): but we never get the kind of exotic scenes that Schreiner explicitly avoided. PlaatjÈs lions do not exalt the hunter's masculinity, but are useful expedients for the author, and are handled like huge and terrifying, but ultimately grotesque, puppets - not unlike the farcical lion which enters the stage in Midsummer Night's Dream: a text that Plaatje knew well, being a keen expert on Shakespeare, some of whose plays he translated into his native Tswana language49.
Both novels are set on a territory of war and movements accompanied and followed by migrations of individuals, small groups or whole peoples. The geography of Southern Africa is thus drawn through all these movements. It is a dynamic geography, reflecting the historical conditions and preventing the possibility of a fixed and definite map.
The reign of Mofolo's king Chaka becomes a mobile war theatre marked by battles and massacres, in a crescendo which spills from the centre of the Zulu kingdom toward the boundaries with other African populations, in a geography of destruction aimed at retelling the terrible history of the difeqane wars:
The day Chaka returned from the south, where were the Maqwabe, Mafuze, Bathembu, Machunu, Makhuze, Bakwamachibisa, Mabomvu, and Bathuli? They had been wiped out from under the sun, and had gone where ZwidÈs nation had gone. On his return only animals could be seen on the veld, but there was not a single human being to be seen; they had all been wiped out, finished, no more.
Chaka once more went to make war. This time he attacked the Mangwane or Matiwane who were now living right up against the Maloti. [...] In their flight they fell upn the Mahlubi of Bungane (Pokane), fought and scattered them, so that the Mahlubi were the first to climb over the Maloti, somehting they did under great pressure since the Mangwane were hot on their heels.
That same Matiwane was the fox that caused great trouble at Thaba-Bosio.The difeqane in Lesotho began with the coming of those Mahlubi and Mangwane50.
In the end Chaka, like Macbeth, falls under the pressure of his own thirst for power and is murdered by his brothers to whom on the point of dying he addresses a catastrophic prophecy:
You are killing me in the hope that you will be kings when I am dead, whereas yoou are wrong, that is not the way it will be because umlungu, the white man, is coming, and it is he who will rule you, and you will be his servants51.
The war map of the Zulu kingdom, crisscrossed by ever running impis, fades at the grim light of a prophecy which imposes the grid of another story, the colonial story, over the grid of African history. In fact by the time the book was written, in 1909, Britain had already completed its conquest by finally submitting the Zulu kingdom and even quenching its last sparks of revolt.
PlaatjÈs novel too is structured on a mobile theatre of war among African nations, with the difference that here the Africans are joined by a group of trekking Boers whose story is intertwined with the other fictional threads and therefore originates an innovative dialogue. This dialogic texture alludes to the future possibility of Africans and Europeans living together peacefully on the same land, Southern Africa.
Yet, in Mhudi too we find prophecies of disaster and indications of a future separatedness, expressed by king Mzilikazi when running away with his Matabele:
The Bechuana are fools to think that these unnatural Kiwas [white men] will return their so-called friendship with honest friendship. [...] They will despoil them of the very lands they have rendered unsafe for us; they will entice the Bechuana youths to war and the chase, only to use them as pack-oxen; [...]They will turn Bechuana women into beasts of burden to drag their loaded waggons to their granaries [...]. They will use the whiplash on the bare skins of women [...] they will take Bechuana women to wife and, with them, breed a race of half men and half goblin...
Mzilikazi ends his speech urging his people to leave for a peaceful land where life is still possible - a kind of Eden to the north:
We shall ford the Udi and cross the Mocloutse; we shall traverse the territories round Nchwapong, where Segkoma holds sway, then we shall enter the land of ivory, far, far beyond the reach of killing spirits, where the stars have no tails and the woods are free from mischievous Barolong. Our hunters up in the north have discovered some fertile territories whose rivers abound with endless schools of sea-cow; whose jungles are marked by the tracks of elephant and giraffe; where the buffalo roam and the eland browse, where the oryx and the zebra invite us to the chase52.
This perspective of people running away toward Edenic pastures depicts the everchanging situation of African populations in the region. It is a mental geography that we are confronted with: a sequence of migrations passing in front of our mind's eye.
5. Towards one, common geography?
The chronotope present in both novels, as well as, although much later, in the poetry of Soweto, encloses a perspective of hope rooted in a firm awareness of the unshakable dignity of the human being. It is a hope that human discourses will really intertwine in one common discourse absorbing and yet acknowledging differences in a multicultural dimension. In present day South Africa, in the atmosphere brimming with positive tensions which allowed a start towards a New South Africa, this vision appears through a woman's eyes, in a poem by Wilma Stockeström articulating upon a geographic fantasy of the future:
Like Inhaca facing the coast, I'm turned
to you with my soft mouth, my breasts.
Like her I nestle in a bay of kindness,
I grow, coral-like but without fail
closer to you, my mainland.
What does the mercantile marine back
on the battering seas mean to me?
Cunningly my dripping mangroves advance
in tepid waters step by little step.
How long before I merge with your wide
cashew-nut forests, before we fit into each other,
your reed-overgrown arm around me,
your brown body my body53.