a study of african short story

The stories incorporated in the book, Hot Days Long Nights, which also comprises the two stories to be studied, relate different scenarios and pictures of the African continent. They are compact and precise, giving the readers an insight to the customary laws and traditions of its people. Some of them depict the painful collective memory of wars, while the others narrate the story of an individual or the encounter between different people, even on the level of the colonized and the colonizer.

At the same time, every story is pervaded with a sense of pain and longing, a justification of Chinua Achebe’s assertion in the foreword of the book: “The common factor in all the stories is a pervasive atmosphere of pain and life’s injustice”. [i] “The Garden of Evil” narrates the story of Mwanza, a gardener in a white man’s house. What is worth mentioning in this story is the link that Mwanza has with the garden. He imagines himself to be a royal when he works in the garden among the plants and vegetables. The garden is also referred to as his “kingdom, his own little garden of Eden”. ii] In the world of Mwanza, this little patch in the Parker household becomes the only space where he can exercise his liberty. It becomes a ground of power and equation whereby Mwanza can converse freely with and to the plants. The garden provides an anesthetic sensation for Old Mwanza; it becomes a transitory paradise where the evils and commotions of the real world are forgotten, even though for a short while. Moreover, the connotation that can be derived from the garden is that it symbolizes ‘land’ and the native’s attachment to it.

Postcolonial criticism has often cited the intimate connection the native has with nature especially when it comes to land. Incidentally, the writer of this particular story William Saidi is a native of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). It is said that this country was once a part of the ‘settler colonies’- a term used to define countries, where the imperial power settled, seizing lands and cultivating them. In such a scenario, the colonizer gradually became a permanent settler- “In taking possession of the land and cultivating it, there was never much thought of returning home. [iii] The white settler, therefore, becomes a static dominant figure. In “The Garden of Evil”, the attachment that the protagonist feels with the garden can be derived as an attempt to reclaim the native land. In the mind of the native, land- as a physical space points towards ownership and propriety, even signifying the formation of identity. For Old Mwanza, the garden in his master’s house becomes a symbolization of a space or a territory, in which he is the sole owner. Everything that the garden gives life to, including the land itself becomes a possession for him.

Perhaps Mwanza aligns this sense of possessiveness to the attachment that any native would have with the homeland. Therefore, in his kingdom, even Mr. Parker is treated as an intruder and is being watched with scrutiny lest he steps on the plants and vegetables. “He treasured his attachment to the garden to the point of being insanely possessive and jealous. ”[iv] Moreover, the garden, for Old Mwanza becomes a remedial necessity. Memories of war and his youthful heydays prove to be no longer blissful.

Rather, what pleases him and puts him at ease are only his little garden, and the memory of his belated wife. Also, his two sons have begun to fail him with their involvement in the ongoing revolution against the white people in the cities and towns. Despite the hatred that the natives harbor against the white people, Mwanza recognizes the dominance and superiority of his master as an imperial figure and owner of the place. He chooses to remain subservient and reticent: “To laugh with your master presumed equality. It could spell the end of a good job. [v] Old Mwanza’s attitude towards his white master is also evocative of what Frantz Fanon labels as putting on a white mask: ‘White men consider themselves superior to black men’ black men internalize this inferiority and don white masks: ‘My blackness was there, dark and unarguable. And it tormented me, pursued me, disturbed me, angered me’. [vi] In “The Garden of Evil”, Old Mwanza’s concept of truth becomes a reflection of the white master’s influence and also the inept recognition of his inferiority. The truth that he hangs on to is the supremacy of the whites.

He even tells his sons not to take so much part in the ongoing revolution against the white people; he believes that it would be a worthless cause. This stance takes on such an intensive impact that even his own sons are described as “creepy, crawling monsters who said they were his progeny and bore no resemblance to him. ”[vii] At the end of the novel, it is perceived that Mr. Parker and his family are reduced to nothing; Mr. Parker has been brutally killed in front of his wife and children by Old Mwanza’s sons.

This act and scene stupefies Old Mwanza: All the truth that Old Mwanza had gleaned from him, which Old Mwanza had embraced as universal truth, was being challenged. Old Mwanza tried to cling to his belief in Mr. Parker’s invincibility. [viii] There is a hint of violence projected in the story which can be aligned to Fanon’s concept of violence. According to him, decolonization was always a violent phenomenon. The native who was engaged in anti- colonial struggle was ‘ready for violence at all times. From birth it was clear to him that this narrow world, strewn with prohibitions could only be called in question by absolute violence’. ix] In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon says, ‘colonialism is not a thinking machine, nor a body endowed with reasoning faculties. It is violence in its natural state, and it will only yield when confronted with greater violence. ’[x] Old Mwanza’s sons hold the opinion that their brutal slaying of Mr. Parker is an act of liberation. They feel that their father is bound by the white master and is too attached to him. However, Mwanza has different ideals and assumptions from the other natives; hence he is no more in tally with them. He feels that the white colonizers are never to be fought against but his sons feel otherwise.

Also, he is somehow isolated from his own people, he asserts: “My people have forgotten me. I have forgotten them too. ”[xi] War and the aspect of fighting are regarded as futile by Mwanza because he has experienced the trauma and consequences- his toes being blown up during war, and having nightmarish visions of the roaring of cannons and bullets intensifies his contempt. Since everyone he knows is involved in some or the other kind of fighting, he submerges himself in the tranquility and serenity of gardening. In addition to this, Mwanza’s fight against the dominant figure takes on a subtle stand.

Instead of fighting against the white man overtly, his action of gardening becomes a symbolical assertion of his rightful proprietorship of the homeland. He had always done what the white man asked of him. Even in the garden? Not the garden. He loved the garden. He did what he and nature wanted done. Not Mr. Parker. He hoped fervently that his children would understand. [xii] The story also vividly highlights the gap between the dominant and the dominated. Whenever Mr. Parker addresses the natives, including Old Mwanza, he continuously uses an animal imagery: “Mwanza, you dangerous animal! .. You baboon! ”; “…you know those dangerous animals in Matero and Chilenje African townships? They want to kill all white people. ”[xiii] It is a pre-conceived notion that the white man regards the natives as animal like savages, uncultured and uncivilized. In the story, there is a ground of subversion in the comical revelation of Mr. Parker’s toothlessness.

For Old Mwanza, this lack becomes his point of superiority over his master. Though it is a trivial subject to be pondered upon, nevertheless, there is a search for a certain site of supremacy for the dominated. His discovery of Mr. Parker’s toothlessness was a secret triumph for Old Mwanza… Mr. Parker’s misfortune…made him- Mr. Parker- vulnerable, mortal weak and susceptible to all human frailties. For Old Mwanza, it was an astounding revelation. [xiv] Even though the discovery of the mortality and humanness of Mr. Parker becomes a point of victory for Old Mwanza, he nevertheless portrays his inferiority in the ‘secrecy’ of his discovery. However, even though this revelation may be a ‘secret triumph’, it sentimentally secures the position of Old Mwanza in the realm of the colonized and the colonizer.

This feeling of being in tandem with the superior figure somehow cracks the wall of demarcation. Also, in the description of the garden there exists binary, which depicts the presence of discrimination in every realm. Haughtily polite cauliflower looked with tolerant disdain at the lowly, peasant- looking cabbage. That perennial garden vegetable, the asparagus, looked with suspicion at the green virility of the spinach, while the juicy tomato, its eyes closed coyly, pleaded not to be bothered by the ungainly beet. [xv] In accord to the title of the story, there is significance given to the concept of garden as aforementioned.

When his two sons seize him and drag him out of the Parker household in the end, Old Mwanza cries out “What about the garden? Will you give me a garden? ”[xvi] It is evident that Old Mwanza needs his own space of tranquility, where he can have a certain amount of liberty and ease of mind. Also, what he holds as the truth, which has been intricately planted in his mind, is being supplanted by the downfall of Mr. Parker. He now realizes that the dominant master can be very much defeated. The story leaves Old Mwanza in a dilemma- with disappointment over the exposure of his master’s frailty and his uncertain future. The Wicked Tongue” by Mohammed Moulessehoul relates the story of Mimouna which is narrated in a very fascinating way. It is especially compact, giving the reader an insight to the traditions of a certain community. The writer grasps the attention of the reader right from the outset, with an element of suspense and premonition; the story starts with the denigration of Mimouna, and the reader is left to wonder as to the reasons of her downfall. As any traditional folktale, the story is embedded with a moral. Moreover, the narrative exudes a sense of exaggeration which adds an appealing and a comic element, as seen in the opening lines:

She resembled all the women in the village. She had neither a third eye between her brows, nor four arms. Not beautiful and not ugly, men said she was all right. In the middle of a crowd, she attracted no more attention than the neighbouring women. If you didn’t know her you would never doubt her. [xvii] The story of Mimouna starts with an exaltation of her, therefore, the reader immediately feels sympathy and pity for her. Also, the portrayal of Mimouna as a female character has nuances of the patriarchal element.

All the villagers proclaim her worthiness and efficiency in such a way that this reflects the position of women in the society. She is described as a woman who would make a competent wife. When anyone praises her, it would be followed by a discussion on how she would be an eligible contender for their son, or other male relatives. “This little one would make a good wife for my son,” some of the women murmured. […] Mothers homed in on her. “Mimouna would be the joy of my house. She’s an angel and my son is a lion cub. Their union would be a blessing, and their children unrivaled. This reflects the feminist theory which often asserts that …the subordination of women originated in primitive societies in which women served as objects of exchange between father dominated families that formed alliances through marriage. [xviii] What transpires from the story is that marriage seems to be the ultimate end of every woman. The concept of marriage itself is also given a priority; Mimouna’s father asserts its gravity thus, saying “My dear wife, we have a conscience so as to avoid the bad and seek the good. When it happens we must choose, then we must reflect upon it. Marriage is a grave decision.

It has the aftertaste of a verdict. To make a mistake would be a crime which would haunt us to our graves. ”[xix] Also, there are instances where the female is projected as inferior to the male counterpart. When the time comes for Mimouna to get marriage, her mother becomes a silent observer. Her father has all the authority to decide whom Mimouna gets married to, the female characters do not have a say in the marriage proceedings: ‘The mother knew only how to listen. ”[xx]. The dominance and superiority of the father is a reflection of ‘biological essentialism’, a term often evoked in feminist theory.

According to this, Patriarchy is defined ‘sexist’, which means it promotes the belief that woman are innately inferior to men- based on biological differences between the sexes that are considered part of our changing essence as men and women. [xxi] When Mimouna’s father discusses about marriage, he vividly brings out the element of patriarchy: ‘She [Mimouna] is but a woman. And a woman is more fragile than a man…’[xxii] This prejudiced assumption about the fragility of women brings out the attitude of the male in the course of this story.

The morality and religiosity displayed in “The Wicked Tongue” reflects its significance in the everyday life of the people. As the story unfolds, it comes to light that Mimouna’s downfall is her pride. Mimouna cropped up in conversations all the time. She kept house like no other, was the pride of her family, and her reputation won tribute all around. And from the height of her pedestal, she raised and raised her head, losing it in the clouds. In the face of too much praise, she learned to despise first other women, and then her own circle. [xxiii] As her pride takes toll on her, Mimouna begins to spread rumours and turns on her neighbours.

She begins to lose control of her ‘wicked tongue’. The story gradually depicts the irrationality and consequences of being conceited and arrogant. Therefore, the moral embedded in the story is revealed in quite a glaring way which reflects its traditional narrative. Moreover, there is also an indication of the society as being closely knitted. Mimouna’s flaw affects the whole village; the village elders and priests have to be summoned to interrogate and take action against her. There is a confession happening thereafter and the truth of the matter is brought to the limelight through a religious proceeding.

Even the wrongdoer- in this case, Mimouna- cannot withstand the sacredness of religion. In the end, she is subjected to being an outlaw. The table has been turned and hence, the end of the protagonist is degradation and humiliation. In both the stories that have been evaluated, there is a breakdown of the characters. There is an element of disappointment, either for the protagonist or the people acquainted with them. The need for a new start of life becomes a prerequisite. Also, what becomes an obligation is a reconstruction of truth- in “The Garden of Evil”, and a reconstruction of the self in “The Wicked Tongue”.

Works Cited:

Abraham, Taisha. Introducing Postcolonial Theories: Issues and Debates. New Delhi: Macmillan, 2007. Print. Achebe, Chinua, foreword. Hot Days Long Nights: An Anthology of African Short Stories. Ed. Nadezda Obradovic. New Delhi: National Book Trust, 2003. vii- xiv. Print. Laragy, Elizabeth. “Settler Colony.” n.d. The Imperial Archive: Key Concepts in Postcolonial Studies. Electronic. 28 October 2012. Moulessehoul, Mohammed. “The Wicked Tongue.” Hot Days Long Nights: An Anthology of African Short Stories. Ed. Nadezda Obradovic. New Delhi: National Book Trust, 2003. Print. Ryan, Michael. Literary Theory: A Practical Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999. Print. Saidi, William. “The Garden of Evil.” Hot Days Long Nights: An Anthology of African Short Stories. Ed. Nadezda Obradovic. New Delhi: National Book Trust, 2003. Print. Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User Friendly Guide. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

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