A Story a Day #44: Doris Lessing
March 30th, 2020
"The Old Chief Mshlanga"
A young white girl grows up in South Africa on her family's farm. She grows up not noticing black people and feeling like she doesn't understand them or this land. One of her pastimes is walking with her rifle and dogs and chasing the "natives" like animals. One day, she passes a group of men who do not exit the path before her. She learns that this is Chief Mshlanga and it is clear to her that he deserves respect and dignity. From this day on, she becomes kinder to the black people around her and stops chasing them. Her family learns that their cook is destined to take Chief Mshlanga's place when he dies. Curious, the girl wanders to the village where they live to see if this is true. She feels immediately out of place and knows that she does not belong there. She does not see the Chief again until one day his goats wander onto their property and her father captures them. He says he will keep 20 goats for the damages. The Chief does not agree, but her father threatens to call the police. The Chief says his people will starve without these goats; her father doesn't budge. The girl begins to understand that this is not her land after all. Shortly after, there is news that the Chief's people have been moved 200 miles to a different reserve and their land will be given to whites. She goes to visit the camp and finds it dried up and abandoned.
At first, I was very skeptical of this story. It begins with a lot of racism and bias against black people. The way the character acts towards them is, frankly, cruel. Luckily, this changes as the story goes on, but it is clear that this girl has no power to change the forces around her. While she begins to understand that they are imposing on the Chief's land, and not the other way around, the Chief loses his land. Her own father cannot see these facts and acts selfishly by keeping the goats and likely reporting them so that they are moved away.
I think this story hints at a lot of power dynamics. First, the obvious power dynamic of blacks and whites in South Africa. It is clear that the whites hold a lot of power over the black people as they employ them as cooks and servants. All of this happens despite the fact that black people have lived in South Africa for centuries and know the land. Alongside this is the power dynamic of the young girl and the older men in the story. Despite having the advantage of being white, it is clear that she doesn't have the power to have change the mind of the Chief nor her own father.