Recently in Out of Africa Category

What the Houseboy saw

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oyono-ferdinand.jpgI am grateful to University of Nairobi history professor Margaret Gichuhi for bringing to my attention Ferdinand Oyono's 1960 novel Houseboy.  Originally written in French, it's a valuable and rare document of black perspectives on colonial rule - exactly the sort of post-colonial literature that is unlikely to see another print run and, unless it finds new life in digital form, will bury its insights with its lack of availability in hard copy form.

A quick read - 122 pages (properly a novella by some people's score) - Houseboy is an entertaining, fast-moving account of a peasant boy's employment with a French colonial family in Cameroon and the dismal end to which it brings him.  Nonetheless, I wish Oyono had slowed down the pace.  As credible and interesting as is the voice of Toundi, the protagonist, he doesn't reveal enough truly to earn the novel's sad ending.  

The opacity against which the reader struggles is a built-in limitation to the first person voice; Toundi can only tell us what he sees, experiences and thinks.  The reasoning of the colonists around him is hidden, except to the extent that they unburden themselves to Toundi, which they do not in any significant way.  But Toundi's account - his observations and analysis - are too slim, and the reader is asked to infer too much, to give the conclusion the weight Oyono clearly wants it to have.

Toundi's demise occurs, in part, because he is insufficiently discreet about the affair his "Madame" - the wife of the Commandant - is having with M. Moreau, the prison warden.  Toundi's indiscretion is not a matter of gossiping, but of ignorance: he asks too many questions, he doesn't know what condoms are when, cleaning up, he finds them, etc.  His co-workers warn him:  

Toundi, will you never learn what a houseboy's job is?  One of these days you'll be the cause of real trouble.  When will you grasp that for the whites, you are only alive to do their work and for no other reason. 
(p. 87.)

[B]ecause you know all their business, while you are still here, they can never forget about it altogether.  And they will never forgive you for that.  How can they go on strutting about with a cigarette hanging out of their mouth in front of you - when you know.  As far as they are concerned you are the one who has told everybody and they can't help feeling you are sitting in judgment on them. 
(p. 100.)

Toundi doesn't heed their warnings because, as he rightly points out, "I'm not the only one who knows that Madame sleeps with M. Moreau . . . ." (p. 100.)  

The chambermaid, Kalisia, predicts that Toundi will be punished as a scapegoat because, "At the residence you are something like . . . a representative of the rest of us."  (p. 100.)  But Toundi doesn't listen, and the reader can understand why: Kalisia's explanation isn't enough.

Colonists - indeed, anyone with a coterie of servants - is used to having house workers knowing all their business, indiscretions and moral lapses included.  Moreover, people with servants have to acclimate themselves to the judgment of those who know their failings and secrets.  If the judgment is subtle, unstated or otherwise easy-to-ignore, employers are probably happier; but if the servant is valuable enough, an employer can accommodate him or herself to extremely high degrees of articulated disapproval.   P.G. Wodehouse wrote scores of books making comedy out of exactly this situation.  Karen Blixen understood the dynamic as being intrinsic to the master-servant relationship.  When she is leaving her farm in Out of Africa, she describes the response of her servants as follows:

There is a paradoxical moment in the relation between the leader and the followers: that they should see every weakness and failing in him so clearly, and be capable of judging him with such unbiased accuracy, and yet should still inevitably turn to him, as if in life there were, physically, no way round him.  A flock of sheep may be feeling the same towards the herd-boy, they will have infinitely better knowledge of the country and the weather than he, and still will be walking after him, if needs be, straight into the abyss.  The Kikuyu took the situation [of the sale of the farm] better than I did . . . but they sat round my house and waited for my orders; very likely all the time between themselves expatiating freely upon my ignorance and unique incapacity.
(p. 318-319.)

In short, knowing of a master's indiscretion is not enough to justify imprisonment, flogging and death, but Oyono doesn't tell us enough about why Toundi was less lucky than the other servants who knew of the Madame's infidelity.  He doesn't show us Madame's (or her husband's, or her lover's) point of view to explain why Toundi, especially, was a threat.  The fact that Toundi asked questions and was ignorant and insufficiently familiar with the ways of an ideal houseboy could just as easily council in favor of treating him as a harmless idiot, rather than a scourge to be eliminated, and Oyono doesn't help us understand why Toundi fell on the unhappy side of that choice.

Oyono leaves the reader to infer that Toundi's fate follows from his skin color: that a black servant in the colonial scheme was not permitted to sit in judgment of his overseers, and that the punishment for violation of that rule - even inadvertently - was death.  No doubt colonialism encompassed such arbitrariness and abuses, but colonialism also embodied complex dynamics.  Colonists, as much as the colonized, were humans with ambiguous, emotional, contradictory and inconsistent traits, but too often - as here and in Ngugi wa Thiongo's A Grain of Wheat - they are depicted as cardboard, two-dimensional "baddies."  The portrait is as diminishing to the colonized as it is inaccurate.  Oyono is a talented writer (in addition to being a renaissance man, an actor and a diplomat); had he devoted himself to fleshing out the complex motives at work in Houseboy, our historical record and our literature would have been much enriched.

(Image of Ferdinand Oyono from deslivres.com)

Out of [touch in] Africa

Harry_Thuku2.jpgKaren Blixen's writing has long been recognized as being significant as much for what it omitted as for the subjects on which it dwells.  But that recognition has focused largely on Blixen's coyness about her affair with Denys Finch-Hatton.  Obfuscation seems to have been the modus operandi of their relationship.  As Errol Trzebinski recounts in Silence Will Speak:

Friends who knew Tania and Denys well - few were privileged to observe their relationship closely - concluded that they fully intended to perpetuate the aura of mystique which from the start has served to swathe and protect them in an enigmatic smoke-screen.
. . . .
"Tania and Denys were both very elusive and meant to be" . . . .
p. 150 (Denys called Karen "Tania" after "Titania," the Queen of the Faeries in A Midsummer Night's Dream).

Reading Carl G. Rosberg, Jr. and John Nottingham's The Myth of "Mau Mau": Nationalism in Kenya, I realized that omission and obfuscation characterized another relationship in Blixen's life: that of her self-touted love for her "black brother." (Karen Blixen, Letters from Africa, p. 390.)

Although Blixen's tenure in Kenya, from 1914 to 1931, spans important, early expressions of black Kenyan political agitation against the British government, she doesn't count this behavior in her inventory of Native capacities.  Her blindness is significant because Blixen was not immune to politics in Kenya: she rails about political maneuvering by the settlers ("I am so angry with the English because they want to impose higher taxes on them [the Natives]," Letters from Africa, p. 240).  But while white political activity provoked her sense of noblesse oblige, black Kenyan political activity completely escapes mention in her writing.

In March 1922, for example, the British arrested Harry Thuku (pictured), an activist who wrote a letter demanding redress of grievances from the British government.  After his arrest, Kenyans calling for his release converged on the detention center in Nairobi.  The protest ended in gunfire and between 21 and 56 deaths.

Among the many remarks of note in Karen Blixen's letters from 1922 are references her troubles with Bror, to her sister's death, to resuming painting, to her love of lilies, to her hair loss, to her brother Thomas' visit, and to books she and Thomas are reading, but the most singular political event of the year finds no mention.  (Caveat: some possibility exists that mention of Harry Thuku was not a topic the editors of her letters thought worthwhile to allow to remain in the letters, but - looking at entirety of her correspondence from Africa and her concerns during her years there - the possibility seems remote.) 

Black people - her servants being the only ones she knows - do crop up in her letters from 1922:  she bemoans her cook, Isa, being poisoned by his wife, and she celebrates her servant Juma's daughter, who "sets the table and makes toast and is full of her own importance as a houseboy."  (Letters from Africa, p. 132-133).

What explains this obliviousness by a writer who, in her own estimation and that of many critics, is incisive in her observations and humane in her depictions?  Shadows on the Grass, Blixen's superfluous follow-on to Out of Africa, provides a clue.  

Two pages into Shadows on the Grass, Blixen begins rhapsodizing about the paradigm of Master and Servant: the servant "needs a master in order to be himself."  (Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass, p. 378-379.)  Her notion that blacks need a white telling them what to do in order to self-actualize is only too clear.  

The thing about servants - good servants, anyway - is that they're not disobedient.  They don't demand redress of grievances in a threatening way.  "Agitation" and "activism" are not their domain.  One the contrary, good servants have, as Karen Blixen says of black Kenyans in Out of Africa, an "immense gift for resignation" and keep "up a peculiar self-feeling in their relations to those who persecute[] them."  (Out of Africa, p. 144.) 

"Good servants" - not activists - seems to be all Karen Blixen can accept in the way of a role for black Kenyans in their relations with whites (that is, unless the black Kenyans are helpless, impoverished, ignorants in need of medical attention, in which case she is happy to help).   

In fairness, Blixen recognizes that some Africans - the Masai, for example - are warriors, not servants; but the Masai are pointedly outside the scope of white-black relations: they're isolated, on their "reserve."  And although Blixen acknowledges that Kinanjui is a Kikuyu chief - not a servant - in Kinanjui's relationship with her, his role is to provide her farm with labor: that is, servants.  When Kinanjui asks for a favor in return - to retire to her farm to die - she refuses him.  

Outside the scope of Master-Servant relations, Blixen doesn't have any capacity for interaction with black Kenyans because, ultimately, what seems to have stimulated her "love" for her "black brother" was the power she held over them.  Less educated than she wanted to be, less attractive than she'd hoped, perpetually struggling with her weight, dependent on her family for money, infected with syphilis and then abandoned by her husband, passed over for marriage by her lover, unsuccessful in her business endeavors, hopeless as a farm manager, the predominant experience of Karen Blixen's life in Kenya, as articulated in her letters, was helplessness and disempowerment.  Only in her relationship with the blacks around her was she able to fancy herself in control, although - if she recognized this fact - she wasn't able to record it in writing.  

What she does commit to paper, repeatedly, is a fixation with feudalism and the nobility of long-ago relations of power that, in the modern world, are recognized as unfair.  I don't doubt the sincerity that characterizes her status as an aristocracy groupie; but her romanticization of the past served as a convenient screen behind which to hide troubling questions about her power over the blacks on her farm.  

That Harry Thuku and black political activity don't manifest in Blixen's writing is therefore no surprise: Blixen defends herself by failing to see what she can't imagine, and her imagination was remarkably fixated by feudalism.

(Photo of Harry Thuku from Black Past)

Safari metabolism

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Giraffe2.jpgTo research my fourth novel, I have been spending time on safari in Kenya's Great Rift Valley, where I can experience environmental conditions that approach those that prevailed in British East Africa of World War I.  I frequently stay in a small, thatched-roof, canvas-walled cottage on the banks of the Malewa River, where shy water buck, demure bush buck, aggressive buffalo and plucky warthog cross, from which zebra and impala drink, around which monkeys scamper, and out of which hippopotamus surface like submarines.

Sitting on the raised veranda of the cottage, I've learned much:
  • Animals, contrary to the notion I had - derived from high school reading about mythical Native Americans moving soundlessly through the forest - can make a lot of awkward crashing noise as they move through scrub and in their interactions with rivers.
  • On the other hand, I am continually amazed at how animals can be grazing or passing virtually next to me, and I wouldn't have noticed them had I not serendipitously turned my head or looked up from my book.
  • Animals are surprisingly often equally oblivious of my presence.  Don't they smell me?  Hear me creaking in my chair or walking in my cottage?  Apparently, they're used to a fair amount of awkward crashing noise and, as for smelling me, either they've all got sinus infections or the smell doesn't carry like I'd thought it would.
That said, I have noticed a marked increase in my "animal sighting quotient" since I've startedHippo2.jpg coming on safari regularly.  Over time, I've learned to spy dik-dik "hiding" in plain sight by standing motionless; to distinguish the loping gait of the jackal threading through dense bush; to recognize the difference between the sound of wind rustling trees and animals snapping branches.

Some of this increased sensitivity is the result of greater exposure; but some of it is attributable to a slowing down - of my movements, of my gaze, of my breathing.  When I go on safari, I find I'm downshifting gears biologically as much as mentally: I'm relaxing my city metabolism as much as letting go of my urban worries.

So I felt a frisson of recognition finding two descriptions of this phenomenon by women more experienced in it than I.  Here's Elspeth Huxley on the "Dr. Doo-little" personality:  

The senior warden of the Tsavo National Park, David Sheldrick, and his wife, share their house at Voi with a great many animals and birds.  Both Sheldricks belong to that small company born with an instinctive understanding of their fellow creatures and with the patience which goes with these queer, unsought talents.  Such individuals are gentle, quiet in motion, slow spoken, unassuming, in a sense absorbent; they have a tranquil, indrawn quality.  People who are taught, jerky, spark-like and aggressive seldom draw from an animal the trust and feeling of security it needs.
Elspeth Huxley, Forks and Hope: An African Notebook, p. 135.

Now Karen Blixen, on the adjustment necessary to appreciate wilderness:

Out in the wilds I had learned to beware of abrupt movements.  The creatures with which you are dealing there are shy and watchful, they have a talent for evading you when you least expect it.  No domestic animal can be as still as a wild animal.  The civilized people have lost the aptitude of stillness, and must take lessons in silence from the wild before they are accepted by it.
Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa, p. 15.

To be honest, "slow spoken, unassuming . . . . tranquil [and ]indrawn" and having an "aptitude [for] stillness" aren't accurate descriptions of me yet.  But in the pleasure I experience from the emphatically non-urban thrills of the bush, I recognize in me "the ache for slow beauty/to save you from your quick, quick life," and I hope this means, as Kapka Kassabova promises in her poem "The Door," that I've reached age enough to have stopped "knocking on a door without a house."  The fourth book will tell.

Note to self

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If ever I find myself graced with the good luck to enjoy an international bestselling memoir, let me not tarnish that work with a redundant, dated, cash-pandering follow up.  

Because, while in 1937, the observation that, "[i]n some respects, although not in all, the white men fill in the mind of the Natives the place that is, in the mind of the white men, filled by the idea of God" (Out of Africa, p. 358), might be thought-provoking, in 1960, the assertion that

The dark nations of Africa, strikingly precocious as young children, seemed to come to a standstill in their mental growth at different ages.  The Kikuyu, Kawirondo and Wakamba, the people who worked for me on the farm, in early childhood were far ahead of the white children of the same age, but the stopped quite suddenly at a stage corresponding to that of a European child of nine.
(Shadows on the Grass, p. 382), is simply racist.

Because, if I'm going to pander for cash, let me do so whole-heartedly and write - not another allegedly quaintly charming book about my servants, about whom no one cared the first time - but about the lover to whom I referred with the exact mix of obliqueness and explicitness sufficient to pique a world-wide appetite lasting more than seventy years.

Someone should cash in on that appetite.  Why not me?

Out of Africa, inside colonial thinking

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Karen Blixen seems never to have met a native who didn't remind her of an animal.  In Out of Africa, she wears out the animal kingdom in her comparisons, metaphors, analogies, or descriptors for black Kenyans.  Some examples:

What I learned from the game of the country, was useful to me in my dealings with the Native People.  p. 15-16.

[I]f you frightened [the Natives] they could withdraw into a world of their own, in a second, like the wild animals which at an abrupt movement from you are gone, -- simply not there.  p. 17

When we really did break into the Natives' existence, they behaved like ants, when you poke a stick into their anthill; they wiped out the damage with unwearied energy, swiftly and silently, - as if obliterating an unseemly action.  p. 18

Like the spurfowl
, the Natives might be mimicking a fear of us because of some other deeper dread the nature of which we could not guess. . . . It made me reflect that perhaps they were, in life itself, within their own element, such as we can never be, like fishes in deep water which for the life of them cannot understand our fear of drowning. p. 18-19

[Kamante's] intelligence sometimes failed him, and he came and offered me a Kikuyu delicacy, - a roasted sweet potato or a lump of sheep's fat, - as even a civilized dog, that has lived for a long time with people, will place a bone on the floor before you, as a present.  p. 37

[The stork] followed Kamante about between the houses, and it was impossible not to believe that [the stork] was deliberately imitating Kamante's stiff measured walk.  Their legs were about the same thickness.  p. 60

[The mother and father of the deceased girl] sat down and waited outside my house.  They were poor people, small and underfed; they looked like a pair of badgers on my lawn.  p. 98-99

I was prepared for the appearance, a few days later, before my house, of the Nyeri people, who belonged to a low class of Kikuyu, and had all the look of three dirty and shaggy old Hyenas that had slunk one hundred and fifty miles upon Wamai's blood-track. . . . The three strangers sat on the stones with no more manifestation of life than three ticks upon a sheep.  p. 112

Kaninu also came round to my house late in the evening, like an old badger out reconnoitring, to sound me out about the child.  p. 125

[The Masai] were fighters who had been stopped fighting, a dying lion with his claws clipped, a castrated nation.  p. 126

[The Masai's] weapons and finery are as much part of their being as are a stag's antlers.  p. 129

[Giving Kinanjui alcohol] was like having shot an Elephant: by an act of yours a mighty and majestic creature, which has walked the earth, and held his own opinions of everything, is walking no more.  p. 138

[The Somalis'] relation to the Natives was nearly exactly that of the sheepdog to the sheep.  They watched [the Natives] untiringly, their sharp teeth bared.  p. 143

The juvenile Masai soldier-girls, very lively and pretty, came into my tent . . . . [and] always ask[ed] me for the loan of my hand-mirror, and, when they held it up to one another, they bared their two rows of shining teeth to the mirror, like angry young carnivora.  p. 259

Karomeny was very dar, with fine moist black eyes and thick eyelashes; . . . altogether much of the look of a small black Native bull-calf.  p. 295

Kanuthia . . . a slim young Kikuyu with the watchful eyes of a monkey, now . . . sat by the house like a sad and chilly monkey in a cage.  p. 342-343

It is more than their land that you take away from the people, whose Native land you take.  It is their past as well, their roots and their identity. . . . This applies in a higher degree to the primitive people than to the civilized, and animals again will wander back a long way, and go through danger and sufferings, to recover their lost identity, in the surroundings that they know.  p. 359-360

The old dark clear-eyed Native of Africa, and the old dark clear-eyed Elephant, - they are alike; you see them standing on the ground, weighty with such impressions of the world around them as have been slowly gathered and heaped up in their dim minds; they are themselves features of the land.  p. 362

When we met [the old Kikuyu woman] stood dead still, barring the path to me, staring at me in the exact manner of a Giraffe in a herd, that you will meet on the open plain, and which lives and feels and thinks in a manner unknowable to us.  p. 369

The consistency of her equating of black people with animals raises questions.  Was she racist?  Was she simply a cliched and unimaginative writer?  Was her thinking merely a function of the times?  Was her use of animals as parallels for black people - in her opinion - a compliment?  Did she see honor and value in one's existence evoking the animal world?  If so, why didn't she describe her colonist friends, like Berkley Cole or Denys Finch-Hatton, as animals?  (Others seem to have.  Llewelyn Powys, in Black Laughter, described a stand-in for Denys as "a sinuous-limbed dog-puma indolently sunning himself under the swaying palm-trees." p. 168.)

My own sense is that comparisons to animals, in and of themselves, are not necessarily invidious.  A black woman I know - in her poise, beauty and carriage - reminds me of a gazelle, and I think of the description as a compliment (perhaps because Song of Songs praises women thus); but, to be honest, most of the black women I know don't remind me of animals.  Tough business women, sweet grandmas; gorgeous, enthusiastic, boisterous and gentle friends; adorable, Puck-ish toddlers - these categories encompass most of the black women and girls I know.  

And this consistency in Karen Blixen's descriptions of black people is what gives me pause.  Every native - however much she likes or dislikes them, depends on them or finds them a burden - is like an animal; colonists she likes are not (her chapter on Berkley Cole is called "The Noble Pioneer," not "The Hawkish Pioneer" or "The Vulture Pioneer").  This divide suggests a pattern of organization in her thinking: natives and animals were categorized together - or closely - while white people were categorized in nearer proximity to classical music, painting, opera, ballet, and literature.  Nature for blacks; culture for whites.  

This structure to her perceptions isn't necessarily racism; indeed, it corresponds to her reality: black people lived in less developed environs in which wilderness was either predominant or ever threatening to dominate; white people were bringing gramophones, easels, brushes, paints and books into the same landscape.  

But not all white people were cultured - indeed, Karen Blixen's letters overflow with her distaste for the British "middle class" colonist; and this same variety no doubt existed among the black people with whom she interacted.  Her failure to see some blacks as "noble" - as Beryl Markham, for example, sees Arab Ruta, her closest servant - or to recognize the individual outstandingness of certain of her black cohorts - as Elspeth Huxley recognizes in Mbugwa ("a rarity in any country, and in any age," Forks and Hope, p. 171) - suggests a limitation in her capacity to appreciate black people as individual humans.  (Yes, she sees Farah as aristocratic, but she also refers to him as a "sheepdog"; yes, she says that Kamante is a "genius" in the kitchen, but she also - repeatedly - emphasizes that he was "never quite right in the head" p. 30).

In Out of Africa, Blixen's reliance on animals to parallel blacks betrays sentiments she made explicit in her letters:

I have come to realize that one of the greatest passions of my life is the relationship with my "black brother."  I also know that there are no representatives of this race that I personally could not do without, without the relationship being radically changed . . . .
Letter to Mary Bess Westenholz, 20 November 1928, Letters from Africa, p. 390.  To Karen Blixen, black people were - on a level that is unacceptable to us in our day and age - an undifferentiated mass.  "They" needed her and saw her as powerful, which she appreciated to such an extent that she made "them" the object of her passion; but "they" didn't include any individuals whose presence or absence could change this dynamic.  "They" were just like the game in the wildnerness; without "them," the landscape isn't as fascinating, but if you were to replace one impala with another, the switch wouldn't impair Karen Blixen's enjoyment of the scenery.  

Karen Blixen's honesty about her perspectives grants us - from the distance of a century - a valuable insight into colonial thinking in that era.  It also, by comparison to her contemporaries (Markham, Huxley, and others), reveals Karen Blixen's serious limitations as a human, surrounded by many others - white and black - who were able to transcend the narrow, constrained thinking that passed for received wisdom in the era.

Ex Hollywood semper aliquid crap II

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At the risk of flogging a horse that is not only dead, but was dead on arrival, I feel compelled to continue my unfavorable critique of the movie, Out of Africa - call it a rash that I can't resist scratching. 

One scene in the movie that made me recoil is when Bror shows up at the farm to ask Karen for money, and he finds Karen and Denys together: 

"You could have asked," Bror says, all unwarranted hurt and bruised male ego. 

"I did," Denys replies, dripping American insousiance.  "She said 'yes.'"

Vomit! 

Who knows if, instead of gagging, I would have tittered at the tired attempt at humor if I didn't know the truth, but I do know the truth.  Karen Blixen and her entourage were anything but bourgeois in their sexual attitudes.  Here's Karen Blixen, in a letter to her brother, Thomas, on sexual morals:

I have the impression that most people at the moment are in a state of absolute confusion about everything concerning rights and duties in the field of sexual relationships, marriage included.  I think one exception to be found in a small advanced minority, the "smart set" in the larger countries (and to a certain extent my circle of acquaintance out here), where a sexual relationship is more or less regarded as the normal social convention among young people, in which no one - spouses, parents, or former lovers not excepted - have a right to interfere, and where everything is all right, providing neither partner loses his temper or in any way pretends to take it seriously.
Letter to Thomas Dinesen, 19 November 1927, Letters from Africa, p. 323.

The veracity of her impressions is proved by the fact that Bror, far from begrudging Denys his affair with Karen, introduced Denys happily as "my wife's lover" and continued to hunt professionally with Denys - including when the Prince of England was Denys' client.

I don't in any way argue with Hollywood's prerogative to entertain, even at the expense of the truth.  But Hollywood is abusing this liberty when its "entertaining" reimagining is so much less diverting than what really happened.
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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Out of Africa category.

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