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Colonialism And Its Discontents: Imagining Africa

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Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness portrays an image of Africa that is dark and inhuman. Not only does he describe the actual, physical continent of Africa as "so hopeless and so dark, so impenetrable to human thought, so pitiless to human weakness" (Conrad 94), as though the continent could neither breed nor support any true human life, but he also manages to depict Africans as though they are not worthy of the respect commonly due to the white man. At one point the main character, Marlow, describes one of the paths he follows: "Can't say I saw any road or any upkeep, unless the body of a middle-aged negro, with a bullet-hole in the forehead, upon which I absolutely stumbled three miles farther on, may be considered as a permanent improvement" (48). Conrad's description of Africa and Africans served to misinform the Western world, and went uncontested for many years.

In 1958 Chinua Achebe published his first and most widely acclaimed novel, Things Fall Apart. This work--commonly acknowledged as the single most well known African novel in the world--depicts an image of Africa that humanizes both the continent and the people. Achebe once said, "Reading Heart of Darkness . . . I realized that I was one of those savages jumping up and down on the beach. Once that kind of enlightenment comes to you, you realize that someone has to write a different story" (Gikandi 8-9); Achebe openly admits that he wrote Things Fall Apart because of the horrible characterization of Africans in many European works, especially Heart of Darkness. In many ways, Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart can be seen as an Afrocentric rebuttal to the Eurocentric depiction of Africa and Native African lifestyle portrayed in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

Throughout Heart of Darkness Conrad uses images of darkness to represent Africa. Darkness is everything that is unknown, primitive, evil, and impenetrable. To Conrad, Africa is the very representation of darkness. Marlow often uses the phrase, "We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness" (Conrad 68), to describe his progress on the Congo. By traveling farther and farther down the Congo, Marlow and his crew get closer and closer to the epicenter of this foreboding darkness, to the black heart of evil. Because of Africa's physical immensity and thick jungles, it appeared to be a land of the unknown where "the silence . . . went home to one's very heart--its mystery, its greatness, the amazing reality of its concealed life"(56). This portrayal of Africa as both a romantic frontier and a foreboding wilderness continues to dominate in the minds of Westerners even today.

Conrad depicts Africa as a land where the prehistoric has been preserved. He describes the journey up the Congo as something similar to a trip on a time machine:

Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings . . . There were moments when one's past came back to one, as it will sometimes when you have not a moment to spare to yourself; but it came in the shape of an unrestful and noisy dream, remembered with wonder amongst the overwhelming realities of this strange world of plants, and water, and silence. And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. (66)

In Conrad's eyes, Africa is a land where the past is sustained. As Marlow goes deeper into the continent, Conrad's depiction of Africa is infused with a sense of fear and loathing, a sense that there is some darker, unknown evil at work.

Of course Conrad's illustration of Africa does not center only on the continent, it carries over to his characterization of African natives. Conrad describes Marlow's first encounter with an African ceremony as, "a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling . . . " (68). He goes on to portray Marlow's reaction to this frenzy of natives "as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse"(69). Conrad's description of these people shows them as crazed, frenzied, out-of-control savages, not an image any turn-of-the-century Westerner could warm up to. Nor could his English speaking readers understand these people to be anything more than beasts, as they only had the written word to go on.

Heart of Darkness was first published in 1902, well past a time when "nigger" was considered an acceptable word to use when addressing, or referring to Africans or African Americans. Despite this fact, Conrad repeatedly uses the offensive slang term in reference to the Africans Marlow encounters. At his first stop on the Congo, Marlow lists the things he sees: "Strings of dusty niggers with splay feet arrived and departed; a stream of manufactured goods, rubbishy cottons, beads, and brass wire sent into the depths of darkness, and in return came a precious trickle of ivory"(46). He groups the Africans coming through the station with inanimate objects, as though they all carried the same value.

Conrad lived through a time when European colonies were scattered all over the world. This phenomenon and the doctrine of colonialism bought into at his time obviously influenced his views on Africa and Africans. Colonialism has been defined by Lee C. Bucheit as "the domination of a people by foreign government and the inability of the colonial subjects to control their own political destiny, often coupled with a degree of economic exploitation and denial of human rights" ("Doctrines on Colonialism" 2). At the time of Heart of Darkness's publication, very few people saw anything amiss with colonialism. From a Eurocentric point of view, colonialism was the natural "next-step" in any powerful country's political agenda. The colonizers did not pay heed to the native peoples in their territories, nor did they think of the natives as anything but savages.

Conrad depicts Africans as though they are "other," not a part of normal humanity. Naturally, Chinua Achebe, a native of Nigeria, shows that the Africans in question (the Igbo tribe) in his novel Things Fall Apart are certainly not "other," they are just as much members of the human family as any other group. Achebe's main character, Okonkwo, is a wealthy and successful member of his clan:

Okonkwo's prosperity

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