Doris Lessing lived a colorful and political life. Having been born in Iran and grown up in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to British parents, Lessing lived the inequalities and injustices of the British Empire in its prime (“Doris Lessing, The Art of Fiction No. 102”). This background is what fueled her political views and writings. Lessing’s collection of short stories African Stories, where “The Old Chief Mshlanga” is included, is one of the earlier books she published, and which literary experts classify as her Communist phase (Doris Lessing, The Art of Fiction No. 102”). Though white, Lessing felt compassion for the people of Zimbabwe who has had to fight racism even in their own country. “The Old Chief Mshlanga” is a psychological realism story that explores colonialism and racism. This book report revolves around the thesis that the story “The Old Chief Mshlanga” is influenced by Lessing’s childhood and experiences growing up in Zimbabwe.
In the 1981 version of African Stories, Lessing explains that she felt that “writing had to be a product of the individual conscience, or soul” (p.7). With this statement, it is logical to contextualize Lessing’s stories within the scope of her life. This context is most salient in “The Old Chief Mshlanga.” This story focuses on the character, one of the elements of a short story, of the fourteen-year-old white girl who is called “Nkosikaas” which means “chieftainess.” The short story is a work of psychological realism, which allows the reader inside the characters’, in this case the narrator’s, thoughts and motivations. The access to the inner workings of the narrator, is akin to having access to Lessing’s inner workings as a writer and activist—a look into her background story, so to speak.
In “The Old Chief Mshlanga,” the girl, who is also the narrator, tells the story of how she grew up in Africa. Through her narration, the readers become aware of the segregation between the colonialists and the locals, and how the maltreatment of the locals seem natural for the colonialists. As young as fourteen, white adolescents are capable of harassing and humiliating black locals they encounter on the streets. Nkosikaas herself is party to this. She roams the land with a gun and dogs to fend off, or if she is in the mood, to scare the locals. Although Nkosikaas’ prejudice is embedded deep from her childhood, this changes when she meets Chief Mshlanga. Old Chief Mshlanga used to own the land that Nkosikaas’ family now owns. Seeing the old chief’s pride and respect changes Nkosikaas’ opinion of the natives. She learns and understands the injustices experienced by the natives in their own land, and in the end sides with them. Even though the Old Chief Mshlanga ended up moving to a reserve and losing his land to the whites, Nkosikaas ends up having more respect and sympathy for the Old Chief and the natives than for her own father.
Doris Lessing and Nkosikaas have a lot of parallelisms. Both grew up in what can be considered stolen land—the land of another group “given” to their fathers by the colonial government. Although Lessing does not speak of having prejudice for herself, one can assume that she, like Nkosikaas, may have imbibed their family’s racism, which is a reflection of the racism of European society. “The Old Chief Mshlanga” is, fundamentally, a coming of age story for the narrator—from a child who is unaware of the injustices around them, to someone who not only understands but disagrees with it. Since Lessing grew up in Zimbabwe, a site rife with racial injustice, she considers these racial issues as her own. Although she is from the group that benefits from colonialism and racism, she chose, throughout her adult life, to side with the oppressed. Given Lessing’s activism as an adult, it is possible that Lessing herself underwent such a coming of age that later on drove her to write about racial issues and other political issues in Africa.
Doris Lessing was always vocal about her opinions and had written numerous essays on controversial issues (“Doris Lessing, The Art of Fiction No. 102”). Growing up in Zimbabwe allowed her to see the problems perpetrated by the whites toward the natives. Although Nkosikaas did not become an activist in the short story, the reader can clearly see that there is a spark in her. Her encounter with the Old Chief Mshlanga opened her eyes to the fact that the natives are as human as she was, and they do not deserve to be treated the way the British Empire treated them.
Lessing, Doris. “The Old Chief Mshlanga.” African Stories, Simon & Schuster Paperback, 1981. https://books.google.com.ph/books?id=hUnYAwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false
Lessing, Doris. “Doris Lessing, The Art of Fiction, No. 102.” The Paris Reviewi, no. 106, Spring 1988, n.p.