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THE CONRADIAN NARRATOR; IN AFRICA BUT OUT OF PLACE.

 

 

Shaadi Baylor |

 

 

The Conradian narrator lives. With an eerie echo from the past, Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign re-cements the West’s perception of Uganda as a stagnant and a-historical nation. This effort to end the Lord’s Resistance Army’s (LRA) attack on civilians is nearly twenty years overdue. Such a delayed response to the conflict implies that the enslavement and murder of hundreds, if not thousands, of children by the LRA in the 1980s and 1990s did not transpire, or perhaps do not even matter, to a Western world too comfortable overlooking Uganda. Granted, it is difficult for Western information-consumers to envision the continent outside of a Conradian framework.

Fiction may be the most influential lens through which the rest of the world learns about Africa. In many ways, the continent’s history and literature are often indistinguishable. The delicate balance between fiction and actuality gave birth to Kony 2012, continuing to feed the country’s mythology. In both real life and in fiction, the story’s attitude toward Africa and its peoples comes down to the narrator’s perceived position in this brutal, decades-long conflict. Protagonists such as Jason Russel, the director of the short Kony 2012 film, superimpose their presence on major events, sometimes overshadowing historical developments. How much of Africa does a narrator allow to exist when they themselves are not present to define it? In both literature and reality, outsiders assign themselves the utmost importance when discussing Africa. Yet, when viewed through a different lens, their individual experiences are mere microcosms of the dynamic between Africa and the West.

Perhaps one of the most controversial works of post colonial fiction set in Africa is V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, narrated by Salim, a young man of Indian descent who has left his home on the eastern coast of Africa. Throughout the years that Salim resides in an unnamed town, he has a tendency to make coarse blanket statements about the local citizens. Even as a beautifully written work of fiction, A Bend in the River’s sweeping generalizations about the continent are frustrating; Naipaul refuses to be identified as African yet feels entitled to expound upon developments in the region.

And yet, despite the author’s insensitivity toward post-colonial conflict, insightful moments come to life through the dynamic between Westerners at the local university (the Domain), their attitude towards Africa, and most importantly, the vision of Africa imposed by Westerners upon young African students. Salim explains that “in the Domain, Africans…were romantic…In the town ‘African’ could be a word of abuse or disregard; in the Domain it was a bigger word. An ‘African’ there was a new man whom everybody was busy making, a man about to inherit”. A contentious insight to some degree, but here Naipual makes a statement about a relationship in which outsiders manipulate power dynamics to assign Africans an identity.

And thus it was a refreshing move onto Giles Foden’s The Last King of Scotland. Nicholas Garrigan, the novel’s narrator, is unembarrassed by the Euro-centrism that shapes his experience in Uganda. Interestingly, particularly in relation to other accounts of Africa, Dr. Garrigan does not even begin to make gross statements about the country or the continent. His self-centered, miniscule, and even negligible position in the future of Uganda often renders him incapable of acknowledging his complicity in the deaths of others. Though Foden’s prose pales in comparison to that of Naipaul and at times the subject matter alone compels the reader to continue, this does not bar The Last King of Scotland from becoming a timeless work. Most worryingly, Foden does not tell us how to feel about Africa. In that he loses his authority on the subject. How can we trust a man with no perspective?

I recently returned from a 9-month stay in Uganda, and I understand that this complicates my interpretation of Kony 2012 and literature related to the continent. It seems that in the process of attacking a stereotype, I have discovered in myself the archetype of another: a bright-eyed young Westerner hoping to rectify the wrongs inflicted upon a vulnerable continent. Watching Kony 2012 while living in Uganda was an unnerving, if not wholly disturbing, experience. Sitting in my comfortable home, I listened as Jason Russell used colonial language to convince all too many uninformed viewers that he was the one that had discovered this conflict, much in the way British officer John Hanning Speke, a perpetrator of scientific racism, once claimed to have discovered the source of the Nile. Let it be said that only in the West have either man discovered anything in Africa.