The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics and Places
The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: History from the Inside
“Whatever happens, the hour of man has struck in Africa.” This is Nadine Gordimer traveling through the former Belgian Congo in 1960, before it became Zaire and just before tribal war and secession plunged its territories in blood. She started at the Atlantic, and made her way to the cataracts, to Leopoldville (Kinshasa), and on by river steamer for another thousand miles to Stanleyville (Kisangani). There she left the Congo River, and headed east through the Ituri forest to Kivu and the Mountains of the Moon. If she had stayed with the boats and gone up the Lualaba, she might have found another white intellectual confronting Africa, as Conor Cruise O’Brien prepared to lead UN troops against the rebellious Katangese gendarmerie.
When Gordimer wrote that the hour of man was striking, she was reflecting after a long climb in search of mountain gorillas. She meant, initially, the hour of man as opposed to animals. Africa had passed through a million years first of animal dominion, then of man-animal condominium. There followed a century, or less, in which the white colonial powers tried to declare a renewed “hour of the animal.” Game reserves were set up; killing game for the pot became the crime of “poaching” for Africans in these areas. Certain species were declared protected; trades in this hide or that horn were banned. Africans, especially as their populations began to soar and to press against limits of arable land and pasture in the twentieth century, became sarcastic about the white attitude to “the natural creation,” and about the apparent white preference for animals over men. In those years, it became a habit for whites working in the new African cities to drive into the local game park after office hours. There, among baboons and elephants, they experienced a healing from the irritations of trying to make Africans work like European wage slaves. “God, if the animals weren’t so much more decent and intelligent than the people, I would go home on the next boat,” one used to hear.
With independence, in the second half of the century, the hour of man began to strike. Gordimer wrote in 1960: “It is doubtful if the Congolese…will be able to look upon elephants as anything but potential food.” And “by the time the Africans have secured confidence in their place in the twentieth century, it may be too late to remedy the sacrifice of the beasts.” She remarks that “the truth is that the domain of the beasts has long been a puppet kingdom, upheld by white governments not only by means of game preserves and sanctuaries, but, more important, by stringent hunting laws outside them. Once the continent is ruled independently by the Africans themselves, it is unlikely that they will be able to regard the beasts as anything but a supply of meat and an obstacle to the expansion of farmland.”
In another travel report in this collection, written about Botswana in 1970, she comes back to …
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