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Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Conrad

Deep Into The Heart of Darkness

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Intense things take hold of you in Africa.

Thus another Conradian journey into the Heart of Darkness commences.

Drink driving by an American who knows it would not happen back in civilization. An old white couple who have become Lifers. The kind of prisoners who have no chance of release. They are trapped, ‘That’s what happens when you stay too long. You become ‘unhinged, paranoid or just plain weird’.

Why are the inhabitants of the darkness like this? Pat Robertson said the Haitians were hit by the earthquake because of a pact they had made with the devil. This blogger, a certain Ms.  Lindsay Morgan who is a ‘communications consultant,’ quoting a New York Times columnist no less, puts out another theory. Culture. Not a lack of culture, but CULTURE.

‘Progress resistant cultural influences,’ the columnist calls it. And what are these? They sound vaguely familiar. We know we have them. We are African and Tanzanian. We recognize these things when we come across them. But what does our voyager think? Because it is the Culture that drives expats like her to become unhinged, paranoid and just plain weird in this here Heart of Darkness.

But what is ‘The Culture’? How does it manifest itself?

The lazy ignorant teller at the post office.

Bureaucrats and civil servants who don’t do their jobs at the Ministry.

Drivers who can’t keep time.

And then the zinger – ‘Corruption is part of the Culture’. Ouch.

But here’s the thing.

Are developing countries responsible for their own development? Well, not really. Not when its being paid for by someone else, like her governments. They don’t act responsible because they don’t feel responsible.


Because they are not blowing their own money.


Because they don’t need to when almost half of the budget is funded by her people! And however much of it disappears and goes unaccounted for, they keep bringing it. And now your partners in development are hooked. And everyone knows, you shouldn’t leave an addict alone in the pharmacy.

But there is no need to be too hard on oneself. Ms. Morgan blames herself for feeling arrogant and careless in those moments when her thoughts turn dark, she feels confounded by the darkness and begins to entertain ideas and theories that make you feel like a ….you know.

Which she most definitely is not! But these things just float into her headspace from time to time. And she wonders why these people are like this. And seeing as she can’t put it down to their…you know, then perhaps it’s their Culture?

But she is wrong. Because in truth she has a limited understanding of what the Culture is. She can’t be blamed for that. It’s not in any books she may have read, artworks she may have seen, theatre productions and films she may have watched. But it is there.

What she has experienced is not ‘Tanzanian Culture’. Tanzanian Culture has nothing to do with the intransigence, corruption, torpor, stupidity, laziness, arrogance and mediocrity. What she has experienced is commonly known in Kiswahili as Uzembe, Ujinga and Un’yoko.

She imagines that only her and her people are aware of the encroaching darkness that threatens to engulf this country, this continent that seems reluctant to better itself. But she is not alone. All those other faces standing in the queue behind her at the post office, the bored idle faces of the people sitting in the reception area at the Ministry, the thousands of commuters who stand waiting for the unscheduled, over crowded, dangerous dala dala to arrive at the stop next to her taxi rank, all those people are as pissed off and confounded as she is at what they are witnessing. The encroaching darkness.

And if she asked them,  they would tell her. They wouldn’t bite. They would nod in agreement with everything she thinks and says about her experiences of Tanzania.

Except the bit about Culture. Which sounds a little….you know.

(H/T Swahili Street)


The Exchange: M.G Vassanji

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M.G. Vassanji was born in Nairobi, Kenya and raised in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He was educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Pennsylvania. Having immigrated to Canada in 1978 with a PhD in nuclear physics, Vassanji began writing fiction while teaching at the University of Toronto. Mr. Vassanji is the author of six novels and two collections of short stories. He won the regional Commonwealth Writers Prize with his first novel The Gunny Sack (1989). He is the first Canadian writer to have won the Scotiabank Giller Prize twice with The Book of Secrets (1994) and The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (2003). Vassanji’s other books include the acclaimed novels No New Land (1991), Amriika (1999) and The Assassin’s Song (2007) and two short story collections, Uhuru Street (1991) and When She Was Queen (2005). His latest book is the historical travelogue, A Place Within (2008). He currently lives in Toronto, Canada. While on a brief visit to Tanzania last month, Mr. Vassanji took a moment from his busy schedule to sit with Serengeti Media for a brief chat.


Below is an edited transcript of the interview:

Q. You were born in Nairobi, grew up in Dar es Salaam and then you went back to University in Nairobi…

M.G. Vassanji: Well, I was sent by the Tanzanian government. To study Engineering. But I left after three months. Because [the government] gives you a free high school education they could in principle tell you what you should be studying. The only thing was they didn’t give me the course that I wanted to study.  And at that time, for some reason, I was following other kids, I had applied to the United States and I even heard that they give scholarships. And I found, actually, I was admitted [with a] scholarship and financial assistance. So I left. And now when I think back on it, it took a lot of courage […] because it was a long way to go.

Q. On Travel

MG: I don’t know, there was something within me which was a kind of a vagrant. I remember once our school was asked to send two or three students to Mkwawa, I was in Tambaza [High School], in Iringa and I said I would go and my mother said, ‘No, I wouldn’t let you go.’ I don’t know why I said [I wanted to go]. I just wanted to go to a different place.  Even though I was brought up in a very close family […] So I suppose it was that thing in me, which despite being very grounded, also wants to get away.  Very contradictory attitudes. I like a place but I also want to get away and return to that place.

Q. On returning to Tanzania

MG: When I went to the United States, I went with all the intention of coming back. To teach. Tanzania was home.

Q. Why do you write?

MG: Now if you ask me […] for me it’s like breathing, it’s not a question I have to justify to myself. If I don’t write, I cannot live. For me it’s the air I breathe. I’ve been lucky, you know. You can say that but can you actually do it and can you do it successfully, can you make a living out of it? Those are different questions. So I may have not written if I had not been successful. That’s why I said when you ask me now, it’s the only thing I want to do. Besides […] some responsibilities, I feel [like] this is what I live for.

Q. How much of your writing is an act of returning, and also of remembering.

MG: I am not sure. Perhaps all. But, there is also in writing […] an exploration going on, a ‘what if?’ […] so there is some element of returning but my last novel [The Assassin’s Song], for example, was set in India.  And you could say that […] was a kind of return, because it was inspired by [questions of identity]… You see, when I left Tanzania [my] Tanzanian identity was there […] But I also now got interested in my Indian heritage. [I] just wanted to find out what it was, why it was […] I didn’t know much about it except the fact that we carried certain things. One of which was the spiritual, not only attitude to life, but it was expressed in certain songs that we had that came from medieval times.  Many of us could not understand them, [or] partly understood them. Some people even now [can’t] understand them but they can be understood. So I took an interest in that, that aspect of my identity. And that’s what I was exploring. When I was traveling in India I could visit places which had direct bearing on this spiritual heritage, spiritual [and] ethnic heritage that I had.  And I thought I would set a novel [in one of these places]. It was […] in shrines. In the Indian language it’s called Dharga. I don’t know what its called in Kiswahili or Arabic, where a holy man is buried and people go there to pray and say prayers and so on. In India there are millions of these [shrines]. And people from all backgrounds, if they find a particular place of significance to them, then they would go. [Actually] there is a place between Mombasa and Nairobi which has [a similar] significance, where some railway worker was buried who was supposed to [have] a spiritual status and when the trains and the buses pass that area, they slow down. In India, there are many [such sites]. One of those, a few of those, had a direct bearing on my own spiritual heritage so I set a novel around such a place. I just imagined what it would be like to grow up there.  But then you could ask, ‘was that a return?’ I say, in a way, it was.  But it was also an exploration of a certain historical situation, what it means in the modern age.

Q. On Identity

MG: I am an African Asian, [but] Canada is where I live [and] where my children [were] born and brought up, so it’s very much a part of me. But I cannot dissociate that from, you know, my heritage or […] the place where I was born, where I grew up where I was formed, you know, sounds and sights [that] I carry with me. Part of […] growing up in Africa, was growing up as an Asian African or as an Indian African, because everyone has a tribe and my tribe was Indian tribe. [There were] certain cultural practices, certain spiritual attitudes, certain foods we ate, and languages. Besides, the sort of language of the land, Kiswahili, everyone had their tribal languages, our tribal language was Kachhi, Gujarati or both. That’s how I saw it. Having grown up here and having gone away, I sort of ask myself, what it is, I cannot say that I am this and no longer that. For me that’s baloney. In the same way that there are people in India who have started following a Holy man who was from the Near East. I don’t believe there was a conversion. It’s just following one tradition and a guy comes and you follow that guy also. In India that’s very common, what’s called hybridity or syncreticity. For me that’s all a part of what it means to be human. You know, If you are talking in [terms] of historical circumstances, and I am told many people are, even in India, where you are many things and when you narrow yourself down it is an artificial construction. I remember when people first went to Canada from Tanzania and I was in the United States, they imagined that they were in a new country. But I had just come as a student from the United States and when I observed them, they lived exactly the way they lived in Tanzania (laughter).  Tanzanians lived in a single building or close to each other.  So, you know, the rhetoric and the inner reality are very different.

Q. What is the role of public history on individual lives in your work.

MG: We were shaped not only by our own history but by history that happened elsewhere. I mean the Cold War had an impact on us. It dictated how our politicians behaved, those politicians then determined our lives. The fact that I had to go to the United States was based partly on [the] ideology of this country, which was affiliated with the ideology of the Eastern bloc countries and an antagonism towards the West. Therefore, going to America had in fact become anathema, it was not seen in a positive light. If you ask[ed] for permission to go to the United States it would not be given. So what I am saying is we were determined in many ways by events outside us and therefore one has to understand […] and it’s also very fascinating. When you put yourself in a small country, in a small town, in a small community and then suddenly you realize that you are not divorced from the world. The First World War had an impact on you, in many different ways. And the second World War had an impact, the independence movement was there [too]. So I find [it] very interesting placing myself, or the people I grew up [with], the community I grew up in, and by extension the town I grew up in, within a context, placing it, in a sense, in a historical situation and extending that into the world. We don’t live in isolation.  We don’t live in historical isolation. We don’t live in political isolation or economic isolation. It’s all part of who we are.  And I think when you get to go away and try to understand, especially the way we were brought up, from the colonies, […] the whole universe suddenly seemed open when I went to the United States, from a small community, small town, very in-ward looking, suddenly you are out in the wider universe, and obviously the questions arise, how do I fit in? Where do I belong? And in what way? The interest in the Indian part of me, the interest in the African part of me was just a part of trying to understand myself in this world that I arrived in.

Q. Who and what are your influences?

MG: I don’t know. There are books that I’ve read which I’ve drawn from. But I discovered them later. [Fyodor] Dostoevsky was one. He was not an influence, but the questioning aspect of his work […] I took a lot of, I wouldn’t say inspiration, [but] I suppose some sort of comfort, you know. As I was saying, when you are out in the wider world, you make discoveries about yourself and you start forming new attitudes, new beliefs. And then you realize, but after all [this] time, people have thought about it, obviously.  [Fyodor] Dostoyevsky was one. He asked moral questions. The questions of faith and guilt. And [Joseph] Conrad was another writer whom I read because of his characters, who found themselves alone in situations and who try to cope and find themselves […] that aspect I found fascinating, when people attempt to find themselves. But I did a lot of reading, experimental European Literature, [Leo] Tolstoy. Nobody who wrote after [Salman Rushdie’s] Midnight’s Children was unaware of it. So it was there. There were other writers, usually different writers for different reasons. Ngungi [wa Thiong’o]I appreciated, although his style of writing is very different. But the fact that he was dealing, again, with very small situations, bringing it out into the world, the Kikuyu world. Again looking at the historical situation with the Mau Mau period […] There may be others, but those I can recall.

Q. What is your writing process?

MG: I never think about it. At present, at this age, I write when I can. I am in the fortunate position of not having to go out to work. Although I did that once. Doing my work and coming home and then write until midnight and putting the baby to bed. At present I can just wake up and go to Starbucks and come back and start writing. Unless I have to assist my wife, she is a small publisher, sometimes I have to assist her also, we’ll discuss a few things. But other than that […] writing for me is not just writing, it’s also reading. So I do a lot of research, in the sense that I read books. And I am writing a book set in Tanzania at present, so I’ve been […] ordering and reading a lot of books on Swahili Culture and on Utenzis and on Muslim movements in Tanzania, and on the Maji Maji wars and so on. For me that’s also writing. And then editing or revising something I have written is also writing. So that I do whenever I can […] I also write, specifically, I pick a time when everybody has gone to bed and I work late into the night. But […] I am not like some other writers with very fixed schedules. I am man of habit. If I start something […] which occurs to me [while] sitting on a chair, then I’ll sit on that chair for months to write […] So it’s not very rigid. But you could say, if you wanted a rough thing, I write at night and in the morning.

Q. What is your opinion of Tanzanian Literature?

MG: People say it is there, but it is very rudimentary. What I am excited about is the poetry, the Swahili poetry, especially the Utenzi. I am not very keen on religious poetry, some of it is very primitive […] I don’t know any Tanzanian literature except ones I have read. The Swahili Utenzi poetry I have read, I think [is] a wonderful tradition of telling long stories and also of dealing with historical events. I know Abdulrazak Gurnah, he can be considered […] Tanzanian, [so] he is there. I don’t know who else. My headmaster [Peter Palangyo] when […] I was in High School, wrote a book, a novel, which was published.  But other than that […] I am sure there are some books [but] it’s not what you would call a national literature.

Q. What is your advice to young Tanzanian writers?

MG: Keep on writing. You can talk about writing or you can just write. And it’s not just to Tanzanian writers, to any young people who want to write, you should just write. Of course by extension sometimes there are no venues to publish, in which case, you start your own venue. You start a magazine. There is a lot of self help that has gone on in the wider world, literary world. So when T.S Elliot went to England he started a literary magazine.  This has happened in many parts of the world. In the Soviet Union, people were producing their own stuff and reading to each other. So you don’t have to wait for an NGO or some foreign aid to enable you to write. It’s really absurd. I remember once I was invited to a conference in Arusha, near Arusha, where African publishers, and some writers, were invited to discuss the problems of African Literature. So there were people from Ghana, from Nigeria, from South Africa, from Uganda, from Tanzania and Kenya and the whole thing was sponsored by the Swedes […] I don’t think you need that.  If you don’t have that sense of pride and achievement then it’s not surprising that there is no Tanzanian Literature.