This continues last week’s post, with excerpts from my essay, “Laurence of Africa.”
Nearly a decade later, in her 1970 Preface to A Tree for Poverty, Laurence regrets that she “was in places unwittingly condescending, in the manner of white liberals, out of pure ignorance, for Somaliland was my first contact with a culture other than my own, and I had much to learn about the validity of human differences — I still have, but at least I know it now.” It seems that the further away Africa became, the more ambiguous she was about her African work. In a January 1969 letter to Al Purdy, she writes that she is uncertain whether to send him copies of This Side Jordan and The Prophet’s Camel Bell, because the “first is amateurish, which is not strange, seeing as it was written by an amateur, and the second is not true enough, being non-fiction.”
Both Guy Vanderhaeghe, in his afterword to The Tomorrow-Tamer, and George Woodcock, in his afterword to This Side Jordan, cite Laurence’s 1969 address, “Gadgetry or Growing,” a discussion of the exigencies of voice and form in her work. Laurence mentions Nathaniel’s inner monologues in This Side Jordan, and wonders how she had “the nerve” to write from an African man’s point of view. Her ambiguity comes through: “I am not at all sorry I tried it, and in fact I believe from various comments made by African reviewers that at least some parts of the African chapters have a certain authenticity. But not, perhaps, as much as I once believed.”
By looking at her short story “The Pure Diamond Man,” in The Tomorrow-Tamer, we can see how the character and the story together set the point of view. It is told from the point of view of a Ghanaian, Tetteh, to another Ghanaian, Daniel, a “been-to” (been to study abroad), whose dialogue reveals both his correct use of English and his cynicism. Laurence, by the way, is brilliant at capturing Tetteh’s English, particularly the tendency to use words that are archaisms to us, as in: “Do you remember, Daniel, drinking strong brews together, you and I, while hiding behind the latrines, before you go off to England for college and to learn drinking of sherry and other dainty potables which by no means having liveliness enough for healthy African stomachs?”
Tetteh tells Daniel about how his luck ran out when he conned a white man (the “diamond man” who owns diamond mines), Philip Hardacre. Laurence paints Hardacre with the heavy-strokes of her anti-imperialist brush. Tetteh meets Hardacre in a chop bar, where Hardacre is sneering at the Ghanaians dancing to high-life music. Hardacre accuses Tetteh and friends of “selling your birthright for a mess of gramophone records.” He confesses to Tetteh, “I thought it would be different here.” When asked what he was expecting, Hardacre boasts of his extensive anthropological reading and confides his quest for “the pure customs.”
The brief conversation offends Tetteh; insult upon insult makes him clench his fists. He indicates complete indifference to Hardacre’s knowledge and quest — until he learns that there is money to be had from the white man. These are hard words, but life in Africa is hard, especially if you are obliged to live on luck. Tetteh swallows his contempt for Hardacre to take advantage of the rich man, and offers to take him to a remote village where “the pure customs” continue. He hires a truck, and takes Hardacre along an unused road (avoiding the main road), to his own village, where he has already prepared his family to participate in the charade. His father dresses up as a ju-ju man (fetish priest) and Tetteh’s brother plays his helper. Laurence’s description makes quite clear that their costumes have nothing to do with custom. Tetteh controls the absurd situation by offering false translations of what people say. But they are caught.
Just as two boys are lowering the summoned snake through a hole in the roof, along comes the Reverend Timothy Quarshie of Saint Sebastian Mission. He has this day converted the last person in the village — the real ju-ju priest. When he discovers he, too, can profit from the white man, he whisks him away, and rather than burning the talismans, sells them to Hardacre, who will buy them only if he sees them used. So Hardacre that night watches a ritual by the swamp’s edge. As a result, he gets malaria, and falls into the care of Quarshie, who is not very sympathetic when Hardacre complains about the dysentery that adds to his misery.
Laurence has prepared us for this story with earlier stories. In “The Drummer of All the World,” the attitude of Matthew, a missionary’s son, can be summed up by one sentence: “I suppose we have to thank men like my father for the sad fact that there are so few carvers of any merit left in West Africa.” This sentence shows Matthew’s shame of his father, his nostalgia, and his unawareness that Africans have also turned away from the past. He is cured of his childhood penchant for fetishes, and of his adult nostalgia for “the old Africa,” by his friend Kwabena, who, if he had been rich and white, would have studied to be a doctor, but is instead a medical orderly. Kwabena equates the past with sickness and fear. He tells Matthew that even his father, the missionary, did not want the Africans to stay trapped in the past.
In “Godman’s Master,” and “A Fetish For Love,” we see how the ju-ju priests were guilty of exploitation. In these stories, Laurence has prepared us for Tetteh’s lack of respect of “pure custom,” and for his desperate need. She has further developed that desperate need through Nathaniel, in This Side Jordan, whose poverty is described in painful detail. Arrogant towards the Ghanaians, and seeking a past from which they are still recovering, the blundering Hardacre deserves what he gets.
If the story had been written from Hardacre’s point of view, it would have been a very different story, about how a wicked African had tricked him for his money. It would not have been funny, as it is now. The British narrator would have pictured the malaria and dysentery as his own unique visit with death, when they are in fact everyday occurrences. To tell the story in a way that sends up Hardacre, Laurence could not have told it any other way; to do so would have been at the expense of the Ghanaians. Yet tell it she must, because for Laurence, the imagination, together with language, is a means of understanding our fellow human beings.