Published in 1964, the short story “The Old Chief Mshlanga” by Doris Lessing is probably meant to be set during the early 1950s, the time of new settlers in sub-Saharan Africa. Although the exact country is not mentioned, we can assume that it might be today’s Zimbabwe or South Africa, because the author herself grew up there and the story might have several autobiographical elements, but also because Johannesburg is mentioned in the story.
The main action spans over a year or so from the time the girl meets chief Mshlanga to the time she last sees him. However, the story also includes a lot of background on the girl’s childhood before becoming a teenager and meeting the chief.
In this story, the physical setting plays a very important role which can be easily inferred from the extensive passages dedicated to the description of the natural landscape. Furthermore, the way the physical setting is depicted mirrors the narrator’s changes in connection to Africa and natives. In literary terms, this technique is called pathetic fallacy (reflecting a character's mood in the atmosphere/setting).
In the beginning, the setting is presented as “a sun-suffused landscape, a gaunt and violent landscape” which reflects the girl’s rejection of it, as she dreams of the English landscape she ethnically belongs to. We encourage you to pay attention to this initial depiction which is quite lengthy and detailed. Here is a significant short passage:
In between, nothing but trees, the long sparse grass, thorn and cactus and gully, grass and outcrop and thorn. And a jutting piece of rock which had been thrust up from the warm soil of Africa unimaginable eras of time ago, washed into hollows and whorls by sun and wind...
As the girl’s perspective changes with regards to natives, so does her take on the landscape.
The social setting of the story is as important as the physical one because it is closely connected to the themes of the story, prejudice and racism.
The general social setting is that of an African country during the colonial period when white people settled there, took over the lands and began to marginalise the native population, taking their lands, using them as servants and treating them as inferior people. For this reason, it is important to look at the way the author presents white people and native people in this short story.
The white population includes the girl and her parents, the policeman and government officials. They are arrogant and act in a superior manner to the native population. As a child, the girl was taught to stay away from them or treat them with superiority, and she gradually also came to mistreat them: “The child was taught to take them for granted: the servants in the house would come running a hundred yards to pick up a book if she dropped it.”; “If a native came into sight along the kaffir paths half a mile away, the dogs would flush him up a tree as if he were a bird.”
The same is noticeable in the mother’s attitude; she forbids the girl to talk to natives and mistreats the house help. The father also takes advantage of his superior status in a white-ruled society as he knows that he can keep the village goats as compensation for the damage they caused because the legislation is on his side: