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. She sees the difference between her own farm (which has treated the landscape brutally and made it ugly and unpleasant) and the untainted nature beyond the farm’s boundaries when she goes to visit the village where the chief lives:
It was a wide green valley, where a small river sparkled, and vivid water-birds darted over the rushes. The grass was thick and soft to my calves, the trees stood tall and shapely. I was used to our farm, whose hu...