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African Landscapes and the Ecological Enterprise in Literature


By Zaynab Ango

In the year 2010, a tourist and I boarded a bus from Kampala to Kigali.  She was a college student from somewhere in Switzerland, on her first safari to Africa. She was flipping through a book with maps and pictures of magnificent scenery. I knew it was a tourists’ guide or a travelogue of some adventurer. Soon as the bus sped past Kampala city, she fetched a camera from her bag; checking and readying it, gaze darting to the window. Halfway into the journey, I noticed the tourist was developing some anxiety. As the neon lights of Kigali welcomed us, a huge disappointment settled on her demeanour. I asked if she was okay, and she told me she had looked forward to taking pictures of human beings living on trees!

The dominant knowledge about African environments informed by Western scientific reports, travelogues, memoirs and fiction has constructed an image of Africa as a pristine wilderness of exotic biodiversity on the verge of destruction due to Africa's ignorance-based environmental culture. Scholars have expressed the view that early Western travel narratives have been hugely influential in producing knowledge about African people and environments; framing Africa in the Western imaginary as an entity constituted by the absence of history and civilisation.

The travel accounts of explorers, missionaries and other imperialist agents portray Africa as a wilderness inhabited by beasts and savages; as once claimed by Theodore Roosevelt, “Again and again, in the continents new to people of European stock, we have seen the spectacle of a high civilisation all at once thrust into and superimposed upon a wilderness of savage men and beasts. Nowhere, and at no time, has the contrast been more strange and more striking than in British East Africa” (African Game Trials). Roosevelt’s is just one in a writing tradition that has scripted a dual image of Africa. On the one hand, it is an enormous, dangerous and destructive place and on the other, a mysterious and enchanting terrain holding immense opportunities. Heinrich Barth's Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa, J. M. G. Le Clézio's The African, Karen Blixen's Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass, and Josef Conrad's Heart of Darkness all feature archetypal descriptions of vast, empty spaces, fearsome wilderness, scorching sun, dry and desolate spaces, dirty and diseased sub-human beings, and enormous natural resources. Marlow’s memorable description of Africa in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness aptly captures the dual view. As a little boy, he was fascinated by the "many blank spaces on the earth, especially the biggest, the most blank so to speak", that he had a hankering after. When he eventually encounters it, "it had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery – a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over. It has become a place of darkness" (11&12).

Like all other representations, these are arguably not some innocent accounts of the writer's encounter with the African space. For the most part, this kind of narrative was inspirational to writers who have continued, even in the 21st century, to depict the African environment as primitive and dangerous. Often, the African landscape is given no intrinsic value. It only has a positive meaning when its raw material is harnessed. Dryton Richard’s seminal book, Nature’s Government: Science, Imperial Britain, and the “Improvement” of The World, have argued that right from the 18th century, the idea that nature can be mastered through scientific knowledge had a mutually enabling connection with the colonial project. Drayton anchors his argument on the crucial role that explorers played in creating "a new planetary consciousness" of wild places, in underpinning Eurocentric views of taking scientific development to uncivilised places of the world. The colonial project cashed on the narrative of wastelands propagated by explorers to sell the idea that agriculture could “reclaim wastelands and make barbaric peoples civilised if guided by scientific planning." These ideas, for example, propelled the planting of economic trees for the economic benefit of the empire, but to the detriment of the colonies' ecosystem as the exotic plants crowded out and killed indigenous plants. It also propelled the expulsion of indigenous people from their homes. Such ideas still obtained in new narratives of ecology and conservation, which often underlie contemporary thinking on conservation. Environmentalists' efforts to preserve flora and fauna in Africa are still based on the same imperial ideologies that historically enabled colonial dispossession of indigenous people from their habitats through images of pure natural landscapes in need of protection by people (Europeans) with proper ecological sensibility.

The idea that Africans threaten nature due to a lack of proper ecological knowledge continues to reinforce new forms of imperialism. Leach and Mearn enunciate this in greater detail in their book, The Lie of the Land: Challenging Received Wisdom on the African Environment (1996) where they submit that much of Africa's environmental development policies are supported by "a set of powerful, widely perceived images of environmental destruction attributed to ignorance-based practices by Africans". Citing a World Bank report that ascribes forest degradation in rural African environments to "traditional farming practices, and livestock's husbandry practices, traditional dependency on wood for energy and building materials, traditional land tenure agreements, and traditional burdens on women," Leach and Mearn argue that none of the so-called ignorant practices have impacted on the environment on a scale as colossal as the extraction of natural resources needed for industrial development.

It is from this perspective that African writers bring environmental history and colonial legacies into conversation with ecology; raising fundamental questions about landscapes, history and politics. My study of Wangari Mathaai’s The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience (1895) and Nadine Gordimer’s Get A Life (2003) serves as a clear example. Both Mathaai and Gordimer portray Africa's environmental decline as the consequence of the long history of capitalist exploitation of its natural resources and the transformation of its environment into a resource base for industrial production at the expense of the balance between human beings and nature and the social conditions of, especially, the poor. Mathaai’s signification of the African landscape emphasises the link between colonialism, capitalism and environmental degradation. Interrogating colonial land use policies, forest depletion and extensive commercialised agriculture, Mathaai demonstrates how these set the stage for the gradual destruction of the Kenyan environment. Similarly, Gordimer depicts how the South African government collaborates with multinational corporations in the production of nuclear energy, the construction of dams in the Akovongo Lake, and a super-highway across the farms and settlements of local people. However, the nuclear reactor will drain the country's vital wetlands and coastline while the surrounding villages will be destroyed by radiation. Obstruction of the Okavongo will alter the connectivity of rivers, streams and trees, while the super-highway will displace communities.

On the whole, Mathaai and Gordimer’s environmental discourse fundamentally highlights the dangers of resource exploitation on the environment, lives and livelihoods of Africans. Hence, any suggestion towards conservation of biodiversity is linked with such threats. The image of the landscape, in their works, ties politics and ecology together, providing an understanding of the ways in which the landscape enables a rethinking of social and political justice in dealing with Africa’s ecological crisis.


Zaynab Ango teaches literary Studies at the Federal University Dutse, Nigeria. Her research interests are in Environmental Literature and Postcolonial Cultural Studies. She participated in the "African Ecologies" workshop, hosted at the British Institute in Eastern Africa, 29-31 July 2023 in collaboration with the Leeds University Centre for African Studies. This blog post is based on the paper presented at the workshop.

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