The Old Chief Mshlanga: Literal Analysis

The Old Chief Mshlanga: Literal Analysis



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“The Old Chief Mshlanga”, is a 1951 short story by Doris Lessing. The story is set in Southern Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe). It depicts the deep economic, legal, and social injustices that the native Africans suffered in their motherland at the hands of white settlers.  It gives an account of the oppression and prejudice suffered by natives of South Africa after white settlers came and asserted their authority over natives. This essay endeavours to explore the content of the short story, atmosphere, narrative technique, plot, themes, and language features such as similes and metaphors.


In this short story, elements of Colonialism (for example slavery, oppression, racism, denigration, and racism) are underlined in an attempt to shed light ion the real interests of white settlers in Africa. Black people are depicted as only good as slaves to their white masters.

Mood and atmosphere

The short story assumes a specific tone largely due to the presence of words with a native origin. These have been used in reference to the characteristic nouns of the setting of the story, or the landscape. Examples include “Nkosikaas”, “krall”, and “Msasa trees”, among others. In addition, the story has a detailed and descriptive tone about it owing to the presence of figure of speech and detailed description of the landscape: “a white child, opening its eyes curiously in a sun-suffused landscape, might be supposed to accept it as her own” (Lessing 1951; cited by Hughes 2010, p. 16).

Narrative technique

The story starts from a third person context before giving a general description of its setting. Thereafter, the author tells the story in first person content in an effort to enable the reader get a better understanding of the changes that have occurred in the young girl’s life .



“The Old Chief Mshlanga” is a short story in the form of a fiction genre.



She is the main protagonist (character) of the story. Nkosikaas is a young “white child” living in Rhodesia. At the start of the story, there appears to be conflict between what Nkosikaas has been brought up to believe namely, that the natives are beneath her. She thus views them as mere slaves (Lessing 1973). However, her perception about native changes for the better following an encounter with Old Chief Mshlanga as she gets to observe how he carries himself with respect and dignity in spite of his being African.

Old Chief Mshlanga

Although the author does not provide physical description of the Chief, he is, nonetheless, presented as a man who caries himself “with an air of dignity”. The author further depicts the Old Chief as a wise man given his recognition of the need to coexist with nature in harmony. The fact that he speaks his own native language reflects a deliberate attempt by the author to point at the incommunicability among the two ethnicities.

Nkosikaas’ father

Though a secondary character, he is a symbol of the white supremacy in Southern Rhodesia and mirrors the colonizing mentality of the white settlers.

The Cook

He is the son of Chief Mshlanga and symbolises the likely connection between natives and white settlers. This is evidenced at the final event of the story, where he acts as a translator of the argument between his father (Old Chief Mshlanga) and Nkosikaas’ father.


Nkosikaas meets with Old Chief Mshlanga and his entourage. She cannot help but show dismay at how the Old Chief carries himself with dignity, and this only escalates her curiosity.  In an attempt to satisfy her curiosity, Nkosikaas decides to visit the Old Chief’s kraal. This encounter with the Old Chief changes her perception of Black people and Africa completely (Rogers & McLeod 2004).  She discovers, much to her dismay that the land her family occupies, and which all this while believe was the property of her father, actually belongs to Chief Mshlanga. Nkosikaas further learns that the family cook is a son to Chief Mshlanga and by extension, a future leader of his people. Nkosikaas’ father confiscates goats belonging Old Chief Mshlanga after they are caught on his land. He demands that the Old Chief compensates him for the damage caused on his land oblivious of the hardship his action is likely to cause the Chief and his people. Consequently, the Chief fails to compensate Nkosikaas’ father for the damage caused on his farm, and his people can no longer earn a living. Later on, Nkosikaas’ father moves Chief Mshlanga and his people to a Native Reserve located some 200 miles away.


Prejudice and oppression

A key themes that is very evident in “The Old Chief Mshlanga is prejudice and oppression. Nkosikaas has been brought up by her family, who represents the hundreds of white settlers in South Africa, without any regard for the natives.  Consequently, she grows up expecting to receive deferential treatment from the natives.  However, her perception changes following an encounter with the Old Chief and realises that greatness hinges on the character of a person, as opposed to their skin colour. She reflects on her by standing before her like an equal, the Old Chief showed courtesy that Nkosikaas lacked. Devoid of any resentment, it dawns on Nkosikaas that she has no authority over the old chief. She further understands that the old chief has earned his respect, something that her parents would never admit.   Nkosikaas observes that the respect that the Old Chief deserves seems to have been passed down generations (Lessing 1994). The Old Chief appears to harbour a belief that the land has always belonged to his ancestors, and by virtue of his being the chief, is its custodian. This, eve as the white settlers have resolved to look down upon and oppress the natives solely based on the colour of their skin. The white settlers appears prejudiced against the Black Africans because their views their skin colour as being superior to that of the natives.

Abuse of territory

The natives have owned the land for generations but when the white settlers came, they confiscated their land and converted Africans into slaves on their motherland. This notwithstanding, the natives believe that land belongs to those who cultivate and nurture it. For the natives, caring for land is more important than owning it, which is contrary to what the white settlers believe in (Lessing 2014). The natives thus views the land of Nkosikaas’ father is a mere ramshackle homestead which is barely cultivated and hence of limited value to them.


Pride, coupled with the deep hostility between the settlers and the natives prevents them from having a dialogue. However, language barrier is also a contributing factor to this incommunicability. When Nkosikaas encounters the   Old Chief, she cannot help but observe that he was speaking in his own language, prompting her to think that may be he was afflicted by Nkosikaas’ own shyness as she lacked “the right forms of courtesy for the occasion” (Lessing 2014, p. 55).  In the text, Lessing underlines the important role of language in communication. In this case, the white colonizers seek to impose their supremacy over the natives even via language. For this reason, natives are compelled to learn English, as evidenced by the chef’s mastery of English. However, the white settlers know very few African words, a clear depiction that they viewed their language as being superior to that of the Africans.

Language features

The story contains various language features such as similes and metaphors.

With regard to similes, the author has used a number of these: “The black people on the farm were as remote as trees and the rocks” (Lessing 2014, p. 48 ). What the author means by this sentence is that the natives are far removed from Nkosikaas’ reality. The author has further associated natives to animals: “they could tease a small black child as if he were a puppy” (Lessing 2014, p. 50). The author has also used similes to show us that the girl was aware of the differences between her own culture and that of the natives: “it was if I stood aside to watch a slow intimate dance of landscape and men, a very old dance, whose steps I could not learn” (Lessing 2014, p. 51).

The story has also used metaphors to express the white man’s conception of the natives: “they were an amorphous black mass”, “mingling….like tadpoles” and “faceless”. The metaphor, “the dogs and the gun were an armour against fear” as used by the author implies that Nkosikaas derives physical and psychological support from the gun and dogs.


In “The Old Chief Mshlanga”, Lessing has deftly depicted elements of oppression, slavery, and racism to depict the plight of native Africans following their colonization by white settlers. The author has used first person narrative in the later chapter of the story so that the reader can have a glimpse of the experiences of white settlers from the eyes of the young girl. Prominent themes in the story include oppression and prejudice, incommunicability, and abuse of territory.


Reference List

  • Hughes D (2010). Whiteness in Zimbabwe: Race, Landscape, and the Problem of Belonging. London: Springer.
  • Lessing D (1973). This was the old chief’s country. London: Joseph.
  • Lessing D (1004). This Was the Old Chief’s Country. London: Harper Collins.
  • Lessing D (2014). African Stories. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Rogers D & McLeod J (2004). The Revisions of Englishness. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
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