The Presentation of Africa and Africans

Student Juliette Mann examines Conrad’s and Achebe’s contrasting presentations of Africa and Africans in Heart of Darkness and Things Fall Apart.

Conrad’s and Achebe’s novels both concern life in Africa in the nineteenth century, with one offering the viewpoint of the invader and the other the invaded. Conrad, as a colonist tries to convey the mystery and fear that the continent instils in him, while Achebe seeks to explain the very mysteries that Conrad evokes. The language of the novels differ greatly, with Conrad  hypnotising the reader with long, enigmatic sentences that represent the inscrutability he is trying to express, while Achebe similarly employs simple and direct language communicate his explanations. Throughout the novels the presentation of Africans and their home are central concerns – both of which are presented in completely contrasting ways.

Physical Appearances

The presentation of the physical appearance of Africans is one of the most apparent differences between the novels, with Heart of Darkness describing them as pure physicality, vitality and animalism, while Things Fall Apart enhances the readers understanding of the minds and lives of the characters. The first Africans Marlowe encounters in Heart of Darkness are described as having “bone, muscle, a wild vitality” and that their bodies “streamed with perspiration.” The “intense energy” Conrad vivid describes emphasizes the physicality he associates with the Africans, but does not attempt to penetrate into their minds or mentality. The animalism of the lines – “wild” and “streamed”- shows them to the readers to be little more than safari animals, a concern Achebe points out is Conrad’s “obsession with the physicality of the negro.”1 Conrad does not see them as anything but fascinating bodies as he believes them incapable of intellect. Achebe on the other hand, immediately plunges the reader into the complex society and mind of the Ibo by immediately addressing Okonkwo’s reputation and social standing: “Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements.” By opening the novel so simply with such blunt short sentences, the readers are immediately confronted with not a visual image of Okonkwo, but sense of power and respect; rather than the mindless energy that Conrad evokes. In this respect the idea that African society is structureless and “inexplicable” is completely disproved. The use of the word “solid” with its connotations of strength and certainty is also a complete contrast to the metaphoric, embellished descriptions that Conrad employs, that Achebe labels “racist mystique”2 while FR Leavis describes as “adjectival insistence upon inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery.”3

Conrad continually arouses the inexplicable animalism he sees in the Africans – “…just limbs and rolling eyes,” “his brother phantom” and “bundles of angles” that ultimately reduce their humanity to nothing but their appearance.  The physicality, one could say if a compliment to the Africans in Heart of Darkness- as “the colonialists are flabby devils…obese and degenerate,”4 but with the all-important attribute of civilisation. The Africans, like Africa are the untamed antithesis of their European counterpart; none more so than in the comparison between the two lovers of Mr Kurtz – the grieving European “intended” and her African parallel. Here, more than ever Conrad evokes mysticism and inexplicability to describe Kurtz African partner: “a wild, gorgeous apparition.” This suggests she is not human, merely a spirit of the wild, untameable forest from which she came. He describes her as “treading the earth proudly, with a slight jingle and flash of barbarous ornaments.” Her movement conveys the regal presence he senses, but he immediately shatters this illusion of power with the word “barbarous”. Even an “apparition” he considers to be queen-like in grace is nothing more than a savage covered with beads. Achebe’s own description of a young woman covered with similar accessories contains none of the mystery of Conrad’s: “Cam wood was rubbed lightly into her skin, and all over here were black patterns drawn into the uli. She wore a black necklace that hung down in three coils…” the bluntness with which Achebe describes the woman gives a more realistic portrayal of woman at the time where women were the property of their husbands and held virtually no power within their family or tribe. In this sense Achebe demonstrates the Europeans’ understanding of Africa and its people as inaccessible and mystical purely stems from ignorance. Achebe’s honesty makes the woman accessible to the readers giving her humanity. Conrad drapes her in mystery shrouding her humanity from the readers until she becomes, in his words “like the wilderness itself.”

African Speech

Another way in that Conrad reduces the humanity of the Africans and reduces the readers access to their minds is to remove their command of language, while Things Fall Apart places specific importance on the wisdom and poetry of the native language. Heart of Darkness regularly gives the reader glimpses into the sounds of the forest, including the noise of the Africans. When not silently dying in mangroves, they are “a mass of hands clapping, feet stamping…” and “they howled and leaped and spun…” Conrad initially reduces their communication to the percussion of hand claps and foot stamps that later evolves into the howling and occasional grunts. Achebe’s portrayal of Africans couldn’t be more different: Okonkwo, inflicted with a stammer, finds his compromised ability to speak so debilitating he becomes violent – “when he could not get his words out quickly enough he would use his fists.” Which highlights that far from being a “percussion based” culture, language is of the paramount importance. The characters that are the most highly respected – for example Ogbuefi Ezeugo – are those with the greatest skill with words. Ogbuefi is described as a “powerful orator” before any description of his appearance, which suggests that in the tribe, reputation – be it for courage as Okonkwo’s or as an accomplished speaker a Ogbuegi’s is highly valued and widely known. The only Africans to speak in Heart of Darkness have a poor grasp of English, and as Marlowe does not suggest they have a language of their own it seems their brains cannot accommodate speech. The cannibals on Marlowe’s ship only break out of their short grunts to say “Catch ‘im. Give ‘im to us.” When asked what they would do him they replied “Eat ’im.” Achebe’s response to this is “In the case of the cannibals, the incomprehensible grunts that had thus far served them for speech suddenly proved inadequate for Conrad’s purpose of letting Europeans glimpse the unspeakable cravings of their hearts.”6 demonstrate his belief that the decision to confer the power of speech upon the Africans was merely to degenerate them further into savages.  Achebe’s novel contests entirely the savagery that Conrad emphasizes, in part through the continual inclusion of profound proverbs. “Let the hawk perch and let the eagle perch” is a particularly astute and poetic example that deepens in power with the coming of the English. Achebe’s constant concern with language embeds itself in the style of the novel which reflects the melodious tempo of the spoken Igbo language, further presenting the Africans as in command of a lyrical tongue, proving that the European idea that the African language was either inexistent or base was/is unfounded. Achebe describes how “It is clearly not part of Conrad’s purpose to confer language on the “rudimentary souls”7 of Africa. They only exchanged short grunting phrases.”5 which touches upon another conflicting concern between the novels – namely Achebe sees Conrad as dehumanising Africans while see seeks to reclaim their humanity.

A Question of Civilisation

Conrad’s most distinctly debasing description of an African “ritual” leads him to question whether he can possibly have a relation to the “prehistoric man”. He describes how “they howled and leaped and spun and made horrid faces, but what thrilled you was just the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar.” Conrad presents the Africans as in a “frenzy”,  “a whirl of black limbs” and describes what he is witnessing as like “an outbreak from a mad house.” He cannot accept that the movements and sounds can have a purpose. To him what he is witness to proves that the “rudimentary man” has no control over himself – it is not accidental that the description has connotations of primates in a state of excitement. The readers are led to believe there is no sane structure to the “rituals” in much the same way Marlowe only half allows himself to believe there can be any degree of spiritual meaning in the distant drum beats he hears, only timidly suggesting they could be the equivalent of bells ringing in Europe. Achebe incudes and goes into great depths to explain the intricate meanings behind the rituals that Conrad dismisses as animalistic. The drums are continually referenced – they have the power to convey long messages and announce events, such as the wrestling match where “the drums beat the unmistakeable wrestling dance – quick light and gay…”, they are “like a pulsation of its [the village’s] heart”. Readers immediately see the drums as instruments used intricately; they have many functions – spiritual and otherwise. The rituals themselves the drums announce are full of the passion that Conrad describes, but with a dignity that Marlowe is blind to. The funeral of Ezeudu is one such example, where Achebe also uses the words “frenzy” and “violent” to describe the intense passion the funeral evokes, but one does not see these as derogatory or mindless. There is a structured order to the “madness”: “… warriors came and went in their age groups” suggests that a planned and concise structure of proceedings is followed which is emphasized in the line “but before this quiet and final rite, the tumult increased tenfold. Drums beat violently and men leaped up and down in frenzy.” Despite the appearance of senseless energy that Marlowe dismissed as “prehistoric”, the funeral of this “great warrior” does follow a format and it is part of the culture for him to be honoured in this atmosphere of excitement. Achebe’s inclusion and explanation of the ceremonies that Conrad dismissed, challenges the assumption of Africans as barbaric as every moment of energy has a purpose and has been ordained and executed as such.

The assumption that Africa is “backwards” extends to the continent itself. Immediately Conrad draws parallels between the Rivers Thames and Congo – with the Thames having emerged from its barbaric past and “shackled” by the Romans, while the Congo continues to believe in tribes and magic. In Achebe’s words “we are told that ‘going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world.’”8 Conrad compares the vitality of the “monstrous and free” continent to the “shackled form of a conquered monster” of Europe. Constantly Conrad’s readers are told of the inexplicability of the wildness, the untamed jungle of the “black and incomprehensible frenzy” but Achebe’s are presented with the rationalisation of Conrad’s irrational vision. Achebe evokes spirits and danger in his account of a dark night, using language such as “Darkness held a vague terror for these people… fear of evil spirits…Dangerous animals became even more sinister and uncanny.” creating a still yet tense atmosphere, which could be read as the very implacable force that Conrad was trying to evoke. The difference is that while Conrad left his readers to their imaginations to explain the “darkness” Achebe offers explanation. Despite their spiritual dimension, the very description of the landscape removes an element of its unworldly nature. Achebe finishes the passage “a vibrant silence made more intense by the universal trill of a million forest insects” which at once gives the readers another in depth explanation of what contributes energy that Conrad finds so terrifying. His descriptions of the forest: “The great wall of vegetation, an exuberant and entangles mass of trunks, branches, leaves, boughs, festoons, motionless in the moonlight, was like a rioting invasion of soundless life.” matches Achebe for atmosphere and the evocation of energy, but once again does not offer any explanation to why he feels that life ought to be restrained and shackled as it is in Europe, but readers are left to determine that this riotous life is offensive in its vitality, in a similar way to the people.

It is true to say that Conrad never tries to define Africa, or rather it is defined through the mystery that is constantly evoked, which in itself is the very antithesis of European order. Achebe does define the landscape – the sounds, be they made by insects or people, the rituals of the people and the land itself become more accessible to readers and elevate them above mysterious inexact descriptions that Conrad offers until we view them not as a foil of Europe, but as an equal.


1 Out of Africa – interview with Caryl Phillips for The Guardian, Saturday 22 February 2003
2 Chinua Achebe “Named for Victoria, Queen of England” New Letters (40)3 (Fall), 1973
3 Image of Africa by Chinua Achebe. The Massachusetts Review. Vol 18. No 4 (Winter 1977). Pp. 782-794
4 Cedric Watt’s response to Image of Africa
Image of Africa by Chinua Achebe. The Massachusetts Review. Vol 18. No 4 (Winter 1977). Pp. 782-794
6 ibid
7 ibid
8 ibid