There’s a long history in Western literature—in all Western media, really—of using Africa to tell stories that are really about some aspect of the West. The Great Eastern, a Newfoundland-centric alt-history public radio satire (previously and previously), might seem an unlikely place to run into an example of that—but it exists. In the fictional version of Newfoundland The Great Eastern builds over its five years on the CBC, we learn about “Newfoundland’s disastrous colonial experiment,” its “brief twenty-year Age of Empire”—the fictional West African nation of Oougubomba, Newfoundland’s colony between 1926 and 1946. Yes, in the world of The Great Eastern, Newfoundland took a direct part in the “scramble for Africa.” We’re told that the Newfoundlanders administered Oougubomba in a fairly brutal fashion, enslaving the local populace, founding settlements like New Botwood and New Pouch Cove, clearing land for settlers from Upper Canada (so-called “Ontarikaans”) to establish plantations. Newfoundland’s interests in Oougubomba were defended by the King’s Own Jowls and Cavalancers (an insider reference to the Newfoundland folksong “The Kelligrew’s Soiree”—one of many that occur throughout these three episodes). The Newfoundlanders were violently expelled by a rebellion in 1946, and contemporary Oougubomba, as experienced through The Great Eastern, demonstrates a fascinating blend of cultures: part Newfoundland, part West African. Relations between the now-independent African state and its no-longer-independent former colonial master have improved. While “in some part of the interior there is still animosity towards the Newf,” for the most part, we’re told, Oougubombans “grin and bear it.”
There are two episodes of The Great Eastern that take place in Oougubomba, episodes 13 (listen) and 14 (listen) of Season 4. In addition to these, episode 11 (listen) serves as a kind of prelude to Oougubomba. Taken together, these three episodes may be the pinnacle of The Great Eastern‘s energy and ambition. These three episodes comprise a risky, complex, difficult-to-parse text.
I find it difficult to write about Oougubomba for all kinds of reasons—not least of all because I’m nervous about my ability to navigate the political minefield these episodes fearlessly zig-zag across. It’s not just that, though. I’m not certain what it is that these episodes are saying. They don’t sum up easily; they don’t constitute a monolithic statement. And that’s a good thing, a symptom of the show’s willingness to challenge authority and convention and its unwillingness to establish itself as a voice of authority or the inaugurator of new conventions. The Great Eastern sets out to do a lot of things, but it certainly doesn’t want to teach. It constantly turns to uncertainty. The Great Eastern builds its alternate universe as part of a disruptive project, and Oougubomba certainly contains disruptive potential.
I began this entry by placing the Oougubomba saga in the context of Westerners-Writing-About-Africa-In-Order-To-Write-About-Themselves. That aspect of the text does exist. At a careless first glance some aspects of the Oougubomba saga might seem unaccountably racist. The name “Oougubomba” sounds like made-up African talk—”ooga-booga”—but, alternately, it also is reminiscent (phonetically and orthographically) of Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso, a country that shares a border with Oougubomba. However, other made-up names are more striking: the capital city of Oougubomba is Bebopaloulah (or “Bebop” for short), for example, and there’s a province called Ramalamadingdong. But are these names, derived as they are from 1950s rock and roll, meant to remind us of the elided African roots of a purportedly quintessential corner of American culture? Or could they be references to the often-ridiculous names that clueless and callous colonialists place on the territories they occupy? (I’m reminded of Babakiueria, a genius satirical short film from 1986, where a band of Aboriginal Australian explorers discover white Australia and colonize the place, naming the entire continent “Babakiueria”, after the site of their first landing—a barbecue area).
This kind of close reading might seem like I’m being overly generous, but by the time these episodes aired The Great Eastern had been sophisticated, intelligent, and deeply nuanced in its treatment of colonialism, race, and culture for four seasons. The Great Eastern was not afraid to offend, but, even (or especially) when it did tread offensive territory, it was always worth taking seriously. These Oougubomba episodes repeatedly signal to careful listeners a self-awareness of the “Westerners Using Africa In Fiction” tradition that it is both part of and critical of. The most obvious intertext is Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and there is no shortage of references made to it—indeed, the plot of the final episode mirrors Conrad’s novella quite closely at times. However, in the prelude to Oougubomba there is also a pointed reference to Chinua Achebe’s famous response to Conrad, a reference that casts everything that follows in a self-aware and critical light. As a result I think the Oougubomba episodes should be read in as generous a manner as possible—with the knowledge that very often it is the colonial touch that is the cause of disorder, strife, and violence.
“Shame the way things went in Oougubomba. Things Fall Apart.”
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The Oougubomba episodes can be read as an allegorical expression of the complex way colonialism is often enacted on a population and enacted by it simultaneously. By creating Oougubomba, Newfoundland’s position as both colonizer and colonized is thrown into high relief. This is true to the nature of the ‘real’ Newfoundland, a settler-invader society that is also kept in a subaltern position within mainstream anglo-Canadian culture. These realities are both elided in popular discourse: Newfoundland is often described as an ‘ancient society’ with an unquestioned birthright to the land it occupies, erasing its colonial and imperial foundation; Newfoundland is not thought of as a distinct society worthy of respect, deferral, protection, and special consideration within the Canadian federation, erasing its nature as a recent colonial acquisition. Oougubomba also mirrors the complex colonial situation of Labrador: Newfoundland administers Labrador, profits from its resources as its native people suffer, in a fashion not unlike its fictional Oougubomban administration. The fiction of Oougubomba dramatizes the complicated but often invisible machinery of colonialism as it exists in Newfoundland by welding it to a territory where Westerners are trained to see colonialism. But isn’t this just enacting the tradition I mentioned at the start of the post—non-Africans telling stories about Africa that are really stories about themselves?
Well, there is really no getting around it: the Oougubomba episodes are that. But I like to think they are smart enough to complicate things a bit. At the end of Episode 4.11, the prelude to Oougubomba, Paul Moth reports live from the dilapidated steamer that is transporting him across the ocean. He hopes that his visit to West Africa will illuminate “the philosophy and folly of Newfoundland’s grand colonial experiment.”
“This reverse voyage of discovery. . . seeking reasons not for going, but for coming. . . What was the whole disastrous colonial experiment but an attempt to right the wrongs that had made us flee the oppression of former colonial powers in the first place?”
Then, as if on cue, he gets violently seasick and the signal fades out, as if the show itself is commenting on this self-absorbed re-inscription of colonial purpose, where the colonizer only sees his own reflection in the people and the land he is going to—is uninterested in it for its own sake. Perhaps this is a good moment to remind ourselves that Paul Moth is an unreliable narrator, well-meaning but a little clueless, and his politics should not be confused with the politics of the text as a whole.
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This episode is the prelude to Oougubomba, and it is largely concerned with making the listener familiar with the fictional nation. All of the regular segments are geared towards this purpose. For example, Kathleen Hanrahan, The Great Eastern‘s book critic, brings a copy of the recently-published Up the Bomba to “Word Works.” Up the Bomba is a typically lurid orientalist travel narrative, wherein the intrepid white man traverses the hostile jungle, a zone unknown to the ‘civilized’ world. But Up the Bomba is merely the newest book from the author of Into the Heart of Gander Bay—and Gander Bay (in Central Newfoundland), everyone agrees, is the real location of the heart of darkness, the actual blank place on the map beyond the reach and comprehension of so-called civilization: “[the author] travelled into the upper reaches of Gander Bay—parts little known to outsiders—and lived to tell the tale!” The luridly-described horrorshow of exotic tropical viruses and parasites that await in Oougubomba cannot compare to the terror and threat of Gander Bay’s “Woolly Nipper” and “Barking Bog Stout.” Immediately, the exotic and dangerous location is made (relatively) less dangerous and (relatively) less exotic by this superlative comparison to the imagined “insider” listener’s home territory. The Newfoundland listener is made to imagine that, to outsiders, Newfoundland is itself an ‘exotic’ ‘wild’ ‘remote’ and ‘dangerous’ corner of the globe, tempering any impulse to view West Africa through a similar lens. But the primary purpose of Up the Bomba is to frighten Paul, to comedic ends. Tales of tropical parasites and viruses do not faze him—he’s been up Gander Bay and he “didn’t find it all that bad” (“Right up Gander Bay?” a sceptical Kathleen asks. “I’m not foolish. I’ve been on the highway up there” Paul responds). However, photographic evidence of the retributive violence enacted upon the Newfoundlanders during the Oougubomban fight for independence in the late 1940s does the trick. The cowardly host finds himself performing an inverse of Monty Python’s famous “What did the Romans ever do for us?” scene in The Life of Brian, and is panicked that he may have to answer for the colonial sins of the previous generation:
Kathleen: Those poor souls are Jowls and Cavalancers sent in to put down the rebellion.
Paul: That’s very harsh treatment, don’t you think? What did we ever do to them? Colonize the place? Burn over vast tracts of forest for betel plantations? Make them slaves in their own land . . .?
The “In the Vault” segment of this first episode is likewise focused on Oougubomba; the Director of Radio, Ish, plays archival tape from when he was posted to Oougubomba by the BCN, in the final days of the Newfoundland colonial regime. Ish plays a recording from when the Carry-On gang visits from England to entertain Newfoundland troops stationed at New Botwood. We hear a clip of the performance, and it is casually offensive to Newfoundlander and Oougubomban alike, reminding us of the many levels that exist in colonialism: the Newfoundlanders, themselves colonial citizens of the British Empire, only occupy and administer the British Protectorate of Oougubomba at British request. They may be willing accomplices of Empire, and enjoy certain powers and privilege, but the British appear to neither like nor respect these Newfoundlanders even though they are reinforcing the Empire against its imminent dissolution—and meanwhile the Oougubombans despise the Newfoundlanders for the very reasons that fail to win Newfoundland respect from the English.
The rest of Episode 11 carries on in a similar fashion. Narrative seeds are planted for future storylines—of particular note is the Universal Public Broadcaster, a retro-futurist conspiracy theory dramatizing anxiety at an increasingly centralized public broadcaster flattening out and ignoring local and regional cultural differences—but the primary function of the episode is to introduce Oougubomba and familiarize the audience with it (Oougubomba had been mentioned casually and briefly in episodes before this one but it was not developed in an extensive manner prior to now).
* * *
This is my favourite of the three episodes, because it is the most focused on creating the reality of the fictional nation of Oougubomba—showing us things we were only told about in the previous episode. The imaginative work of “what would a former colony of Newfoundland be like” begins in earnest—what sort of colonial legacy would be left behind? What if Newfoundland language and culture, so often rendered kitschy and quaint, were instead signifiers of power and colonial oppression?
Language is one of the most striking ways this episode goes about accomplishing its work. In the Canadian and British contexts, Newfoundland dialects have always lacked prestige; The Great Eastern has created a culture where the Newfoundland dialect would have been the prestige dialect for the duration of the colonial era. Thus the Oougubombans speak in a strange blend of stereotypical broad ‘West African’ English and intense Newfoundland English. At several points we hear Oougubombans interacting with each other; the transcription is pure Newfoundland, with no concession made to the understanding of outsiders, but the intonation and rhythm is, again, broadly ‘West African.’
This serious linguistic playfulness is a constant throughout the episode, but has its moment in the spotlight when Paul formally greets his local guide and interpreter. The interpreter offers a deliberate and formal “How’s she goin’ b’y? Welcome to Oougubomba. How’s she goin’, b’y?”; Paul hesitates, no doubt feeling the western anxiety surrounding performances of cultural sensitivity, before delivering the expected formal response: “not bad, b’y!”—it’s as if the Newfoundlander himself, after fifty years of Canadian cultural assimilation, has forgotten exactly how to respond to this most Newfoundland of greetings. Or perhaps it’s as if hearing an informal dialect-specific expression dressed up in a formal context has thrown both the character and, possibly, the listener? One cannot take classes to ‘learn’ Newfoundland English as one would learn an ‘actual’ language, making the guide’s response—”Ah, I see you have been studying!”—all the stranger, funnier, and sadder.
Most of the rest of this episode involves Paul touring around the capital city, Bebop. It becomes increasingly clear that Oougubomba is a mirror-version of Newfoundland, Bertha Mason to its Jane Eyre, maybe. The capital is “so much like the St John’s of [Paul Moth’s] youth—the multicoloured clapboard shanties, the stench of offal and refuse . . . ” But the common trope of seeing a primitive version of the homeland in its African colony is complicated and somewhat inverted here. At the time of original airing, Newfoundland was without question the poorest province in Canada, undergoing economic, ecological, and demographic crises that threatened to destroy it in coming decades. Its culture was marginalized and disrespected within Canada. Oougubombans, on the other hand, have overthrown their colonial masters and have established their own free state. In the capital there are “Independence Square” and the adjacent “Post-Colonial Building”, clearly corresponding to Federation Square and the nearby Colonial Building in St. John’s. Just as the educated and powerful in Newfoundland do not speak in thick Newfoundland dialect (or have mastered code-switching), the Oougubomban dialect, with its clear descent from Newfoundland English, thrives.
So is Oougubomba a Newfoundland power fantasy, a dream of domination issuing forth at its lowest moment, when it was itself feeling the most dominated by outside forces beyond its control or, indeed, understanding?
But Oougubomba is not a utopian version of Newfoundland placed in Africa. Indeed, it is a country with many problems and much unrest. Again, though, these often resemble Newfoundland’s own internal schisms and ruptures. Independence and self-government have not been particularly successful, have not been good for the majority of Oougubombans; this was likewise the case for Newfoundlanders during Newfoundland’s era of self-rule. There is much infighting in Oougubomba, unrest between internal factions, and the place is run by an insane dictator who bears no small resemblance to our own formerly-only-living Father of Confederation Joey Smallwood, especially in his later, more self-aggrandizing years. Like Smallwood, Dr. Dr. Raymond “Big Teach” Yasaidityouwho personally credits himself for dragging his people out of ignorance and poverty. He has grand but technically unsound plans to build a vast hydroelectric dam, and he offers to show Paul Moth the schematics. Paul accepts, saying “indeed, hydroelectricity is big in Newfoundland.” Dr. Dr. Raymond becomes very serious:
“I have studied the Churchill Falls agreement. Your Premier Smallwood was a genius.”
For those not in the know, hydroelectric dams in Labrador have been imagined as the perpetual economic saviour of Newfoundland. Smallwood built the Churchill Falls hydroelectric dam, the largest such project in the world at one point. Dr. Dr. Raymond’s dam will flood vast swaths of remote Oougubomban territory, territory belonging to politically inconvenient rival tribes; Churchill Falls in fact flooded vast swaths of Innu territory (without permission or consultation) in Labrador. And, at the end of the day, the project did not guarantee Newfoundland’s future prosperity; the Churchill Falls agreement, referenced by Dr. Dr. Raymond here, sees the Newfoundland government lose billions of dollars in revenue to the Quebec government every year until 2041; particularly galling during the 1990s, when economic collapse saw Newfoundland’s very future thrown into question. In these ways Churchill Falls, despite being a Newfoundland-led project, merely reinscribed, rather than overturned, Newfoundland’s colonial status within Canada, even as it also violently asserted Newfoundland’s role as the colonizer of Labrador.
* * *
“Paul! If you stay, you can turn back the clock on Newfoundland’s colonial crimes!”
On top of all these other things, the Oougubomba episodes are also a satire about public radio, about its nature, its purpose, its form. This may seem trivial, initially—but these issues are related to questions of culture and representation, especially in a country like Canada, whose public broadcaster is explicitly bound up in building a nation-state that likes to imagine itself as a multicultural federation. This final episode engages with these concerns, and is primarily an allegory about public broadcasting in a time of shrinking budgets, lowest-common-denominator entertainment, and neo-liberal economic globalism.
At the end of the previous episode, in an obvious play on Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, Paul Moth is tasked by the Bomban Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) with travelling up the river Bomba, past the last repeater station, to “downsize” the rebel broadcaster Larry Murphacolo, who is operating beyond the bounds of broadcasting propriety. While the geopolitics of Oougubomba remain at issue—we encounter our first Ontarikaans (an obvious reference to Afrikaans), true believers who resent how Newfoundland “abandoned” Oougubomba—the stakes are about radio, about how public broadcasting should address the populace, what the nature of public broadcasting is. There is a rebel raid on the Ontarikaan compound, and Paul is captured and brought to meet rebel broadcaster Larry Murphacolo, who, it turns out, has idolized Paul’s earlier, more idealistic career, before he “sold out”.
Larry: What did they tell you about me?
Paul: They said that your programming initiatives for the next season were unsound, that you were broadcasting completely outside the boundaries of regulations, and that you’d gone, um . . . insane.
They begin to debate. Paul argues that “it’d be great to continually experiment, to constantly push the envelope . . . but who wants to listen to that?” Archival material from throughout the show’s run on CBC evidences that the CBC was never comfortable with The Great Eastern‘s complicated, deeply textured radio, programming that rewarded and often required careful and close listening. The CBC, as detailed in this previous post, wanted simplistic and unchallenging “ethnic yuks from the regions,” but The Great Eastern constantly pushed at (and sometimes exceeded) the boundaries CBC wished it to remain within; the show did not fulfil the role envisioned for it. The never-credited crew that wrote, acted, and recorded each episode of The Great Eastern were, in their own way, like Larry Murphacolo: rogue idealist broadcasters operating in ways central authorities disapproved of but could not control, broadcasting challenging counter-narratives to the entire nation from disputed rebel territory on that nation’s fringe. The Great Eastern could not have existed without uncredited, sometimes volunteered voice acting and production work from local professionals, artists, and intellectuals who believed in the value of The Great Eastern’s project. In brief: the work that made a creative enterprise as large and complex as The Great Eastern possible was not always licit. The Great Eastern was, in its way, rebel radio. And so, the Oougubomba saga, which began with a wider focus on colonialism, nationalism, and history, narrows its focus at its climax. But even if these final segments are allegory for the show’s cross-purposes and uncomfortable relationship with the CBC, we are reminded again that colonialism and imperialism are still at work even here—that the CBC is an ideological state apparatus, imperial in its nature.
“Paul! You are prostituting your talents to a decrepit post-imperialist beast! . . . if you stay [with the rebels] you can turn back the clock on Newfoundland’s imperial crimes!”
In little more than a year, The Great Eastern would be cancelled (despite receiving consistently strong ratings) by a CBC uncomfortable with its uncompromising and challenging nature. In this way, the Oougubomba saga seems to end on an anarchic note, endorsing rebellion, suggesting that any compromise with an ideological state apparatus is destined to be an unsatisfying one.
* * *
So what was the point of the Oougubomba saga? As I’ve said, it doesn’t really summarize easily; it doesn’t make a monolithic statement. It’s saying a lot of different things in a lot of different ways. Of the made-up tropical diseases lurking in Oougubomba, hilaria, the laughing sickness, is the one that sticks in my mind. The Great Eastern is a comedy; it’s meant to be funny. But it’s also pointed and political cultural commentary. Hilaria is some kind of symbolic warning about the dangers of idiot laughter, laughing without thinking, without understanding what you’re laughing at and why—laughter that has no point to it. The Oougubomba episodes are meant to be funny, but they’re also doing a lot of cultural criticism, and I think it’s telling that the dread disease in Oougubomba is the one that causes empty, pointless laughter.
I also wonder—and this really is me climbing aboard a personal hobby horse, here—if there is something of a warning to misty-eyed Newfoundland nationalists in these episodes—a warning against an uncritical embrace of “Newfoundland was a nation before we were taken over by Canada!” thinking, even as satirical barbs against Canadian imperialism continue. One of the most striking themes throughout these episodes is the transformation of Newfoundland cultural signifiers from seemingly harmless folkisms to relics of imperial power, things left behind by an oppressive regime. It’s funny because it’s so incongruous; in real life, Purity Jam-Jams and the Doyle songbook have never been tangled up in violent expressions of colonial power far from the shores of Newfoundland. But, in these episodes, that is precisely what happens. It’s as if to remind us that Newfoundland nationalism only seems safe and attractive because it has never had the power to express itself in violent and oppressive ways. I find myself reminded that this is the kind of thing ‘real countries’ were getting up to in the 1920s and 30s, and that Newfoundland, even before it joined Canada, was an odd case, geopolitically, full of contradictions: a self-governing colony, a colony with its own colonial possession.