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.