Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions and Mariama Ba’s Scarlet Song: How Female African Writers Conquer Patriarchy, one Novel at a Time
In several respects, American writers have use literature as a means to promote equal rights for women; however, these writers are often white females – or even white males. While these writers are certainly able to uncover a variety of aspects that American society needs to change in order for it to maintain or attain equality for women, they often fail to shed light upon the trials that women face in countries that possess societies that are much less accepting of a woman’s independence. Part of the reason for why there is not a wide range of novels written about women in other countries, such as Africa, is due to the difficulty that women face in getting their works published; for instance, if their works are overly feminist and reflect African society in a negative way, then it is less likely that African males will publish their works. As a result, female African writers must be clever and subtle in exposing the injustices of their society. Indubitably, Tsitsi Darangebma’s Nervous Conditions and Mariama Ba’s Scarlet Song pave the way for African women to fight against patriarchy and the gender stereotypes that constrain them, and they do so by by writing about female protagonists that learn to defy society’s expectations.
Dangarembga partly uses Tambu’s yearning for education in Nervous Conditions to expose how women in Zimbabwe are provided with unequal opportunities in comparison to men. In Thompson’s “Common Bonds from Africa to the U.S.: Africana Womanist Literary Analysis”, she mourns the idea that “Africana women the world over, in their day to day acts of survival, reflect a different paradigm because their problems are unique and more disparate than those of any other group of women throughout the world” (Thompson 178). Women from countries such as America or England might not even fathom the idea that men would prevent the from certain liberties, such as attaining an education; these progressive societies simply imply that women may seek as high a degree of education as they so desire. However, such is not the case in certain African countries, which is why Dangarembga has so much to report regarding inequality in Zimbabwe.
Throughout Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions, it quickly becomes apparent that the female characters face obstacles that are not as common – or common at all- in other countries; primarily, Dangarembga demonstrates that women in Zimbabwe are not encouraged to be educated. When Nhamo goes off to acquire an education at the mission school, Tambu is not provided with the same opportunity as her brother. With limited fees, the family perceives it to be more important that Nhamo, as a male, be the one to attain an education. Although one might argue that Tambu’s parents eventually allow her to be educated, patriarchy is still present due to the fact that she is only permitted to gain an education because of her brother’s death. At that point, her father knew that one of the children needed to be educated and, with Nhamo deceased, it now had to be Tambu. By demonstrating the extent of obstacles in which Tambu has to face simply to acquire an education, Dangarembga exploits Zimbabwe’s failure to provide women with opportunities to reach their full potential as members of society.
In order to change the way that African society views women – and the way that women view themselves- Dangarembga depicts Tambu as a young women who, through perseverance, gradually proves society’s perception of a woman’s level of ability to be incorrect. When analyzing how female African writers now work to transcend the traditional form of writing that she believes male writers often use, Uwakweh uncovers the flaws with the majority of works created by men. She suggests that, in patriarchal based literature, there exists a “recurring tendency in male fiction to emphasize traditional or conventional images of the African woman as wife and mother or to make rebellious females suffer the tragic fate of the nonconformist” (Uwakweh 75). Undoubtedly, this tendency to depict women in stereotypical roles and the implication that women, who do step outside of the norm of patriarchy, are eventually punished deeply sets African women back in their conquest for freedom, independence, and progression.
Fortunately, Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions challenges these stereotypes of a traditional woman by using Tambu as an example of a strong female protagonist. Despite the fact that Tambu’s father tries to stunt her independence and knowledge by originally only providing her brother with an education, he is not able to prevent her from taking initiative to accomplish her goals. Tambu’s initiative is apparent in the instance in which she spends time growing her own vegetables in order to gain a profit. It is only because of Tambu’s self-made business that causes Ms. Doris, feeling sorry for a young girl having to work so strenuously, offers to pay for Tambu’s education. Once she is given the opportunity to be educated, she submerges herself in her studies and does not take them for granted. By using Tambu to surpass her culture’s expectations of her as an African woman, Dangarembga challenges audience members to alter their preexisting perceptions of how much a woman should be permitted to live her own life. Dangarembga’s challenge is notably significant because, when stereotypes about women only being capable of completing household chores are continuously demonstrated within literature, it enforces society’s idea about African women and, thus, further works to entrap them inside the bounds of patriarchy.
Just as Dangarembga uses Tambu’s character to expose patriarchy, Ba uses Scarlet song for a similar purpose; however, the difference lies in the fact that Ba’s protagonist, Mireille, does not come from an African society. While on the surface, Ba’s novel appears to be about romance, it is much more so meant to illustrate how a patriarchal African society places unrealistic expectations on women through its assignment of gender roles. According to Berndt in her “Hotbeds: Black-White Love in Novels from the United States, Africa, and the Caribbean”, “Bâ attends to the interests of a white woman married to an African man”; as a result, Ba can be placed in the minute percentage of authors whose protagonists do not reflect both the author’s gender and race (Berndt 221). While Ba is an author from Senegal, her protagonist is Mireille, the daughter of a French Diplomat, who moves to Senegal when she marries Ousmane. It is Ba depiction of a female, French protagonist that allows her to publish such an anti-patriarchal novel ; in a way, she sneaks in the idea that it is justifiable for Senegalese women to stand up for themselves by using a white woman as a metaphor for the Senegalese women who share in her struggles.
Along the same lines of the idea that Ba takes a jab at patriarchy by fooling her audience into not noticing that she is doing so, Ba partly justifies Mireille’s rebellion against patriarchy by originally creating her character to be one that does everything that a stereotypically respectful, African wife should do. According to Thompson, Ba portrays Mireille as a “wife, mother, dutiful daughter, intellectual, politically aware female and devout Muslim. The heroin cooperatively juggles this multiplicity of roles, never complaining until her husband breaks the collective struggle in his desertion of her” (Thompson 179). Thompson goes on to explain that, because Mireille is able to content herself with such a vast array of changes within her life, she fulfills two of the traits that African Womanism would suggest makes her a “flexible role player and Adaptable [woman]” (Thompson 179). Thus, Mireille’s character not only serves as an example of a respectful woman but also as an example of one who abides by African males’ standards of women by being a woman is who comfortable with moving away from her own family to join her husband in Senegal. As a result, Ba evokes sympathy from her readers, who see that even Mireille, a woman who persistently tries to live up to Senegal’s standards by leaving her home and culture behind to please her husband, still loses in the end.
In order to demonstrate patriarchy’s unachievable standards, Ba portrays the extent in which Mireille still struggles to be accepted in Senegal, despite all of the sacrifices she has already made to join her husband. Furthermore, Ousmane’s mother is one of the main forces that Mirelle has to go against in order to gain acceptance from members of the Senegalese culture, without losing her own identity in the process. The influence that Ousmane’s mother’s values have upon Ousmane’s and Mireille’s relationship is a prime example of how patriarchy affects those who are trapped within its constraints. For instance, Mireille’s mother in law does not approve of Mireille because she does not fulfill the stereotypical roles of women, such as cleaning and cooking, and she does not appreciate Mireille’s education, because, according to her own values, education distracts a woman from being able to complete her household duties. Even though Mireille, in several respects, immersed herself in Senegal’s culture, others still judge her due to the African society’s unrealistic expectations of Senegalese women (Thompson 179).
Because Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions and Ba’s Scarlet Song portray female protagonists who work to step outside the barriers that society attempts to constrain them in, both works prove to be prime examples of progressive literature that inspire other women, who are trapped in patriarchal societies, to conquer the gender roles that others place upon them. While there is much to learn regarding the obstacles that white woman in America have had to surmount in order to gain the independence that they long for, it is just as vital for readers to recognize that there are women in other countries who are still struggling for the basic rights that the majority of American women have already attained. When living in countries, such as Zimbabwe and Senegal, that do not necessarily support the idea a woman governing her own decisions, female authors must discover creative methods of revealing the unfair expectations that patriarchal societies place on women; if their stories are too outwardly critical of their society, then their works will not likely be published by male publishers, who wish for their country to maintain a positive image in the world’s perception. These female authors especially realize the necessity of their works being published, because they long to use their writing to reach women in need of inspiration and hope.
Berndt, Katrin. “Hotbeds: Black-White Love in Novels from the United States, Africa, and the Caribbean.(Book Review).” Research in African Literatures 37.1 (2006): 157. Web.
Thompson, Betty Taylor. “Common Bonds from Africa to the U.S.: Africana Womanist Literary Analysis.” Western Journal of Black Studies 25.3 (2001): 177-84. Web.
Uwakweh, Pauline Ada. “Debunking Patriarchy: The Liberational Quality of Voicing in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions.” Research in African Literatures 26.1 (1995): 75-84. Web.
The Relationship between Colonization and Mental Health in Nervous Conditions
Tstisi Dangarembga, author of Nervous Conditions, depicts Nyasha, Tambu’s first cousin, as a product of the hybridization of British and African culture throughout the entire novel. Certainly, Nyasha’s British customs are very prominent even when she returns to Africa, for she spent the majority of her childhood years in the United Kingdom. Her first appearance in the novel clearly illustrates her British customs and Tambu’s strong disapproval of it; Tambu describes her cousin’s appearance, explaining that Nyasha “obviously had [been to England]. There was no other explanation for the tiny little dress she wore…. I would not give my approval” (Dangarembga 37). Despite the fact that she chose to wear a dress that “hardly covered her thighs” (Dangarembga 37), Nyasha does, in fact, realize that she “shouldn’t have worn it” (Dangarembga 37). Similar to this situation, Nyasha, a hybrid, faces many other internal battles regarding her British and African customs. Through an analysis of Nyasha’s behavior, I will argue that escaping one’s hybridity is impossible due to the permanent psychological alterations one experiences as a product of conflicting cultures. Ultimately, Nyasha, a hybrid, attempts to revert back to her Shona-self, but ironically in doing so, she employs Western tactics and experiences nervous conditions.
As a child, Nyasha was forced to accompany her parents to Britain while they received a higher education. Scholar Lindsay Pentolfe Aegerter explains that “she returns to Rhodesia at the onset of puberty” and she has “become ‘European’, understood best as middle-class, urban, Western” (Aegerter 237). Due to her childhood years spent in the Western hemisphere, upon her return to Africa, Nyasha no longer adheres to African customs; she regards Rhodesian customs as a foreign concept. The timing of Nyasha’s move to Britain is crucial to the understanding of her as a hybrid character. According to “The Development of Children Ages 6 to 14” by Jacquelynne S. Eccles, a child is often the most impressionable during his / her prepubescent years. As she explains, “The years between 6 and 14—middle childhood and early adolescence—are a time of important developmental advances that establish children’s sense of identity” (Eccles 30). Precisely, the most impressionable years of Nyasha’s life are the same years she spends living in England. Even Nyasha herself realizes this. She confides in Tambu: “You know it’s easy to forget things when you’re that young. We had forgotten what home was like. I mean really forgotten – what is looked like, what is smelt like, all the things to do and say and not do and say” (Dangarembga 79). In correlation with Nyasha’s realization, author Eccles continues to explain, “During this period, wherever they spend time, children acquire the fundamental skills considered to be important by their culture” (Eccles 33). Following this logic, Nyasha’s development and employment of Western customs even when she returns to Africa can be easily understood. Even when carrying out simple tasks, Nyasha clearly depicts her absorbance of Western culture. For example, she eats with a fork and knife – a British custom – rather than eating with her hands – an African custom. Ultimately, she grew up immersed in Western culture, and therefore, that is the culture by which she subconsciously continues to abide.
Throughout the entire novel, Nyasha’s internal battle between her conflicting cultures causes her to behave irrationally. On the onset of Nyasha’s return to Africa, she is cross with her parents for putting her through the traumatic experience of cultural shifts. She expresses to Tambu her desire to have remained in Africa, saying, “We shouldn’t have gone … The parents ought to have packed us home” (Dangarembga 18). Immediately, Nyasha realizes that her childhood years in England will have a negative effect on her wellbeing during her adolescent years. Specifically, her broken relationship with her parents, especially her father, is a direct impact of her time in England. Tambu, who abides by an African way of life, believes that “Nyasha ought to be more respectful [to her mother]” (Dangarembga 75). In a conversation between Nyasha and her mother, Nyasha openly disobeys her mother’s order to not read postgraduate level books, responding with “It’s only a book and I’m only reading it” (Dangarembga 75). Although to us readers it may seem as though this is a typical conversation between mother and daughter, the type of defiance Nyasha displays is unheard of in Rhodesian culture, which is why Tambu disapproves of it. More frequently, though, the readers can see Nyasha and her father disagreeing. While discussing her father, Nyasha remarks to Tambu, “I can’t help it. Really, I can’t. He makes me angry. I can’t shut up when he puts on his God act” (Dangarembga 193). Nyasha’s behavior in the scene can be seen as contradictory to her earlier behavior, as explained in the paragraph above. On one hand, when she returns from Africa, she clings to her Western identity as a source of comfort. On the other hand, she now finds her father infuriating because he is a symbol of Western culture; by disobeying her father, she is, in turn, rebelling against her Westernization. Again, her conflicting behaviors show the inescapability of hybridization. Occasionally she rebels against her Western culture, yet she also occasionally clings to it.
During a quarrel regarding Nyasha’s late return to the mission, Babamukuru calls his daughter a whore and worries about how others will view her behavior. Eventually, he cries in anger, “Do not talk to me like that, child…. You must respect me. I am your father” (Dangarembga 115). In a clear rebellion of her father’s demand of respect, she responds, “Now why should I worry about what people think or say when my own father calls me a whore?” (Dangarembga 115). Again, her insubordinate behavior towards her parents reflects her revolt against Western culture, which her parents represent. However, ironically, to protest against Westernization, she actually employs the Western concept of standing up to one’s elders – a concept that is widely frowned upon in African cultures. Her intentional rejection of Western ideals in this scene counters her earlier embrace of Western culture. Also, though, her rejection of the Shona tradition of submission conflicts with her desire to revert back to Africanism. These conflicting viewpoints and ironic behaviors portray the difficulties and confusion she faces as a hybrid. Essentially, she is “stuck” between British culture and Western culture, and she is unsuccessful in becoming “unstuck”.In the piece “Negotiating Social Change in Tsitsi Dangerembga’s Nervous Conditions”, the authors D.A. Odoi, Lesibana Rafapa, and E.K.Klu attribute the confusion Nyasha faces as a hybrid child solely to her time abroad in England. The authors attempt to make sense of Nyasha’s behavior as a direct reaction to her hybridization: “She is a Shona but has lived in England for such a long time that it has been made difficult for her to shed her anglicization and revert to being an African” (Odoi 155). With her inability to revert back to Africanism, as already explained, her behavior often conflicts with the behavior her father wishes she demonstrated. In one instance, her father hides her book, and she demands that he return the book due to her belief that she is entitled to the freedom to make decisions – ironically, a Western idea. Odoi, Rafapa, Klu analyze this specific argument: “Nyasha protests by walking out of the dining room, and this is naturally regarded as being ugly or disrespectful because passiveness is expected from a girl or a daughter or female by the section of society epitomized by the traditional Babamukuru.” (Odoi 156). The authors continue to write that Nyasha chooses “not to conform to the traditional roles prescribed by the conservative segment of her Black African society” (Odoi 156). I agree with this piece’s argument that Nyasha does indeed resist her father’s rules and does indeed stand up to him. However, I also contend that Nyasha’s purpose of defying to her father is to reject Western ideals, which Babamukuru represents. Nyasha’s defiance of a customary African woman’s role shows her inability to revert back to her Shona-self due to the opposing Western beliefs that are now engraved within her. These conflicting viewpoints result from the inescapable nature of hybridization.
A direct result of Nyasha’s hybridization is her development of bulimia. Similar to the disobedience she exerts towards her father, her eating disorder is also a means of defying Western culture. The readers can easily trace her poor eating habits as they develop into bulimia. Throughout the text, there are many instances in which her father has to force her to finish her dinner due to her refusal to eat. In one specific example, when Nyasha objects to eating dinner with the family, her father scolds her: “You will eat that food. Your mother and I are not killing ourselves working just for you to waste your time playing with boys and then come back and turn up your nose at what we offer. Sit and eat that food. I am telling you. Eat it!” (Dangarembga 192). After a few mouthfuls of her dinner, Nyasha expresses to her father that she has had enough, yet he insists, “she must eat her food, all of it” (Dangarembga 193). In my opinion, Nyasha’s refusal to eat her food is another way to challenge her father and his Western culture. Similar to the way in which the vomit rids her body of food, she is attempting to rid herself of her hybrid culture. However, it is ironic that she develops bulimia as a rejection of British culture because the disease itself is a Western one. The majority of Rhodesians barely have enough food to sustain themselves, yet Nyasha, who is fortunate to have an abundance of food, wasted it by means of self-inflicted vomit. Essentially, as a sufferer of colonialism, Nyasha develops “nervous conditions” due to the complicated life she lives as a hybrid child. Her employment of a Western force – bulimia – to combat Westernization shows just how torn she is between her two conflicting cultures and how difficult it is to “undo” hybridization.
Author Lindsay Pentolfe Aegerter explores the roots of Nyasha’s nervous conditions in her piece “A Dialectic of Autonomy and Community: Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions”. She claims that when Nyasha rebels against her father in an attempt to revert back to her African self, she fails. Consequently, Nyasha employs an alternative tactic to once again return to her Shona roots – destroying her body. Aegerter writes, “When her resistant diatribes fail, she uses her body to rebel. As her father asserts his authority by forcing her to finish her food every night, she asserts her autonomy by vomiting it up.” (Aegerter 237). I too agree that she uses her body as another method to react to the suffering she feels as a hybrid and to revolt against Westernization. To further her argument, Aegerter explains that, “Her bulimia signifies her refusal to swallow a sexist ideology she cannot and will not stomach…. The irony is that in turning from the unpalatable patriarchy of her father, she destroys her body through the eating disorder bulimia, a Western disease” (Aegerter 238). I agree with Aegerter that Nyasha ironically develops a Western disease in a refusal to swallow an ideology. However, I believe that aside from her refusal to swallow is her father’s sexism – an African belief –, she is also refusing to stomach Western culture. Nyasha tells Tambu, “It’s more than that really, more than just food. That’s how it comes out, but really it’s all the things about boys and men and being decent and indecent and good and bad. He goes on and on with accusations and the threats, and I’m just not coping very well” (Dangarembga 193). In essence, the bulimia that Nyasha develops is a direct result of the confusion she faces as a trapped hybrid. She is simply unable to make sense of her views on African patriarchal values and her conflicting Western values; she does not know by which ideology to abide. Consequently, her bulimia signifies her fight against her uncertainty and these contradictory ideologies she has experienced as a hybrid.
The chapter “Colonial War and Mental Disorders” of the book A Wretched Earth by Frantz Fanon explains the impact of colonization on one’s mental health. Fanon, who has thoroughly studied the ties between colonization and mental health, claims that this feeling is not uncommon among people who live a colonized country. He writes, “since 1954, we have drawn the attention of international psychiatrists in scientific works to the difficulty of “curing” a colonized subject correctly, in other words making him thoroughly fit into a social environment” (Fanon 182). Aware of the fact that her parents consider her a disappointment and her friends judge her for white ways, Nyasha feels as though she neither fits the mold of an English adolescent nor a Rhodesian adolescent, again validating her belief that she is a hybrid. She finds it very difficult to connect with her classmates, causing her to spend the majority of her time excessively studying. Her fixation with schoolwork can be seen as an escape into a different world – a world lacking conflicting cultures. Psychiatrists classify the inability to conform socially, among other actions, “under the heading ‘psychotic reaction’” (Fanon 183). Essentially, experts in the field of both colonization and mental health claim that the detrimental mental conditions experienced by Nyasha and many other colonized subjects are a direct and incurable reaction to hybridism, which explains Nyasha’s inability to adhere to African beliefs, as she once did earlier in her life.
Author Fanon also notes, “the defenses of the colonized are tuned like anxious antennae waiting to pick up the hostile signals of a racially divided world. In the process, the colonized acquire a peculiar visceral intelligence dedicated to the survival of body and spirit” (Fanon ix). The “peculiar visceral intelligence” Fanon refers to is the ability of the colonized to see the world from a different perspective. With the two radically different cultures present within her, she is unsure how to merge these multiple views into one whole person, creating “nervous conditions”. Throughout the entire book, Nyasha can be seen fighting for her survival, which entails learning how to live life as a hybrid. Ultimately, rather than succeeding in her goal, Nyasha learns that the mixing of the two cultures, British culture and Rhodesian culture, is impossible due to the fact that the values of each culture contradict each other. She desperately longs to return to her African self, yet, ironically, she is so Westernized, she attempts to rid herself of Western culture by using Western tactics, depicting to the readers that she is trapped by her hybridity.
Aegerter, Lindsay Pentolfe. “A Dialectic of Autonomy and Community: Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, vol. 15, no. 2, 1996, pp. 231–240. www.jstor.org/.
Eccles, Jacquelynne S. “The Development of Children Ages 6 to 14.” The Future of Children 9.2 (1999): 30. Web.
Fanon, Frantz, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Constance Farrington. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove, 1965. Print.
Odoi, D. A., Lesibana Rafapa, and E. K. Klu. 2014. “Negotiating Social Change in Tsitsi Dangerembga’s Nervous Conditions.” Sosyal Bilimler Dergisi/Journal Of Social Sciences 38, no. 2: 151-158.
The Early Effects of Colonialism on Tambu’s Gender Roles and Oppression
Nervous Conditions, a buildingsroman by Tsitsi Dangarembga, focuses on the life and education of Tambu, a young girl, living in Rhodesia. After the death of her brother, Tambu moves from her homestead into a mission with her uncle and his affluent, educated family. As colonialism spreads through Rhodesia, Tambu’s gender roles constantly change.
This paper will use history, literary criticism, and textual evidence from Nervous Conditions to examine colonialism’s early effect on Tambu’s gender roles and her oppression. The historical account, titled “Patriarchy, Capitalism, and the Colonial State in Zimbabwe”, by Elizabeth Schmidt, published by the University of Chicago, discusses the ways colonialism and patriarchy were used to control women in Zimbabwe. The article focuses on the views held of women and the way capitalism helped shape gender roles. “A Dialectic of Autonomy and Community: Tistsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions” by Lindsay Pentolfe Aegerter, from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, is a literary criticism explaining how Nervous Conditions provides a history for a group that has been “silenced, elided, and ignored in the colonial equation” (Pentolfe Aegerter 232). The article discusses Tambu’s need for independence and what she learns by seeking it.
By examining two specific experiences before Tambu starts her life at the mission, one can see how colonialism and oppression permeate through her life. While she is living on the homestead, colonialism affects her education and independence. Within a day of living with Babamukuru’s family, colonialism has already changed Tambu’s journey to be educated. How does colonialism affect Tambu’s gender roles and the oppression she experiences before she is completely submerged in her new life?
According to Schmidt’s article, “the household, as well as the international economy, has been a fundamental locus of gender stratification, and thus of African women’s oppression” (Schmidt 733-4). This is seen when Tambu’s father comments on her fondness of reading: “Can you cook books and feed them to your husband? Stay at home with your mother. Learn to cook and clean. Grow vegetables” (Dangarembga 15). Her father holds a traditional view of women. Believing women are best suited to work for the family, he dismisses his daughter’s desire to learn while his son is still living. African women were “best” controlled when they were dependent upon their husbands’ access to land and income (Schmidt 738). They were seen as “good mother[s]” when they stayed at home with their children unable to earn money (Schmidt 739). This colonial view resonates in the text:
My mother said being black was a burden because it made you poor, but Babamukuru was not poor. My mother said being a women was a burden because you had to bear children and look after them and the husband. But I did not think this was true…I decided it was better to be like Maiguru, who was not poor and had not been crushed by the weight of womanhood.
Tambu’s ability to see the changes that are taking place within her family is evident. She does not believe she should stay at home to be “crushed by the weight of womanhood” (Dangarembga 16). Tambu’s desire to learn leads her to steer away from the native gender roles. She sees the example of her aunt and uncle who are both wealthy, educated, and black and realizes that she can achieve what they have as well if she works on her own which sparks her idea to grow maize.
Tambu, in her quest for schooling, asks her parents for seed so she can “clear [her] own field and grow [her] own maize….just enough for the [school] fees” (Dangarembga 17). Mimicking what she learned from her grandmother, who was “an inexorable cultivator of land, sower of seeds and reaper of rich harvests…until her very last moment”, Tambu worked in her grandmother’s garden and tended to her maize (Dangarembga 17). In Rhodesia, “the labor of women generated food crops and guaranteed continued access to lineage land” (Schmidt 735). While Tambu’s grandmother and mother were tied down to growing crop for the family, Tambu found her own way to change the normal gender role and avoid oppression. She worked in her family fields for her benefit.
While going to sell the maize, Tambu questions everything she does not understand and it “became evident to [her] that [she] had no alternative but to sell [her] maize and go back to school” (Dangarembga 27). Tambu was not working for anyone’s gain other than her own; she worked around the fact that her family didn’t have enough money for her schooling. Tambu was no longer “dependent” on her father’s “access to land and cash income” (Schmidt 738). She broke away to earn her own money to support herself and momentarily overcomes her father’s patriarchal oppression. Pentolfe Aegerter discusses the change that occurs because of Tambu’s choices:
Although [Tambu] strives for the autonomy her father’s family denies her, an exclusive focus on her individuality negates the communal ethic of her family and culture and risks embracing Western mores that privilege the individual over her community.
Pentolfe Aegerter 235
Tambu looks to become more independent but this changes her relationship with her family and her community. She veers away from the traditional role of valuing the community over oneself and works on her own for individual gain instead of working for her family’s benefit.
While “the control of women’s and children’s labor by older African men was central the establishment and consolidation of colonial rule in southern Rhodesia”, it was not the only way women were subordinated (Schmidt 734). By mixing indigenous and European structures of patriarchal control, new structures of domination were created (Schmidt 734). This “new structure of domination” is seen when Babamukuru talks with Tambu the night of her arrival (Schmidt 734).
After Tambu’s brother dies, she “becomes the equivalent of the male first born, [by] inheriting his privileges as a way to escape sexism” and moves in with Babamukuru (Pentolfe Aegerter 235). Babamukuru calls Tambu into talk with him and she is sure to not sit “so disrespectfully close to her uncle” (Dangarembga 87). She follows the traditional rules concerning patriarchy in order to not disrespect her uncle. Babamukuru sees himself as Tambu’s “father” and “take[s] some time off from [his] work to speak to [Tambu] as a father should speak to a child” (Dangarembga 88). Filled with gratitude, Tambu realizes the “extent of the sacrifice” Babamukuru made in order to pick her up from the homestead because “the work he had missed…was the work that paid [her] school feels and bought the food that [she] was to eat in his house”(Dangarembga 88).
Babamukuru ensures that Tambu understands what he went through so she could benefit. In a new form of oppression, Babamukuru makes Tambu feel that she is in debt to him. This forces Tambu to feel like she must do well in school and be a good person in order to repay Babamukuru for his generosity. Babamukuru explains to Tambu the many benefits of his munificence:
…Babamukuru had summoned me to make sure that I knew how lucky I was to have been given this opportunity for mental and eventually, through it, material emancipation. He pointed out that the blessing I had received was not an individual blessing but one that extended to all members of my less fortunate family, who would be able to depend on me in the future as they were now depending on him….at the mission I would not only go to school but learn ways and habits that would make my parents proud of me. I was an intelligent girl but I had also to develop into a good woman, he said…
Babamukuru exerts his patriarchal control over Tambu through his discussion with her. He tells Tambu that his actions are going to help make her free through the knowledge and wealth education will provide her because of his generosity. While Babamukuru says Tambu is an “intelligent girl” his support of her will make her into a “good woman” (Dangarembga 89). The traditional idea of a “good woman” changes; while woman were once expected to stay at home to raise a family, Babamukuru’s idea of a “good woman” is effected by colonialism. He is helping turn Tambu into a “good woman” by providing her with a good education which will make her wealthy allowing her to support her poorer family members.
Before moving in with Babamukuru, “Tambu [is] determined to escape the sexism of her father and the poverty that is colonization’s lingering legacy to rural Africans…”, but while she lives with Babamukuru, she learns that the “escape from her father’s sexism… is no escape at all” (Pentolfe Aegerter 234). The patriarchal power has transformed and begins to change Tambu. Forced to rely on Babamukuru for support, she feels required to succeed to show her gratitude for the help and in order to help her family in the future. She is no longer seeking education for herself; she is seeking knowledge to help and repay her family.
Tambu’s quest for independence and education changes her type of oppression she experiences and her gender roles. Tambu believes the self she “expected to find on the mission would take some time to appear” but Tambu begins to change before she has spent a week living with her uncle (Dangarembga 86). Colonialism started to change Tambu’s gender roles when she cultivated and sold her own maize in order to pay for her education. While her father’s patriarchal and monetary control was still intact, Tambu found a way to work for her individual benefit. Once she moved in with Babamukuru’s family, Tambu became a victim of a new patriarchal power and gender expectations. Expected to succeed in school out of gratitude for her uncle’s sacrifices, Tambu’s education is needed to help her family in the future. Colonialism forces Tambu’s independent nature to change; her education is no longer only for herself. Tambu is forced to mix new and old ideas about gender roles. She takes from old traditions, like respecting her male elders, and allows colonialisms availability of education to make her new gender role. She draws on the desire to work for the community and her family while she is seeking education to help support them in the future. Because the “African women’s autonomy is predicated upon and inseparable from her place within her community,” Tambu will always be tied to her Rhodesian culture even when she is being educated while embracing colonialism and seeking independence (Pentolfe Aegerter 233).
Pentolfe Aegerter, Lindsay. “A Dialectic of Autonomy and Community: Tsitsi Dangarembga’s
Nervous Conditions.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 15.2 (1996): 231-238.
• This article was published in the journal of Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature. The author, Lindsay Pentolfe Aegerter works at The University of North Carolina at Wilmington. This literary criticism is used to explain how Nervous Conditions acts as a history for an oppressed group. It is used to discuss the value of the group and the individual in African society. It is also used to discuss what Tambu learns about seeking independence.
Schmidt, Elizabeth. “Patriarchy, Capitalism, and the Colonial State in Zimbabwe.” Signs:
Journal of Women in Culture and Society 16.4 (1991): 732-56.
• This article was published in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society and The University of Chicago. This historical account is used to discuss the ways colonialism and patriarchal oppression were used to control women in Zimbabwe. It focuses on the views held about women during that time. The article is also used to discuss the way capitalism shaped gender roles.
Limitations on a Female African in Nervous Conditions
In Nervous Conditions, the main character, Tambudzai, feels restricted within her family and culture because she is female. The people of Rhodesia assert very traditional roles for men and women; the women cook and clean, while the men go to school and earn money. In this culture, females are not supposed to desire an education or a career, they are to get married and be a good homemaker. Tambu decides not to abide by this way of life, the life her mother and father expect of her. She is eager to leave the homestead and live a British life. What she doesn’t realize is that she is at the lower end of the spectrum because she is a female and an African. She is treated unequally within her own society because she is female, and she will be treated unequally in a British society because she is African. Even if her family permits her to attend school, what will she be able to achieve with her education? Tsitsi Dangarembga, in Nervous Conditions, conveys the idea that the society that introduces opportunities for a better education for African women, is the same society that limits these women’s potential. She does this through the British education system in Rhodesia, the patriarchal role of women in the Rhodesian culture, the idealization of the British lifestyle, the expendable position of Babamukuru at the mission, the profound education of Maiguru as well as her limited use of this education in Rhodesia, and Nyasha’s epiphany.Tambu is very young, but she has very mature ambitions for herself. She feels strongly that she does not want to be solely educated in the wifely duties, especially when a formal education is a fairly realistic option for her. The education that exists is an English education, run by Catholic missionaries. The schools are expensive and considered prestigious, but the best education can be obtained by studying in England. For a common Rhodesian family such as Tambu’s, the only priority is to educate their sons. Although females are accepted into the schools, it not typical for a family to send their daughters to school, unless they have the money to do so. In Tambu’s case, the resources are not there. Her family is in poverty, making tuition for school almost impossible. However, when it comes to their son, education is a necessity. Tambu has resentment towards her brother because of this fact. Her brother also belittles her and her younger sister, knowing that girls have this predestined place in society. He made his opinion clear in saying to Tambu, “Did you ever hear of a girl being taken away to school? With me it’s different. I was meant to be educated” (Dangarembga 49). Tambu did not want to accept such a life, taking care of a man, as her fate.Tambu’s brother is not her biggest obstacle. Her father is not on board with her request to go to school. He expresses his stance by saying, “Can you cook books and feed them to your husband? Stay at home with your mother. Learn to cook and clean. Grow vegetables” (Dangarembga 15). In the Rhodesian culture, a son is more valuable to a family because he will remain as a member of the family for all of his days. The son will be the one responsible for caring for his parents in their old age. A daughter, on the other hand, is not as valuable. She will marry into another man’s family, consequently leaving hers, and only be beneficial to her husband. In Tambu’s father’s point of view, there is no purpose to education his daughter because she will be of no use to him in the future. This is an unfair and sexist presumption. Does her father not care of the success and happiness of his daughters as well as his sons? Though he is unable, financially, to provide an education for Tambu, he does not have to be so condescending at the thought of his daughter wanting to better herself. With no other option, Tambu is determined to raise the money for her tuition without the support of her family. She is successful.Tambu is receiving the education she wanted so badly. She is living with her uncle, Babamukuru, the man who is most admired in her family. He is well educated and successful. Tambu sees how his family is so prosperous, and connects this with the fact that they live a predominantly British lifestyle. Babamukuru, and his whole family, spend a great deal of time in England, and return very different. Her cousins do not act in their old African ways anymore, nor do they speak the language. Almost every aspect of their life is British, which to Tambu, seems almost God-like. She illustrates, “Babamukuru was God, therefore I had arrived in Heaven. I was in danger of becoming an angel, or at the very least a saint, and forgetting how ordinary humans existed” (Dangarembga 70). She desired this lifestyle and all that it can offer to her. Because of this, she strongly believes that in order to make progress, she must leave old ways behind. Little does she know that, among the whites at the mission, Babamukuru is considered replaceable. By changing his culture, he is unable to change his skin color, which will hold him back as long as he works at a job within the English society. Even with all of his education, he is unable to achieve equality with them.Tambu is unaware of the fact that although she may be equally entitled to a British education as a female, she may not be as equally entitled to a respectful career as an African among whites. At the same time, an educated female in Africa will never reach her full potential. No matter where Tambu decides to be, she will be prohibited by at least one aspect of her identity. This truth reveals itself to her after talking with her aunt Maiguru.Maiguru earns a Master’s degree while in England, despite her family and husband’s disapproval. She has great dreams for herself, as does Tambu, but has to put them away for the sake of her family. She explains her situation to Tambu, “What it is, is to have to choose between self and security. When I was in England I glimpsed for a little while the things I could have been, the things I could have done if- if- if things were- different. But there was Babawa Chido and he children and the family. And does anyone realize, does anyone appreciate, what sacrifices were made? As for me, no one even thinks about the things I gave up!” (Dangarembga 101-102). After hearing this and perhaps relating it to her own possible future, Tambu feels mournful for Maiguru’s losses. The loss of her dreams, her goals, her ambitions, her independence, her self respect. Tambu can’t believe how Maiguru is deprived of the opportunity to make the most of herself. At this point, Maiguru has accepted her decisions and all that she sacrificed, which makes it even worse. Tambu knows what she wants and won’t let anyone get in the way of it. Maiguru knows what she wants, could have had what she wants, and knowingly walks away from it because she knows she can’t have the best of both worlds. At least Maiguru still works and earns money, which wouldn’t have been an option had she not been educated. But that money doesn’t belong to her, it belongs to her husband to provide for himself and their family. Maybe it will feel more worthwhile if her sacrifices are at least acknowledged and appreciated.Babamukuru doesn’t realize that he has put his wife in the same position that he is put in by his family. They depend on him, as the most successful member of the family, but do they understand all of the hard work he put into his schooling to get to life of luxury of which he has achieved? Sure, he has the resources to help the struggling members of his family, but they mustn’t take it for granted, or work any less hard to provide for themselves.Living in England will have disadvantages as well. Tambu can never reach her full potential in England because she is not considered equal to the whites. At least in Rhodesia she is considered an equal as an African. Tambu also learns of the bad that can come from the English culture as she watches her cousin, Nyasha, turn into a stick-figure. The culture that Tambu once longed to be a part of, has taken its toll on her cousin and her perception of beauty. She is beginning to realize that the influence of the English culture is not what she thought. Perhaps this new culture is worse than she once thought her own culture to be. Her eyes open to the truth when Nyasha awakes in the night and speaks of the how the colonizers have ruined her exclaiming, “They [the colonizers] did it to me… Why do they do it, Tambu, to me and to you? Do you see what they’ve done? They’ve taken us away. They’ve deprived you of you, him of him, ourselves of each other. We’re groveling. Daddy grovels to them. We grovel to him. I won’t grovel… Their history… Their bloody lies… They’ve trapped us. I won’t be trapped” (Dangarembga 200- 201). This powerful epiphany is not overlooked by Tambu. After seeing her own cousin fall, the girl she grows so close with, the girl who is so willful and headstrong, she ponders how she will ever survive. She decides that she should begin to question her surrounding and every aspect of the society that she was so quick to surrender to. She’s not going to be brainwashed any longer. Nyasha warns Tambu earlier in the novel, “It’s bad enough when a country gets colonized, but when the people do as well! That’s the end, really, that’s the end” (Dangarembga 147). This is the truth. Tambu realizes that maybe she was too eager to leave the homestead. Had she not had a complete flip in her perception, she would not have been able to retell her story with such transparency. It is a more neutral insight that she offers the reader about her struggle between African and English traditions. But as it comes to be known, sometimes it’s the unknown lifestyle that you desire, that will destroy you. The Africans are victims of Englishness, not blessed by it.The colonizers expect to barge in, educate these people to “better” their country, yet not accept them as an imperative asset within the country that they are educated to be like. It is such an unfair position that these African females are put it, especially when they know that can achieve so much more than a degree in chores and gardening. It is amazing how Tambu refuses to let poverty or her father stand in the way of her goals, but can she succeed beyond the traditional role of a woman in her society? Even if she can, she can’t get past the fact the she is the minority in the lifestyle she desires. At the same time, home is where these girls are safe. They may not have a career, but at least they are raised with decent morals and values, and many women do enjoy their job as mother, as long as they are loved and appreciated. Isn’t there a better solution for colonized girls who want the best of both worlds?Works CitedDangarembga, Tsitsi. Nervous Conditions. Seattle: Seal Press, 1988.
Two Tambus: The Fundamental Narrative Structure of Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions
Narrative structure is often one of the most crucial and strategic rhetorical elements of a work of literature. This is particularly true when the narrator is essential to understanding the themes and purposes of the text itself, such as the personal story of a specific character or group. Tsitsi Dangarembga’s striking novel Nervous Conditions represents this strategy wonderfully. Dangarembga’s narrative structure focuses on the personal journey of the narrator, Tambudzai, yet allows her to reveal crucial insights into the socio-political situations in which the journey takes place. An understanding of the narrative structure begins by inspecting the role and character of the narrator herself, as well as the setting in which the narration takes place. The novel is set in Rhodesia, a pre-colonial African environment that housed a tumultuous mixture of English and Shona cultures, and suffered a multitude of problems stemming from colonization. Tambudzai was subject to opposition in every direction: the two cultures clashed both externally, as the English attempted to assimilate the Shona societies into Western thought, and internally, as the women struggled to maintain their identities in the rigid patriarchal societies. The narrator states early in the text that she feels “many things [during the later] days, much more than [she] was able to feel in the days when [her] brother died, and there are reasons for this more than the mere consequence of age” (Dangarembga 1). From this statement, the reader deduces that the speaker is the older, more mature Tambudzai, telling her story from a hindsight perspective. She has “reach[ed] maturity after being socialized by two divergent social systems, the Shona community and the mission school propagating Western standards,” and is therefore able to commentate upon her past with more wisdom (Berndt 45). The reflective, analytical tone of the narrative also characterizes Tambu as mature and educated, thus adding to the validity of her story and implying that it contains insight worthy of consideration. The narration of Tambudzai’s development is primarily formatted to serve the classic style of Bildungsroman that traces her growth from child to adult. As literature commentator Walter P. Collins, III puts it: “specifically, Nervous Conditions functions as a modern African Bildungsroman as it portrays the conflicted path and ultimate enlightenment and escape of the young Tambu” (Collins 73). Dangarembga cleverly combines the Bildungsroman framework with the grown narrator in order to “[transfer] her authorial prerogatives to Tambu, allowing her to ‘author’ or narrate her story thus giving her a voice of her own” (Collins 74). What results is a text that beautifully allows the reader to experience the social and psychological growth of the protagonist from the viewpoint of the protagonist herself. The narrator Tambudzai’s retrospection, woven into the storyline as passages in third-person omniscient point of view, elucidates the significance of the events as they take place. This allows Dangarembga, through the mature voice of the narrator, to comment upon the situations and characters described, as “the reader counts it as a privilege to have the advantage of a mature narrator in Tambu who is able to put the pieces of the puzzle back together as she relates the events of her development from childhood forward” (Collins 74). By the conclusion of the novel, the reader realizes that “Tambu’s insights, gained through personal development and Bildung, prove critical to Dangarembga’s message concerning colonialism, patriarchy, and possibilities of expansion” (Collins 75). In accordance with her classic Bildungsroman journey, Tambu begins to describe her development in the environment which she will eventually be led away from. This environment is her rural home, where she was surrounded by her immediate family and the deep roots of the traditional Shona culture. The Bildungsroman structure also “offers its protagonist diverse directions and models of development…these future prospects are incorporated by the major characters who accompany Tambudzai’s growing up” (Berndt 86). In the home environment, they are Tambu’s mother and her aunt, Lucia.Tambu’s mother teaches her “from a very early age” that the “business of womanhood is a heavy burden…and [in those] days it [was] worse, with the poverty of blackness on one side and the weight of womanhood on the other” (Dangarembga 16). Lucia, however, is fiercely independent: she “had been brought up in abject poverty [yet had not] been married to it at fifteen. Her spirit, unfettered in this respect, had experimented with living and drawn its own conclusions” (Dangarembga 127). According to literature reviewer M. Keith Booker, “Dangarembga carefully situates these characters in relation to one another so that they evoke the kinds of relationships between opposing forces that were typical of colonial Zimbabwean society as a whole” (Booker 190). Therefore, the narrator purposefully acknowledges the relationships she had with these women, both for the purpose of following young Tambu’s development and also to identify forces within her culture. Tambu’s mother thus represents the willing self-subjugation to the traditional female role, while Lucia represents complete adherence to individualistic principles and liberation from gender roles. These relationships are present as forces in society also, as the patriarchal Shona role Tambu is thrust into and the command women maintain over their own bodies, respectively (Berndt 101). Tambu’s response to these female examples allows her to start questioning her own self-identity. For instance, Tambu rejected the obedient nature of her mother’s traditional role, and criticized the system, making statement such as: “The needs and sensibilities of the women in my family were not considered a priority, or even legitimate…In those days I felt the injustice of my situation every time I thought about it” (Dangarembga 12). As a narrator, Tambu is taking advantage of her position by clearly identifying for the reader the characters and forces that led to the questioning of her self-identity. She provides sufficient early history of the young Tambu for the reader to realize that “according to Dangarembga, black women need to question the ‘burden of womanhood’” – one that later is realized to be “even heavier because of the interplay between colonialism and traditional patriarchal society” (Berndt 62). The narrating Tambu, having provided significant early development for the protagonist, then progresses into the stage of the Bildungsroman where Tambu crosses the threshold for her journey to self-identity. This takes place when, upon her older brother Nhamo’s death, she is given the privilege of attending the mission school and living with her prosperous uncle Babamukuru, aunt Maiguru, and cousin Nyasha. She employs powerful rhetoric to describe the situation: “What I experienced that day was a short cut, a rerouting of everything I had ever defined as me into fast lanes that would speedily lead me to my destination. My horizons were saturated with me, my leaving, my going. There was no room for what I left behind…At Babamukuru’s I would have the leisure, be encouraged to consider questions that had to do with survival of the spirit, the creation of consciousness, rather than mere sustenance of the body” (Dangarembga 58-59). This potent passage relies heavily upon the hindsight of the narrator to emphasize the significance of her transition and to extract its implications. It begins to become clear that “the interstice where the different identity layers are negotiated is the narrative itself,” for the critical points described by the narrator contain the most crucial commentary necessary for grasping the principles behind Tambu’s journey (Berndt 115). Tambu also offers a unique combination of personal recollection and carefully planned story-telling to convey her transition in a more figurative sense. For instance, she symbolically reminds the reader that “although she appreciates the chance to lead a modern life according to Western standards, she pays the price of cultural estrangement” (Berndt 45). Inherent to the traditional Shona way of life is the presence of dirt and other natural substances; therefore the cleanliness greeting Tambu at her new home is a significant change, as she recalls: “Babamakuru’s taste was excellent, so that where he could afford to indulge it, the results were striking. The opulence of his living-room was very strong stuff, overwhelming to someone who had first crawled and then toddled and finally walked over dung floors” (Dangarembga 69). Tambu seems to imply that as the transition cleansed her of physical dirt, it also attempted to wash away the presence of her Shona background. Once the narrator has implanted this idea within her reader, she is able to introduce young Tambu’s response to it: “Some strategy had to be devised to prevent all this splendour from distracting me…I was very proud of my thinking strategy. It was meant to put me above the irrational levels of my character and enable me to proceed from pure, rational premises…I remained as aloof and unimpressed as possible” (Dangarembga 69-70). The narrator has begun to formally introduce the constant struggle that Tambu undergoes to formulate and maintain her identity. Booker reminds readers of the parallel significance of Tambu’s personal journey: “the changes that Tambudzai undergoes in the course of her education and maturation clearly parallel historical changes that were underway in colonial Zimbabwe…Thus the personal experiences of the protagonist are linked with public events in her society in ways that make her an emblem of her society and also serve as a reminder that individuals always develop within specific historical contexts” (Booker 190). Without the selective, analytical voice of the narrator to extract the subtle mechanisms behind Tambu’s journey, it would be extremely difficult to understand how it represents historical context. The narrator therefore is able to function as a bridge between comprehending the fictional story of the protagonist and analyzing the important historical events to which it relates. The narrator continues to provide instances that are representative of Tambu’s journey to a Bildungsroman arrival at a stable self-identity. The rise in the analytical nature of the text seems to parallel the increasing depth and complexity of Tambu’s character. The conflict Tambu experiences “clearly cannot be reduced to a simple good-bad opposition between African traditional and European colonial cultures,” but must “[explore] this process of what might be called psychological, or internal colonization…the story of Tambudzai’s development is largely the story of her gradual recognition of this phenomenon and the decision to rebel against it” (Booker 191). Accordingly, the narrator increasingly turns inward to provide her reader with personal reflection and analysis that allows her to describe the experience her younger self had gone through. For instance, she describes the time as: “the period of my reincarnation…I expected this era to be significantly profound and broadening in terms of adding wisdom to my nature, clarity to my vision…It was a centripetal time, with me at the centre, everything was gravitating towards me. it was a time of sublimation with me as the sublimate” (Dangarembga 92-93). As Tambu’s mother and aunt had earlier served as examples of female roles and the societal forces that cause them, the narrator now turns to her relationships with Maiguru and Nyasha as representations of the various influences upon her character. By recalling and analyzing various characters, events, and books that the young Tambu responded to, the narrator successfully exposes the reader to “the multiple identity layers a colonized female subject can occupy” (Berndt 63). In addition, her inclusion of less agreeable and flattering situations, such as her criticism of her mother’s latrine conditions, reveals her determination to convey the journey accurately even when it may portray her character in a negative light. Tambu concludes her narration by describing the eventual middle ground that she seems to have settled in. Collins states matter-of-factly the evidence of the connection between the story’s protagonist and the narrator: “The fact that Tambu reaches a sense of self is made evident in the various interjections the adult narrator of ‘her’ story is capable of making as she looks back at the ways her perceptions have changed from her time on the homestead, through her studies at the mission and ultimately at Sacred Heart” (Collins 85). Indeed, by the time Tambu settles in at her final school (Sacred Heart) she “becomes aware of the fact that it is up to her to decide what kind of personality she wants to develop, which identity layers she wants to accept and develop into subject positions. She will have to occupy an in between space between several cultural traditions” (Berndt 84). Tambu ends her narration with a final reflection on the mental turning point of her self-discovery: “Quietly, unobtrusively and extremely fitfully, something in my mind began to assert itself, to questions things and refuse to be brainwashed, bringing me to this time when I can set down this story” (Dangarembga 204).Evidently, the narrative structure of Nervous Conditions, as well as the character of the mature Tambu narrator herself, is essential in Dangarembga’s exploration of the journey of an oppressed, Black female in a colonial and patriarchal context. The powerful combination of first-person narration and third-person omniscient allows the narrator to explain her story precisely how she wants it to be told. She highlights and analyzes the mechanisms of her journey in such a manner that they can be applied to the historical situations taking place within the novel. In this way, Dangarembga communicates her insight about personal growth under the constraints of the dynamic society, while maintaining the focus on Tambu’s persona.Works CitedBerndt, Katrin. Female Identity in Contemporary Zimbabwean Fiction. Germany: Pia Thielmann & Eckhard Breitinger, 2005. Booker, Keith M. The African Novel in English. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1998. Collins III, Walter P. Tracing Personal Expansion. Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 2006.Dangarembga, Tsitsi. Nervous Conditions. Emeryville: Seal Press, 2004.
Victims Victims Everywhere!: Getting to the core of the anti-colonial struggle and the relationship between African men and women
“The victimization, I saw, was universal. It didn’t depend on poverty, on lack of education or on tradition. It didn’t depend on any of the things I had thought it depended on” (Dangarembga, 115). These ideas, which had been ingrained in Tambu since she was a child, came crashing down while she attended her uncle’s school. Her education there was not only one of textbooks and essays, but also an unveiling of the awful truths about the male-female and settler-native relationship that existed in her society. Her cousin Nyasha was already aware of the intricacies of these relationships and eventually had an emotional breakdown because of them. Through Tsitsi Dangarembga’s skillful writing of Nervous Conditions, one can see the core of the conflict between Nyasha and her parents when they examine her sudden breakdown. The dynamics of their relationship stem from the colonization of Babamukuru and Maiguru’s past and parallel the relationship of African men and women. Nyasha’s outburst hits the core of the problems that exist between her and her controlling parents. Dangarembga carefully chooses Nyasha’s words when she says, “‘They’ve done it to me,’ she accused, whispering still. ‘Really, they have” (200). “They” refers to Babamukuru and Maiguru and the role that they have played in Nyasha’s despair. She feels that her parents have tried to suppress the person that she is and wants to be. Instead of allowing their daughter to grow into a self-assured, intelligent, sexually free young woman, they have attempted to make her an inferior, well-behaved, subordinate little girl. Babamukuru and Maiguru have taken away books that they felt Nyasha should not be reading, forced their daughter to eat when she said that she was not hungry, and even used violence to reprimand her for staying out too late with a boy. Nyasha has felt animosity towards her father and mother since these things have occurred. Her disdain is quite apparent from the words that she uses to address Tambu. Nyasha is very angry with her parents because she “accuses” them of oppressing her, while she also seems to be timid in letting the world know this, as she “whispers” to her cousin. This has been a continuing struggle for Nyasha as she wants to be the strong and confident young woman that she knows exists inside of her, but cannot be that way all the time as a result of her controlling parents. Much of Nyasha’s outburst concerns the unbalanced relationship that exists, as the dominant settlers do not allow the controlled natives to have any self-dignity or pride in their homeland. After explaining her own suppression, she continues to discuss her parent’s oppression saying, “‘It’s not their fault. They did it to them too. You know they did'” (ibid). Nyasha is explaining to Tambu that her parents are not to blame for the problems in their relationship, as the settlers also oppressed them during colonization. It is Nyasha’s insight into her parent’s lives that allows her to sympathize with them. She knows firsthand the hardships of fighting to be oneself and failing because of those holding her back. Just as the colonists took away the rights and-more importantly-the dignity of her parents, Babamukuru and Maiguru have taken away the privileges and happiness of their daughter. At one point during her spasm, Nyasha changes to a Rhodesian accent, one used by a white settler in Africa. She uses this voice to pretend to be a settler and then insult her father by calling him a “good boy, a good munt. A bloody good kaffir” (ibid). This statement has many facets to it, as it applies to the treatment of Babamukuru specifically, in addition to the way that black African men were treated as a whole. It expresses how the colonized society was thought of as inferior and forced to be obedient to the white settlers. Dangarembga shows this through the use of the term “good boy,” which implies a social hierarchy in which someone called “boy” is towards the bottom. The despair in Nyasha’s soul comes out when she asks her cousin, “‘Why do they do it, Tambu,’ she hissed bitterly, her face contorting with rage, ‘to me and to you and to him? Do you see what they’ve done? They’ve taken us away. Lucia. Takesure. All of us. They’ve deprived you of you, him of him, ourselves of each other. We’re groveling. Lucia for a job, Jeremiah for money. Daddy grovels to them” (ibid). Nyasha is expressing the natives’ fundamental complaints about colonization: they are furious that they have not been allowed to be themselves in their own land, and that the relationships in their lives have suffered as a result. The psychological issues that Nyasha has been having, including her bulimia, are directly correlated to these problems. She has not been allowed to be her true self, breaking down her relationship with her mother and father. More that just losing sight of oneself, Nyasha speaks of the way that the natives have been forced into the inferior role of beggar. She mentions the groveling of Lucia, Jeremiah, and Babmukuru; all three are people of varying respectability in the eyes of Nyasha. She relates to Lucia as they are both strong females, dislikes her uncle Jeremiah because he constantly lets down his family, and hates Babamukuru because of the ways in which he controls her. These individuals show that all types of colonized people are forced to grovel, whether they are male or female, rich or poor.The final portion of Nyasha’s emotional unveiling can be understood on different levels, as both the heart of the anti-colonial struggle among the natives and settlers, in addition to the fight between men and women in African society. As Nyasha begins to rock her body back and forth she reveals, “‘I won’t grovel. Oh, no, I won’t. I’m not a good girl. I’m evil. I’m not a good girl.’ I touched her to comfort her and that was the trigger. ‘I won’t grovel, I won’t die,’ she raged and crouched like a cat ready to spring” (ibid). On one hand, Nyasha is referring to the fight between the natives and the settlers. This is only one interpretation, as she is a determined native that refuses to be subjected to a life of begging and inferiority. Dangarembga’s other point is that Nyasha, as a female, refuses to grovel to the men around her. She is an adamant young woman that has been battling with her father for some time, and is proclaiming that she will battle with the men in her life in the future before lowering herself simply because she is female. This parallel, of the settler to the native as the man is to the woman, is one of the most important points in Nervous Conditions. Earlier in the novel, Nyasha was refused to grovel to her father after staying out too late with a boy. When she struck her father he furiously retaliated back, creating a stressful situation for all involved. “Nyasha fell on to the bed, her miniscule skirt riding up her bottom. Babamukuru stood over her, distending her nostrils to take in enough air” (114). In this image, Nyasha is physically beneath her father while he is in a fit of rage, creating a physical representation of the role of men and women in African society. This scene can be interpreted sexually, as it appears that Babamukuru is capable of raping or sexually assaulting his daughter from his current position. Because she grew up during a period of colonization, Tsitsi Dangarembga is extremely knowledgeable about the struggle between the natives and the settlers. As a female maturing during this same time period she knows the exact parallels that exist between the settler-native relationship and the male-female relationship. Through intricate characters like Nyasha, Dangarembga has successfully brought the reader to the heart of the anti-colonial struggle, while also showing the parallels to the male and female dynamics in African culture.
The Six Mountains on African Literature
Chinese revolutionary Mao Zedong is quoted as having said that a Chinese man has three mountains on his back. The first is colonial oppression, the second is the oppression of tradition, and the third is his own backwardness. A woman, however, has a fourth mountain on her back: men. Nigerian feminist critic Molara Ogundipe argues in her essay “African Women, Culture and Another Development” that an African woman has two further mountains burdening her back: her color, and herself. An examination of post-colonial and anti-colonial African literature can illuminate the way these six mountains interact to oppress African women. The novels Nervous Conditions by Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga, Xala by Senegalese author Sembène Ousmane, and The Madonna of Excelsior by South African author Zakes Mda each portray the struggles of African women facing these six forms of oppression. The novels give examples of how African women are negatively affected by indigenous traditions and colonial laws in ways that African men are able to escape, which can explain some of the problems with the creation of a national culture discussed by Frantz Fanon in his theoretical work The Wretched of the Earth. The novels suggest that both black and white men not only directly oppresses black women with law and tradition, but make women feel as if they are a burden upon men as well. The texts also show that the sixth mountain, “herself,” is formed from the combined weight of the other five mountains, particularly as women come to consider themselves not only inferior to men but as burdens upon them.
Sembène Ousmane’s novel Xala takes place in Senegal shortly after it wins independence and focuses on El Hadji, a prominent politician and businessman, and the families of his multiple wives. The novel shows the double standards in the way tradition affects men and women: men frequently choose to follow the traditions they find beneficial while ignoring the ones they see as inconvenient, whereas women are significantly more burdened by tradition. This is most clear in the issue of polygamy. El Hadji invokes his African tradition in defense of having multiple wives and being in control over them. “His honour as an African in the old tradition was being called in question… Had the country lost its men of yesterday? Those brave men whose blood flowed in his veins?” Ousmane writes when El Hadji feels that his masculinity is being threatened by the suggestion that he has to consult his first two wives before taking a third (Ousmane 7-9). His wives are not completely without power, as they are able to choose a divorce. However, the women recognize that their value in society is largely based on having a husband. As El Hadji’s first wife Adja Awa Astou says to their oldest daughter Rama, “You think I should get a divorce? Where would I go at my age? Where would I find another husband?” (12). The only alternative she puts forth is to be remarried, suggesting that in Senegalese society there are few options for women, so even with the legal freedoms such as divorce that they have, it is often more beneficial for them to go along with traditional power structures. His second wife Oumi N’Doye is told by her mother “But why divorce him? Without a man’s help a woman has to fall back on prostitution to live and bring up her children,” further emphasizing the idea that for Senegalese women, the freedom of divorce is a hollow one (34).
However, despite El Hadji defending his freedom to take multiple wives by invoking a sense of African tradition, he ignores other traditions with which he disagrees. When Yay Bineta, a relative of his new third, wife suggests that he participate in a fertility ritual before consummating his marriage, he refuses, saying he will not “make a fool of [himself] with this hocus-pocus,” showing that he does not believe in the efficacy or importance of this tradition (18). “He was sufficiently Westernized not to have any faith at all in this superstition,” Ousmane writes, showing El Hadji to be a hypocrite; he may be “Westernized” enough not to believe in a fertility ritual, but he is not too westernized to stop believing in his entitlement to polygamy (18). This suggests that El Hadji does not care as deeply about following African traditions as he claims, but instead invokes them as an excuse to continue following the traditions he wants to, such as polygamy. Effectively, El Hadji agrees with African traditions to the extent that they allow him to maintain his power, particularly his power over women.
Xala’s women, unfortunately, are not able to shrug off the mountain of tradition as easily as the men can. Yay Bineta, his third wife’s relative, for example, is trapped by another “superstition,” while El Hadj can afford to ignore things he considers as superstitious. “Yay Bineta had always been hounded by bad luck,” Ousmane writes. “She had had two husbands, both now in their graves. The traditionalists held that she must have her fill of deaths: a third victim. So no man would marry her for fear of being this victim,” which is problematic for her in a society where women seem to have few options besides marriage (30). This suggests that Senegalese society as a whole is not “sufficiently Westernized” to forget certain traditions that burden women, only those that burden men. Ousmane says Yay Bineta lives in “a society in which very few women overcome this kind of reputation” (30). Even here, rather than saying “in which few people overcome this kind of reputation,” he chooses to emphasize women’s inability to escape tradition, implying that men, even less “Westernized” ones, are not quite so trapped by traditions and superstition. This suggests that El Hadji is not a special case because of his status as a wealthy intellectual politician and businessman, but that he is the rule.
The men in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel Nervous Conditions have similar views on traditional gender roles, particularly the narrator Tambu’s older brother Nhamo and her uncle Babamukuru. Nhamo is able to go to school while Tambu mostly has to stay at home with her family. When Nhamo returns from school, he makes his sisters go to the bus station to carry his remaining luggage, even though he is capable of carrying it all himself. “He did not need help,” the narrator says, “he only wanted to demonstrate to us and himself that he had the power, the authority to make us do things for him” (Dangarembga 10). This attitude informs Nhamo’s interaction with Tambu; he only uses traditional roles as an excuse to support this attitude, but does not really care about tradition. For instance, when he makes Tambu fetch his luggage and she asks him to look after their younger sister while she is away, he says that “minding children [is] not a man’s duty,” implying to Tambu that this is instead a woman’s duty, therefore her responsibility, and that as a woman’s duty it would be improper for him to do (9). However, Nhamo shows that cares very little about what his traditional duties as a man are supposed to be. As Tambu says, “helping in the fields or with the livestock or the firewood, any of the tasks he used to do willingly before he went to the mission, became a bad joke” (7). After spending time away at school, he is no longer willing to help his family do farm-work, showing that he does not really care about fulfilling his “man’s duty.” Just as El Hadji ignores traditions he does not like in favor of ones that give him power over women, Nhamo enforces the idea of women’s duties versus men’s duties as an excuse to make his sisters do more work while he does less, making himself feel powerful even while ignoring his duties as a man.
Tambu’s uncle Babamukuru in fact seems to have relinquished most of his African culture except, of course, for his patriarchal position of power over his family and over women. He, his wife Maiguru and their children have spent five years studying in England, and when they return the children hardly remember how to speak Shona, their native language. Babamukuru and Maiguru seem to encourage their children to emulate English culture and leave their Zimbabwean heritage behind. However, even though Maiguru is as highly educated as her husband, she is still relegated to a position of inferiority to her Babamukuru and still has to serve him. This in fact seems to be indicative of the novel’s characters’ general perception of educated women. Tambu’s father asks the narrator “Can you cook books and feed them to your husband?” when she expresses a desire to further her education. “Stay at home with your mother,” he says. “Learn to cook and clean. Grow vegetables” (15). This is what their society sees as a woman’s role. Even though the roles are expanding for both men and women to allow new things such as higher education, the same basic gender roles remain; the man being the dominant head of the family and the woman remaining subservient. This is also a source of women’s third mountain, “backwardness.” It is cultivated by society by denying women the same educational opportunities as men. Even when refuting her father’s argument to herself, saying “Maiguru was educated, and did she serve Babamukuru books for dinner?” Tambu still emphasizes Maiguru’s ability to serve her husband, since the idea that the wife must serve her husband is so ingrained in her society (16).
Babamukuru more directly exerts patriarchal control over his daughter Nyasha, which allows Tambu to realize how females are being victimized unfairly in her society. When both Nyasha and her brother Chido come home late, Babamukuru turns all his rage against Nyasha, telling her “no decent girl” would act as she is, saying she is behaving “like a whore,” whereas before this he only tells Chido “you children are up to no good,” which he says “cordially,” showing the different gendered standards he holds his children to (114-6). Babamukuru begins to beat Nyasha, and in self-defense she hits him back. His response to her action is telling of his opinion on gender roles in their society; “Babamukuru bellowed and snorted that if Nyasha was going to behave like a man, then… he would fight her like one” (117). By equating Nyasha’s actions to “behaving like a man,” Babamukuru equates manhood to violence. Furthermore, he equates manhood to the ability to resist, denying that this is a possible or permissible trait in women. He tells her “Not even your brother there dares to challenge my authority,” but this is largely because Chido has no reason to challenge his father’s authority; it is not unfairly used against him as it is against Nyasha. Tambu interprets this as Babamukuru making Nyasha “a victim of her femaleness, just as [she] had felt victimised at home… The victimisation,” she says, “was universal. It didn’t depend on poverty, or lack of education, or tradition… Men took it everywhere with them” (118). Tambu recognizes appeals to “tradition” for what they are; not legitimate devotion to African tradition but excuses for powerful men to stay powerful.
The tendency among these novels’ male characters to ignore certain African traditions except for those that allow them to maintain their power over women highlights a connection between Molara Ogundipe’s essay and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, which offers a possible explanation for why men can ignore traditions while continuing to enforce such traditions over women. Ogundipe argues that colonialism “has brought out the basic sexist tendencies in pre-capitalist Africa” by rearranging society in ways that effectively erased any existing sources of female empowerment (Ogundipe 109). Fanon, in his essay “On National Culture,” also writes about how colonial powers worked to restructure African societies and how this affected indigenous traditions and power structures. He argues that the goal of colonialists was to “hammer into the heads of the indigenous population that if the colonist were to leave they would regress into barbarism, degradation, and bestiality” (149). The result of this is that when colonial power is finally overthrown, even though the indigenous people feel the urge to embrace their old, suppressed culture, colonial manipulation still exists in their minds. Fanon says “the intellectual is terrified by the void, the mindlessness, and the savagery. Yet he feels he must escape this white culture” (157). In Ousmane’s words, the African people, particularly intellectuals such as El Hadji and Babamukuru, have become “sufficiently Westernized” by the colonists’ efforts to undermine indigenous culture, yet in rebellion against the ousted colonists they still feel the need to reject white culture. The novels suggest that this paradox is resolved through cultural double standards; the men appeal to feelings of African culture, tradition and heritage to lift themselves up and to keep women down, and as a way to satisfy their need to reject white culture. Still affected by colonialism, however, they no longer seem to believe in many African traditions beyond those which are useful to them, allowing men to pick and choose which traditions they follow while women are bound much more closely to tradition. So in effect, African women are still oppressed by colonial manipulation of indigenous culture even after direct colonial rule is removed from individual countries.
These novels also display ways in which women are made to feel as if they are a burden upon men, another source contributing to their issues with self-image, or the sixth mountain, “herself.” El Hadj constantly, if ironically on Ousmane’s part, complains about having to go back and forth between his three homes and families. The oppressive quality of these complaints is clearer in Nervous Conditions. When Tambu’s brother Nhamo dies, Babamukuru tells their father Jeremiah that “it is unfortunate that there is no male child to take this duty, to take this job of raising the family from hunger and need,” implying that Tambu is burdensome simply because she is not a male, and therefore will not be able to contribute in any way they find meaningful (56). Her father responds saying that her “sharpness with books is no use because in the end it will benefit strangers,” further implying that educating her would be another unnecessary burden since it would only benefit her future husband, not her family (56). Even while beating Nyasha for staying out too late, Babamukuru asks “How can you go about disgracing me… I am respected at this mission. I cannot have a daughter who behaves like a whore” (116). Everything women do in the novels is considered in terms of how it affects men, and anything that does not benefit men, even if it benefits the women, is considered a burden upon the men, even though they are clearly already in a dominant social position over the women.
This tendency is most obvious and most disturbing in Zakes Mda’s novel The Madonna of Excelsior because the perception of black women as burdens upon men comes not from other black men, but from the white Afrikaner colonizers, dominant not only over women but over all native Africans. The novel also shows how the colonial legal system directly oppressed black women in ways that did not affect black men. The novel frequently shows white South African men frequently coercing black women into sex, despite the country’s “Immorality Act” prohibiting such relations between black and white people. However, instead of convicting the men who not only initiated these relations but coerced the women into them, South Africa’s legal system instead upholds the men’s innocence while condemning the women. Reverend François Bornman, a respected church leader in the community and one of the white men being tried under the Immorality Act, states that “the devil had sent black women to tempt him” and that “the devil had always used the black female to tempt the Afrikaner” (Mda 85). Even though he says it is his own fault for not resisting this temptation, he still places the bulk of the blame on black women. This, much like the men’s appeals to tradition in the other novels, is an excuse adopted by men who refuse to admit that they have raped black women; another way to explain their superiority. In this way, even the white colonial oppressors claim to be burdened by black women, further deteriorating their self-image.
All of this oppression adds up to form the sixth mountain: “herself.” Black women in these novels are constantly being portrayed as their own and each other’s enemies. El Hadji’s wives are constantly bickering and accusing each other of all sorts of immoral activities. They, as well as women in the other novels, frequently call each other “whores,” harkening back to the Afrikaner’s vision of black women as demonic temptresses. The Madonna of Excelsior also deals directly with black women’s problems with body image. Niki, one of the novel’s central characters, tries to appear whiter by using skin lightening cream, even though it only harms her skin. The novels never mention men using such products, only women, implying that they did not face the same image issues.
Popi, Niki’s mixed race daughter fathered by one of the men tried under the Immorality Act, spend most of the novel insecure about her white features, hiding her light, straight hair in a head-wrap, but at the end of the novel she finally comes to accept her differences and see herself as beautiful; “Lately Popi spent all her mornings looking at herself in the mirror, admiring her blue eyes and brushing her long golden-brown hair. She no longer hid it under huge turbans. She wondered why she had been ashamed of it all these years, why she had never noticed its beauty” (256). Mixed race women had their own unique problems in South African society, so it is undoubtedly positive that Mda portrays Popi reaching a place where she can accept herself for who she is. However, none of these novels show a fully black woman reaching a similar place; in this moment, Popi is accepting and loving the parts of her that are white, not black, which for her is positive and necessary. However, darker women are left behind in a place of self-loathing. While Mda praises the beauty of black women throughout the novel, neither Niki nor any of the women who use skin lightening cream reach a moment like Popi’s, at least explicitly, where they come to find the beauty of their blackness. Mda perhaps means to imply that one way to alleviate the burden of the sixth mountain is to work toward self-acceptance and the rejection of colonial standards of beauty. In Xala, Adja Awa Astou and Oumi N’Doye, El Hadji’s first and second wives, occasionally reach moments of harmony and cooperation, but this does not last, as they eventually fall back into patterns of bickering and accusation. While Molara Ogundipe listed several ways to fight against the weight of the six mountains at the end of her essay, there is one she perhaps missed that these novels try to suggest: to alleviate the burden, African women should accept themselves as they are and work together with other women, instead of engaging in unnecessary conflict and holding themselves to unrealistic beauty standards, fighting against the chaos and hatred sown by colonialism instead of furthering it.
Dangarembga, Tsitsi. Nervous Conditions. Ayebia Clarke Publishing Ltd, 2004.
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Richard Philcox. Grove Press, 2004.
Mda, Zakes. The Madonna of Excelsior. Picador, 2002.
Ogundipe-Leslie, ‘Molara. “African Women, culture and another development.” Theorizing Black Feminisms: The Visionary Pragmatism of Black Women, edited by Stanlie M. James and Abena P. A. Busia, Routledge, 1993, pp. 90-101.
Ousmane, Sembène. Xala. Lawrence Hill Books, 1974.
Post-Colonialism in Nervous Conditions
In nations around the world, colonialism instilled a racial hierarchy that made whiteness synonymous with prosperity. In places like 1950s Rhodesia, colonialism created a system of mass assimilation, where giving up a part of their culture was a native’s only path to success. In Nervous Conditions, Dangarembga uses the identity struggles of her characters to show how colonialism disenfranchises native cultures. Tambu and Nyasha’s assimilation into western culture diminishes their racial identity while strengthening the power of the white colonialists.
Within Rhodesian society, the white colonialists educate the Shona people to control them. When Tambu asks her grandmother about the history of her culture, her grandmother tells her about colonialists conquering their country, a “history that could not be found in the textbooks” (17). We can infer that Rhodesian textbooks do not include the tragedies of colonialism because the elite white class control education in Rhodesia. They censor the native’s education, brainwashing them with the belief that westernization should be strived for. In answer to Tambu’s inquiry, her grandmother describes the colonialists as “wizards well versed in treachery and black magic” (18). These wizards give Babamukuru an English education, allowing him to be successful in their society. From this story, Tambu takes away a significant message: “endure and obey, for there is not other way” (19). This epiphany, the realization that the only way for her to succeed is to assimilate into a culture that nearly destroyed her own, shapes the remainder of her adolescence.
Tambu, and everyone around her, believe that Babamukuru “hadn’t cringed under the weight of his poverty . . . he had broken the evil wizards’ spell” (50). The Shona people see him as their “prince,” equalizing him with the white man (36). In part, they’re correct that Babamukuru’s western education gives him higher status than the majority of the Shona people. He lives in an “elegant house,” with a maid who serves him tea made with a tea strainer, which without, the tea “wouldn’t be drinkable” (74). These materialistic feats give Babamukuru and his family the illusion of power, when in fact, his western lifestyle brings his family and himself trials. Because he brought his family to England with him while he worked toward his masters degree, Babamukuru ends up with “hybrids for children” (79). Upon returning to Rhodesia, Chido and Nyasha “don’t understand Shona very well anymore” (42). Babamukuru tries desperately to erase Nyasha’s English identity and mannerisms, but his power is not strong enough to cut through western influence. Nyasha’s subsequent struggle to reconcile her two identities leads do a destructive eating disorder that affects her entire family.
Babamukuru’s assimilation into western culture gives power to the colonialists. The white class disguises their power over the Shona as gifts of education and prosperity. Babamukuru fails to see, however, that his western education benefits the whites. Although it doesn’t equalize him with white men, Babamukuru’s education gives him status among the Shona, creating a complex hierarchy within native society. Babamukuru’s westernized life and subsequent wealth lead the Shona people to associate whiteness with success. They strive to be like him, and as a result, more Shona people assimilate into western culture. Nhamo, Nyasha, Chido, and Tambu all receive English educations because of Babamukuru.
Tambu sees her life at the mission as positive and transformative, calling it a “reincarnation” (94). Her new western identity causes her to increasingly dismiss her family. She believes that herself and her cousins are “too civilized” to go back home for Christmas (122). Tambu even sacrifices her relationships with her family in order to be successful in the colonialist social structure she exists within. In order to get an education, she must become westernized, and in order to keep her family, she must not.
Although some of her family buys into the elitist ideas of English education, Tambu’s mother does not. Instead of being proud that her daughter is so smart that “even white people” are impressed, Tambu’s mother feels deep sorrow over the loss of her children to white people (184). Instead of her Shona children, all she has left is a dead son and a daughter who’s become “a stranger full of white ways and white ideas” (187). Nyasha, Chido, and Tambu “had all succumbed” to the Englishness (207). Tambu’s mother knows that the Englishness does more harm than good. She knows that Shona people who act white are simply “pretenders” (54). Although they try not to be, they will always be Shona.
Of course, Tambu’s mother is correct. Despite that Tambu worked diligently to earn a spot at a prestigious catholic school, her race causes her to be seen as lesser. At her new school, she must share a cramped dormitory with six African girls, whereas the white girls sleep four to a dorm. Finally, she realizes that no matter how much she studies, or how many books she reads, or how intelligent she becomes, all white people will see is blackness. With this realization she begins to “question things, and refuse to be brainwashed” (208).