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.
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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 […]