The Resistance Figure vs. the Colonial Oppressor: An Examination of Yvonne Vera's Nehanda

John Yang, English 119, Brown University, 1999

Part 4 of "Representation and Resistance: A Cultural, Social, and Political Perplexity in Post-Colonial Literature"

Vera's Nehanda is the typical resistance figure of post-colonial literature. Vera depicts Nehanda as a unique woman who is granted special powers to help her Zimbabwean people fight the colonists' oppression. Nehanda's visions give hope and energy to the beleaguered revolutionaries. Her importance in the fight for native independence reaches even Mr. Browning, who does not exactly know why her role is so great but still sets out to arrest her.

Nehanda represents the typical post-colonial resistance figure because her "special powers" and her "gift" do not involve or relate to any Western or colonial institution. Her gift to inspire revolutionaries is not a superior Western education or intellect, an ability to speak the colonizer's language, or a belief in Western religion. Instead, Nehanda's visions originate purely within the indigenous culture and religion. Vera, though she may have fabricated many details concerning the indigenous, constructs Nehanda as a special character free of ANY colonial influence (political, cultural, and social) and as the rallying cry for the revolutionaries:

"Spread yourselves through the forest and fight till the stranger decides to leave. Let us fight till the battle is decided. Is death not better than this submission? There is no future till we have regained our lands and our birth. There is only this moment, and we have to fight till we have redeemed ourselves. What is today's work on this land if tomorrow we have to move to a new land?" (66)

Nehanda's visions are supernatural and she communicates orally to her indigenous people, ideas diametrically opposed to Western and colonial social and cultural norms. The chief echoes this opposition by decrying the colonizer's emphasis on written word over spoken word:

"Our people know the power of words. It is because of this that they desire to have words continuously spoken and kept alive. We do not believe that words can become independent of the speech that bore them, of the humans who controlled and gave birth to them . . . The paper is the stranger's own peculiar custom. Among ourselves, speech is not like rock. Words cannot be taken from the people who create them. People are their words." (39-40)

If Nehanda represents the typical post-colonial resistance figure, then Mr. Browning represents the typical colonial oppressor. Vera sets these characters at opposite ends of the post-colonial spectrum. Mr. Browning represents the oppressive white man ignorant of the struggles and the plight of Zimbabwean people. Vera does not mention his first name, and he is referred to by a Western classification, mister. He grows tired of listening to his colleague Mr. Smith talk, for he is not able to appreciate the verbal nature of humanity, a trait embedded within the indigenous culture. Mr. Browning misunderstands the nature of Zimbabwean people completely:

"I mean the knowledge of the world that we have. We have drawn maps, and know how to locate ourselves on the globe. The native only knows where he is standing. I have been collecting maps since I was a boy. This is what we should teach at the new school, a knowledge of the earth." (52)

Mr. Browning speaks from the typical colonial perspective. He maintains an openly superior attitude, expressing a desire to "civilize" a "barbarous" nation. He views the natives as ignorant and uneducated beasts who must be taught Western subjects such as geography. If Vera's Nehanda serves as an anthem for resistance against colonial oppression, then she sets up her title character and Mr. Browning as cultural and political foils of one another. Nehanda truly is a battle against the influence of empire.

For a further examination of the colonists' mindset in Nehanda, see Maureen Grundy's Control or Curiosity.

Representation and Resistance: A Cultural, Social, and Political Perplexity in Post-Colonial Literature

Postcolonial OV discourseov Zimbabwe OV Yvonne Vera