Missionary and Colonization in Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions

Maureen Grundy, Class of 2000, English 119, Brown University, 1999

Part 3 of "Religion and the Legacy of Colonialism in Contemporary Zimbabwe"

Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions also portrays the role of missionary work in colonization and in changing Zimbabwean culture. Chapter Six of the novel opens with the main character, Tambu, explaining the difference between white people and white missionaries. She depicts the missionary as a "special kind of white person" since the missionaries come to the country to bring enlightenment, love, and an opportunity for salvation. In another essay, I argued that this passage is jarring and makes one wonder what the real difference is between the colonizers and the missionaries. They both travel to foreign places to assert their superior knowledge and way of life. Both the missionary and the colonizer disrupt the African lifestyle and impose Western ideologies. Both signify exploitations of a people.

The missionaries Tambu speaks of were indeed different from the white colonizers in that they appeared to have more respect for her culture and her native language.

"These missionaries, the strange ones, liked to speak Shona much more than they liked to speak English . . . Most of the missionaries' children, the children of the strange ones, did not speak English at all until they learnt it at school . . . I often wondered how they would manage when they went back home and had to stop behaving like Africans."

Their efforts to learn and speak Shona imply a willingness to learn from the Zimbabwean people. However, this willingness cannot overshadow the way in which the missionary education has so deeply affected the Zimbabwean consciousness. After all, as Tambu points out, this group of missionaries represents only a minority of all missionaries. The last statement Tambu makes here reveals her corrupted mentality that her people are somehow inferior to the whites.

"I used to feel guilty and unnatural for not being able to love the Whites as I ought. So it was good to see the healthy young missionaries and discover that some whites were as beautiful as we were. After that it did not take long for me to learn that they were in fact more beautiful and then I was able to love them." (104). The point Dangarembga makes here is not about whether these whites actually were beautiful, kind people, but rather about the way in which the now established missionary education contributed to the feeling of inferiority among the Zimbabweans. From the use of her language, her claims of feeling unnatural, her reference to "learning" that the white people were more beautiful, one can clearly see the way in which the missionary education contributes to and perpetuates the colonial mentality.

Hilde Arnsten further alludes to the cooperation of missionaries and colonizers in attaining a common goal. While she asserts that some missionaries did support the indigenous people in fighting for independence, many were still perceived to be on the side of the oppressors. "It is often arguedŠthat mission education coincided with the colonisers' interestsŠ'only education could lay the basis for a smooth-functioning colonial administration.' The missions also had a stake in this, as it was significant for them to communicate with the people through the written word, and to translate the Bible into indigenous languages. Mission schools in varying degrees served the interests of the colonizers, the settler regimes, the missions themselves, and, finally, to some extent the people." (Arnsten ).


Bourdillon, M.F.C. Where Are the Ancestors? Changing Culture in Zimbabwe . (Harare: University of Zimbabwe Publications) 1993.

Dangarembga, TsiTsi. Nervous Conditions (Seattle: Seal Press) 1988.

Vera, Yvonne. Nehanda (Toronto: TSAR Publications) 1994.

Postcolonial Web Next Zimbabwe OV [Religion] Tsitsi Dangarembga Overview