Postcolonial Identity in Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions and Vera's Nehanda

Heather Sofield, English 119, Brown University, 1999


Part 3 of "Who Am I? : Negotiation of Identity in A Post -Colonial State"


In the novel Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, the character Nyasha aptly describes the quandary that is postcolonial identity.

"It would be a marvelous opportunity, she said sarcastically, to forget. To forget who you were, what you were and why you were that. The process, she said, was called assimilation, and that was what was intended for the precocious few who might prove a nuisance if left to themselves" (178).

For many, assimilation has been the easiest answer. Under pressure to develop and support families, it can easily seem like the only answer. It is a regrettable mistake to underestimate the importance of economics in a Third World nation such as Zimbabwe. We would be presumptuous and idealistic to assume everyone has the leisure to contemplate a sense of identity and subsequently arrive at a conclusion perfectly balanced between the innumerable political and moral demands. What about carving out a living in a community still controlled by white land bosses? Sustaining a family on food from fields too often harvested and devoid of nutrients because the best land was long ago appropriated for colonial plantations?

We can see an example of this dilemma in the novel Nehanda by Yvonne Vera. This story takes place further in the past, and is therefore somewhat more remote than some of the other pieces that will be mentioned in this essay. However, the example I will cite clearly illustrates the roots of the above problem of resisting "civilizing" and assimilation while also being forced to cope with immediate economic pressures.

In Nehanda, Vera tells of an Englishman named Mr. Browning who is causing much local controversy with his plan to build a missionary school for the Africans. He hires a native man called Mashoko as a servant. But Mr. Browning has re-dubbed him Moses, for the reason that

the new name is easier to remember, and more importantly, it is a step toward the goal of civilizing the country... Moses does not yet seem to understand much of what represents progress, but Mr. Browning is confident that his efforts will bear fruit. (44)

So, as he makes plans for his school project, Mr. Browning plots for even Mashoko's civilization -- essentially the transition from a "heathen" to a docile imitation of a white man.

And yet as we read on we hear Mashoko speak for himself. He despises his job and the foolish Mr. Browning. He has only taken the position of servant because of new taxes he cannot afford to pay otherwise. "Mashoko does not find his work interesting; in fact when he is in the village he feels ashamed of it. If it were not for the hut taxes that he is being made to pay, he would not accept the work. His cattle will be confiscated if he fails to pay the money asked of him" (45).

Such concerns are real and legitimate for many Zimbabwean people. But neither should we assume that these citizens are ignorant of their position and do not query the nature of their identity. On the contrary this question of identity is at the center of most post-colonial thought and debate. How is it possible to achieve material success as is defined and required by our rapidly industrializing world community while still remaining faithful and proud of ancient traditions? How is it possible to advocate nationalism when for the sake of competition and economic independence, certain concessions to western tradition must be made?

Returning again to the work of Dangarembga, I believe Nervous Conditions to be a remarkable illustration of these all too real dilemmas. The novel centers upon the girl Tambu who is born into a rural farming family. She has an uncle, Babamukuru, who was educated first by white missionaries and then at universities in South Africa and England. He is the patriarch and pride of the entire family. He achieved "success" and now works as the headmaster of the mission school. He and his family enjoy material privileges, such as indoor plumbing, that the rest of the clan have only ever heard of. But there is a price. Babamukuru and his family are different. They do not participate in traditional dancing and singing. Upon their return from England, his children Chido and Nyasha have forgotten their Shona. They are anomalies fitting into neither culture. Too African for the English, too English for the Africans.

Tambu is scornful of them. When she discovers her cousins' loss of language she is hurt.

What Maiguru said was bewildering, bewildering and offending. I had not expected my cousins to have changed, certainly not so radically, simply because they had been away for awhile. Besides, Shona was our language. What did people mean when they forgot it?" (42)

In the short time that they have been away, her cousins' identities have morphed into something entirely impossible for Tambu to understand. She cannot imagine losing touch with traditions, especially such an important one as language.

Not only is Tambu upset at her cousins, but she is equally, if not more, disapproving of her own brother Nhamo, who in the brief time of his education, forsakes the family life almost entirely in the name of his own educational pursuits. But the sad irony of her indignation is that it is only too soon that Tambu herself begins to make choices leading her further away from her roots and the identity she of which she is so fiercely defensive.

She leaves her homestead and studies at the mission, living with her uncle. Despite the misgivings of her family, from there she moves on to study at an even more "English" school, Sacred Heart. When her cousin Nyasha succumbs to an eating disorder, she returns home, disturbed and confused. Her mother's explanation for Nyasha's illness is too much "Englishness" and it is clear that she does not see the contamination as being limited to Nyasha.

"She went on like this for quite awhile, going on about how you couldn't expect the ancestors to stomach so much Englishness. She didn't mention Nhamo, but I was beginning to follow her trend of thought. I knew she was thinking of him and I could see she considered him a victim too: The problem is the Englishness, so you just be careful!'.... Be careful, she had said, and I thought about Nyasha and Chido and Nhamo, who had all succumbed, and of my own creeping feelings of doom. Was I being careful enough? I wondered. For I was beginning to have a suspicion, no more than a seed of a suspicion, that I had been too eager to leave the homestead and embrace the "Englishness" of the Mission; and after that the more concentrated "Englishness" of Sacred Heart.... But term time was fast approaching and the thought of returning to Sacred Heart filled me with pleasure. The books, the games, the films, the debates - all these things were things that I wanted." (Dangarembga, p.203)

In this story we see the effects of a "white" education upon personal identity. It has changed Tambu, and altered her perception of herself in relation to her community. She entered into her education with the clear goal of achieving success so as to lift her family out of poverty. To succeed where her father had not. But as she allows herself to be incorporated into the school system she becomes enamored of European culture and tradition and grows to scorn her shabby African roots. She wants all those "white" things and her original reason to pursue an education becomes an excuse - a facade behind which she hides her own sometimes subconscious, but very real, desires.

Is this the travesty of an educational system formed by and focused upon an anglo-society? Is the possibility of achieving a true sense of identity in a post-colonial state compromised or even lost? Despite the most resolute of intentions, Tambu has lost sense of herself. She is in love with a society to which she does not belong, but can no longer find a comfortable niche in the society from whence she came.


Who Am I? : Negotiation of Identity in A Post-Colonial State


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