"A Special Kind of White Person"

Maureen Grundy, English 119 Brown University, 1999

Another thing that was different about the mission was that there were many white people there. The Whites on the mission were a special kind of white person, special in the way that my grandmother had explained to me, for they were holy. They had not come to take but to give. They were about God's business here in darkest Africa. They had given up the comforts and security of their own homes to come and lighten our darkness. It was a big sacrifice missionaries made. It was a sacrifice which made us grateful to them, a sacrifice that made them superior not only to us but to those Whites as well who were here for adventure and to help ourselves to our emeralds. The missionaries' self-denial and brotherly love did not go unrewarded. We treated them like minor deities -- I often ask myself why they come, giving up the comforts and security of their more advanced homes. Which brings us back to matters of brotherly love, contribution and lightening of diverse darkness. -- Nervous Conditions , p. 103

Throughout the first half of Dangarembga's novel, Nervous Conditions , we trace Tambudzai's transition from rural village life to life in her uncle's wealthy missionary home. As readers, we are drawn into Tambudzai's fascination with the "modern" and "convenient" luxuries she encounters and at times, we are even amused by her excitement and curiosity about her new surroundings. Yet, it is not until halfway through the novel that Tambudzai explicitly discusses the whites who live on the mission and are responsible for its existence. Here, after Tambudzai has already settled into her life at the mission and we have become acquainted with her adjustment, readers are reminded of the circumstances and motivations of the missionary school. This passage compels us, as readers, to evaluate the implications of missionary work and to contemplate the role of the white missionary as a "special kind of white person"to people like Tambudzai.

In this passage, Tambudzai clearly depicts significant differences between white colonialists and white missionaries. In her mind, and seemingly in the minds of her family and other Zimbabweans at the mission, the white missionary is justified in their presence and even worshipped because they bring knowledge and a promise of salvation to Africans who are in spiritual darkness. The white missionary's education and redemption of "darkest Africa" s praised and deemed as an exhibition of sacrifice in the name of " brotherly love." The deification of the white missionary demonstrates the sense of indebtedness Zimbabweans feel, while also exacerbating the gap between the inferior African and the superior white.

Learning about Tambudzai's gratitude and awe of the white missionary begs the question: In what ways are the white missionaries really different from other whites in Zimbabwe? How are their motivations for coming to Zimbabwe different from white colonialists? Are not both approaches by these two groups of white settlers exploiting a population and assigning more value to their own system of beliefs and ways of life? Do they not both devalue the African ways of life, African spirituality, and African traditions? On one hand, one can regard those whites that Tambudzai's seems to deem as "bad"or less "brotherly" as cruel strangers who have trespassed Zimbabwean land to exploit its resources and to oppress its people. One can consider these whites as "worse," in a way, because they bring about physical harm and suffering to the African, whereas the white missionary devotes his life to teaching these same people about the power of God. It makes sense for Tambudzai to believe this about the difference between the white missionary and other colonialists because she finds herself embraced and welcomed into this missionary community.

On the other hand, one can regard this missionary work as an exploitation of the mind, a brain-washing of people like Tambudzai. Is there a difference between exploitation of the mind versus exploitation of the land or the body? We see in this passage how, despite the seemingly saintly work of the missionaries, they have still created a situation that convinces Zimbabweans of their inferiority. While Tambudzai lives in a beautiful house full of amenities and receives an education, she still alludes to her inferiority to the white missionary. Not only does she claim this inferiority, but she also pledges her gratitude to these "special" white people.

What is most disturbing about this passage is that because of the lack of violence between Zimbabweans and the missionaries and because of all the knowledge and material goods they seem to offer, we see the extent to which the missionaries can alter Zimbabwean thought processes. Can we say that these manipulations of the mind are just as subject to scrutiny as other manipulations because they impose thoughts and ideologies on a people; because they take away beliefs and values which may never be discovered again?

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