Climbing the Ladder: The Conflicts of Travelling Forward for the Sake of Where You've Been

Heather Sofield

Set in colonial Rhodesia, Dangarembga's novel Nervous Conditions, tells the coming of age story of young Tambudzai. Narrated in retrospect, Tambudzai explains the events and forces which shaped her "escape" from the poverty of her birth. Having grown up with in the traditional family structures which emphasized patriarchy and familial obligations, Tambudzai is motivated in her quest for education by her sense of responsibility for her family. She clearly sees her opportunities, and what use she subsequently makes of them, as being solely for the purpose of lifting the rest of her family from the squalor in which they are trapped.

Tambudzai is not the first one her family looks to for salvation. Originally this responsibility fell upon the shoulders of her older brother Nhamo. When funds fell short of what was required for school fees, Tambudzai was forced to sacrifice her own place in school so that her brother might continue on, at first in the local school and then at the mission of which her uncle was headmaster. He was a male and the oldest child. Tambudzai, painfully aware of her own rebuffed potential, is upset but not vanquished. Determinedly she seeks to provide her own fees, working her way forward, slowly but definitively. She continues on in this way until the untimely death of her brother. At this time her uncle's sponsorship is transferred to her, and she assumes a place at the mission school. However, what I wish to explore is not the manner in which Tambudzai climbed the ladder leading from the poor homestead to a more emancipated and prosperous future for herself and her family, but the ways in which the climbing affected her views: of self, home and eventual destination.

Education is seen as being the only way to escape from the impoverished conditions which emerged as a result of White colonization. But the challenge arises when that educational system is one saturated with White ideas and influences.

When Tambudzai is young, still living on the homestead with her parents and younger sisters, she is scornful of Nhamo. Resentful of his education and the effect it seems to have produced, she sees him as transformed from a caring and responsible member of the family to one who is selfish and lazy. The family, except for Tambudzai's father attributes this to contamination from White ways. She hates the ways in which he attempts to distance himself from the family, as if his education will be solely for his own betterment and not that of the entire family as is intended. Frustrated, she tries to remind him,

"You will still be our father's son. You will still be my brother. And Netsai's. Even if you don't like it. So you had better stop being proud for nothing and be grateful to Babamukuru for helping you." (page 49)

But when Nhamo dies and Tambudzai is allowed to study at the mission, is she able to maintain the same views? In the course of the novel, we see Tambudzai changing as we all will do in the courses of our educations. It is certainly impossible to emerge from such experiences unmarked. But Tambudzai embarks upon her journey with a remarkable amount of resolve, determined to put all she learns to productive use for the sake of her family. Therefore, her journey forward is propelled by continual looking backward. She must continually remind herself of where she has come from. Does she succeed where she saw her brother failing? Is she able to use her education as she plans or does it irrevocably shape her in ways she did not intend?

We can see Tambudzai's transformation as time progresses. At first, she seems to be very aware of what is happening to her. When she first arrives at the mission she is distressed to discover a change already - apparent in the manner which Anna addresses her.

"The worst thing was that she hardly talked at all, said no more than the few words necessary to convey her message. You have met Anna as she was before she began to behave like this, and I think you will agree with me that nothing on earth could have changed her so quickly into a quiet, reserved person. The change then had to do with me. It was very sobering to think that my change of address had changed me into a person Anna could not talk to." (page 85)

Another important influence to consider in this question of Tambudzai's success in terms of the goals she sets for herself, is the influence of her cousin Nyasha. Indelibly marked from her early exposure to English culture, Nyasha struggles with her inability to re-assimilate into her native society. Her rebellious nature certainly is a factor in Tambudzai's own development. How do Nyasha's ideas about individual emancipation conflict with the responsibilities Tambudzai shoulders for the liberation of her own family? This conflict of individual versus family is a recurrent theme. As Tambudzi climbs upwards, she is forced to question all of the beliefs drilled into her from birth. Is she able to reconcile these views? How is she affected by so many conflicting desires and ideas?

As Tambudzai discovers that she will be allowed to accept her scholarship to the convent, she reflects upon her goals and the path she is traveling.

"I was to take another step upwards in the direction of my freedom. Another step away from the flies, the smells, the fields and the rags; from stomachs which were seldom full, from dirt and disease, from my father's abject obeisance to Babamukuru and my mother's chronic lethargy." (page 183)

And so, as the narrative comes to a close, Tambudzai has embarked upon a new phase of her journey towards liberation. She is able to remember the goals which were with her when she began her climb, but has she been successful in maintaining her character? She was hurt by her brother Nhamo's condescension and seemed resolved not to fall into a similar trap. Does she do this? How is Tambudzai able to balance her sense of responsibility with her own desires? Is she able to maintain immunity from White contamination, while using her exposure to benefit her family? These are all important questions I would like us to consider in our discussion of Nervous Conditions. The struggles Tambudzai and her family face are representative of the conflicts of the entire country as it moves forward under colonial oppression. And so by reflecting upon her personal journey we are better able to understand the experience of the nation.

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