The Intersection of Print Culture and Religious Ideals in Vera's Nehanda

Valerie Braman, English 119, Brown University, 1999

Late in Vera's novel, the character of Kaguvi encounters an English priest as he reads his bible. Kaguvi, a member of a society based on oral culture as well as naturalistic polytheism, is both confused and intrigued by this phenomenon:

"The respect with which the priest treats this thing is evident. Perhaps this is his gano, the one that a man passes on to his first-born son when he dies. Yet its shape and size do not suggest any immediate usefulness. (p. 104)

Kaguvi, motivated by his curiosity and desire to understand the stranger's behavior, begins a dialogue that consists of question and answer. With each question he asks, Kaguvi seems to seek points of intersection between his own culture's beliefs and practices, and those of the priest. He is surprised, incredulous, and sometimes condescending towards the answers he recieves from the priest, yet, "He is not one to close his mind to a mystery. It is better to know what governs the stranger's world, and what secret fears he holds. Kaguvi does not expect to be charmed by what he will learn." (p. 104)

The priest, in sharp contrast to Kaguvi, seeks not to glean information in order to lead to an understanding or reconciliation between the two men (and, my extension, the two cultures), but rather, seeks to convert, teach, and save his captive audience. "'But my God is the true God. He is the way to eternal happiness. . . . Your god is an evil god. . . . I am here to save you from the flames.'" (pp. 105-106)

Throughout this conversation, Kaguvi continues to be "fascinated," (p. 104) as well as to "feel pity for a god who has to manifest himself in this humble manner." (p. 104) Neither man is truly able to reconcile his vision of God and worship with that of the other. However, it is Kaguvi who consistently makes the effort to interrogate the other man's belief system and practices, while the priest, in the name of salvation, responds with dogma. Never does this priest seek to understand or show the slightest bit of genuine interest in Kaguvi's perspective.

This scene suggests a kind of a moral and humanistic superiority on the part of Kaguvi and his people that is echoed throughout Vera's text. What are the larger implications of this conversation in terms of the relationship of religious doctrines, oral versus print cultures, and the general (ir)reconcilability of these two clashing cultures?

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