Change in Yvonne Vera's Nehanda

Emilie Cassou, English 27, Autumn 1997

Because Vera's Nehanda tells the story of a struggle, it contrasts to Emecheta's work and its murmurs of resignation. Despite such a contrast, the novels end up agreeing about the deceptive nature of change. Nehanda recounts the resistance to conquest when Westerners occupy the territory thst later became Zimbabwe. But ironically, colonization portrays the irresistibility of change, due to the nature of the very fight against change.

At Nehanda's naming ceremony, her father mutters to the child, "'May you be an offspring of the earth.'" Reading these words with Nehanda's fate in mind, I believe they refer to the conquest and to the seizure of their traditional lands. The traditional ceremony resembles a communion: Nehanda becomes of the land. By extension, it is by virtue of tradition that she is colonizable; because she forms one with the land, the usual object of conquest, she becomes apt for conquest as well. Thus from the beginning of her life, the force of colonialism drives changes in Nehanda's life. And indeed, at the advent of colonizers, Nehanda leaves her world of silence and becomes the voice of her people.

Now if we look at the actual beginning of the colonial process, the space in which Nehanda's people first confront the British is of interest. Ibwe speaks to the stranger in the village's meeting space called the dare. We are told that both men "plod around" this "circular space" in turn. To act out this scene would be to visualize the circular rotation of this confrontation. How must we interpret the spatial configuration of this important meeting? Recalling our conclusions about Emecheta's vision of change, we find that the characters' movement recalls the circularity of change, especially since we are fully aware that, following this scene, change will soon ensue and disrupt patterns in this traditional village.

Sure enough, the process of change begins at this point: the British announce their intentions of transforming traditional values. Moreover, the two objects -- guns and words -- which serve as symbols of colonial change already introduce how colonised and colonisers will engage an inevitable cycle of change. Once the process starts, there is no stopping it. Both sides derive power from use of Guns and words, props to induce or resist to change, though their use fits into different value structures. Thus guns and words are not only weapons of change, but also grounds of change, affected by the confrontation of values they accomodate.

Words play an important role until guns are pulled out. Colonizers envelop their conquest with preaching and rhetoric. Where spoken words do not achieve their desired effects, colonizers revert to written words, which become powerful tools of colonization because the breadth of their value remains unintelligible to indigenous populations. Ibwe states, "'The paper is the stranger's own peculiar custom. Among ourselves, speech is not like rock. Words cannot be taken from the people who create them. People are their words.'" He proceeds to make fun of the British custom that consists of signing one's name on paper, for, only corporal writing, where symbols remain attached to their author, satisfies the villagers' conditions for a written form to not be utterly empty. The argument from the indigenous perspective attempts to dismantle the meaning of any words that stand in the physical absence of their author. That Vera presents this argument on the pages of a book, read in the absence of its author, seems highly ironic, especially since it depicts as glorious resistance to colonial technology and cultural interventions, such as printed discourse. This ironic demonstration of colonial change ends as a protest composed of words that are only powerful in terms of colonial values. Resistance to change under colonial influence demands a colonially influenced response. Change has already occurred, and new values have been integrated from the time the process begins.

When power can no longer be milked from words, guns are the contingent source of power. Again this first encounter that marks the beginning of the process of change carries evidence of the irony that lies behind the introduction of this colonial weapon. Reading from a piece of paper, the stranger has the following words for Ibwe: "'I shall read everything to you, and you will see that it is very clear. I am a messenger of the Queen. The Queen is like your Mwari. She protects, and wishes to extend her protection over you. I shall give you guns with which to fight your enemies. In turn my people will be allowed to search for gold. You can trust me.'" But the tense atmosphere of this scene heavily implies that the villagers' adversary is none other than those who offer them guns in exchange for accepting conquest. Sure enough, when the time of upheaval approaches, the villagers adopt guns, the colonial weapon par excellence, to ward off the stranger: "'The tradition of the stranger shall destroy us.' Nehanda speaks as she gives guns to her people." This is paradoxical since she recommends adopting what supposedly will destroy her people, precisely to fight off what will destroy them otherwise. This use of guns -- like the use of the book format -- to protect the pre-colonial from change, signals that change is bound to occur.

But this points mark only the beginning of a dialectic, for Vera shows that they can provide successful means of subverting change. The book belongs to post-colonial literature, and thus stands for the independence that was achieved after years of hoarding the strengths of the colonizer that vanquished in the day of Nehanda. Exploiting change can be a powerful means of bringing about its reversal, or at least its subversion. As for Nehanda suggesting the use of guns, their use is presented as the only hope of gathering enough power to fight the colonisers' powerful campaign to subordinate them.

As in The Slave Girl, Vera depicts wide change, but instead of denying its propensities as Emecheta does by ending on a note of resignation, Vera argues for the inevitability of change and victory. In reality these two positions make much the same statement about change, since in either case, change proves to be self-obliterating in the end. But living out change in the first case is the passive process of enduring fate, whereas in the second, it is the hopeful process, anchored in an active attitude, of promoting the acceleration of the change cycle by means of its own exploitation. Even the most valiant struggle of resistance to change is bound to bear marks of change, validating its reality in the very process. In fact, the more exerted the struggle, the more signs of change it is likely to bear, as the following relationships explain: to fire guns is more powerful than to throw stones (or to publish a book is a more effective way of speaking to a wide audience, than to give a series of speeches is). According to Vera then, resisting change gains effectiveness if it uses knowledge of its inevitability. This implies that liberation is a state that grows out of change.

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