Control or Curiosity

Maureen Grundy, English 119, Brown University, 1999

Mr. Smith spent many hours walking about in the forest, and always he found some insect that he had not encountered before. It was as though each new insect he saw had somehow deliberately eluded him, for why had he not seen it until this time? He took prisoner any insect that he found, and was fascinated by, and out it in one of the small bottles that he always carried with him. He avoided putting two species together, and when he ran out of bottles he might put a specimen in one of his pockets. There the insect might be forgotten, and gradually torn to pieces. In the evening after he had had his dinner, he would sit beneath his lamp, and remove the wings and legs from his insects, examining their size and coloration. He would examine the eyes and the antennae. When he cared to, he scribbled a few notes in his diary. During his stay in Africa, he had devoted a lot of time to insects. (p.56)

In her novel, Nehanda, Yvonne Vera depicts two white characters, Mr. Browning and Mr. Smith, to represent the British colonialists. Mr. Browning and Mr. Smith meet to discuss issues of the land and the people of Zimbabwe in only a few brief scenes, yet Vera juxtaposes these two characters so carefully and artfully in these scenes so as to depict two kinds of attitudes colonialists bring with them to this new country. With this juxtaposition of characters, readers are challenged again, as they were in reading Dangaremgba's Nervous Conditions, to evaluate whether one of these white characters is "better" than the other or that he possesses some sort of goodness that the other lacks. The contrasts and contradictions between the two characters are so drastic upon first description that readers may be compelled to think that they should like one character more than another. Yet, as these characters evolve, it becomes clearer that they are not necessarily juxtaposed to identify a good and bad guy, but rather to illustrate a difference in colonialist thought and the implications associated with each mentality.

Vera clearly depicts Mr. Browning in the way the readers may expect. He is a strict and serious man, obsessed with civilizing and controlling the African people. He is blunt and his language is harsh and outwardly derogatory toward the native people. The reader immediately dislikes Mr. Browning, as his introduction into the story is characterized by complaints of the heat and a fact about Mr. Browning renaming his servant, Mashoko, as a "step toward civilizing the country" and toward making himself feel more comfortable in this new country. He is the arrogant and cruel person whom we expect to behave as he does, with arrogance and an obsession for control.

Mr. Smith's introduction to the novel is rather different. We immediately learn that there are differences between the two characters because "sometimes they tire of each other's voices." Furthermore, Smith's first words in the novel, "surely the Africans know the land?" gives credit to the African and immediately distinguishes him from the controlling figure of Mr. Browning. Throughout all the discussions about Africa, the land, and civilizing the African people, Mr. Smith remains dispassionate, nonchalant, and rather disinterested in the colonization of people. He seems to enjoy the new environment which Africa has to offer, but only intends to stay until he has the opportunity to travel again.

As the readers are just beginning to like Mr. Smith more than Mr. Browning, however, Vera cleverly adds this passage about Mr. Smith's fascination with insects and the ways in which he collects and studies these fascinating subjects. After reading this very disturbing description of Mr. Smith's hobbies, where do the readers go now? What are they supposed to think about Smith? One theory is that perhaps Mr. Smith's curiosity about insects parallels his curiosity with the native Africans. In a way, the native people are more specimens for him to examine. He displays passivity in the colonization of the land and the people, yet can this passivity be interpreted as a compliance with Mr. Browning's actions that accommodate his curiosity and fascination with different "species." The description of placing the insects in a bottle, or sometimes in a pocket, of examining and removing wings and legs, and then not caring about what may happen to the insect which may be "forgotten, and gradually torn to pieces" eerily alludes to the conditions of colonization; imprisonment, segregation, and mistreatment. In this sense, while Mr. Smith does not actively participate in the oppression of the native people, his passivity may lend itself to other consequences for Africans. Is Africa another place for Smith to look for new study subjects, scribble a bit in his diary, and abandon? Could another explanation be that Vera wants to show the parallels in Browning and Smith's curiosity and conquering of the world, yet Browning seeks to achieve that conquest through people while Smith seeks to conquer knowledge? What does Vera want her readers to think about Mr. Smith and about the whites in Zimbabwe? Why is it that Mr. Smith is the one who dies at the hands of the natives rather than Browning?

Other passages to look at: pp. 73-76

Postcolonial Web Zimbabwe OV Yvonne Vera Overview