Yvonne Vera's "Nehanda": Reading Questions

Members of Ms. Watterson's English 32 1998

Follow for Questions by Members of English 27, Postcolonial Studies, Brown University, Autumn 1997

I am interested in Nehanda's relationship with her natural surroundings. In the opening passages, it is described as if she is part of her country, because she understands what the environment is trying to say to her: "Nehanda can hear the rushing river. The lulling sound tells her where the river is deep and treacherous...when she gets too close to the river the different sounds merge and she can no longer distinguish it's different parts". What exactly is Nehanda's relationship with Zimbabwe? Is it spiritual, or it there an even more deeper meaning to her closeness with nature? (Kate Edwards)

In Yvonne Vera's Nehanda, much of Mr. Browning's speech is ironic in that he unwittingly states partial solutions to the native-colonist problem that he struggles to solve. He tells Mr. Smith, "The Africans perform many strange rituals... You cannot understand what these natives believe" (74) without realizing that this is part of his problem: he acts as if he understands the natives' beliefs. He explains, "it is hard to deal in a civilized manner with people who possess so many superstitions" (75) yet he does not realize that the natives have the same opinion about Mr. Browning and his Bible as he has about dealing with them and their superstitions. What conclusions can we draw about the problem of understanding a different culture and the near-impossibility of reconciliation between the two civilizations in Nehanda? (Lily Huang)

In Nehanda, by Yvonne Vera, there is complex imagery revolving around birth and death. The two are closely intertwined in this book, perhaps most clearly in the way the living pay tribute to and seek aid from the dead spirits. The tribe is waiting for birth, celebrating birth in the midst of the death of their culture, and they are very aware of "the dead part of themselves" (112) as well as the living part of themselves. The past, through memory, is alive with voices. At the closing of the book, as Nehanda prepares for her death, this connectiong between birth and death is elucidated: "Her death, which is also birth, will weigh on those lives remaining to be lived. In the valley, where they have prayed all night for rain, is heard the beginning of a new language and a new speech" (112). How is the death of this tribe like a birth? I think the way they die is like a beginning, like the stars Nehanda sees:

She walks in circular paths through the forest, in a ritual of another birth. She goes into the cave and banishes her own shadow. In the cave is her second birth. There are no witnesses to her second birth, only the spirits that send elegies to those who have been sacrificed in the fight. She weeps until the stars break into the sky and bring the light back into her eyes, then she watches them dance across the sky, darting, skirting and exploding, giving birth to other stars, dying in perfect patterns in harmony with their moment of death, knowing that the darkness will vanish as another brightness comes into the sky and destroys them, but speeding themselves to that death, singing in their brief glory which is their triumphant moment, existing in harmony with the darkness that makes them burn (92-3)

(Maura McKee)

In Nehanda, the storyteller holds a position of great power. Words too are considered powerful. However there certainly seems to be a huge problem with communication. The people bombard the storyteller with questions asking for further explanation: "Do not hide your words, like ripe fruit in a tree. Tell us your true meaning." Does this imply that the listeners are aware of the problems of language, despite the power they confer upon it, or is Vera attempting to point out the problems of language to the reader without granting that knowledge to the characters? What might Vera be trying to say about the responsibility the storyteller has to be truthful and to use her powers for good and not for evil? (Devin McIntyre)

The reliance on history and storytelling in Nehanda creates a link between the struggle in this novel and the struggles encountered in Waterland. Both deal with the fall of a society, although very different ones and for very different reasons. But the principal characters turn to the same type of guidance: stories of the past. The effects of this guidance, however, is very different.

For instance, Nehanda, the character, seems to be divided into two people. Not only is her aging very rapid and abrupt in the novel, but she becomes much less concrete in the second half of the book than in the beginning, during her childhood. As a child, Nehanda seems more personal and human. The narration associated with her is less abstract and metaphorical, t is more concerned with her actions and emotions in relation to her thoughts,

"The place is so still that Nehanda folds her legs beneath her feet and digs them into the sandy wet and, tears rising helplessly to her eyes, she would like to forget that story Vatate told her . . . She likes to watch herself in parts of the river that are still, but sometimes the sun disappears suddenly the way it has done this afternoon, and takes her with it. Nehanda turns around, frightened . . . It is amazing what things make one long for Mother" (15-16).

The first half of the novel has many images like these of Nehanda living as a villager, even though she is a special villager. Later, however, she becomes an infrequent image, although she is always present. The book treats her as a spirit or a "wizard" (77), just as the villagers and colonizers do. It is fitting with the sense that Nehanda has come under the influence of her "dead" self, the more connected she becomes to her past, the more wise, powerful, and abstract she becomes. Tom Crick, on the other hand, becomes more vulnerable and human the deeper he delves into his own history. Why the different effects, author's prerogative? What two different ideas are the novels stating? (Melissa Rodriguez)

Yvonne Vera's book Nehanda takes place in a village in Zimbabwe. I am interested in the role women play in this society, especially as compared to other works that we have read in this course that take place at the same time period (the late nineteenth century). I noticed, while reading this book, that women are the central figues, and seem to hold a lot of the power in society. Much of this power seems to come from the fact that women are the ones who bear the children. (note the birthing scene at the beginnning of the story). Contrast this with the fact that in English society, childbearing seemed to take power away from women rather that give it to them, since they were often relegated to the home. My question, then is although the Westerners that came into Zimbabwe to colonize and "civilize" the people there believed that they were culturally superior to the Africans, were the Africans more progressive when it comes to the respect they accorded women? I see evidence of this respect in the novel. The title character, the person who is going to save her entire race, is a woman. Nehanda's mother's name is always capitalized "Mother". It is Nehanda who make the inspirational speech which tells her people to defend their homeland, saying "I am among you. I carry the message of retribution. The land must be cleansed with your blood" (61). The novel goes on to describe Nehanda: "Nehanda's trembling voice reaches them as though coming from some distant past...it is an alluring voice, undulating, carrying the current of a roar that reminds them who they have been in the past, but it is also the comforting voice of a woman, of their mothers whom they trust. At the end of Nehanda's speech "The men stop dancing and kneel around Nehanda, and the women in the outer circle cast protective shadows over the bending bodies of the men" (62). (Erin Emlock)

The priest in Nehanda repeatedly tries to convert Kaguvi and others, but he is unfruitful in his endeavor. To the Shona community, indvidualism implicit in the Christian teachings is absolutely foreign and incompatible. Tribal way of life in Zimbabwe and industrialized one in Western Europe pose a great gap that cannot be easily mended. Yet, the two colliding forces try to impose and implement on each other their way of life, to fundamentally change the way of thinking. Here, the way of thinking takes form of belief in afterlife. Is religion so different between the two peoples because they are from different worlds? What does that say about religion? Does religion dictate our lives or do we shape religion as we see fit?(Hyun Kim)

As opposed to Heart of Darkness, Nehanda is considerably clearer in its style of description. Though at times overembellished by the metaphors she uses, Yvonne Vera seems a more trustworthy narrator than Conrad by far. This is obviously true due! to omniscient viewpoint Vera employs whereas Conrad has chosen a complex chain of narrators that becomes pragmatic when attempting to distinguish how much of Marlow's account is skewed by his own perception. The relative clarity of Vera is easily vi! sible within the comparison of the following two passages:

"I don't want to bother you much with what happened to me personally," he began showing in this remark the weakness of many tellers of tales who seem so often unaware of what their audience would best like to hear; "yet to understand the ! effect of it on me you ought to know how I got out there, what I saw, how I went up that river to the place where I first met the poor chap."(Conrad 1763)
"The storyteller sat with her head resting between her palms. "The stranger decided to stay among us. There was evidence all over the hill that the stranger was to be among us for a long time. He had built a home. Humans are not like ! birds, which build nests in trees only to abandon them in the next season. Humans make homes so that their young may walk the same soil that they have walked."

In light of such narration, is the reader supposed to take Vera's tale as a journalistic account? Or is such narration a deceptive technique? How much more stock should the audience place in the narrator of Nehanda?(Dan Shindell)

In Nehanda, Vera costantly uses images of light and dark, and also images of shadows. Because Nehanda is a post-colonial text, I can't help but interpret these shadows as the pervading influence of the colonizers. But what does Vera conclude about this influence? In my opinion, Vera's image "The shadow will soon be swallowed by the earth" (118) seems alligned with Conrad's view of the ultimate powerlessness of European Imperialist power in the face of the the natural dominance of the earth. Is the attitude in Nehanda then similar to that of Conrad's post-colonial text Heart of Darkness? Why or Why not? (Ben McAvay)

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