Do You Hear What I Hear? : The Conflicts of Language in Nehanda

Heather Sofield , English 119, Brown University, 1999

In her novel of the same name, Yvonne Vera delivers us into the life, and dream world, of Nehanda. Chosen by the spirits to lead a rebellion against the "strangers," Nehanda embodies the spiritual essence of her people, both living and dead. She is born into a destiny which marks her as a voice of truth and direction in a time clouded with the mysterious changes and events which we recognize as the advent of White colonial power. Vera's lyrical writing transfixes and transports us. We are held under the power of her language. Beyond her words, we hear Nehanda's words. And the words of her ancestors. Words and visions of a people on the verge of being lost. Vera's prose is redolent with references to the power of words. Language was a most inherent and important part of life and soul for these Zimbabwean people. As humans are the bodies of souls, words are the bodies of thoughts. Their power was not to be teased or abused, but respected as the power which flows through all creatures and gives them life.

"Our people know the power of words. It is because of this that they have the desire to have words continuously spoken and kept alive. We do not believe that words can become independent of the speech that bore them, of the humans who controlled and gave birth to them. Can words exchanged today on this clearing surrounded by waving grass become like a child left to be brought up by strangers? Words surrendered to the stranger, like the abandoned child, will become alien - a stranger to our tongues.... The paper is the stranger's own peculiar custom. Among ourselves, speech is not like a rock. Words cannot be taken from the people who create them. People are their own words." (page 40)

I believe that this concept of language is central to acquiring understanding of the true losses incurred as a result of colonization. Beyond the blood spilled and the bodies felled or oppressed, beyond the politics and governments, beyond all this, there was a far greater tragedy. An irreversible change which closed off the portals to their spirit world - a world which was once twin to this one and is now rendered inaccessible. As Vera writes, as Nehanda speaks, we catch glimpses, feel shivers, hear echoes of what that world was like. Is Vera successful enough that we are able to fully understand that loss?

An important distinction is that while they revere the spoken word, the native people do not understand the potential power of a written word.

"How can words be still, without turning into silence?" (page 43)
To them, the concept of a word being stilled, made immobile like a statue while retaining its power of voice, is foreign and impossible to grasp. And this is what finally becomes the ultimate weapon in the battle between native and colonizer. The strangers cannot grasp the power of a word beyond its physical shape, something which can be bent and manipulated. They cannot comprehend the life which breathes in and out of each vocal sound. They have long since lost, or perhaps never had, the ability to truly hear. While they speak together, native and stranger, there is no actual communication. For beyond the words used, is a second language. A shadow of the first, this language is the spirit of the words to which one group is attentive and the other deaf. This impasse, between two people unable to understand the power of language over the other is at the crux of their struggles.

Nehanda warned her people,

"Do not covet anything of his. Approach the stranger with a single eye, the other should be blind. It is the envying eye that will destroy us, that will change us entirely. We can become stronger and whole if we believe in our own traditions." (page 79)
She was aware that what was at stake was far more than land or gold. Hanging in the balance she recognized the past, future, and living breathing present of her people. She urged them to remain true to their own ways - knowing that to adopt even one strange tradition was to abandon all of their own. Fearing for the silencing of that second language, she becomes the embodiment of all their words. She becomes their language.

We are called upon to weigh the losses of translation. The spirit transformed into thought, then spoken aloud. What is lost when this full bodied, multi-dimensional concept is then translated into a flat splash of ink upon a piece of paper? Nehanda communicates to us through Vera's written text, consequence of the eventual success of colonization. We cannot sit by the fire, watching the spirits leap from her mouth and rise skyward on tendrils of smoke. We can only read these words, shells of her own words, and try to will away the background noise of our own present existence.

And what can we take away from this reading? What conclusions can be reached? Is it possible that the power of the ancient spoken word was not entirely vanquished? Is it possible for it to find a new shape within the written text which is the only language of the strangers? Or is it forever and irrevocably compromised?

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