Western Experiences: Education and "Third World Women" in the Fictions of Tsitsi Dangarembga and Meena Alexander

Rahul Krishna Gairola, Rhode Island College

Copyright © 2000 by Rahul Krishna Gairola, all rights reserved. This article is reproduced with the kind permission of the editors of JOUVERT: Journal of Postcolonial Studies.

  1. In Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions, Tambu is a meticulously constructed character who speaks in the first person narrative, which draws readers into a more personalized sense of her oppressed history. The novel opens with Tambu's assertion that she does not mourn her brother's death -- a harsh reflection and illustration of her own eventual conditioning into colonialist capitalism. Kachru's "alchemy of English" is metaphorically presented by Dangarembga in her novel: Tambu tells us that "white wizards" from the south who were "well versed in treachery and black magic" educated her uncle Babamukuru (18-9). In this way, the narrative of Nervous Conditions comes full circle as we witness Westernization and its impact on a number of characters, including Tambu, her brother Nhamo, her cousin Nyasha and her uncle Babamukuru. For Tambu, the pursuit of a British education is her only hope of escaping her two biological, subaltern roles - blackness and womanhood. Her internal interactions between her own culture and colonial culture induce within her a cultural schizophrenia characteristic of what Elleke Boehmer describes as "a process of both 'reincarnation' and self-splitting, in which she [Tambu] is forced to inhabit borderlines, at one and the same time losing, and yet retaining loyalty to, the traditions of the Shona home" (228).

  2. This cultural schizophrenia, this "nervous condition," is exacerbated throughout the novel's narrative discourse when Tambu interacts with others. There exists a tension between the members of Tambu's family that is parallel to the tension between the Shona and British cultures, most explicitly with her mother. In this sense, Tambu is in some ways allegorical of colonial education while her mother is represented as its antithesis. Though Tambu takes over her dead brother's place (the privilege and responsibility of being educated in the family is usually reserved for the eldest son), her mother experiences a heartfelt backlash when the familial patriarchy decides to send Tambu to a Western school after Nhamo's death. While this is an invaluable opportunity for Tambu, her mother views it as a dangerous, insidious move towards Western assimilation and loss of Shona culture (as exemplified by Nyasha after her stay in England), and she viciously compares herself to her sister-in-law Maiguru:
    'I am poor and ignorant, that's me, but I have a mouth and it will keep on talking, it won't keep quiet . . . Oh yes, Tambudzai. Do you think I haven't seen the way you follow her [Maiguru] around,' she spat at me fiercely, 'doing all her dirty work for her, anything she says? You think your mother is so stupid she won't see Maiguru has turned you against me with her money and her white ways? You think I am dirt, me, your mother.' (140)

  3. There are a number of points to note in the previous passage. Tambu's mother's use of the Shona language when speaking to her daughter and referring to her by her full name in the tirade seems a gesture to conjure some Shona "authenticity." If we consider Tambu's mother's cold sentiment an opposition to Western education, we see how the inclusion/exclusion of women from this institution created a tense stratification among Shona women that multiplied the many kinds of marginalizations experienced by them. This is perhaps why Dangarembga so carefully constructs each of her female characters as literary foils to one another - Nyasha and Maiguru, who succumb to colonial education like Tambu, are isolated by other Shona women for being educated and rich. Simultaneously, they carry status, as exemplified when Babamakuru invites Maiguru into a patriarchal council meeting concerning a local dispute.

  4. Hence, the colonial woman of Southern Rhodesia occupies an ambivalent position in which education is both a liberating yet stifling entity in the context of Nervous Conditions. The cultural schizophrenia experienced by Tambu and other women in the novel brings them closer to a desirable economic status necessary to maintain a successful life that will support the family, yet simultaneously further displace them from the Shona culture and formidable connections with other Shona women. For Tambu, Westernization is a necessity, even after she witnesses the mental demise of Nyasha and, early in the novel, is disgusted by the fact that Nhamo has forgotten Shona. This reflects Biman Basu's claim that "literacy as a technology provokes a violent reaction on the site of its implantation" (14). Language thus operates like a sweeping industry upon the landscape, an assimilation machine which re-marks the other in terms of Western society's perceptions and his/her own self-perceptions.

  5. This concept of literacy as a transcendental technology manifests itself when, after noting the loss/transformation of Shona culture into the hegemonic colonial agenda, Tambu says she could no longer be sure of Shona cultural practices after attending the British school. She claims, "And I was quite proud of this fact, because the more I saw of worlds beyond the homestead the more I was convinced that the further we left the old ways behind the closer we came to progress" (147). It is interesting that Tambu's concept of progress involves the loss of language rather than an integration of languages, and that she becomes a very product of what she dislikes in Nhamo and Nyasha (it may be presumptive to claim she doesn't realize self-assimilation - Tambu in fact seems to accept and crave it). Hence, we witness throughout the novel the reversal of Tambu's allegorical roles under the powerful influence of colonialism from being an upholder of Shona culture to suppliant of hegemonic Western discourses.

  6. Perhaps this is because colonial education "seduces" Tambu with merit that creates a punishment-reward system that enforces and encourages a self-generated, "natural" desire for Western assimilation. We experience a sense of this when Tambu describes her impression of the Young Ladies College of the Sacred Heart:
    A prestigious private school that manufactured guaranteed young ladies. At that convent, which was just outside town but on the other side, to the south, you wore pleated terylene skirts to school everyday and on Sundays a tailor-made-two-piece linen suit with gloves, yes, even with gloves! We all wanted to go. That was only natural. But only two places were on offer, two places for all the African Grade Seven girls in the country. (178)

  7. What constitutes naturalness as described by Tambu is a function of British imperialism that is not only unnatural, but instituted through an intricate, manipulative web of the four distinct power relations imposed on colonies outlined by Edward Said in Orientalism - power political (colonial establishment); power intellectual (reigning educational discourses); power cultural (orthodoxies and canons of taste); and power moral (ideas about what "we" do and what "they" cannot do or understand as "we" do) (12). The power political (British government, in this case) administers the power cultural entity of the convent, which inevitably institutes a power moral that exercises partial control via the ideology of god - combined, the power cultural is formed and imposed on African youths like Tambu who are convinced their aspirations must be achieved by assimilating to and eventually revering English ways.

  8. Tambu's character is further complicated by her complimentary literary foil, Nyasha, who has suffered from her own (dis)positioning in colonial discourses and subsequent "nervous conditions." Again, allegorical figures swap their symbolisms. Nyasha transforms into the embodiment of anti-colonial English language/education, advising Tambu that her departure to the convent would give her the "opportunity" to "forget who you were, what you were and why you were that. The process, she [Nyasha] said, was called assimilation, and that was intended for the precocious few who might prove a nuisance if left to themselves, whereas the others - well really, who cared about the others?" (179). Where Dangamremba illustrates Nyasha's mental and spiritual breakdown, her case of cultural schizophrenia, we are left wondering at the end of the novel how Tambu will fare in the grips of the colonial agenda. In these many ways, Dangarembga weaves together a vivid novel of the destruction and rejuvenation of two young women as they interact with family and colonial educational institutions in Nervous Conditions, illustrating that there isn't anything so "natural" or even meritable of the devastation wreaked by colonialism in the African continent. Each addition of a Western cultural element in Tambu's life equals a subtraction of a Shona cultural element, and hence her "learning" of English is subversively a necessary "unlearning" of Shona culture and language.

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Last Modified: 7 March 2002