White Colonists, White Houses

When the heroine of Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions first sees the house of her uncle Babamukuru where she will live while she goes to school at the mission, her reactions beautifully map the complex encounters of colonizer and colonized. In particular, as she provides her reaction to this house, which at first seems to her a "palace" or a "mansion," she sets forth fundamental differences between the architectural aesthetics and social ethos of the British and the Shona.

One of the most notable facts about Babamukuru's home, she tells us -- and to her the oddest -- is its color:

It was painted white. This was one of the less beautiful aspects of that house, one of the less sensible aspects too. There seemed to be no good reason for wasting time and effort, to say nothing of paint, on painting the cheerful red brick that I had seen elsewhere on the mission as we drove up to Babamukuru's house this clinical, antiseptic white. Naturally, though, there was a reason. I found out from Nyasha, who knew all sorts of things, or glued together facts for herself when knowledge was lacking, that this particular house, the headmaster's house, had been built in the early days of the mission She said that was around the turn of the nineteenth century at a time when the missionaries believed that only white houses were cool enough to be comfortably lived in. Dilgently this belief was translated into action. White houses sprang up all over the mission. All those white houses must have been very uninspiring for people whose function was to inspire. Besides, natives were said to respond to colour, so after a while the missionaries began to believe that houses would not overheat, even when they were not painted white, as long as pastel shades were used. They began to paint their houses cream, pale pink, pale blue, pale green. Nyasha liked to embellish this point. "Imagine," she used to say, "how pretty it must have looked. All those pinks and blues gleaming away among the white. It must have been so sweet, so very appealing."

Later, much later, as late as the time that I came to the mission, there was a lot of construction going on. Houses had to be built to shelter the new crop of educated Africans that had been sown in so many Sub A and Sub B night-school classes and was now being abundantly reaped as old boys returned to the mission to contribute by becoming teachers in their turn. Possibly because there was no time for finesse, possibly because the aim was to shelter as many people as quickly as possible, these houses that accommodated the returning teachers remained dark and ruddy. . . . At the time that I arrived at the mission, missionaries were living in white houses and in the pale painted houses, but not in the red brick ones. My uncle was the only African living in a white house. We were all very proud of this fact. [Nervous Conditions, Seattle: Seal Press, 1989, 62-63.]

A survey of the remaining colonial architecture in Rhodesia -- much of it in central Harare is being ripped down to make way for skyscrapers -- reveals that almost all of it is in fact white -- a color, as the passage notes, that quickly took on political values. As you read through the previous passage, note that the speaker's reasons for finding white paint odd include the assumption that devoting effort to coloring one's house is a waste of time and also that she finds white paint fundamentally unattractive. Her second reason reveals a sharp difference between British and African (at least Shona) aesthetics: as both domestic architecture and the grander scale of Great Zimbabwe reveal, indigenous structures seem to emphasize the way they grow out of the terrain rather than set themselves apart form it. Can you think of any areas of African aesthetics -- or, rather, of an aesthetics in African cultures where jarring opposition to nature is a desirable aesthetic quality?

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