The Stranger's Own Peculiar Custom -- Writing and Orality in Yvonne Vera's Nehanda

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University

"Our people know the power of words. It is because of this that they 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 rock. Words cannot be taken from the people who create them. People are the* words."

The chief nods as he hears his own words being spoken. He bears proud marks on his forehead, and on his legs. These signs, which the strangerviews only as scars, are the marks that distinguish him. Sometimes he bears other signs that are less permanent, painted for particular rituals and festivities. He can even invent signs that will immediately be understood by his people as his own. Indeed, these signs help to communicate sacred messages among the people. Though the chief knows all these signs, he does not want to betray them to the stranger. [Yvonne Vera, Nehanda, Harare: Baobab Books, 1993, 39-40.]

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Last Modified: 21 March, 2002