The extract provided for this essay is revelatory of how heaven fell down upon earth for Tambu as she was making the transition from village life to a mission school. Climbing onto Babamukuru’s car with the knowledge that she was parting with the routine of hard work and everything that threatened her education was such a catapulting experience that rendered everything, including her parents, insignificant. She had never imagined herself being accorded the privilege to attend a mission school, and in fact it came to pass by the default of her brother’s death. No wonder she declared openly in the opening sentence of the novel, “I was not sorry when my brother died.” (Dangarembga, 1989: 1). Far from meaning that she was not humanely affected by her brother’s death, she meant to say the opportunity created by that death for her was far greater and overwhelming, compared to her anguish. This essay will discuss Tambu’s experiences at the mission and how she negotiated the dilemmas and contradictions of colonial education.
Clearly, the extract is loaded with evidence that Tambu was appreciative of her fresh start. It was for her like opening a new chapter in life or rather given a new lease of life. That day alone when she was being taken to the mission school was a climax of everything she had wished for in life, even more; a dream that was unbelievably coming true. It is against this background filled with hope and expectation that Tambu’s experiences at the mission will be discussed in this essay. For a start, Nyasha appears to Tambu as a subverted child in every sense. She has very little sense of appreciation for what she has, despite the fact that she has all the privileges a black, girl child ever wish for. Nyasha’s father being the headmaster lived in a white-painted house with his family, while the rest of the African people at the mission lived in red brick houses. As such, Tambu was honoured to walk away from the squalid conditions in the village into a suburban house and would say, “We were all proud, except Nyasha, who had an egalitarian nature and had taken seriously the lessons about oppression and discrimination that she had learnt first-hand in England.” (Dangarembga, 1989: 63). Ordinarily, civilisation was at the heart of colonial education and the supposition was that education would bring about equality and yet the educated missionaries would seek to live in superior quarters in comparison to those of Africans. Hence while the rest of Babamukuru’s family was grateful for living in a superior house, Nyasha was dismayed by the white missionaries’ separatist tendency of rating themselves superior to the African people. But despite this rational attitude, Nyasha also came through as heavily Anglicized and quite lacking in the manners expected of an African girl.
The gap between village life and life at the mission school meant Tambu had to be transformed rapidly in a short space of time. Yet in this transformation, there were values she could not afford to compromise. On several occasions she reprimanded Nyasha about the way she spoke to her mother. She was so determined to remain good-mannered even though Nyasha constantly teased her about her uprightness. Remaining true to herself, Tambu started to reap good result not only academically but also in being affable to the people around her. However, she was also confronted by certain elements she could not easily explain. A typical example was when she pointed out, “ There was… Anna, who had been someone to talk to, to spend time with, to relax with when I arrived in January, but who now was merely boring.” (Dangarembga, 1989: 97). One wonders who or what had changed between Tambu and Anna. But analytically, it is evident that even though Tambu did not turn out as snobbish and Anglicized as Nyasha was, she nevertheless developed a certain level of sophistication which perhaps could not be acquired by Anna as a housemaid. Many things that Tambu experienced and categorised as mere luxury when she first arrived at the mission would later turn out to be basic necessities. The tea strainer she saw for the first time, for instance, would have been unthinkable in her village. In brief, she had to adjust quickly as she was presented with a vast array of modern facilities at Babamukuru’s house.
On page 97, Tambu almost felt sorry for Anna but on page 101 she actually felt sorry for Maiguru. This is in sharp contrast to her not having felt sorry when her brother died. With respect to Anna it was because she was sort of isolated at the servant’s quarters, while Maiguru had made enormous sacrifices, letting go of opportunities for the sake of security. The realisation that Maiguru had not attained her full potential regardless of having a Master’s Degree was mind-boggling for Tambu. In some sense she was beginning to reckon with the fact that education in the context of colonialism was not going to guarantee absolute freedom. In as much as Maiguru’s life appeared adorable, there was a sense in which she felt alienated from some of her deepest desires, like having her pay at her own disposal. Babamukuru was a workaholic who was increasingly growing irritated by laughter in the house and hence making it difficult for everyone to laugh. Therefore what was supposed to be a successful, happy and integrated family at face value was actually a deeply divided set of individuals under one roof.
Another occasion that typically justifies the title Nervous Conditions is when Babamukuru got enraged after Nyasha came home late from a dance. He his temper and beat up Nyasha who was insisting that she had done nothing wrong. Putting things into perspective, Tambu concluded that Nyasha was victimised in the same manner she herself had been victimised on the basis of gender. Like she had been denied an education opportunity that had been given to her brother, she saw how Babamukuru outrageously denied Nyasha of her decency as he called her a whore. Regrettably Babamukuru who was quite educated and exposed in the Western sense was still narrow-minded to misconstrue her daughter as a whore.
Tambu was eternally grateful for the education she started receiving when she went to the mission. However, that education and everything around it was not devoid of problems. She herself acquired some sophistication that made it uneasy to relate to Anna. Babamukuru was almost perpetually trapped in work, while Maiguru was trapped in family life. Nyasha had been de-Africanised by her education in England. It all begs the question whether or not colonial education was good.
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