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Poetry and Nervous Conditions

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The contexts in this module represent the different ways in which colonial tools define characters and their experiences. The English language and Christianity are two particularly powerful colonial tools. The essay shows Ntsikana kaGabha’s poem, “Ntsikana’s Bell”, and Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel, Nervous Conditions, depict the impact of these tools. This essay shows that neither English nor Christianity is represented in an unproblematic manner. The discussion also proposes that these are political instruments in colonial contexts and that the authors highlight the complexities surrounding these tools’ utilisations. In the extract from Nervous Conditions, it is clear that the English language is an important and valid tool and that Nhamo’s usage of this instrument changes him in term sof his behaviour and personality as well as his relationships with his family members. However, I personally do not agree with the assertion that “no attempt is made to critique” English as a tool of colonial oppression.

Dangarembga bring to light that both the positive and the negative consequences of Nhamo’s exposure to a Western mission education and his training in English. The text that is provided clearly shows that, after a year at his new school, the “change in his appearance was dramatic”. There is also the suggestion that this makeover altered his appearance but personality as well. The changes are so far reaching that he “was no longer the same person”. Dangarembga first mentions the more positive changes that made him look much healthier and more active as he was now “fit and muscular”. The narrator, Tambu, then goes on to note that, while “all this was good, there was one terrible change”. She identifies the “terrible change” as his feigned loss of his home tongue, Shona. Dangarembga is offering an explicit and unambiguous critique of the English language in the colonial context. In the relatively short time that he has been as the mission school, he had unknowingly “forgotten how to speak Shona”.

It appears that he can now only manage a few halting, ungrammatical words in a different accent when he attempts to speak Shona to his mother. His assumed inability to speak fluent Shona impedes communication with his mother. His other family members insist on addressing him in Shona, as it is his mother tongue after all and his reaction reveals the power that resides in him thinking that he has the advantage in the form of speaking English well. When he responds to his family members in English, he makes “a point of speaking slowly, deliberately, he pronounces each syllable clearly so that they could understand”. This description makes it sound as if the young boy is taking on the role of a person who addresses his relatives slowly as if they are his pupils who are struggling to understand a concept. By speaking in English rather than Shona, Nhamo’s interactions with his immediate family members are compromised, since English “restricted their communication to mundane insignificant matters”.

The reasons for Nhamo’s decision to claim that he has forgotten how to speak Shona – his mother tongue – within a short space of a year are not difficult to establish. It could be that he realises how the superiority of speaking English opens up economic opportunities. This says a great deal about how dominant languages retain their power and exude their authority. When one considers the rest of the novel, it becomes clear that freedom from poverty is an important motivating factor. Early in the novel, Tambu remembers that it was her “uncle’s idea that her brother should go to school at the mission” so that he could have a career that would enable him to lift his “branch of the family out of the squalor in which they were living. Education and English are closely connected in this quest to escape from poverty. The novel does, however, suggest that this adoption of English has a strange and unsettling impact on Nhamo and that the taking up of this language alienates him from his family and community.

For instance, Tambu notes that only their father “was impressed by this inexplicable state her brother had developed”. By pointing out the alienation that results from a colonial education and language, the novel therefore offers a critique of these colonial tools rather than simply representing their utilisation. The novel establishes this critique by engaging a conflict between, on the one hand, the narrator who presents the drama of Nhamo’s homecoming and, on the other hand, his family members’ expressions of dismay at his sudden change in appearance and attitude. A cautious approval of an example of a Western colonial tool is also apparent in Ntsikana kaGabha’s poem, “Ntsikana’s Bell”. First and foremost, it is imperative to recognise the context that this poem conjures up. The references to Christian fellowship are repeated throughout: “Sele! Sele!” – explained in the paratext as a “call to worship”, the title’s “bell”, “the Word of the Lord”, ‘the call’ and “heaven”.

The call-and-response mode of this poem, suggested in the motif, Sele! Sele! Ahom, ahom, ahom! implies a form of communal incantation or prayer session. It is as if the reader hears the poem’s speaker engaged in a dialogue or two-way communication with the audience, reminiscent of a Christian church service. This is a context where the minister, upon appealing to the worshippers to heed God, hears them responding in the affirmative. The usage of the exclamation marks underlies the authority with which the request is made. The parishioners do not appear to be expected to protest, as the percussive sound of the “bell”, being persistent, is musically enticing. In addition, Ntsikana, who seems to resemble the missionary school teacher carrying a “belt” (in line 2), sometimes the stick, presumably threatens to discipline the flock into compliance. The suggestion is that the performance resembles people who show unity in purpose by virtue of responding positively to the instruction of God, represented in the poem by Ntsikana.

In turn, hearing this poem being chanted frames the reader/audience into a worshipper. The poet’s locating of this poem within the Christian ritual space is in itself a rhetorical device that sets the scene for another kind of politics: that which saw the rise of black “liberation theology”. The first indication of this politics is hinted at in the title: it alludes to the visionary and counsellor, Ntsikana, “the Xhosa Christian prophets, “the first Xhosa convert to Christianity”. Ntsikana is credited with initiating literacy projects and spreading the Christian gospel among the Xhosas across the Eastern Cape at the time when Christianity was an integral component of the English colonial invasion of Southern Africa. In other words, Ntsikana was both a Western educated teacher and a Christian lay preacher. The centrality of Ntsikana to this poem emphasises a dimension which contrasts with the colonial missionary’s Christian ethos which ostensibly privileged the spiritual above material concerns.

In contradistinction to the ethereal, this poem foregrounds the Xhosa people re-using Christian mysticism in order to mediate the English colonial conquest. The poem mentions this agony again in the second line of the fourth stanza, where Ntsikana introduces the emotive land question: “It has been fenced in and surrounded, this land of your fathers”. In the quotation above, Ntsikana is heard articulating the liberation struggle using the syntax and idiom that are not typical of Standard English. In this line, he identifies the subject phrase, “the land”, with an article, “It”, in the main clause and substitutes this subject with a noun, “this land”, in the supporting clause. This seeming anomaly intensifies the rhetorical or persuasive nature of the climate of the struggle for material issues, and also underscores how the Xhosas have “translated” both the English language and Christianity into the call to resist colonial invasion.

The assumption is that the primary audience in this poem are Xhosa home language speakers, as the nature of colonial domination – implied in “fenced in and surrounded” – connotes the early form of South Africa’s Bantustan system with which they are familiar. In short, Ntsikana is heard telling the Xhosas that the “land” belongs to them by virtue of prior occupation or of being their ancestors’, as opposed to the Christian God who allegedly does not recognise sectarian boundaries and the kind of property ownership that is defined in terms of ancestral lineage. This is why, in this poem, the audience hears the call to action being articulated by Ntsikana, as opposed to a Christian prophet; by a popular intellectual who graced the Xhosa shores, in contrast to an ancestral figure who the traditional Xhosas do not recognise as Xhosa; and by a visionary who the Xhosas associate with the early history of their liberation struggle, as opposed to a figure who the dominant Western history depicts as someone who contributed to the demise of the Xhosa anti-colonial resistance (see Stapleton, 1994: 29). The form of Christianity that informs this poem is therefore localised, popular and charismatic.

To conclude, this poem shows the Xhosa people having a troubled attitude towards Christianity. The central symbol of this dilemma is Ntsikana, an early Xhosa prophet, because he invoked Christianity’s broad framework in order to resist English imperialism. The character of Ntsikana signals a new form of modernity where, many years after his death, the poet uses the persona of Ntsikana rallying the Xhosas to action by sounding a “bell”. Therefore, the poem’s depiction of Ntsikana telling the “multitudes” that they are being called to “heaven” can only mean that he implores the Xhosa to forge ahead with the nationalist struggle. The given excerpt from Nervous Conditions also sounds off a comparable cautious attitude towards a tool of colonisation; paradoxically, Western education is a source of a crisis internal to the black family and a beacon of emancipation from white racist modernity.

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