Literature can cross cultural boundaries and retain its national origins. African writing need not be derivative of European styles. It can speak via a universalism through the use of archetypes – characters and scenarios which although situated locally have a universal significance.
Dangarembga’s two short films accomplished this leap. The first (At the Water) featured a young woman who loses her husband to a traffic accident shortly after an encounter with a sinister elderly man on a rural lane. Shortly afterwards, her infant son vanishes. The elderly man reappears to inform her son is a captive of the river spirit – who will only release him in exchange for the sacrifice of an innocent. Distraught, she makes a half-hearted attempt to drown a boy in the river– leaving the rest of the villagers watching on aghast (they are oblivious to the source of her distress). The archetype here is the desperate parent who longs to be reunited with a child and will consider desperate measures to do so. But this is not supernatural kitsch – there is no neat resolution of the mother’s anguish.
The second film (Mother’s Day), featuring a rural family on the brink of starvation. The father attempts to steal morsels of food from his own children. The mother thwarts him and rebukes him for not venturing in the forest to hunt for food. Duly chastened, he agrees to do but fails. He then lures the mother into a stake pit and murders her – as a source of food and as a vengeful act to restore his slighted male pride. Again the parochial speaks of the universal: a slighted male ego in an intimate setting resorting to murder to restore itself.
Dangarembga proceeded to read an excerpt from her latest novel – The Book of Not. It features the tale of a black school girl, Tambu, in an all girls convent school in 1970’s
Tambu nonetheless resolves to become a model student of achievement, to confound the colonialists’ assumptions of her own and her peers’ inferiority. One morning she needs to relieve herself. She risks being late for assembly if she does so. This is out of the question if she is to succeed in being a model student. She must use the whites-only toilets to get to assembly on time. This is a risky undertaking. She is apprehended by the matron in the middle of her ablutions who refuses to allow Tambu to complete them. The matron cruelly and sadistically humiliates her in front of the white girls present by castigating the smell Tambu has left behind – as if it is the scent of her own being.
Persistence however earns Tambu the top marks. The end of year award ceremony comes. Surely the much-coveted O level trophy will be hers? Instead it is granted to a white girl with inferior marks. She is stricken by the injustice of having been denied the prize by a blatant fix. Colonialism claimed to offer benefits such as education to the vanquished indigenous inhabitants as compensation for their humiliation. But to grant this meant undermining the basis on which colonial domination is founded. Tambu realises that who people see you as being is a large part of who you actually are.
Racial oppression operates not only by imposing visible badges of inferiority such as separate toilet facilities. The oppressed must be made to feel inferior– as episodes from this novel illustrate. And this is of course in an archetype for any form of oppression anytime, anyplace – racial or otherwise. – Franco Henwood writes in his personal capacity.Post published in: Arts