Gender, Class, Race: The Triple Oppression

This is a paper I wrote during my time at Spelman College.

Image result for painting of oppressionTsitsi Dangarembga is an Afrrican writer, whose novel, Nervous Conditions, serves as an educator and a reminder for the ways in which colonialism acted as an oppressor to the native African people. During colonialism, the native people were introduced to the concepts of gender, class, and race; all of which were used to classify and discriminate. Nervous Conditions is a novel based in Rhodesia, Zimbabwe, Africa and revolves around the life of Tambu and her family, while they are experiencing life living under colonialism and British reign during the 1960s. Throughout the novel, the reader is able to identify with the oppressions expressed by Tambu, the overall narrator, and various members of her family. Being born a female, Tambu struggles to overcome her disadvantage of being a female and having a brother who seems to get his way on most things. In addition, Tambu realizes the class difference between her family and that of her uncle’s as they come to visit and she listens to the way in which they speak and dress. Tambu must accept the fact that the reasons as to why the whites are looking down upon her and her people, and treating them with disrespect, is a result of the differences in skin color: black versus white. Gender, class, and race act as the triple oppression presented in the novel. As Tambu embarks on journey during the course of the novel, she must struggle through the obstacles in which the triple oppression of gender inequality, class discrimination, and racial differences have interfered with her life and make decisions that will set the course for the rest of her life.  

Gender has forever been one of the divides in society, and in Nervous Conditions Tambu realizes her disadvantage of being a female when she is removed from school, so her brother could attend due to their lack of wealth. Tambu’s father, Jeremiah, tries to emphasis the unimportance for her to receive an education because she is a woman when he says, “Can you cook books and feed them to your husband? Stay at home with your mother. Learn to cook and clean. Grow vegetables” (Dangarembga 15). To further accentuate the way society in Rhodesia view educated women, Tambu’s aunt, Maiguru, responds to a remark made by Tambu by saying:  

“When I was in England I glimpsed for a little while the things I could have been, the things I could have done if – if – if things were – different – But there was Babawa Chido and the children and the family. And does anyone realise, does anyone appreciate, what sacrifices were made? As for me, no one even thinks about the things I gave up” (Dangarembga 103). 

Maiguru is a woman of great knowlegde. She is educated and has a master’s degree, in which she earned on her own. Due to the fact that Maiguru is a woman, she was forced to sacrifice the opportunities that she rightfully earned. The village does not know nor care about the fact that Maiguru holds claim to an educational degree, but show the utmost respect for her Husband, Babamukuru. Maiguru’s quote demonstrates gender inequality and roles in which males and females play in Rhodesia. “This business of womanhood is a heavy burden” (Dangarembga 16), Ma’Shingayi, Tambu’s mother, states this when explaining to her daughter that when it comes to having to make sacrifices, women are the ones to make them. This demonstrates a generational gap because Ma’Shingayi has accepted her role in serving the men in her life, whereas Tambu is only trying to escape from that lifestyle. The role education has on Tambu and her family intertwines with the discrimination between classes.  

Class is often used to define importance, class is only noticed in the novel after one is educated; when Nhamo returned home from school he began to feel embarrassed for being poor and when Tambu returned from the missionary school, she noticed the poverty in which she lived. Throughout the novel, not much is truly spoken about class, rather insinuated. It is clear, however; that Tambu embraces where she comes from, whereas Nhamo looked down upon it. Tambu describes her perception of how Nhamo felt:“All this poverty began to offend him, or at the very least to embarrass him after he went to the mission, in a way that it had not done before” (Dangarembga 7). Nhamo himself, showed his disgust for the poverty in which he lived, when it came to returning from the mission. Whenever their uncle was not too busy with administrative work, he would drive Nhamo home, something Nhamo preferred. Nhamo’s complaint was not only because the bus was too slow, but also: 

“Moreover, the women smelt of unhealthy reproductive odours, the children were inclined to relieve their upset bowels on the floor, and the men gave off strong aromas of productive labour. He did not like sharing the vehicle with various kinds of produce in suspicious stages of freshness, with frightened hens, with the occasional rich-smelling goat. ‘We should have a special bus,’ he complained” (Dangarembga 101). 

The children within the novel are not the only ones that understand and have opinions with poverty. Ma’Shingayi recognizes her own insecurities with her financial standings and lack of education, when she spins off onto a tirade at Maiguru and says: 

“I am only saying what I think, just like she did. She did tell us, didn’t she, what she thinks, and did anyone say anything! No. Why not? Because Maiguru is educated. That’s why you all kept quiet. Because she’s rich and comes here and flashes her money around, so you listen to her as though you want to eat the words that come out of her mouth. But me, I’m not educated, am I? I’m just poor and ignorant, so you want me to keep quiet, you say I mustn’t talk. Ehe! I am poor and ignorant, that’s me, but I have a mouth and it will keep on talking, it won’t keep quiet” (Dangarembga 142). 

She resents Maiguru and realizes that these insecurities are the reasons why she has no voice for herself. Through poverty, racial differences arise, and both poverty and race are connected by the color of one’s skin. Race is one of the arguments brought up in discussing burdens of life.  

Race has been a social issue for centuries, the fact that the British invaded Zimbabwe and are impending their views upon the natives, demonstrates the racial issue Tambu must face and the cultural changes that some of the people, like Nyasha, undergo. Ma’Shingayi argues that being black and female act as a double burden when she says: 

“And these days it is worse, with the poverty of blackness on one side and the weight of womanhood on the other. Aiwa! What will help you, my child, is to learn to carry your burdens with strength” (Dangarembga 16). 

Yet instead of supporting Tambu to be strong and rally against such prevailing conditions, Ma’Shingayi encourages Tambu to passively accept the situations she feels are too far out of her reach to control. Ma’Shingayi’s words exemplify the difference in age between the two women and the way many Africans feel during this time period. The blame is placed upon the British. When Nyasha’s ways begin to be influenced by the British, people take notice. Nyasha is unable to speak the native African tongue of her people and can hardly understand the conversations that are held. At a dinner with her cousins, aunt, uncle, and her family, Tambu takes notice at Nyasha’s sensitivity when the topic of weight is introduced. Later, it is revealed that Nyasha suffers from an eating disorder, bulimia. Ma’Shingayi states, “The problem is the Englishness, so you be careful!” (Dangarembga 207) as an explanation for Nyasha’s eating disorder and. She believes that “Englishness” is the root of all of Babamukuru’s children’s problems and falls into some sort of depression when she comes to imagine these same troubles causing her own daughter to suffer. The belief that the British are to blame for the problems of the African people represents the point of view that white culture cannot and should not be imposed upon the native Africans. 

Tsitsi Dangarembga is an Afrrican writer, who was able to make strong, relevant, and eye-catching issues of oppression during colonization in Rhodesia by the British, come to the surface in her novel, Nervous Conditions. The triple oppression that was endured included: gender inequality, class discrimination, and racial differences. The females within the novel were forced to overcome the obstacles that society viewed them. Women were not to be educated and were to act as servants to the men in their lives. Class discrimination was evident in terms of those whom were educated and those whom were not. Nhamo resented his family for living in such impoverish conditions, whereas Tambu accepted her life for what it was, but was willing to overcome such obstacles. Race was more of an issue in terms of their influence on African society. Nyasha’s lack for speaking and understanding her native tongue and her obsession with her eating disorder, were signs of negative British influence upon the native Africans. Despite the fictitiousness of the novel, Nervous Conditions portrays the affects colonization had on some of the African people. Like Tambu, the African people had to struggle through the obstacles in which the triple oppression of gender inequality, class discrimination, and racial differences had interfered with their lives.  

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