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The Paradox of Education in Weep Not, Child and Nervous Conditions

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Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Tsitsi Dangarembga

Colonialism and neo-colonialism have impacted all aspects of life on the African continent. The struggle to retain traditional ways of life when faced with European political, economic, and educational control is a struggle that is still experienced today. Many African novelists, such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Tsitsi Dangarembga, who will be discussed today, have expressed the struggle and frustration that comes with living in post-colonial Africa through their works of literature.

This article will argue that in the novels Weep Not, Child and Nervous Conditions, education functions as a paradoxical medium through which characters are able to learn and gain knowledge, but also through which they experience the impact of colonialism on themselves, their society, and their gender dynamics.

The initial portrayal of education in Weep Not, Child and Nervous Conditions is viewed almost exclusively in a positive light.

Weep Not, Child opens with Njoroge, the main character, discovering that his parents have found a way to pay for him to attend school. He sees his mother as an “angel of God” who has fulfilled his “unspoken wish.”[1] Meanwhile, his mother imagines Njoroge “writing letters, doing arithmetic, and speaking English” as the “greatest reward she would get from her motherhood.”[2] Although she recognizes education as “the white man’s learning,”[3] she nevertheless daydreams about all her children – even her married daughters – one day speaking English.

The colonization of the society that Njoroge and his family lives in has taught its inhabitants that English and the white way of life are effectively the only way in which one can improve their situation. In many ways, this is true – it opens up more educational and professional opportunities through which one can gain land and money – yet this is only so because of imposed Eurocentric careers and values.

Indeed, the colonizers imposed even the idea of land ownership, which is something that Njoroge’s family does not have but deeply yearns for. Thus, Njoroge attends school in the hopes of improving his family’s situation through the manner of living determined by the European colonizers.

Meanwhile, in Nervous Conditions, the main character Tambu watches her brother, Nhamo, experience white education before she herself does. Although her parents are initially ecstatic that Nhamo has been given this opportunity, through Tambu’s eyes the reader observes Nhamo becoming disillusioned with his home and family. As he learns English and lives in relative wealth, he refuses to speak Shona with his family unless absolutely necessary. Nhamo adopts the way of thinking of his community’s colonizers and doesn’t look back. Meanwhile, his mother is unhappy as she sees the direct effects of his education. Tambu says of their mother: “She did want him to be educated…but even more, she wanted to talk to him.”[4]

In the words of Çağri Tuğrul Mart, a professor from Ishik University, “Colonizing governments realized that they gained strength over colonized nations not only through physical control but also mental control. This mental control was carried out through education.”[5] Through colonial education, European governments imposed a white, Eurocentric view of the world – the ‘modern and superior’ world – on young children attending school. Wa Thiong’o, in Decolonising the Mind, observes this as well. He notes, “African children…were thus experiencing the world as defined…in the European experience of history…Europe was the centre of the universe.”[6] Both of the characters of our novels attend colonial schools and are taught to believe these ideas. These schools then aim to create ‘good Africans,’ defined by Ngugi as Africans who “co-operated with the European colonizer…who helped the European colonizer in the occupation and subjugation of his own people and country.”[7] Weep Not, Child and Nervous Conditions both reflect the attempts of colonial schools to transform the characters into the ‘good African,’ as Eurocentric language and values are promoted over traditional ones.

As Njoroge and Tambu continue their education, we see how it affects their family and society. Although both families initially looked to education as being the savior of their community by bringing wealth and knowledge to all, by the end of both novels we can see that the impact of this colonial education was largely harmful, or at least unhelpful. In Weep Not, Child, Njoroge ultimately is forced to stop attending school as his family crumbles and there is no money left to pay for his education. He realizes that he lives in “a different world from that he had believed himself living in…His family was about to break and he was powerless to arrest the fall.”[8] Although the events that harm his family are not due to his education, they are direct results of colonialism and the land that was stolen by the British from Njoroge’s family, just like many others in Kenya. The colonial education that he was given did nothing to ultimately help him save his family and community; he goes from being “a dreamer, a visionary”[9] to working at a dress shop and attempting suicide at the end of the novel. He even proposes to leave Kenya – the Eurocentric values that have been imposed on him see nothing left to fight for – but Mwihaki reminds him, “But we have a duty. Our duty to other people is our biggest responsibility as grown men and women.”[10]

Tambu and her brother’s colonial education also affects their family and society. Their mother becomes especially disillusioned with education, viewing the mission school as “a place of death”[11] after Nhamo dies there and Tambu is preparing to leave for the mission. Indeed, the school does become a place of death – literally, for Nhamo, but figuratively for Tambu. The love she held for the homestead and the river near it fade as she, like her brother, becomes accustomed to the white wealth of the mission. Upon returning home, she notes that “the homestead looked worse than usual…it did not have to look like that.”[12] She even reproaches her mother for the appearance of the latrine. Her colonial education thus separates Tambu from her family – not physically, but mentally. Yet at the end of the novel, Tambu realizes the effects of her education when her mother says, “‘It’s the Englishness…It’ll kill them all if they aren’t careful.’”[13] Tambu realizes how eagerly she left her home and embraced the mission and Sacred Heart. Over time, her mind begins to “assert itself, to question things, and to refuse to be brainwashed…It was a long and painful process.”[14] She sees with clarity that the schools she attended did not truly care about her or her community, but rather the making of a ‘good African.’ Decolonizing her own mind from the Eurocentric values forcibly imbedded in it was not easy for Tambu, just as it is difficult for all those who have been colonized.

Weep Not, Child and Nervous Conditions further illustrate the effects of colonial education through its effect on gender dynamics. In Weep Not, Child, Njoroge is chosen to attend school as he is the son with the most potential. Not much is said of the daughters, other than Njoroge’s mother dreaming of one day even being able to send them to school. The colonial educational system “influenced patriarchal ideologies into the educational system and encouraged boys more to join school than girls…it diminished the rights the women had enjoyed during pre-colonial era.”[15] Tambu’s brother is similarly prioritized when it comes to education, and Tambu herself has to earn the money to attend school.

Soon after beginning to attend school, Njoroge demonstrates some of his internalized patriarchal values when he returns late from school one day, angering his mother in doing so. He puts all the blame on Mwihaki, calling her “a bad girl”[16] and promising himself he would not spend time with her any longer, without acknowledging any of this to Mwihaki herself. Meanwhile, Njoroge’s father has two wives who have little to no say in the affairs of the family. When Nyokabi attempts to reason with Njoroge’s father, he “[slaps] her on the face and [raises] his hand again.”[17] Historically, this extreme patriarchal control was taught by the colonizers, as there is evidence in Kenya that “African women during pre-colonial era has economic independence. They had actively participated in social, cultural, religious, and political activities and functions.”[18] Yet in the post-colonial Kenya observed in Weep Not, Child, Mwihaki is the only relatively independent woman we observe while all of the others are subservient and controlled.

Nervous Conditions more prominently displays the struggle of women who realize the patriarchal oppression they experience and the manner in which they attempt to escape it. While Tambu realizes the effects of her colonial education only at the end of the novel, her cousin Nyasha actively attempts to fight for more opportunities and freedom throughout the story. Nyasha’s father, Babamukuru, is the ultimate site at which the patriarchy of the Shona society intersects with sexist colonial oppression. Furthermore, he is the headmaster of the mission school and thus is able to impose these values onto the students. After living in England and watching her own mother obtain a master’s degree, Nyasha has seen independent women who are in complete control of their lives. Yet as she moves back home and her father tries to force her into the same subservience that Nyasha’s mother experiences, Nyasha refuses to be controlled. Even Tambu, although she initially reveres Babamukuru, grows to see how problematic and oppressive his patriarchal colonial values are. Ultimately both Nyasha and Tambu question the patriarchy of the postcolonial society that they live in, but in different ways. While Nyasha obsessively controls her eating and studying habits in order to gain control in these aspects of her life since she cannot in others, Tambu slowly experiences the mental pain of decolonizing her mind and rejecting much of the path laid out for her from her colonial education.

Education in itself is not harmful, and our characters clearly do benefit in some ways from attending school. Yet we must ask how much more they could have benefitted had their education been without the imposed Eurocentric values. In the words of Mosweunyane, a professor at the University of Botswana, “…one task of education in both enslavement and colonialisation of Africa was to dehumanise the enslaved and the colonised by denying their history and denigrating their achievements and capacities.”[19] The use of education to impose colonial values has significantly impacted all aspects of life in Africa, from society to gender dynamics. Weep Not, Child and Nervous Conditions effectively mirror the real-life struggle that countless Africans have faced and continue to face today.

[1] Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Weep Not, Child (Penguin Books, 2012), 3–4.

[2] wa Thiong’o, 16.

[3] wa Thiong’o, 16.

[4] wa Thiong’o, 53.

[5] Çağrı Tuğrul Mart, “British Colonial Education Policy in Africa,” n.d., 190.

[6] Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind (Zimbabwe Publishing House, 1994), 93.

[7] wa Thiong’o, 92.

[8] wa Thiong’o, Weep Not, Child, 131.

[9] wa Thiong’o, 131.

[10] wa Thiong’o, 144.

[11] Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions (The Seal Press, 1988), 56.

[12] Dangarembga, 123.

[13] Dangarembga, 202.

[14] Dangarembga, 204.

[15] Ahmad Jasim, “A Feminist Perspective in Ngugi Wa Thiong’s Novel ‘Petal of Blood,’” n.d., 850, accessed May 12, 2019.

[16] wa Thiong’o, Weep Not, Child, 15.

[17] wa Thiong’o, 56.

[18] Jasim, “A Feminist Perspective in Ngugi Wa Thiong’s Novel ‘Petal of Blood,’” 850.

[19] Dama Mosweunyane, “The African Educational Evolution: From Traditional Training to Formal Education,” Higher Education Studies 3, no. 4 (July 18, 2013): 54,