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Nervous Conditions and Coconut are two novels which intrinsically showcase the challenges that arise after colonisation. The exploration of the complex position that African women face in the light of the detrimental effects of colonisation and its influence as it assimilates with traditional structures. The challenges of identity as a postcolonial concern is the key aspect in the works from Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangaremba and South African author Kopano Matlwa. The novels offer intuition into the struggles of the women moving from traditional indigenous environments or dealing with the detrimental racial segregation of Apartheid to Westernised places.
Coconut unravels the psychological wounds engraved in black people by Apartheid. Ofilwe is a character in the novel who lives a life of privilege which she takes for granted. Nervous Conditions is set in colonial Rhodesia before it became Zimbabwe. Nyasha is a character in the novel who is a complex and multifaceted, and her dual nature reflects her position as a product of two worlds, Africa and England. The two young women have both grown up under different circumstances and in different countries however, their struggle with identity is somewhat similar.
Nyasha and Ofilwe both have a difficult time embracing their cultures as they face an imbalance between the western world and that of their own African traditions. Racial attitudes and behaviours affect Ofilwe’s educational experience in Coconut as she attempts to assimilate into a predominantly white school and her education takes an informal study of herself and her identity. Ofilwe struggled to find her identity most especially in her school setting as she made it her mission to fit in with her white peers. “You will find Ofilwe that people strive so hard to be like will one day reject you because as much as you may pretend you are not of their own. Then you will turn back, but there too you will find no acceptance, for those you once rejected will no longer recognise the thing you have become. So far, too far to return. So much, too much you have changed. Stuck between two worlds, shunned by both” (Coconut page 72). Ofilwe’s brother makes it a point to constantly alert her to the fact that her quest to assimilate to the white standards of her peers will only be to her dismay.
As a young girl, Nyasha went to England with her family and she completely forgot about her Shona culture and started to disassociate herself from her own culture. “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” (Nervous Conditions page 64). Nyasha having lived in England and being from Rhodesia, led to her confusion with her identity and she openly refused to speak her own language. The issue with Nyasha is that her behaviour led to her being out of place in her own home and in her own community.
Ofilwe struggles to find her direction in terms of her identity and she finds herself formulating a personal identity in a context where “white” culture which is seen as an indication of success. Ofilwe’s story explores the life of relative privilege which is the same case for Nyasha however, Ofilwe has trouble fitting in with her white school friends, which ultimately leads her to becoming obsessed with being “normal” where being normal means being “white”. Nyasha on the other hand is isolated from other students at the mission school because they do not like her accent and she is condemned for thinking she’s “white”. Nyasha represents the damaging outcomes of colonial education that destroys identity and creates misery and resistance.
In my opinion, in comparison to Ofilwe, Nyasha suffered a greater deal with her own identity. In order to keep a good image of herself according to a more westernised appearance, Nyasha did not want to eat properly. Whenever her father tied to make her eat she would simply say she was not hungry. The problem with Nyasha was that her revolt was too far minded for her own culture and even though she was bright and self-conscious, her mannerisms would not be accepted in the Shona culture.
Ofilwe is constantly being rejected and corrected by the crowd that she wishes to be a part of which changes her perception of what it means to be white. Ofilwe idealizes white beauty and takes pride in her ability to speak English without an accent. When she recalls the memory of her friend Belinda correcting her articulation of English, she expresses that “hate sits heavy on my heart. It reeks. I can smell it rotting my insides and I taste it on my tongue”. (Coconut page 49). Ofilwe begins to show a sense of not wanting to change completely and she even tries to incorporate Pedi words into her everyday communications in an apparent attempt to reconnect with her culture.
Nyasha is the personification of struggle and she suffers from the cultural strife in her own home which is inhibiting her development and on a larger scale struggling against the oppression from her own people. Her self -starvation shows her struggle against the colonial system and her need to be accepted for her own identity and not who her people wanted her to be. Nyasha is rebellious and resentful of the education in Britain that her father not just provided but imposed on her and she is unable to find a peaceful and adjusted identity because she is constantly haunted by the British influence that threatens her membership among the Shona people. Nyasha ultimately succumbs to her struggles and has a mental or nervous breakdown which causes her admission into a mental health facility, which showed the severity of her brawl with maintaining her identity.
In conclusion, the post-colonial era brought about several issues with the two characters in respects of their identities. Assimilation to the westernised culture as a opposed to their own African culture is a very evident struggle for the young women as they navigate their way through the norms of their respective cultures.
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