Hathaway Brown School
Instructor: Scott Parsons
Clean is Not Pure: Investigating Both Sides of Cleanliness in Nervous Conditions
Clean is Not Pure: Investigating Both Sides of Cleanliness in Nervous Conditions
In Tsitsi Dangarembga's novel Nervous Conditions, Dangarembga investigates the different interpretations and contradictions in cleanliness, and what it means to be clean. Through Tambu, Dangarembga explores the positive attributes of cleanliness, as well as the negative aspects, such as the myriad sacrifices that one must make to achieve cleanliness. Cleanliness signifies progress and opportunity; a step in the right direction, including an easier and more prosperous future. However, one must keep in mind the consequences to achieving cleanliness. In order to become clean, one must rid oneself of both physical and emotional dirt. For Tambu, the emotional "dirt" includes her values, morals, culture, and language, which are central to who she is. The danger of this cleansing is that "she [like many others] did not know what essential parts of you stayed behind no matter how violently you tried to dislodge them in order to take them with you" (Dangarembga 254). The danger of becoming clean is loss of self and one's identity; yet, in order for progress to be achieved, one must be clean. I believe that the consequences of cleanliness, such as loss of identity, make cleanliness not worth the cost. Similarly, Dangarembga warns of the dangerous allure of progress and opportunity, which come at the expense of loss of self, resulting in a new and unrecognizable person.
Tambu's journey of cleanliness commences soon after she arrives at the mission, when she experiences a bath for the first time: "I washed and scrubbed and rubbed, soaping myself three times over, not because I thought I was dirty but simply because it felt so enjoyably warm and wet and clean" (Dangarembga 137). Tambu experiences profound joy in the privilege of cleansing herself. She finds delight in "soaping" herself and ridding herself of the dirt that she is accustomed to on the homestead. She wipes away the dirt that symbolizes her responsibilities and burdens and thus weighs her down. She scrubs away a life of poverty. While Tambu physically cleanses herself, it is the mental and emotional cleansing that truly frees her from the homestead. She removes the dirt to make way for her brighter future in which her dreams will come true. Tambu has no regrets about leaving her dirty self behind in order to encounter "another self, a clean, well-groomed, genteel self" (Dangarembga 91). Tambu resents dirt, but lives with it because she has no alternative. Therefore, the promise of leaving her dirty self behind, gives her newfound hope that the rest of her life will improve as a result of becoming clean and "well-groomed." She believes that she will have a brighter future in which she can provide for her family and be relieved of her many burdens. For Tambu, cleanliness is a symbol of progress and success; an escape from poverty. The prospect of being clean and free from a life in which she can barely make ends meet, justifies leaving the dirty homestead.
Shortly after Tambu takes her first bath, she looks at her reflection in the mirror in her new mission uniform. Tambu thinks, "It was a shock to see that in fact I was pretty, and also difficult to believe" (Dangarembga 138). When Tambu is dirty she does not view herself as pretty; but rather, as a filthy peasant. She believes that in order to be pretty, one must be clean, which she is not. Therefore, taking her first bath and washing away the dirt, allows her to see that she is pretty, and therefore clean. For this reason, cleanliness takes on a positive connotation for Tambu, because she can finally see herself as beautiful, rather than as a dirty homestead girl. Recognizing that she is clean and "pretty" is a momentous step forward for Tambu on her path of emancipation from poverty. Cleanliness provides Tambu with reincarnation; a fresh start. Her new beginning on the mission symbolizes freedom. Being clean enables Tambu to scrub away the dirt that is her burdens and responsibilities. By removing the dirt that is her past, she clears the way for a brighter, happier, and easier tomorrow.
For Tambu, cleanliness signifies progress and prosperity, as well as a burden-free life. However, it also means erasing her identity. Tambu's cleansing washes away the dirt that is her morals, values, and culture. By cleansing herself, she strips away her former identity and assumes a new persona. New ideas replace her former thoughts and beliefs and shape the "clean" person that she is so anxious to become: "To the use of scouring powders which, though they sterilised 99 per cent of a household, were harsh and scratched fine surfaces" (Dangarembga 104). However, this newfound cleanliness comes at a price. While Tambu believes that she is on a path to prosperity and a bright future of promise, she is stripping herself of the morals that have defined her and made her who she is. She believes she is on the right path, yet, she is wiping away her identity and belief system. Her incessant cleansing results in negative changes. For instance, Tambu becomes noticeably less vocal, when she formerly openly spoke her mind. As a result of removing the dirt of her former self, she becomes timid, albeit respectful, and does not question authority. She further washes away her identity and erases her cultural heritage when she becomes fluent in English. The cleansing transforms her into a proper English girl, just as the mission wishes, rather than her unique Rhodesian self. As she wipes away the literal and metaphorical dirt, she erases a large portion of herself and the person she once was.
While Tambu is at the mission, she takes advantage of its many resources. She absorbs as much knowledge, academic, as well as life-skills, as she can acquire: "It was a time of sublimation with me as the sublimate" (Dangarembga 141). While Tambu was solid and grounded at the homestead, at the mission, she expands and grows, and learns new things. The cleanliness and education are positive results from the mission, but her old self and identity suffer from the cleaning and quickly fade away. She drifts farther and farther away from her roots. Tambu's mother and friends beg her not to forget them because they know that if she forgets who she loves, she will also forget "who you were, what you were and why you were that" (Dangarembga 262). While Tambu gains new knowledge and becomes what she believes is a better, cleaner version of herself, she loses herself in the process. Her morals and values change, arguably not for the better. She loses sight of who she once was and the culture that once defined her.
On the surface, cleanliness appears good. By wiping away the dirt that holds Tambu back, she makes room for a better and brighter future. Tambu's dream is to receive a proper education at the mission, and when she finally gets her opportunity, it seems as though the stars are aligned. However, Tambu's steadfast focus on receiving her education and becoming clean causes her to lose sight of the negative changes happening to her, such as the loss of her identity. Cleanliness comes at a price. Washing and scrubbing away the dirt that used to define her, leaves Tambu with a clean but empty canvas, devoid of her culture and history. She assumes a new persona, forgetting who she is and what she stands for. Tambu's mother says, "'The problem is the Englishness, so you just be careful!"' (Dangarembga 297). The ideas of cleansing and progress are central to the English, yet they contradict the preservation of history and culture. Tambu has become so clean, so spotless, that there is no longer a trace of her culture or heritage left in her. The "Englishness" destroyed Chido, Nysha, and Nhamo, and Tambu is following closely behind. While Tambu believes that cleanliness is a step in the direction to success, I believe that cleanliness comes at too great a cost for her. Tambu's metamorphosis is drastic: "I didn't want to reach the end...because there, I knew, I would find myself and I was afraid I would not recognize myself after having taken so many confusing directions" (Dangarembga 173). Unfortunately, she soon becomes just like her brother, forgetting her roots and who she is. With the dirt wiped away, all that is left of her former self is a clean slate, devoid of her values, morals, and culture, that once defined her.