Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


College of Humanities and Social Sciences



Thesis Sponsor/Dissertation Chair/Project Chair

Jonathan Greenberg

Committee Member

Wendy Nielsen

Committee Member

Johnny Lorenz


The goal of this thesis is to study Tsitsi Dangarembga’s allegory of aid which exploits the recipient’s precarity in her first novel Nervous Conditions. More specifically, I would like to explore how such aid dehumanizes the recipients it purports to help by imposing the giver’s goals and agenda on the recipient. I argue that because aid is after all underwritten by an ethics of power, the recipient’s helplessness in the acceptance of this gift, i.e., the precarious socioeconomic conditions which necessitate the acceptance of such aid, subject the recipient to the giver’s will, up to and even in the pursuit and realization of the giver’s goals and mission. Following Kant’s ideas on humanity and dignity, I argue that the recipients of such aid thus effectively become the means of attaining the giver’s goals. I discuss the novel’s portrayal of formal education, which is anchored to the mission; the missionaries select recipients who demonstrate academic potential, and a willingness to endure and obey their norms of success. He or she is consequently plucked out of the community, and fostered in the mission. And because the recipient is powerless in his or her choice to refuse the missionaries’ gift, he or she is inevitably tethered to the giver’s will and whims. By privileging education, the mission and its emissaries are portrayed as just another facet of social and hegemonic control posing as charity.

The second part of my thesis explores some ways the recipients maintain their dignity in spite of such hegemonic control. I propose that Dangarembga’s novel humanizes her characters’ suffering, hence their humanity. In the voice of Tambu, the characters’ stories of survival elevate their humanity as they navigate their precarity, and negotiate the terms of a life worth living. Following Tambu’s journey from the village to Sacred Heart, which detours into the lives of the characters in the novel, Dangarembga invites us to envision the characters’ humanity as we engage in the novel’s politics. She does not allow her characters, and the reader, to lose sight of their worth as human beings. They live, in spite, or maybe because of the socioeconomic conditions which threaten to control them. Thrust in this limelight, the characters demonstrate their humanity in their continuous search for meaningful forms of self definition, and survival. And therein lies their dignity.

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Available for download on Thursday, August 26, 2021