As The Memory of Love is told from various male perspectives, the female characters in the novel become more symbolic than personal. We never get to know the inner thoughts of characters like Saffia or Nenebah and in many ways Adrian, Kai and Elias are guilty of idolizing them. However, because of this distance, we are able to consider these characters in a more allegorical way. I’d like to look at the theme of mothers, and their symbolism for the state of Sierra Leone, the motherland. Firstly we see the cold compliance of Saffia, who sees her dreams of a happy marriage crushed by betrayal and government censorship. She becomes a mother to Nenebah, but raises her as if she is a single mother. Nenebah remembers growing up and never seeing her parents together, and it is in this degrading of familial unity and happiness that we first see how the destabilization of Sierra Leone pre-civil war began to degrade the ties holding together the country. If we consider mothers symbolic of the motherland, then Elias’ infidelity to Saffia, in preference for the love of Vanessa, is symbolic of the gains from corruption that tempted Sierra Leone’s leaders away from the path of freedom and independence that the country so dearly fought for.
If Saffia is the beginning of the decaying of the motherland, then in Nenebah’s path to motherhood we see the reality of the civil war. While she was carrying her baby, Nenebah experienced severe complications and died. She was bringing new life into the world, just as the people of Sierra Leon fought to create their independent country. However, the effort was marred with corruption and political destabilization, and in the end the country tore itself apart in a violent civil war. In Nenebah we see the initial hope of Sierra Leon coupled with the violent consequences of reality. As a character, Nenebah was fiercely loyal to her country, and refused to leave or raise her future children in any other place. As a mother and a character she was a regenerative force for Sierra Leon, attempting to stay true to her people and bring forth a new generation. However with her death, hope seems to die with her. That is, until it is revealed that Nenebah’s daughter is alive and well, continuing our belief in life after trauma.
Finally, Mary represents the motherland post-war as she began to gather its people and heal its wounds, as no foreign service worker can. Mary was raped during the war and had a child from this assault, yet our image of her towards the end of the novel is a happy mom-to-be who was moving past her trauma for the sake of her family. Although some trauma cannot be forgotten, especially when that trauma results in a child, Mary does what so many Sierra Leoneans had to do – accept the trauma and move on, forgetting the bad and focusing on the good. Mary spoke of her plans to bring the child begotten of war home to raise with the child begotten of love, putting her trauma behind her and uniting her family. In this sense, we see the mothers of the country resolutely begin to piece their people back together, even if, for those like Agnes, that means taking on some mental wounds that may never heal.
Can you guys think of any other examples of mothers, or maybe even anti-mothers, who symbolize the path of Sierra Leone?
Though Tambu doesn’t spend too much time talking about white people, her changing view towards them is very telling of her awakening to the colonized mindset. Towards the beginning of the novel, she is wary of white people, knows very little about them, and is disgusted with how they look. As she is educated at the mission, however, she is slowly conditioned to accept white people’s definition of beauty.The very first time that Tambu has direct interaction with white people begins on page 27. Tambu describes her thoughts upon meeting an elderly couple:
I did not like the way they looked, with their skin hanging in papery folds from their bones, malignant-looking brown spots on their hands, a musty, dusty, sweetish odour(sic) clinging around the woman like a haze”
It feels strange to read a white person’s race described as a character trait, as opposed to simply being accepted as a given. Upon reading this line, I was reminded of a Buzzfeed article I had just read entitled “If White People Were Described Like People of Color in Literature.” This article uses satire to call attention to the overt exoticism and objectification of people of color in Western Literature. “He looked at her longingly,” the article jokes, “as he imagined her exotic, mashed potato skin laying gently against his.” This is quite shocking to read because we are so used to having diverse, complex descriptions of white people in literature that don’t have to resort to the nearest food group to be relatable. Similarly, Tambu shocks us in the way in which she describes the elderly couple. She has very little experience with white people, so she measures their appearance in accordance to her culture’s beauty standards, rather than Eurocentric beauty standards, of which she has no knowledge. Finding their appearance rather lacking, she is wholly disgusted and makes no secret of it. Until she meets younger white people at the ministry, she is convinced that all whites are ugly. She only allows the whites to have a single story, just as they do to her. In comparison with Tambu’s prejudice, however, we see how dangerous the single story is when combined with a position of power. Tambu cannot hurt the white couple for thinking they are ugly, yet Tambu’s entire future rests on their opinion of her. But by allowing naive Tambu to uphold her single story of white people, Dangarembga continues to flip dangerous literary traditions on their heads, challenging us to question those traditions.
When Tambu goes to the ministry school, she meets many other whites, young ones, and concludes the ones with
…smooth, healthy, sun-brown skin…took away all of the repulsion toward white people that had started with the papery-skinned Doris and her sallow, brown-spotted husband…it was good to discover that some Whites were as beautiful as we were. After that it did not take long for me to learn that they were in fact more beautiful and then I was able to love them.”
This quote is a bit of a euphemism because it hints at darker themes. She begins by allowing that some whites could be beautiful, provided they conform to African standards of beauty by having darker skin. After time, however, the social and academic atmosphere of the white- run ministry convince her that they, after all, were far more attractive than Africans. Although Tambu’s language suggests this transformation is a positive one that she is able to accept and love the whites, the underlying implications are chilling. It is all too clear that her ministry education is conditioning her to uphold certain racial hierarchies, including the Eurocentric standard of beauty.
A large part of retaining power over colonial and post-colonial states includes retaining a strict hierarchy. The rules in which beauty and attractiveness is one such hierarchy that can be devastating to native psyches and self-esteem. This can be devastating to a young girl like Tambu who, beginning to internalize society’s emphasis on female beauty, is then led to understand that she can never be truly beautiful due to her race. Although going to the ministry school provides Tambu with great mental growth, the education she receives comes with a colonial conditioning that removes her people as the center of her worldview and replaces them with whites and white institutions.