Letter 81

Synopsis of Letter 81

Nettie, Samuel and the children return to Africa and find that the Olinka are disappointed that there is to be no assistance from the missionary society. Whilst they were away, Tashi underwent both ritual ceremonies and initially hides from the family, ashamed and in pain. Olivia is distressed and Adam shocked, wanting to return to America. Many of the young people of the village are running away to join scattered groups of rebel tribespeople, called mbeles and he himself is confused about his feelings for Tashi.

However, Nettie at least is happy with her new husband. She and Samuel teach in the village school, look after small children and villagers who are old and sick, and do what they can to support the Olinka, all of whom now have to work to earn enough to pay for food and rent.

Commentary on Letter 81

Tashi’s decision to undergo ritual initiation is questioned, given that it results in shame at her appearance and an infection which threatens her health. It becomes clear from Nettie’s account of the sufferings of the village that there is no real way forward for the Olinka tribe and that their past can neither be recovered nor preserved. There is an irony that Nettie and Samuel’s efforts to raise the educational level of the villagers is defeated by the economics of colonialisation, which forces children out of school to work by the age of eight.

Despite this, Nettie herself has achieved a happiness at last in her marriage to Samuel and views her own future with optimism.

Investigating Letter 81

  • Why might Tashi’s initiation ceremonies be considered futile?
  • What is Walker saying about the effects of colonialisation in this letter (of which missionary activity is seen to be a part)?
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