Home / News / Dangarembga’s ‘Book of Not’ Looks At the Possible Causes of Mass Failure in Examinations

Dangarembga’s ‘Book of Not’ Looks At the Possible Causes of Mass Failure in Examinations

“Can you tell me what good these results are? Tambudzai, what good are these Ds and Es, these low marks, and this… ” Babamukuru choked with fury as he admonished his niece, Tambudzai Sigauke, after her O’Level examination results were released.

The girl’s dismal performance against his great expectations and investment in her education devastated him. It is the riveting story in Tsisti Dangarembga’s novel The Book of Not published by Ayebia Clarke Publishing Ltd in the UK.

The story zoomed to mind and loomed like an apparition as I took in the recent Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) examinations results.

Just before Christmas, the Education Cabinet Secretary, Dr Fred Matiang’i, made the surprise announcement barely three weeks after the exam ended on November 29. And it had loads and lots of Ds and Es.

Many a parents and guardians are seething with Babamukuru’s indignation after their children performed dismally, a majority scored grade D+ and below.

Questions have arisen over the mass failure in the career-defining Form Four exams the last two years.

Various stakeholders have expressed dismay at the alarming trend that consigns nearly half-a-million youths to academic and professional limbo.

Beside the huge failure rate, it emerged that only three out of the KCPE 2013 top 10 candidates appeared in the top 100 list in the KCSE 2017. There is need for an urgent and objective study of the entire process to address the psycho-social factors that informs our children’s thoughts and behaviour in school.


Nyasa, Tambu’s cousin and Babamukuru’s less academically endowed daughter, stepped in with a profound answer to break the tension in the dining room that night. As her father fumed, her mother, Maiguru took the more soothing and reassuring tone: “Tell us, Tambudzai. It must have been something. What happened?” she cooed.

“Life!” Nyasa offered. “If you are interested, Mum, life happened. It’s been happening to Tambu a lot, you know,” the girl intoned, saving her cousin from the torment.

Well, four years is a long time during which “life” in its various forms happened to the KCSE candidates. It could even have “happened a lot” to some considering that this was also the year of campaigns, complete with violent post-election demos and a repeat presidential election in the exam months.

The Book of Not is a sequel to the much-acclaimed Nervous Conditions by the same author. It is set during the country’s colonial era amid the struggle for independence in the southern African country.

Tambudzai’s family has been broken after her father dies in the war and her sister, Netsai, loses her leg in an explosion. She is taken in by her uncle, Babamukuru, who educates her.

As Chris Warnes notes in the blurb, it is a book about denial and unfulfilled expectation, about the theft of the self and the remains of colonialism’s most pernicious legacies.

After primary school, Tambu gets admission to a mission secondary school, The Young Ladys’ College of the Sacred Heart, where she learns that not much is sacred or hearty for the native students. She is full of hope and lofty dreams as she enters Form One. She is one of the lucky few African girls admitted to the Whites only institution as a token of integration by the minority rulers.

“I knew what I wanted,” Tambu says of her entry into high school. “My desires in that initial year were positive: to achieve, achieve, achieve some more. I was going to learn until I had more learning than anyone about me… “

At the school she realises she has to grapple with numerous challenges and obstacles to her academic endeavours.

Racism is alive in the school. African girls are housed in designated less glamorous African hostels. Some games, places and programmes are no-go zones for the native students. Black students are not even allowed to outperform their white peers academically.

She resolves to be attentive in in the classroom, but memories of her sister’s ghastly loss of leg distract and haunt her. “So, sitting in class you could see the mountains where your sister still talks of walking… back and forth that perseverating path towards that exploding off of a leg… I could see her clearly as I sat in class… I could not concentrate.”

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