Celie reads on. Nettie writes that she went along with the family to Africa. On the way she wrote almost every day, but when they docked she tore the letters up and dropped them into the water because she knew that Albert would keep them from her. The reason she is in Africa is that another missionary could not go. Nettie feels quite lonely, so lonely that she cannot even talk to God about it. When she does not write to Celie, she feels as bad as if she is failing to pray.
Nettie has gone to build a school in the middle of Africa. Sam and Corrine are happy. Their only sorrow is not having natural children, but now they have Olivia and Adam, Celie’s children. Nettie adds that Celie’s children are being brought up in love. Nettie also says that she does not feel like a maid in the family. The parents teach her, and she teaches the children.
Before she left, Nettie had read a lot of books about Africa. For the first time, she realized that the Ethiopians in the Bible were black. She also traveled a bit around America before she left. She rode trains with beds on them. New York was beautiful, with a whole section for blacks called Harlem, where all the people have indoor toilets and gas or electric lights. They also spent two weeks studying the Olinka dialect before they left.
Their ship was three stories high and had cabins. They first arrived in England and then, two months later, in Africa. Nettie tells her that it was awful that the Africans sold her own ancestors and wonders why blacks in America still love Africa.
The people in Dakar, Senegal, are so black that it looks as though their skin is glowing. In Monrovia she visited the president, who talked about his efforts to develop the country. At the cocoa plantations, the people who work there all sing, even when they are tired. Holland owns these fields, and the people make Dutch chocolate.
Just as Celie has read to this point, Mr. ______ and Grady come home. Celie is angry with Mr. ______, but Shug tells her not to think about killing him—if not for Celie or Nettie, then for her. Celie agrees. She asks Shug to make sure that Albert allows Shug to sleep with Celie from now on. She does.
The two women sleep like sisters. Celie is not aroused at all and feels that she must be dead, but Shug suggests that Celie is just angry. Shug suggests that they make Celie some pants because they would be easier to plow in. From then on they sew and read Nettie’s letters every day.
In the following letters, we learn more from Nettie. An African named Joseph meets Nettie, Corinne, and the family at the ship and helps them unload their things from the ship onto a little boat. Then there is a four-day march to Olinka through the bush. When Nettie gets there, one of the first things she notices is the straw on the roof of the huts. When they arrive, everyone is very curious. The women in the village ask who Adam’s and Olivia’s parents are, saying that they look just like Nettie.
Then the villagers tell the story of the roofleaf. A long time ago, the story goes, a chief wanted more and more land to make crops to trade with whites. The chief began to use the land where the roofleaf grew, but a great storm came and destroyed all the roofs and killed many Olinka people. When the roofleaf grew again after five years, they celebrated it.
Nettie records her work schedule in Africa. The Olinka do not believe that girls should be educated because a woman is nothing by herself; she becomes something when she is married because she can have children. A woman named Catherine shares this view. Her daughter, Tashi, is not allowed to go to school, but she plays with Olivia. Olivia secretly teaches Tashi what she has learned.
Olivia has not adapted very well to Africa. She dislikes the chief’s wives joking about her becoming their littlest sister or wife. Corrine has changed since they arrived; she wants Nettie to call Samuel and Corrine brother and sister and the children to stop calling her Mama Nettie. This, Corrine thinks, will stop the confused idea that they are Nettie’s children when they are not. Nettie lives in a lovely hut. The only improvement she could make to it is a window, which she is determined to have.
Tashi’s mother and father decide that they do not want Tashi to spend so much time with Olivia because she is changing and becoming quiet and thoughtful. They say Tashi is becoming like her aunt, who had to be sold because she refused the man chosen for her and would not bow to the chief. Nettie tells them that the world is changing and is no longer a world for just boys and men.
We next learn that Nettie has been there five years. Road builders from a different tribe are approaching the Olinka village as they build their road. As the road reaches the Olinka village, the tribe think it is for them, but the road continues to be built through the village, destroying crops and homes. Now the Olinka village essentially belongs to a rubber manufacturer in England and the Olinka people have to pay rent to use their own water.
Nettie has to nurse Corrine, who has fallen ill with African fever. Corrine accuses Nettie of being the children’s birth mother, with Samuel as father. Why else would they look so much like Nettie? Corrine makes Samuel and Nettie swear on the Bible that they had never met before the day that Corrine and Samuel met Nettie together.
Nettie’s letters to Celie are the written manifestation of her fight to communicate, to have her story told, and to keep up her relationship with her sister. She has faith that one day Celie will receive her news. But Nettie tells Celie that she once destroyed the letters she wrote, acknowledging that they would never get to her. This feeling was temporary, however, for Nettie then decided to keep writing. Celie’s situation is parallel: she keeps writing to God without any assurance that she is being listened to. Both women believe that their stories are significant and that they owe it to themselves and to their intended readers to keep writing. And in general, Alice Walker, the novelist—like pretty much every novelist—begins writing with the same hope and faith that her words will be read.
Nettie always wants to educate her sister and has done so since they were young. Note that Nettie’s prose is much less colloquial and much closer to standard, grammatical English. She writes in the way that she would be best understood by the white missionary family with her in Africa. It is appropriate that Nettie educates Celie about the wider community since her close family have always suppressed her ability to communicate. Nettie is not just telling grand stories about her travels; she is teaching Celie about America and about Harlem, and then she teaches Celie about Africa and Africa’s influence and importance throughout the ages, even in the Bible. Nettie is connecting Celie to the outside world, one that is much larger than her domestic life and her town. Nettie describes trains and boats, England, and the continent where their ancestors came from. If Nettie has traveled this far, Celie can comprehend doing the same. As Nettie opens her horizons, she does so for her sister as well, recording this possibility through her letters. Celie can understand that there is more to life than the life she has been born into.
Nettie’s letters also explain that she has found happiness with another family. This is another example of the wider community providing alternatives for domestic happiness. She did not find happiness at home, but she has found it with Corinne and Samuel and Celie’s children. Similarly, Celie finds happiness with Shug as an alternative to her father and her husband. The stories of both sisters carry hope and courage; they are fights of faith. This faith keeps them writing. Likewise, their stories can educate and inspire each reader of the novel.
When Nettie arrives in the Olinka village, it is remote from the port and the town, four days’ travel away. Celie does not even know where England is, much less Africa. This remoteness also makes the area feel protected. This is an enlightening place for Nettie. All kinds of things are different here, and Nettie sometimes resorts to figurative language to explain it. It is so hot, for instance, that it is “hotter than July. Hotter than August and July. Hot like cooking dinner on a big stove in a little kitchen in August and July. Hot.”
The pride that the Olinka people take in the roofleaf is clear. Indeed, the Olinka people also have a story to tell. The first story they tell Nettie is the story of the roofleaf. They celebrate the roofleaf because it protects the huts that the Olinka people live in. Although the story has elements of myth because seemingly natural events are attributed to a divine force, this myth carries great importance for the tribe.
The tribe’s traditions are important. When the road builders invade the village and begin to destroy it, the land that the people live on and tend to is stripped from them. Even their water is no longer free. The new rubber manufacturing plant marks the changing times as the Olinka people fight to hold onto their old ways of life. This fear of change and the new patterns of an outsider civilization is verified by reality. But when the fear is echoed in the way that Tashi’s parents think about her education, one cannot simply condemn progress. Tashi’s father will not hear of his daughter being educated because that is not the way the Olinka people raise their daughters. He must adhere to the old way of life, not the new one that Nettie promotes. Tradition protects the old ways of the village, which were first of all for boys and men. Tashi’s father will not hear of his daughter becoming like her wayward aunt. Just like her aunt, Olivia is driven away from Tashi’s family, and if they had their way, the tribe also would drive away the road and the manufacturing plant.
Traditions cut both ways. Each change must be evaluated on its own merits. The new road and the new plant seem destructive to everyone in the tribe. But will educating the women of the tribe also be destructive? Perhaps it will destroy a lot of tradition, but the results of education might produce a better society and a better position for women in the tribe. From whose perspective should each change be evaluated—from that of the men, the women, the children, the tribe as a whole, or outsiders?
Corrine’s strange behavior regarding the children is also provoked by something like a fear of invasion. She is frightened that Nettie has power over the children and her husband because Nettie might be the children’s mother by Samuel. Corrine’s feeling seems symptomatic of the climate in which she lives in the Olinka village. She has become paranoid that Nettie is her husband’s ex-lover, and she fears the change that she must confront if she finds out that her fears are justified. In this mindset of fear and paranoia, nothing can move forward. Finally Corrine relies on an oath to ensure that she is wrong and that Nettie is not really the mother.
Once again, color is important at times in this section. Shug remembers Annie Julia as pretty, “black as anything,” with “big black eyes” that look “like moons” (yet another simile). Often beauty is stated in terms of color in this novel. Shug also notes that Annie Julia’s beauty has to do with her smooth skin, “just as smooth” as her body is black. When Corrine buys cloth for Nettie to make traveling outfits, the colors are olive green and gray. Samuel is black and dresses in black almost all the time, “except for his white clerical collar.” In Africa, seeing black people, Nettie feels like she is “seeing black for the first time,” with a dazzling shine that seems to come from moonlight, with the Africans’ skin glowing in the sun. Others, such as the boatmen, “are a deep chocolate brown,” with the “strongest, cleanest, whitest teeth!” At the Olinka funeral, the women paint their faces white and wear “white shroudlike garments”; for them, white is apparently the color of death, with the color scheme reversed in comparison to the way it is in the United States that Celie knows. Of course, the invaders with their rubber trees have a white governor whose mansion is huge and white.