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By Lisa J. Long

Saturday, February 26, 2011.

Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel is set in colonial Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The psychological analogy in the title ‘Nervous Conditions’ sets the scene for what is a scathing deconstruction of the impact of colonialism on the black African woman and to a lesser extent the black African man. Through the narrative of the extended family of Tambudzai (Tambu), the protagonist and adolescent narrator looks back over her childhood to uncover issues of colour, race, gender, religion and education set among a culture in conflict struggling with tradition and modernity, rural and urban living and imposed language status.  

Beginning with Tambu’s apathetic claim ‘I was not sorry when my brother died’ the opening chapters set the scene to this nonchalant betrayal of the expected emotional response to death. Tambu’s narrative provides an insight into a rural lifestyle lived in relative poverty in which the gender roles are tightly defined and paying to educate the girls of the family beyond a basic level of general education is considered a waste of time. 

Tambu shows promise academically but her brother Nhamo is the one who is lucky enough to have his education sponsored by their maternal uncle Babamukuru; a British educated head teacher of a white missionary school.  Tambu views education as her only route out of the lifestyle she has been born into and determined to attend school she starts to grow corn to sell to fund her school fees. The spiteful Nhamo thwarts her efforts, stealing the corn and giving it away at Sunday school.  It is his later death from suspected mumps whilst in education at the British mission that affords Tambu the opportunity to take his place, as there is no other male sibling, and realise her dream of finally going to school. 

Though investing in her education is not deemed to be as worthy as educating a male child as her father Jeremiah tells her ‘Can you cook books and feed them to your husband? Stay at home with your mother. Learn to cook and clean’. Nhamo’s death creates a fear of the English in Tambu’s mother and she blames the white influences for his death, ‘it’s the Englishness…it’ll kill them all if they aren’t careful’.

Dangarembga has created well drawn characters who carry strong political and ideological arguments within the flow of the narrative without interrupting it.  Babamukuru provides for his extended family who look up to him as the educated and wealthy head, called upon to resolve all of their financial and relationship troubles.  He is a traditional man despite the time he spent in England with his young family and expects traditional behaviour from his children. He is frustrated at what he perceives as rebellion and reacts in the extreme at one point resorting to physical violence towards his daughter Nyasha. His wife Maiguru is also a highly educated woman, but she keeps her education quiet and fulfils the traditional roles expected of her. Looking after her family, husband and his extended family, disappointing her rebellious daughter in doing do. 

Nyasha has experienced the western life style spending enough of her childhood in England for her to have forgotten her Shona language and to consider some of the traditional customs irrelevant.  She rebels against the expectations of her father and instead of fulfilling the traditional obedient role she drinks, smokes, reads books that he does not approve of and associates with boys. She also has an eating disorder, seen as the white disease, her thinning skeleton becomes the ultimate betrayal of her black African roots and validates Tambu’s mothers claims that Englishness kills.  

Tambu notices her cousin’s aloofness since her return from England and is worried about the prospect of sharing her room, hoping instead to share with the house girl.  Tambu has been raised on her family’s farm with little education and took responsibility for looking after the men cleaning and childcare. Her education at the mission and what she learns from her rebellious cousin leads her to question the situation she finds herself in. 

Tambu starts to recognise that her education, instead of bringing hope, has isolated her. The house girl and her former friend no longer speaks with her and on visiting her mother she asks why the outside toilet is not clean which hurts her mother and is perceived to be a betrayal of her family.  These events send Tambu into a state of internal conflict and the education she craved becomes a double edged sword, ‘no longer could I accept sacred heart and what it represented as a sunrise on my horizon…something in my mind began to assert itself and question things and refuse to be brainwashed’.             

This arresting narrative is many things. It is the voice of the colonised black woman, the explosion of the myth of colony and English education as a positive force, and the realisation that an enforced limbo between cultures, between languages, between religious practices, between poverty and wealth, between tradition and modernity and the resulting partial female emancipation that is never fully realised can only result in ‘Nervous Conditions’.

Lisa J. Long lives in Harrogate, England. 

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