Nervous Conditions

by chantalstrand

“A Too Civilized World”

Nervous Conditions


by Tsitsi Dangarembga


“The condition of native is a nervous condition”. Taken from “The Wretched of the Earth”, this phrase is the basis for Tsitsi Dangarembga’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel Nervous Conditions, set in post-colonial Rhodesia in the early 1960s. Dangarembga was born in Zimbabwe, but spent part of her childhood in England and received her primary education within a British school system. Through the eyes of Tambu, the novel’s young female protagonist, Dangarembga shares her experiences of living in a post-colonial country, illustrating the conflicts between cultures, colors and genders within a progressively changing society.

The clash between genders is a central theme to Nervous Conditions, and is apparent from the novel’s first sentence- “I was not sorry when my brother died”. Tambu was not given an education initially, because there was not enough money for a “victim” of “femaleness” to go to school. Her brother Nhamo holds the honor of attending the mission school, run by their Uncle Babamukuru. Tambu is determined to have the chance at an education- yet when she tries to earn the money herself, her brother sabotages these efforts. When Nhamo becomes ill and dies, she readily jumps at the chance to take his place at the mission. Through this plot development, Dangarembga emphasizes the patriarchal values of the culture Tambu is trying to transition away from, one in which women must create their own chances to succeed. The author further explores this struggle through the stories of Tambu’s other female relatives- each dealing with triumphs and failures within a changing world.

After Tambu joins the world of “Englishness”, Dangarembga emphasizes the contrast between the way Tambu views her modest home and the mission home- she once expressed pride in her homestead however, when she returns from the mission to visit, she is openly disgusted by the conditions of her past life. There are conflicts both between the two cultures of the novel and within them, as the author effectively shows though the relationships of Tambu’s family. Tambu’s father relies solely on Babamukuru’s wealth to sustain his own family, and only allows his daughter to go to school when he realizes how he himself will benefit. Babamukuru’s wife, Maiguru possesses a Masters degree, yet she spends her time waiting on her husband- her daughter Nyasha calling her “trapped” in “the best of all possible worlds”. Nyasha herself is struggling to find a balance between her two worlds, her traditional past clashing with English ideals.

Throughout Nervous Conditions, any culturally significant traditions are overshadowed by the lure of the wealth that education seems to bring. Although Tambu’s mother outwardly expresses fear of “assimilation”, when her sister Lucia is given a job through Babamukuru’s influence, she praises the “miracles” he performs. Tambu consistently sees her education as a gift and pities her mother for suffering “from being female and poor and uneducated and black”. Yet Nyasha, who has been living in a “too civilized” world for almost all her life, warns Tambu against assuming English ways are “progressive ways”. Through Nyasha’s physical and mental breakdown, Dangarembga shows that wealth and development can have a devastating affect on those who are unprepared for change.

Tsitsi Dangarembga ends Nervous Conditions with Tambu reassessing the European world that she so desperately wanted to find her place in. After a disturbing psychotic episode, Nyasha cries- “I’m not one of them but I’m not one of you”, leaving Tambu to make sense of the confusing contradictions within her “civilized” world. In ending the novel with these questions of place and identity, Dangarembga expresses the difficulty Africans have had in dealing with the encroachment of a foreign culture. The author’s brief conclusions leave room for growth and possibility- for her characters, and for her people.

 By Chantal Strand


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