The Burden is Great

by christinahall2

Christina Hall

The burden is great for the poor, black, tribal African woman. Perhaps more so than any other human being, as the limits imposed upon her make a long list: a patriarchal society, motherhood, religion, wifely duties, cooking, cleaning, tending the land, little to no education, colonial restraints and prejudices, and on it goes. Tsitsi Dangarembga, having grown up in post-colonial Rhodesia, present day Zimbabwe, is no stranger to the burdens and obstacles that being a woman entails. Neither is Tambu, the protagonist of Dangarembga’s novel Nervous Conditions. The novel has a strong autobiographical element to it; both Dangarembga and Tambu are females, growing up in the violent, conflict-ridden time of Rhodesia’s fight for independence from Britain. Both are restrained by their sex, yet determined to forge a different path than the one that they are supposed to follow; theirs is a fight for independence through education. But for Tambu, that knowledge comes at a price.
Nervous Conditions is Tambu’s story of escape from the traditional confines of her rural homestead, to the mission school run by her uncle, and all the possibilities that it holds for her: an education, a future. But Tambu soon learns that the problems she will face in the classroom will by no means be the biggest, or the most complex. Through her “Anglicised” cousin Nyasha, Tambu is introduced to a world she never knew existed. A world where women have rights, can speak and act for themselves, and do not need a man to define them. Tambu does not accept these new ideas easily, and they fill her with angst. She is forced to question her past, her beliefs, her roots, and she comes to the difficult conclusion that “…the more I saw of worlds beyond the homestead the more I was convinced that the further we left the old ways behind the closer we came to progress.”(Page 150) But is that a healthy desire, or does Tambu’s quest to change herself only burden her further? For now she is in the awkward and challenged position of removing herself from her past, and who are we without our past? In Nyasha’s words, “It’s bad enough…when a country gets colonized, but when the people do as well! That’s the end, really, that’s the end.”(Page 150) Tambu enters a place of limbo, where she neither belongs to her old life or the one she idealizes. It’s a situation that leaves her in a very ‘nervous condition’.
Nervous Conditions is a novel ripe with struggles, both of the internal and external kind. At times it moves along slowly, but its pace mirrors the pace of a life weighted down with specific roles and rules of etiquette. Every action by every character must follow a certain traditional protocol. And the rules for the women are the greatest. Through Tambu’s eyes we see that their burdens are truly great.


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