A rare account of life in British Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) by a black woman writer, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions (1988) is widely regarded as a contemporary classic. Inspired by the writer’s own childhood and adolescence, Nervous Conditions is set in the 1960s and 1970s. Through the lens of relationships between women—especially that of the narrator and protagonist, Tambu, and her cousin Nyasha—as well as the stifling patriarchal bonds between women and the men in their lives, the novel examines issues of race, gender, poverty, and colonialism. Though men play significant roles in the novel, its real heroes are the implacable women who rebel against patriarchy. Dangarembga presents each woman character in careful gestalt, from Tambuzdai’s ambition to Nyasha’s will and self-destruction to Lucia’s sexual liberation. The novel’s title refers to how the conflict between societal norms and the individual self can mold—and sometimes crack—women’s psyches.
I was not sorry when my brother died.
Thus begins Tambu’s account, as memorable an opening line as any. Tambu is a young woman looking back on her childhood, in which the death of her brother, Nhamo, is an important milestone. Tambu’s acknowledgement that she feels no grief at Nhamo’s death illustrates a complex family dynamic and foreshadows the novel’s later explorations of her discomfort with the patriarchal bias of society.
Nhamo, the only son among Tambu’s siblings, has always shirked housework, exercising his male privilege. Further, their family’s poverty and the laws of patriarchy dictate that only one child can be further educated at the village school: naturally, in their family’s case, the son. Tambu’s weak-willed father, Jeremiah, tells her that it is futile to educate a girl:
Can you cook books and feed them to your husband? Stay at home with your mother. Learn to cook and clean. Grow vegetables.
Undeterred, Tambu offers to pay for her education herself by selling maize at the local market. Tambu is not only resourceful but also sensitive to class imbalances. When Jeremiah’s college-educated brother, Babamukuru, returns from England with his wife, Maiguru, and their children, Nyasha and Chido, Tambu feels overwhelmed by the “Englishness” of her cousins. Worse, Babamukuru’s decision to educate Nhamo at the mission school in Umtali, where Babamukuru is the headmaster, intensifies Tambu’s jealousy and dislike for her brother. Already arrogant, Nhamo is now bound to view his life back in the village as insufficient, as gleaned from his statement to Tambu on the eve of his departure:
I shall have a jersey in winter, and probably a blazer too. I shall stop using my hands to eat. I will use a knife and fork.
The jersey, blazer, knife, and fork symbolize civilization and act as symbolic weapons that have the potential to pare down the culture of Tambu’s family. Nhamo’s stay at Umtali is short-lived, however; in 1968, three years after he moves, the boy passes away from a sudden illness. Tambu’s mother, Mainini, is driven mad by grief. It is a “white” disease her son contracted, and she blames Babamukuru’s whitewashing of her son for his death:
And you too, Babamukuru! Pthu! I spit at you! You and your education have killed my son!
Distraught as Mainini may be, Nhamo’s death has opened up a window of opportunity for his sister. Babamukuru decides Tambu is to be given the chance which was cruelly snatched from Nhamo. Tambu is overjoyed; this means not only that she has a chance for further studies but also that she is the “emancipating” one, the Babamukuru for her immediate family. Tambu’s complex feelings highlight a key theme of the novel: a colonial education may be the way out of poverty, but it comes at the cost of rejecting one’s roots.
Tambu moves to Umtali to live with Babamukuru’s family, and her relationship with Nyasha takes center stage in the novel. At first, Tambu considers...
(The entire section is 1,569 words.)