Nervous Conditions

by Tsitsi Dangarembga

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1513

Gender, Womanhood, and Selfhood

One of the central motifs of Nervous Conditions is widespread gender bias against women. At the novel’s onset, Tambuzdai, the narrator, notes that life in their Rhodesian homestead is very different for boys and girls. While a girl’s existence is circumscribed by work between home, river, and field, a boy is freer to play. When Tambu’s parents fall upon hard times, they can keep only one child in school; naturally, they choose their only son, Nhamo. Questioning her father’s decision, Tambu receives the answer that her education is pointless in any case, since she can’t “cook a book to feed her husband.”

When Tambu’s uncle Babamukuru decides to fund the education of one of his brother’s children, he, too, chooses Nhamo. Meanwhile, Tambu’s mother and all her married aunts are stuck in lives that seem stifling. Tambu notes with dismay that as a girl grows up, the sphere of her activity only shrinks. Women are not allowed to bathe freely in the river or run wild in the fields.

This systemic limitation of women’s opportunities cuts across class and education. Though Tambu’s aunt Maiguru has a master’s degree in philosophy, she is subservient to Babamukuru, waiting on him and addressing him by cloying pet names such as “Daddy sweet” and “Daddy-D.” While Tambu tries to right the gender imbalance through a mixture of hard work and compliant chastity, girls and women who wear their sexuality on their sleeves ruffle the status quo in an unprecedented way. Nyasha, Babamukuru’s daughter, is one such girl. Her short skirts and Western ways invite even other women’s censure, and her habit of smoking and love for books such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover further symbolize her irrepressible, disturbing sexuality—which her father desperately tries to suppress.

One night, when Nyasha returns home late from a party, Babamukuru beats her and calls her a “whore.” Startled by the ugly scene, Tambu has the epiphany that the presence of wealth and education does not mitigate men’s problems with “femaleness.” Babamukuru, whom she once idolized, is revealed to be as petty a man as the village hand who whips his wife.

Tambu’s realization is essential to the formation of her sisterhood with Nyasha, Maiguru, Mainini, and Lucia. Tambu begins to understand that solidarity with other women is essential to the development of her selfhood. In this respect, she has the example of Lucia, her mother’s single and independent-minded sister. Beautiful and irrepressible, Lucia is widely regarded as a witch because of her barrenness. When Nhamo dies from an illness, Tambu’s father’s relatives are quick to blame Lucia’s “evil eye.” Lucia is criticized for being an “immodest woman”—yet her singlehood is not a blight, but a choice. Not only does Lucia always stand by her sister, she also values her independence, as she notes to Babamukuru:

maybe when you marry a woman, she is obliged to obey you. But some of us aren’t married, so we don’t know how to do it.

Though Lucia is uneducated, she seems far more liberated than the educated Maiguru. She also defends Maiguru in a way that Maiguru cannot protect her daughter. Thus, Tambu begins to see that womanhood is strengthened as much by solidarity and the acknowledgement of sexuality as it is by Western education. Tambu begins to heed her mother’s cautionary note against considering colonial education a panacea, and she instead decides to question whiteness and find her authentic self without abandoning her roots.

The Complex Legacy of a Colonial Education

The emancipating effects of education are a much-discussed trope in the text. Nevertheless, Tambu’s developing sensibility and...

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agency, as well as the fates of Nyasha and Babamukuru, examine the psychic cost exacted by a colonial education. As African villagers in post-colonial Rhodesia, Tambu and her family hold a fraught sense of identity. Through the example of their wealthy, educated patriarch, Babamukuru, they believe a Christian education is their only path out of back-breaking labor and poverty. However, such an education involves the indigenous person first regarding herself as “inferior.”

The primary sacrifice to such an education is the mother tongue—which, in the case of Tambu’s family, is Shona. Further, when Nhamo begins his studies at the mission school, he is proud to no longer have to “eat with his hands.” The fork and knife become symbols of his emancipation but simultaneously divorce him from his cultural and racial identity. Nhamo begins to hate his visits to the homestead, even dreading the bus rides back home, which are full of “various kinds of produce in suspicious stages of freshness.” He even suggests having a separate bus for students like him, unconsciously mimicking the white demand for segregation.

Tambu herself feels the fissure between her new, colonially-educated, urban self and her former village-bred self when she returns to the homestead, noting that it appears shabbier than ever before. She notes the appalling filthiness of the toilet:

Glistening pale maggots burrowed fatly into the feces; the walls had turned yellow.

Tambu is also increasingly aware of the psychological burden a colonial education places on the colonized. Her cousin Nyasha, who was educated in England for most of her young life, is in a state of limbo between black and white. Nyasha is teased at school in Rhodesia for her “Englishness” and is unable to communicate in Shona. Having lived in England, she has cultivated an English girl’s sense of fashion, which deeply offends her father, Babamukuru.

Torn between her Rhodesian and English selves, Nyasha suffers tremendously and develops an eating disorder. Nyasha realizes that her father too is a victim of his education, burdened with the task of “civilizing” his family. Meanwhile, Lucia—who is neither educated nor white—is free and outspoken in a way that is wholly Rhodesian. Thus, Tambu begins to understand that it is best to pick and choose the best from a colonial education, being sure to hold on to her roots; her language; her identification with her village, fields, and rivers; and her mother’s words about not becoming too “English.”

Race, Double Identities, and the Psyche

The novel’s title is taken from Jean-Paul Sartre’s introduction to Franz Faton’s book The Wretched of the Earth, which discusses the dehumanizing effects of colonization on the colonized. The “nervous conditions” of Dangarembga’s novel make themselves known in subtle ways. Nyasha, who prefers herself to be “more angles than curves”; Tambu’s mother, who faces deep, unsettling anxiety about the fates of her surviving children; Maiguru, who has a master’s degree in philosophy but lapses into childish prattle around her husband—all suffer from nervous conditions. These psychic fractures are linked with issues of race, gender, and double consciousness.

In the final chapter of the book, Nyasha has her “kamikaze” moment, wrecking her room and collapsing in a huddle. She has been wasting away for years, afflicted by an eating disorder. Nyasha is caught between playing a “good girl,” per her father’s sense of propriety, and being her own irascible, intelligent, and desirous self. Thus, she inevitably begins to come apart. Babamukuru is too focused on turning Nyasha into a model Christian to notice what Tambu can: that Nyasha is disappearing, losing weight “almost hourly.” Maiguru is too busy trying to keep the peace to address her daughter’s crisis.

Ironically, when Nyasha’s parents finally do try to get medical help for her, most white doctors they meet dismiss the gravity of the situation, saying that Africans don’t suffer from psychiatric illnesses. Earlier, Tambu had mentioned that Africans are sent to school late, at age eight or nine, as the common belief is that they are slow to learn. Thus, Africans are denied psychological depth, which no doubt contributes to the “nervous conditions” prevalent in the text.

The text often refers to “nerves,” as in the case of Babamukuru, whom Tambu describes as being perpetually stressed.

We hardly laughed when Babamukuru was within earshot, because, Maiguru said, his nerves were bad. His nerves were bad because he was so busy. For the same reason we did not talk much when he was around either.

Undoubtedly, Babamukuru’s own double consciousness as a black man shouldering a white man’s so-called “civilizing” burden contributes to his bad nerves. In women’s cases, gender compounds the problem, as female mental health issues are often dismissed as hysteria. Tambu’s assertion that these conditions are real and have material consequences gains special significance in this context, as when she talks about her mother’s reaction to her leaving home:

My mother’s anxiety was real. In the week before I left she ate hardly anything, not for lack of trying, and when she was able to swallow something it lay heavy in her stomach.

Thus, the deliberately ironic superficiality of the title “nervous conditions” only serves to highlight the gravity of the damage to the psyche of the colonized.