So this is the book that has excited many young, emerging feminist activists and politically conscious women over the last two and a half decades. Having seen them go gaga over it on social media, mentioning it over and over again as a classic, I was curious. And as I held it in the bookstore, my eyes appraising as usual, trying to get a feel of it, I was arrested by the opening line:
‘I was not sorry when my brother died.’
Talk of an audacious opening line. And the first paragraph too is a mesmerizing and bold summary of the book itself, setting the tone for straightforward, sometimes deceptively simple, prose.
Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions (the title is inspired by a quote in Fanon’s book The Wretched of the Earth – “the condition of the native is a nervous condition”) is told in the first person through the voice of Tambu as she relives her coming of age story. She not only details her own struggle to gain formal education against a backdrop of a paternalistic and colonial society in rural Zimbabwe; she also tells of the struggles of four other women – her mother, cousin Nyasha, aunt Lucia, and her uncle’s wife Maiguru. Their struggles against cultural paternalism/patriarchy signify the nervous conditions from which they try to escape, but only Tambu and Lucia are shown to have succeeded in some respects, while Tambu’s mother and Maiguru, who are uneducated and educated respectively, both paradoxically remain entrapped despite their different social statuses. Nyasha rebels and her fate therefore hangs in the balance.
Nervous Conditions is quintessentially a coming of age story, beginning with young sibling rivalry and resentment between Tambu and her brother Nhamo who is taken to school while Tambu is discouraged simply because she is a girl. Tambu has to resort to her own resources, including selling maize to raise her school fees, and ironically only gets to go to the Missionary school after her brother dies (hence her declaration that she wasn’t sorry when he died). Getting formal education therefore becomes her escape from her “nervous conditions” (cultural paternalism/patriarchy), as is too for her aunt Lucia, who is able to defy cultural expectations to enroll in school at an older age.
Nevertheless, the contradictions of missionary education in colonial society are uncovered through Nyasha’s rebellion. While she studies hard to pass her examinations, she views education with suspicion, convinced that missionary education is serving a purpose that is not altogether altruistic. At the same time, having been exposed to life in England, she is freethinking, rebelling against her father’s paternalism.
Lucia attempts to convince her sister, Tambu’s mother, to escape cultural paternalism by leaving her philandering and lazy husband, but she refuses, apparently resigned to her fate in a patriarchal society that expects little of women beyond rearing children and tending to domestic duties.
Nervous Conditions is therefore not a linear story; it presents stories within the story, each advancing the same themes but from different angles. It is a series of rebellions against the patriarchs of the family – Nyasha and Tambu’s fathers. Tambu rebels against her father to assert her right to education; Lucia rebels against patriarchal expectations to settle down as a docile married woman; Nyasha rebels against her father’s controlling authoritarianism; and Maiguru rebels against her husband to gain greater freedoms, rights and respect as his wife. Some succeed, some fail, and Tambu’s mother doesn’t even try. The overarching theme is set against supplementary themes such as colonialism, poverty and inequality, missionary education, religion and culture, and family values.
Dangarembga’s portrayal of these challenges, dilemmas, and ironies is indeed profound and deft. She employs a very descriptive style to adequately portray life in rural, colonial and patriarchal Zimbabwe. In the end, one gets a feel of the extra challenges women faced in these conditions (and continue to face even in “free” African societies) and the determination required of them to overcome them.
Nervous Conditions is an enduring indictment, and I would recommend it as a great and inspiring read.
Picture credit: Goodreads