Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Nervous Conditions

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

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Hiatus

I return to this blog shamefaced, like a married man returning to his wife after having some fleeting fun. I return with a beseeching smile, pleading eyes and a lowered, cajoling voice. Wait, a blog is all about words. So perhaps, hopefully, I return with a profuse stream of words that will sooth the hurt of neglect off the blog. I am ready to swear to good behavior; to be faithful at all times and to keep it in my mind the way the smell of meat hangs on a butcher. Yeah right.

All the same, belated compliments of the new season, as South Africans like to put it. In retrospect, I wish you all a merry festive season and a happy new year all in one breath, notwithstanding how absurd it sounds. It’s as if I disappeared into space and returned just now, trying to catch up on everything all at once without offering a sufficient explanation as to what brought forth a lengthy and criminal disappearance. Moroseness and remorse should pronounce themselves rather loudly here, but I am not given too much to excessive displays of both. Nevertheless, I do have some sort of explanation to such neglect (and this is not tongue in cheek): the last couple of months was a transitional period for me.

My Tour of Duty in Pretoria came to an end and so I made the transition back to our beloved city Nairobi, which somehow doesn’t feel obliged to return too much of that love. We love it despite its traffic, smog, smoke, dust, noise, bustle, congestion and so on (lately metal detectors), but it goes ahead and increases the intensity of what we dislike about it, the way a DJ would pump up the track in anticipation of rapturous screams, only that we, the revelers of our city, scream more in agony. We gnash our teeth, curse the accursed city, swear at an unresponsive serikali, and wish we could live in the rural homes we come from (well, not really). In the end, we stare back at an unrepentant Nairobi with the same defiance it throws our way. We stand toe to toe with it, eye-to-eye, unblinking as the hurtling towards a final confrontation gains speed.

Luckily, I hadn’t been on leave for more than a year, a fact I whimpered pitifully at the bosses that be (wouldn’t it be nice to be such a boss one day) and managed to get 30 days leave. So I breezed through Nairobi, kept contact with it to a bare minimum. The main joy it brought me was seeing my two sisters, brother-in-law, and a nephew who are based there, more so the young nephew as he couldn’t possibly remember me from the last time he saw me a year and a half ago. The delight I felt as he called me “anko”, reaching out his hand to be held as he walked, is a precious memory I will cherish. Liberal amounts of meat consumed at the Carnivore and Congolese live music at Simmers Restaurant pale in comparison.

My hometown Kakamega changes at a snail’s pace. The moment I arrived I could swear I was there only the previous day. Motorbike and bicycle bodabodas are still the main modes of transport. I quickly picked up grumblings about the absurdity of taxes on chicken and cows, proposed, bizarrely I must agree, by the County Assembly. Beyond that the Government and what it does seemed like distant thoughts on everyone’s mind. I was truly in Luhya land, where matters chicken and cows can easily inspire a revolution.

Again, the delight of meeting family after a long period of absence is precious. My mother, sisters, brother, nephews, nieces, uncles, aunts, and cousins – there simply wasn’t enough time for all. It is all a balancing act. I visited my late dad’s resting place, and the emotion reminded me of how fickle but precious, in short contradictory, life is.

Beyond the usual frustrations, such us being a walking ATM machine for long lost “friends” and relatives who make clear their dire financial situations just two minutes into pleasantries, my hometown is beautiful. The luscious green and the deep blue cloudless January and February skies enthralled the stuttering and spontaneous poet in me:

Simple green and profound blue
As I laze in breeze and shade
Away from city's haste and fade
I say this for it be true:
I am at peace, in rustic serenity;
I am home, in everyday simplicity.

This is the town where I learnt to read and write; this is where everything about me was born. This is where I was defined, the reason why my relationships with cities will always be casual, fleeting and unemotional. The sighs I heave here are deep in appreciation of astounding, rustic and unaffected beauty; I smile back, unpretentious, from the heart, uninhibited.

And it is from here that I return to this blog shamefaced, like a married man returning to his wife after having some fleeting fun.