Book: Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga (1988)

Reviewer: Jeriann

Genre: Coming of Age Fiction

Recommended Reading Snack: Food that reminds you of childhood

Content Notes: Colonialism, Racism, Sexism, Eating Disorder, Abuse

One of my favorite parts of reading Can We All Be Feminists? a few weeks ago was the long list of books and other media to add to my ever-growing “to read” list. One of these references turned out to be a book I already had on my shelf.  In “Afro-Diasporic Feminism and a Freedom in Fluidity,” Zoé Samudzi talks about how Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel Nervous Conditions helped her contextualize her feelings about the relationship between her Zimbabwean culture and her feminism. I decided to move the book up on my list and review it this month.

Nervous Conditions follows Tambu, a young girl who grew up on an impoverished homestead in Zimbabwe in the 1960s. After the death of her brother, 14-year-old Tambu is given the opportunity to attend a mission school where her uncle is headmaster. This is seen as a way to benefit her family with the fruits of her education, though her father laments that, being female, any benefits will leave the family once she is married off. 

Tambu’s experiences highlight the struggles of women in a patriarchal society where respect of male authority is considered more important than any idea of right or wrong. Women are denied agency and education because they are women, no other reason is necessary. When women do benefit, such as Tambu’s eventual ability to get an education, it is only at the whims of the men in charge, who expect gratitude and subservience for their “generosity.”

While Tambu is unquestionably the main character of the book, her observations allow us to see how the women in her life are differently affected by their stations in life. We get a close look at the lives of Tambu’s mother, cousin, and two aunts. All of these women struggle to assert their independence in a system that denies them autonomy. 

Her mother, Ma’Shingayi, has never known an independent life, being first a subject of her father’s home, and then her husband’s after she was impregnated at fifteen. She works hard to earn money for her son’s education and provide for her other children, while her husband avoids work, spends the family’s money, and lets the homestead deteriorate.

Maiguru, the aunt Tambu goes to live with at the mission, has a Master’s degree from England, but is still not an equal to her husband, to whom she must submit in all matters or face consequences. Maiguru seeks independence, but also enjoys the benefits of her husband’s status, like the safety of the home they live in at the mission. 

Tambu’s cousin, Nyasha, spent 5 years at school in England with her family, and feels out of place at home in Zimbabwe. Her education has caused her to question the status quo, which results in conflict with her peers. At one point, she says, “They think that I am a snob, that I think that I am superior to them because I do not feel that I am inferior to men.” Nyasha and her father are also forever at odds, because she refuses  to submit to an idea of inherent authority, and he sees her lack of submission as disrespect.

Tambu has another aunt, Lucia, whose future becomes an issue of debate amongst the men of the family when she becomes impregnated out of wedlock. Lucia struggles to live an independent life in this world where men call the shots and do everything they can to keep women dependent on them. In a moment of unaware hypocrisy, Tambu’s uncle speaks of admiring Lucia’s “man-like” tenacity, though he detests those same traits in his daughter and the women who are supposed to obey him. 

Since we are told the story by a future Tambu looking back on her childhood, we get glimpses of how her worldview has changed. The plot of Nervous Conditions follows Tambu’s introduction to the world beyond her insulated homestead.When Tambu goes to the mission, it takes her a while to realize that this world is also subject to injustices. The reactions and feelings she has toward her changes in circumstances are all shaped by her youth, naivete, and desire to please the adults, particularly the men, who control her future. Adult Tambu is aware of how her inexperience shaped the way she saw things, and we get hints at how her opinions have changed over time. Teenaged Tambu saw success as “pleasing her elders.” Adult Tambu has learned that the people and ideas she held as infallible had flaws of their own. There is a sequel, The Book of Not, that follows Tambu’s continued schooling, and was published in 2006. I’m really excited to read that book as well, as I became invested in the fates of these characters.

It shouldn’t be surprising that colonialism and the effect of missionaries in other countries are strong themes of Nervous Conditions. Dangarembga demonstrates how missions brought education to people who previously did not have access, and how it expanded their opportunities. We also see how the white people in charge of these mission projects establish and maintain a racial hierarchy. Africans are given opportunities to advance in society, but only so long as they are sufficiently grateful to their white benefactors. Assimilation is required for acceptance. Tambu’s mother notes that “The Englishness” is killing the family members who have moved away from the homestead. Tambu’s cousins no longer remember their native language, and Nyasha develops an eating disorder that quickly causes her health to deteriorate. When her family finally seeks psychiatric treatment for Nyasha, they are told that Africans do not suffer from what they are describing and that she’s making things up for attention. 

The women in this book are constantly at the whim of those who society favors. As poor black women, they are ignored, doubted, and minimized. At home, they are degraded for their gender: their desires are irrelevant, their needs only considered as far as it benefits the family. In larger society, it is their skin color that dooms them. Tambu eventually gets the opportunity to attend school at a convent that is made up of mostly white students. She notices immediately that the only other black people are the porters, and the porters don’t help the black families with their luggage. All six black students are shoved into a four-person room, and the nuns can’t distinguish Tambu from her cousin, despite their distinct appearances. 

Another quote that struck me was when Tambu reflects on how living at the mission changed some of her perceptions of race. Growing up surrounded by family, Tambu found black people beautiful, and the few white people she had seen strange and unappealing. She felt guilty because she knew she was meant to love the whites, who were providing resources and opportunities for advancement. In the presence of tan, young missionaries, Tambu finally discovers that whites, too, can be as beautiful as her and her family. Then, “After that, it did not take me long to learn that they were in fact more beautiful and then I was able to love them.” Tambu qualifies these thoughts with the disclaimer that she was very young when she had these thoughts. I think this section brilliantly illustrates how society is built on enforcing subjective biases, and how children internalize these biases without understanding or realizing they are doing so. 

The conflicts in Tambu’s childhood life before attending the mission revolved around her family’s struggle to survive, and her expected subservient role as a girl. When she leaves home and is able to focus on education rather than survival, she is confused that her gender still dictates how far her potential can take her. Slowly, Tambu looks past her gratitude for being offered an opportunity to advance, and starts to question the decisions of those in charge. 

In an interview at the back of my copy of this book, Dangarembga talks about the fact that there are no villains in this book. While the men certainly wield their power unfairly, you can see the systemic reasons behind their actions. That is not to say their actions are right, but to avoid demonization of individuals. We are all products of our environments, and must work to see both the beauty and flaws of those environments. Tambu’s uncle will not question the system that gave him authority over his family and a respectful position in society. When his family does anything that he feels threatens his position, he immediately works to reestablish authority, either by simply refusing to entertain challenges, or by violence if the challenge persists. 

Nervous Conditions was both an emotional and educational read. Though it is fiction, it is largely based on the lives of the author and people she knew. In the introduction of my copy, Kwame Anthony Appiah discusses how the book is so accessible to a Western audience, while being authentic to Zimbabwean culture and perspective. Cultural titles and familial nicknames are used without explanation, but not to the extent that unfamiliar readers get lost and confused. I’d recommend this book to anyone 13 and above, as teenagers can relate to Tambu’s coming-of-age, and adults can learn multitudes from her experiences. 

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