Novel refreshingly different
The book comes very close to being an autobiographical work as it almost chronicles the writer’s own experiences. This is one novel which was written in the first decade of independence, but is still relevant today, given the pertinent questions of land tenure and gender relations it raises. These are the issues, especially land tenure, that countries in Southern Africa ‘ notably Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa ‘ are grappling with today.
Tsitsi Dangarembga seems to succeed in her endeavour to make young African girls subjects of literature. The author has often been viewed as a feminist, but in an interview at the African Writers’ Festival, Brown University (November 1991), Dangarembga stresses that “she has moved from a somewhat singular consideration of gender politics to an appreciation of the complexities of the politics of post-colonial subjecthood”. In other words, her perspective of gender imbalance is informed by socio-historical considerations.
The title of the novel is derived from Jean-Paul Satre’s introduction to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, in which he refers to “the condition of the native as a nervous condition”. This automatically brings to the fore questions of race relations, especially between black and white. In the same way that Fanon deals with the psycho-social effects of colonisation, Dangarembga seeks to look at the same but is concerned with how the exploitative relationship impacts on women, who already have to grapple with domination by the men in their society. The author explores young women’s attempts to function in a society that does not allow them socially acceptable platforms as educated female Africans. Hence, there are attempts to admonish them from their elder female relatives in the extended family.
The language of the novel is not difficult to understand and so is the plot. The story ‘ which is set in colonial Rhodesia in the 1960s and early 1970s ‘ revolves around Tambu and Nyasha, female cousins who lead very different lives until their teens. When she comes back to Rhodesia from England, Nyasha, who has spent most of her early childhood in England, sees the differences between European and African ways of life, notably the way women are treated. As a result, she experiences inner turmoil as she grapples with being a woman in a colonial African environment. As we see Nyasha’s struggles from Tambu’s viewpoint, we begin to understand the nature and intensity of the continuing devastation that many countries face as a result of cultural imperialism.
Dangarembga’s major concern in the novel is the social construction of male privilege within African society. The obstacles that stand in Tambu’s way can be condensed into race, class and sex (gender). Oppression that is based on sexism, racism, colonialism, and capitalism is the obvious target of the author’s attacks. Topics of education and its relationship with gender are also central in Nervous Conditions.
Nyasha has had a brush with the British system of education, which has parallels with the Rhodesian missionary system, and this has far-reaching effects on her and the protagonist. Dangarembga’s criticism, thus, does not spare colonial education, which she condemns for alienating the African intellectual from the people he/she is supposed to serve. Thus, the protagonist uses colonial education to escape from her subordinate state and to achieve her personal goals. Tambu reaches some painful conclusions about her family, her prescribed role as a woman and the inherent evils of colonialism. She often thinks of her mother who suffered from being female and poor and uneducated and black. Her mother has often referred to the “burden of womanhood” and by this she implies bearing children and looking after their husbands.
Tambu grew up in an impoverished communal area. Her determination to receive an education, however, brings her face to face with British colonialism in the form of mission schools. As an African woman, she comes to understand that oppression has variant forms. It is not simple and cannot be removed overnight. The current land tenure is a direct product of colonialism since the family used to live elsewhere, “where the land was fertile”(p18), but they were moved to make way for European settlers. The question of land tenure, therefore, should be seen as a concern for both male and female members of the community as both sexes need the resource in order to be economically useful citizens of the country. However, the colonial system’s demand for labour on the mines and in the factories even brought legislation that encouraged men to work away from their homes while women remained at home to run the farms single-handedly.
Women’s access to resources has been very limited over the years. There is evident gross under-investment in women’s education in the novel. Tambu only goes to school after the death of her brother Nhamo. She struggles to grow maize, which she intends to sell in order to pay for her school fees but her brother Nhamo steals the maize to give to his friends ‘ there is supposed to be nothing unusual about this. Maiguru, Tambu learns later, has a Master’s degree, but she, too, like her womenfolk, at one time has to move away from Babamukuru as a way of protesting against the ever-imposing patriarchy. In a way, Dangarembga touches on some of today’s concerns, especially gender balance at all levels of power structures. (NB: Zimbabwe and South Africa have female vice presidents while Mozambique has a female prime minister.)
Tambu realises that the patriarchal traditions of her own culture oppress women, while British colonial education takes children away from their parents. The scholarship that she gets necessarily removes her from her parents. Such are the problems associated with being female in a colonial African environment.
For Tambu and Nyasha, the condition of the native as a nervous condition comprises not only colonisation, but also the condition of gender and the condition of female education. Education is used as a form of power, especially by Babamukuru as reflected in the respect he commands in the family on his return from overseas. Although part of the respect stems from the fact that he is the