A girl growing up in Zimbabwe, traditional vs. egalitarian values in “Nervous Conditions” novel

Tsitsi Dangarembga. Nervous Conditions. Ayebia Clarke Publishing, 1988.


Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel about teenagers in Zimbabwe in the late 1960s, Nervous Conditions (1988) gives readers a picture of traditional ways of living versus the identity confusion brought by white colonialists and missionaries. Tambu spent her first 14 years in the countryside in a brick house with a tin roof that I imagine looks like my photographs of rural Tanzanian dwellings. The nearby river provides water fetched in a 10-gallon drum, the place to wash clothes on flat rocks, and swimming for fun. Food is cooked in a separate conical thatched room in pots hanging on an iron tripod over a fire pit. The children sleep on the kitchen floor. The bathroom is the fields, or an outside latrine for each sex. Maize is the stable food, cooked as porridge, with an occasional chicken from their flock but meat is rare. They eat with their fingers. They use candles and paraffin lamps as there’s no electricity.

Elders, mostly male, rule the extended family. They expect to be greeted deferentially, as by asking about their health. When water is brought around to wash their hands before a meal, it must be offered kneeling, in order of status. The family is ruled by Tambu’s uncle who heads a missionary school, sent by the whites to study in South Africa and later to England. His accomplishments give him great status and power. If his children flout his authority, he gives them a whipping. Tambu notes that the needs of women in her family were not considered legitimate. Men paid a bride price, roora, a South African custom making it easy to think of a wife as a purchased possession.

At the uncle’s insistence, they’re Christian, but Tambu’s mother refers to witchdoctors, spells, and evil spirits and mediums to appease them. The local primary school costs money so the one brother is sent there to study. Her father asks Tambu, “Can you cook books and feed them to your [future] husband? Stay at home with your mother.” (A girl is expected to be pregnant before marriage to prove her fertility but not be promiscuous.) Since her father won’t pay her tuition because it would only benefit her future family and be a loss to him, Tambu cultivates her own maize field to sell. After her brother dies of an undisclosed illness, her uncle brings Tambu to his house to be a student in his school.

Tambu shares a room with her cousin Nyasha, also a top scoring student and about the same age. The problem is Nyasha and her brother recently returned from England where they lost touch with local language and customs, such as reverent respect for elders. Nyasha conflicts with her father’s attempts to keep a tight reign on her actions. Tambu observes she lacked respect for her father, but, “What I didn’t like was the way all the conflicts came back to this question of femaleness. Femaleness as opposed and interior to maleness.” The context was Nyasha’s father called her a whore for dancing with boys. Nyasa said, “I was comfortable in England but now I’m a whore with dirty habits.” He demands that she eat all her dinner, so she becomes bulimic, looses too much weight, and becomes so obsessive about her studies that she has the nervous breakdown suggested by the book title. Her egalitarian attitudes also cause trouble with fellow students, as Nyasha explains, they think she’s a snob, “that I am superior to them because I do not feel that I am inferior to men. . . and I beat the boys at maths!”

Nyasha’s mother Maiguru is also conflicted as she earned a Master’s degree in England and teaches in the school, but has to turn all her earnings over to her husband. He spends money on the extended family, such as building a home or paying for a wedding, without her consent. In the end Tambu wins a scholarship to an excellent school run by white nuns for African and European girls, who sleep in segregated dormitories. Her mother worries that she’ll be lost to her, not expecting “the ancestors to stomach so much Englishness.” She is so depressed, she too stops eating until her sister intervenes. Tambu ends her story by telling the reader her process of expansion was a “long and painful process.’ In an afterword the author says, “Although Tambu may not have been psycholocally contorted when she was 14, she definitely is now.” She adds that young African women sufferer from a shortage of role models.

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