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Nervous Conditions, by Tsitsi Dangarembga

February 26, 2013

Nervous Conditions, by Tsitsi Dangarembga. London : The Women’s Press, c1988.


An unusually perceptive novel explores the gains and losses of education and “westernization” for a teenage Rhodesian girl.

The narrator of this fine novel is Tambu, a girl growing up in colonial Rhodesia in the 1960s.  Life on her family homestead is difficult, but even worse for Tambu is her harassment by her brother about the privileges he has as a boy.  She was not surprised by his taunts because in her words, “The needs and sensibilities of the women in the family were not considered a priority or even legitimate.”  Most galling was the fact that her brother attends the mission school which her highly honored, English-educated uncle directs.  When her brother dies, Tambu is sent as his replacement to live with the uncle’s family and attend school.

Tambu describes what she felt as she left her village with her uncle.

“It was relief, but more than that. It was more than excitement and anticipation. What I experienced that day was a short cut, a rerouting of everything I had defined as me into the fast lanes that would speedily lead my destination.  There was no room for what I left behind.”

Her uncle’s home was another world to Tambu, full of objects she had never imagined—such as the tea strainer that was considered “necessary.”  At first Tambu believed that she had arrived in heaven presided over by her uncle as God.  “The absence of dirt” proved the other-worldliness of her new home.  Her aunt presided graciously over the house.  Her cousin, a troubled girl her own age, shared her room.  Tambu admired both of them, but she wondered about the submissiveness of her aunt and the disrespect that her cousin showed to her parents. Her uncle remained her hero, the successful African she dreamed of becoming.

Gradually, Tambu became aware of the sterility of the household and the tensions it contained, especially for her cousin and aunt.  Visits home presented a sharp contrast with the behavior of her mother.  But what Tambu cared about most is her own advancement.  Her achievements lead to her admission to an elite girls’ school, but, by then, she is increasingly troubled by the dark side of the westernization. In the end, she realizes that her stay at the Sacred Heart School was not “a sunrise on my horizon.”

In Tambu, Dangarembga has created an effective narrator.  Tambu is bright and observant and willing to share her own emotions.  She is very controlled person, determined to reject negative thoughts that would interfere with her goals.  But she is forced to see that the uncle whom she has worshiped is not the god she had thought.  More slowly she sees that her own ambition is flawed.  Tambu’s “coming of age” has more to do with deciding who she is and who she wants to be than with sexuality. (A pattern I have seen in other books by people of color.)

In the interaction between characters, Dangarembga skillfully depicts what is gained and lost by education and advancement in their westernizing country.  This is an old story, but one this author makes fresh and complex. The women whom Tambu continues to love and respect voice their differing values and their needs.  Her mother speaks out against the evils of education and of “acting English” while exhibiting the helplessness of women in traditional society.  Her mother’s sister retains her outspoken brashness in a menial job at the mission which allows her independence from the tyranny of the village men.  Her English-educated aunt expresses her own regret over what she has given up to have security and wealth and the pain of having a tyrannical husband.  Her cousin, who spent five years in England, cannot adapt to her peers or to life back in Africa. These figures raise conflicting demands on Tambu, which she must sort out for herself.  Yet these are not one-dimensional characters, but in Dangarembga’s hands real people engaging with each other.

One issue which Tambu ponders is how women are devalued at the mission just as they had been on her homestead.  While the details varied, westernization did not prevent their being treated unfairly.  She observes that “The victimization was universal. It didn’t depend on poverty, on lack of education or on tradition. It didn’t depend on any of the things that I had thought it depended on.  Men took it with them everywhere…What I didn’t like was the way all the conflicts came back to the question of femaleness. Femaleness as opposed and inferior to maleness.”

Nervous condition, which takes its name from a quote from Franz Fanon, is a well-written book.  Dangarembga writes about people and places with skill and, occasionally, humor.  Her writing is smooth and accessible.  Most of all she explores the complexity of questions about the value of “western civilization” and refuses to give easy answers.

I strongly recommend this book to all readers.  Especially to those curious about understanding what is lost and what is gained at a personal level for those who are faced with colonial and  post-colonial domination.  Dangarembga has written a sequel to her book that I also look forward to reading.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 26, 2013 2:00 pm

    Nice review.. this is a novel I havel always been sceptical to read….. I was not sure if it would be of my taste refering to the storyline, from your review it seems to be pretty insighful. I will give it a try.


    • February 28, 2013 9:19 am

      Yes. I think you will like this book. The author takes a familiar plot and uses it as a base for discussing different perspective. I can’t describe her style, but since you like Nwapa I think you will appreciate it. I look forward to your review.

  2. February 27, 2013 8:43 pm

    I read this one a couple years ago on the recommendation of a friend and really enjoyed it I’m glad to see others reading and talking about it!

    • February 28, 2013 9:21 am

      Thanks for your comment. I’d like to see more people reading and responding to this book. She validates the problems of western education without silencing those who have different viewpoints. Not an easy task.

  3. May 23, 2013 10:10 am

    Actually, I have read nothing but raves of Nervous Conditions and I would very much want to grab a copy. Your wonderful review has forcefully brought home that fact to me. 🙂

  4. May 24, 2013 4:37 pm

    Thanks. You are right. She does an excellent job of portraying the issues from all sides as well as telling a good story.

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