Nervous Conditions – Tsitsi Dangarembga (1989)

An interesting book that was actually much better than I had anticipated (although I have no good reason for that expectation apart from that I had never heard of it or the author before).  A good friend who has lived and worked in Ghana for many years lent me this book saying it’s a good read, and it was. I might not have heard of it before, but I will try and spread the word now!

“Nervous Conditions” can be summed up as an “African feminist coming-of-age novel”, but it is really far more than that. It’s written from the PoV of a woman who is looking back at her earlier years as a child and covers her education (on many different levels) and changing attitude to life in 1970’s Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). It’s written without any contractions so as I read it, it reminded me that it was from the perspective of a girl whose first language was not English. A very effective tool, I thought. The protagonist also has a really wicked sense of humor which frequently made me laugh throughout the read:

“When the nuns came to the mission and we saw that instead of murmuring soft blessings and gliding seraphic all over the grass in diaphanous habits, they wore smart blouses and skirts and walked, laughed and talked in low twanging tones very much like our American missionaries did, we were very disappointed.”

The protagonist, Tambu, has grown up in a rural and poor family surrounded by traditional culture and values especially in terms of gender roles and expectations. “Endure and obey” is the only choice for the women in her world, and so when her older brother dies and she gets an unexpected chance of some further education, she leaps at it.

Her uncle has been educated in England (along with his wife and kids), and runs a Mission school not far from Tambu’s village, but in terms of available transport, it’s a long way and so Tambu boards there. Her reactions to some of the differences in life at the Mission school compared to her hard rural life were priceless. For example, upon her arrival, Tambu realizes that life could be much better than it was. Flowers were planted all around the campus, and so she realized that “when life was good, you didn’t have to plant just for the chore of keeping breath in your body… These flowers had been planted for joy!” – such a happy find for a young girl.

Other Firsts included eating with a knife and a fork: “my place [at the table] looked as though a small and angry child had been there” by the end of the meal. Isn’t that such a great image?

However, although the chance for further education is a chance at a better future, it does arrive fraught with pressure for her. Not only did she have the pressure of succeeding at her studies for herself, but it was thoroughly drilled into her that this was a chance to pull the whole branch of her family up higher into the world – “to be an intelligent girl” but also a “good woman” (i.e. family/home first) despite the contradictions inherent in this from a traditional African perspective (i.e. education is more important for boys and girls should grow up to be wives and mothers).

This book was a scathing indictment of traditional gender roles and as it was presented through the lens of Tambu, a young poor rural child, being given the unexpected and much cherished chance of emancipation, her excitement was infectious. However, it did come at a cost. She could only get this education as her older brother had died, so perhaps this is symbolic of the argument that women’s freedom can only be won when sacrifices are made by the men?

Educating females is portrayed as resisting the traditions of Africa, of being disloyal and threatening to the overall scheme and balance of things. It’s interesting to compare this viewpoint with the struggle that women in the UK (and other countries) had to achieve access to education during the Victorian times (and in some places, it continues). Education was thought to lead to infertility for women during this time, to lead to instability in society and was overall rather dangerous. (However, this was only from the perspective of some people, of course.)

Another interesting point was the book’s portrayal of the ongoing struggle between Africans and the “Whites”.  Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) has struggled with Apartheid issues for decades, and although it is now a majority rule country, the current government administration has been targeted for numerous human rights violations (towards anybody) and for reverse racism (against whites). The Whites, in this novel, are seen through the eyes of Tambu and she presents the view that was widely spread then – that Whites were going to “save” Africa (through religion etc.) with the idea that education was encouraged but only to a certain point and only for certain groups. The white missionaries did not (for the most part) challenge societal gender roles – just the religion. Tambu reflects this ambiguity – the Whites did some good (education, schools, public health) but they also wanted to take over and remake the place, and Tambu is torn between admiration and disgust at this attitude.

Dangaremga also portrays mental illness in this story, which is usually (stereotypically) thought to be a problem for first world countries (i.e. white). However, here (as in the graphic novel Aya about a modern young woman set in the capital of Ivory Coast) Africa is shown to be much more complicated than the LiveAid image of starvation, civil war and AIDS.  It’s really effective at reminding the audience that “first world diseases” affect the continent as well. Tambu’s UK-born cousin returns to Rhodesia, and although Tambu puts her on a pedestal for being modern and independent, the cousin struggles to fit in as well and ends up developing bulimia and then anorexia. Additionally, Tambu’s mother suffers from major depression. Additionally, the specific characters who suffer from mental illness (but not alcoholism or addiction in this case) are females – the males only have physical illness which I thought was interesting and added to the complexity of the traditional gender roles.  Hidden illness for a hidden gender?…

Another really provocative part of the book was the frequent (and numerous) dichotomies that were presented: White/Black society; rural/urban/small town; women/men roles; Africa/UK (or other colonies); traditional ideas/”new” or non-traditional (mostly White) ideas; mental illness/physical illness. There is just so much to think about here.

Tambu also loved libraries (comme moi):

“Most importantly, most wonderfully, there was the library, big bright walled in glass on one side and furnished with private little cubicles where you could do your homework, or simply lose yourself in any one of the hundreds of tantalizing books whose glossy covers never seemed to get dirty or torn. The sheer number of books in that library made me deeply ashamed of my ignorance. I resolved to read every single one of those informative volumes from the first page to the last.”

Reading this also reminded me of an auntie who used to live in Rhodesia and when she visited us, would report that the “Blacks” liked having no electricity or radios and were happier that way. Even as a child, we all knew this was wrong, but it’s representative of how some of the thinking was back during this time of Apartheid (at least from my experience).

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