Book review: Nervous Conditions

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions (The Women’s Press Ltd, 1988)

by Nicole Stephens, CMS

I first came across this novel several years ago at an event hosted by the African Society at university. At the time I didn’t realise it was a classic, winning the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 1988, but I’ve enjoyed this bold and thought-provoking read and finding out more about Dangarembga, who is from an impressive line of firsts – her mother was the first black woman from Zimbabwe to earn a degree, and Nervous Conditions was the first book published in English by a black Zimbabwean woman.

Set in the 1960s, Nervous Conditions follows the story of Tambudzai, Tambu for short, a young girl in rural Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) desperate for an education. Her uncle is the headmaster of the mission school in the nearest town where he takes Tambu’s brother for schooling. As a girl, Tambu’s education is not a priority for the family, but when her brother dies suddenly, Tambu is able to take his place, and here begins Tambu’s journey of “emancipation” from village life.

The title, Nervous Conditions, is taken from the preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, which says “the state of the native is a nervous condition”. It’s an insightful framing of the book, prompting you to reflect on how the experience of life under colonial rule, interaction with western modernity, culture and pressures impact upon African individuals.

Nervous Conditions has many key themes – a strong critique of female oppression in a male-dominant culture being one of them. But what stood out to me particularly was the way it shows how Tambu’s worldview forms in relation to western culture and ideas of progress.

Set in segregated Rhodesia, it’s interesting that Dangarembga does not address this dramatic context of race relations directly (indeed she has said that anything she writes about race more explicitly turns out sounding too absurd to be true). We get to see, then, the reality of these racial disparities as Tambu’s world itself gets bigger. We see white people as the source of funds for her first few years of schooling, westerners at the mission treated with great deference, even as deities, given their power to intervene and open opportunities previously unreachable for black families, and their sacrifice in choosing such a life. And Tambu’s uncle, Babamukuru, is greatly revered in the family for his having been educated up to postgraduate level in England. For Tambu, then, progress and the way to a better life is intricately wrapped up in western education and a level of assimilation into Englishness.

And there are the smaller, perhaps more insidious, effects of this on the family homestead – when Tambu’s brother used to return to the family village for school holidays, he was reluctant to speak their Shona language, not only because his Shona had become ungrammatical and “strangely accented” but because he wanted to impress his family by speaking English. While father is impressed, Tambu resents that this restricts communication with her brother to mundane, insignificant matters, and their mother has to admit that although she does want her son to be educated, even more than that, she wants to talk to him. Tambu narrates these instances almost matter-offactly, there are other more dramatic events that occur in the story, yet it is these depictions that I found powerful and stuck with me since as a white, native- English speaker it rarely crosses my mind to consider the impact and superiority of language.

The sheer difference of western modernity is so overpowering and enchanting to a young girl from the village that it is readily accepted as most surely the way of progress. When Tambu first arrives at the mission and her uncle’s house, she can see how her brother was seduced, as the entire house, with its “local interpretations of British interior-décor”, whispers a message of ease and comfort, far from the endlessly hard physical labour she sees her mother destined to at home. While Tambu is throwing herself into her studies at the mission, there are forewarnings of where this path of chasing the opportunities laid out by western education leads. Her cousin, Nyasha, is a wonderfully dynamic character who, having lived for a time in England, is full of alternatives and possibilities that are beyond Tambu’s current frame of reference. Nyasha is unwilling to accept things as they currently are without questioning, and so has many struggles with her parents, often challenging traditional culture, yet also wary of the influence western culture has had on her. In the end, Nyasha becomes a symbolic victim of how western influences and exposure to modernity complicates one’s sense of self, and alienates oneself from all that you knew and were.

Nervous Conditions is a significant work in African feminist and postcolonial literature. The third book in this trilogy, just published this year, has been longlisted for the Booker Prize and I’m looking forward to reading more of Tsitsi Dangarembga’s work. It strikes me that the theme of a dominant culture over another, the dominance of English and Englishness, resonates with prevalent conversations today about the UK church needing greater diversity in our expression of faith, so that experiences in white majority churches are not so tightly wrapped up in a superior culture but have space to celebrate creatively faith in our God who revealed himself for every nation, tribe, people and language. As an accessible and provocative piece of fiction, Nervous Conditions gives insight into the historical and social circumstances that have given rise to this pressing mandate today.

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