Tsitsi Dangarembga‘s Nervous Conditions is a semi-autobiographical account on the story of Tambu’s experiences growing up as a woman in Rhodesia, in modern day Zimbabwe. The story begins after her brother’s death, expressing her lack of grieving over it. Her parents had sent her brother to school but did not have enough money to send her to school as well. While selling vegetables in an attempt to pay for her own education, she is offered ten pounds to pay for her education. At an extended family dinner, Tambu’s uncle Babamakuru proposes that she replace her dead brother as the family member receiving an education. Upon leaving for school, Tambu becomes fluent in English and excels in her studies. She is given a scholarship to a prestigious Catholic school. When she returns to her home, Tambu notices the effects that colonialism and westernization have had on her homestead. Westernization had profound effects on Tambu and her family; I think the most noticeable appearance of this westernization is Tambu’s cousin Nyasha’s behavior when she returns from England. While abroad, Nyasha lost her ability to speak Shona, her native tongue, and now speaks primarily English. Additionally, Nyasha develops an eating disorder and is reluctant to eat too much in fear of being fat.
Tambu also criticizes Nyasha’s new sense of fashion, which she deems to be inappropriately revealing. She has unlearned many of the values and practices that her African culture taught her early in her life. She begins to rebel against her parents, to the extent where Tambu criticizes her lack of gratefulness to her parents. Tambu emphasizes that Nyasha has had every opportunity given to her, but still chooses to disrespect her parents (68). These new rebellious behavioral changes reflect the westernization of Nyasha. The cause of the westernization going on in Rhodesia is the education they obtain, which stresses and enforces assimilation to Western culture. Tambu writes about the private school she attends. She states, “At that convent, which was just outside town but on the other side, to the south, you wore pleated terylene skirts to school everyday and on Sundays a tailor-made-two-piece linen suit with gloves, yes, even with gloves!” (178). Young Africa girls like Tambu and Nyasha have been thrown into a foreign culture and have been told to adapt to such Western ideals.
There is a very limited opportunity for African girls to get an education (179), and the places that do offer education do not allow Africans to express themselves as such. Nervous Conditions is very much written from a female point of view, which is made evident starting from the first page of the novel. Tambu begins the story by speaking of her brother Nemo’s death. Tambu’s parents only had enough money to send one of their children to school, and they chose Nemo because he was a man. From here it is clear that Tambu has been brought up in a society that does not value women. She writes, “The needs and sensibilities of the women in my family were not considered a priority or even legitimate (12). It is likely that if it weren’t for her brother’s death, she would not have received an education at all. Women in Tambu’s homestead were subservient to Tambu’s father; they are forced to assume traditional gender roles, including the responsibility of cooking and cleaning. Additionally, Tambu’s cousin Nyasha endures the harsh reality of patriarchal society that they live in. As punishment for wearing a short dress and talking to a boy, Babamukuru calls her a whore, beats her, and attempts to murder her. As Babamukuru attacks her, he shouts, “I cannot have a daughter that behaves like a whore” (114). This entire altercation is riddled with disgusting acts of misogyny and patriarchal oppression. It is evident from this event that women in this community did not have rights; they were to be subservient to the paternal figure in the family, do exactly as he says and do not question it. There is no freedom of association; there is no freedom of expression; women do not even have the right to their own bodies. Nyasha’s father quite simply tried to murder her for defending herself from his brutish attack.
After the attack, Nyasha silently walks out of the room and smokes a cigarette. This calm, almost nonchalant reaction is very indicative of the type of life to which Nyasha has been exposed. She was just called a whore, had her face spat in, was beaten and nearly killed, and her reaction is to simply sit down and smoke a cigarette. Nervous Conditions impeccably delineates the life of African people, particularly African women, in the era of decolonization. The term ‘nervous conditions’, originally coined by Jean-Paul Sartre, accurately depicts the psychological state of those entrapped in the adverse effects of decolonization. They are tossed into a cultural schizophrenia, being told to change while desiring to keep in touch with their roots. It is a commonplace belief to think that the 20th century was a time of social progressiveness, but Tambu’s story proves that the deplorable effects of decolonization remained well into the twentieth century. This novel exposes the harsh realities that the privileged did not know existed.