Published in 1988, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel, Nervous Conditions, was the first novel published by a black Zimbabwean woman- not because African women were not writing novels, but because of the difficulties African women faced when attempting to publish works of literature. Due to the issue that African women were not previously given a voice in literature, Dangarembga’s novel unearthed decades of social oppression which hindered black women and kept them buried under colonization and African patriarchal dominance. Dangarembga’s novel focuses on “the colonized African clan,” specifically the “Siguake clan, part of the Shona people” (Mbatha). From an outside perspective, “colonialism is seen as a double-edged sword” (Mbatha). To Tambu, colonialism is “the ‘carrier of a discourse of western modernity which, in its emphasis upon education and democracy, enables a challenge to the African patriarchy” (Mbatha). Conversely, “a colonial education alienates its African subjects from their culture, with disastrous psychological consequences,” as seen in Nyasha (Mbatha).
Overall, Nervous Conditions presents a feminist critique from a woman that lived through this patriarchal dominance, through the unique points-of-view of several autobiographical female characters, primarily Tambudzai and Nyasha, who actively experience prominent issues such as gender inequality and oppression, revealing their burdens and struggles that are a direct result of their gender in a patriarchal culture. In 1989, while discussing her novel in an interview, Dangarembga “suggests that her role as an artist in southern Africa is to respond to the need for women’s self-definition,” something routinely smothered as a result of both colonization and patriarchal cultures, and so she chooses Tambu and Nyasha to convey her message and to “express those experiences so frequently muted by mainstream (male) urban voices” (Aegerter). Dangarembga translates her personal experiences and opinions into the two young Shona women.
Moreover, Nervous Conditions “displaces [Dangarembga’s] autobiographical self in dual protagonists in Rhodesia (pre-independent Zimbabwe)- urban, anglicized Nyasha and rural African Tambudzai- as a way to represent the split subjectivity and cultural alienation that are colonization’s consequence” (Aegerter). When viewing Tambu and Nyasha separately, they represent the darker inspiration behind the novel’s title. They are “alienated from themselves and from their traditional culture by the oppressions of their own culture as it intersects and collides with colonial patriarchy” (Aegerter). Separately, Tambu and Nyasha exhibit symptoms of nervous conditions.
First, the novel opens with the straightforward and, albeit shocking, line: “I was not sorry when my brother died,” narrated by the protagonist Tambu, who is emotionally unperturbed by the recent death of her brother, Nhamo (Dangarembga). The one line represents an “[anticipation] of the loss upon which Tambudzai’s emancipation from traditional African chauvinism is predicated” (Aegerter). The reader learns that Tambu has been forced to sacrifice her chances at an education so that her parents may send Nhamo instead, a trend that is not uncommon in Rhodesian culture. Women are expected to take care of a husband and children. Therefore, many consider it pointless for women to be educated, including, shockingly, Tambu’s own father, who jokes, “can you cook and feed books to your husband?” (Dangarembga). However, Nhamo’s death, which is “the death of the eldest son” of Tambu’s family, “conspires with Babamukuru and his increasingly Western ideals to remove Tambu from the fate of “woman” that has beleaguered her weary mother” (Aegerter).
Nevertheless, Tambu does not give up on her goals so easily. She decides to grow and sell vegetables in order to raise money to pay her own way through school, exhibiting a strong sense of determination to remove herself from her culture’s unfair patriarchal ideals. Whereas Nhamo, and many other African men are simply handed the opportunities to further their education, women such as Tambu must work hard to obtain these same opportunities. Within the Shona culture, Tambu is routinely restricted to specific roles that are meant to confine her and prevent her from rising above “domesticity” (Aegerter).
While the women are taught how to make suitable wives and mothers, young men such as Nhamo are able to study and go to school. Despite colonization, which has always manifested itself to oppress whichever country or culture that is being colonized with the pretense that the colonized country will benefit from it, Nhamo still maintains the “privilege” of attending school, “with the whites who were a part of the ruling colonial class” (Aegerter). Nhamo is still able to obtain an education despite his family’s struggling livelihood, which can only afford to send one child to school to receive a better education. This demonstrates how important it is to stay “consonant with the patriarchal beliefs of empowering male members of the family for perpetual domination” (Mbatha). However, following Nhamo’s death, “Tambudzai becomes the equivalent of the male first born, inheriting his privileges as a way to escape sexism” (Aegerter).
Similarly, Dangarembga and other women faced adversities when it came to the same opportunities as men. Dangarembga herself underwent difficulties in getting Nervous Conditions published. During the period in which Dangarembga was writing and publishing her novel, the African literary arena was heavily dominated by the male point-of-view, which was both ignorant and uncaring in regard to the perspectives and struggles of the real African women who were the inspiration for their literary characters. Instead, African women were portrayed in conventional and traditional “cookie-cutter” roles, such as the common and socially acceptable wife and mother. If a woman were written outside of one of either of these roles, she was normally discarded as a rebel and subsequently punished.
Contrastingly, Dangarembga challenged the patriarchal literary arena with her own unique style of writing, which incorporates the point-of-views of realistic women facing gender struggles and engages the toxic idea that women were meant to be subordinate to men. She represents formerly battered and stereotyped women as “agents and actors” that “engage in multiple experiences, maneuvering within and around oppression, certainly, but living their lives in spite of it” (Aegerter). Nervous Conditions became more than just a novel, ogled at due to the fact that it was written and published by a black woman from Zimbabwe; it represents a triumph over the patriarchal “social silencing” and “political disenfranchisement of African women in colonial and neocolonial communities” (Aegerter). “[Dangarembga’s] social feminist approach to material are evident in the portrayal of male power and its structures of dominance, gender stratification, female challenges or resistance to marginalization, and the dynamics of race and class relations” (Aegerter).
Dangarembga is able to pass along her triumph and message with the help of Tambudzai’s voice, which “gives her liberation from her patriarchal-imposed silence and offers hope in the resilience and success of the female challenge” (Uwakweh). Dangarembga essentially writes a critique of the overbearing patriarchal culture on the back of Tambu’s story “and the four women closely related to her and in their various responses to male power” (Uwakweh). “The stereotyping of women as being less valuable than men often results in women’s displacement, whereby young women are either married away or involved in some non-formal relationship with a married man”
Furthermore, Nervous Conditions has helped the world understand the extent of the African patriarchy, therefore making it a unique and significant voice for feminist literature. Through Tambu’s perspective, the reader is able to witness all of the ways in which male domination oppresses her experiences. In a typical Shona family, there is “a relatively strong influence of patriarchy and male dominance whereby the family is mostly male headed and male children are preferred to female children because male children can maintain the patriarchal system” (Mbatha). The idea that men valued certain children over others due to their gender is a mind-boggling one. The culture in which Tambu and her female relatives are raised is heavily influenced by family structures, where “men are placed firmly at the centre of the family and likewise the community, while women are marginalized and treated like second-class citizens” (Mbatha). Moreover, the poor treatment and toxic stereotyping of African women results in many of the issues the patriarchy resents, such as the women becoming involved in “some non-formal relationship with a married man” and the detested “rebellious” attitudes (Mbatha).
Dangarembga confronts this toxic cycle of oppression with her diverse cast of female characters. Formerly, African women were placed in conventional cookie-cutter roles and portrayed as victims. Although Tambu respects her culture’s traditions and the men in her family and community, she aims to reverse her situation so that she and other women in similar situations may have a chance at autonomy rather than be continuously governed by the patriarchy. Tambu believes she will be able to do so through education. To Tambu, an education represents an escape from her oppressive environment. Essentially, “the relationship between Tambu and Nhamo was reduced to that of the privileged and the non-privileged” (Mbatha). Nhamo was granted more opportunities because he was male, and because this upheld the patriarchal belief that male members of the family must be empowered to uphold patriarchal domination within the Shona community. Therefore, Nhamo was given every good opportunity, so that he would stay empowered, while Tambu’s father groomed her to be a suitable wife and mother.
Due to this, the relationship between Tambu and Nhamo became “mutually destructive,” as Nhamo attempts to spoil Tambu’s hard work and goals by stealing her maize, and “[dominating] over her as a male” (Mbatha). In like manner, Tambu develops a hatred for Nhamo, as seen in the opening line of the novel where she expresses no emotion over Nhamo’s passing as one would expect a sister to do. Rather than feel sadness, Tambu expresses an “apathetic attitude to Nhamo’s untimely demise” (Mbatha). Although Dangarembga did not allow the audience to know Nhamo very well, she gives a sense of what the relationship was like through Tambu’s memories; their relationship represents a fraction of a much larger issue in African and Shona cultures. Nhamo represents the patriarchy itself, as he is privileged due to his male gender, overbearing, and domineering towards Tambu, who represents the female “victim” of these issues and the resulting backlash.
This mindset is further corroborated by Tambu’s father, Jeremiah, when he asked her whether it was possible to ‘cook books and feed them to your husbands? Stay at home with your mother. Learn to cook and clean. Grow vegetables’ (1988:15).
Most importantly, Nervous Conditions places African women’s voices at the forefront to showcase their unique qualities and heterogeneity. This challenges the overwhelmingly negative roles normally constructed for women. Tambu and Nyasha are representative of real African women, which is what helps to transform the homogeneity that African women are subjected to. The African female body, accustomed to being battered and abused by African literary stereotypes, and “maligned and inscribed by patriarchal colonial practice, becomes a powerful site of resistance in the novel” (Patchay). This is due to Dangarembga’s “retrieval, rediscovery, and reinvention” of everything that represents African women, which she “harnessed through the narrative structure of the novel because, while Tambu quietly, unobtrusively, and extremely fitfully… [comes] to question things” she is pitted against the shifting focalization of a younger Tambu” in that she is forced to overcome the values instilled in her since childhood (Patchay). This “multi-vocality” lent to the four women the novel primarily focuses on “challenges the various ways in which African women’s stories have been silenced by both patriarchal and colonial meta-narrativity” (Patchay).
In “Girl Power in Nervous Conditions: Fictional Practice as a Research Site” author Ann Smith details the ways in which the highly sought-after education, which is supposed to be a means to empower Tambu and remove her from her oppressive situation, also serves as a way to oppress her. This is because a white, western education would not be beneficial to African people, as it offers nothing relevant to their specific culture, history, or livelihoods. For Dangarembga, “the clash between her first world education and her third world education finds some resolution in this novel in that it is her articulation of that consciousness of being a woman in Africa” (Smith). Tambu and Nyasha are forced to withstand the “double jeopardy” marginalization of being both black and female- regardless of superior education” (Smith). By seeking an education regardless of this notion, Tambu expresses a common occurrence for young African women in which “[they] learn to deal with the traumatizing events of [their] life as a colonized subject [by] desperately seeking an education” (Smith).
Moreover, Nervous Conditions “presents us with [an] investigation into the colonial co-option,” through “the educational system of the local community patriarch, Babamukuru… and offers some exploration of possible feminist strategies of coping with these complexities” (Smith).
One way in which Dangarembga demonstrates how the patriarchy is harmful to African women’s mental health is Nyasha’s eating disorder, which is a symptom of her desire for some sort of control over her situation. Nyasha’s character is portrayed as a “highly intelligent girl able to actively engage in discussions with others, but when she questions patriarchal values her father silences her” (Vizzard). Her attempts at questioning the wrongs of her father’s patriarchal is what plasters her with the label of a “rebel,” the same characteristic that is normally frowned upon in other works of African literature. While Nyasha’s “outward rebellions” are “silenced, an inner rebellion begins to take place and morphs into anorexia as she seeks some form of control over her own life” (Vizzard).
Furthermore, Nyasha is an example of “a culturally isolated young woman, caught between the expectations of two cultures” (Vizzard). She is also an example of the type of woman Tambu aspires to be in terms of education and intelligence. However, despite Nyasha’s education, she is still a victim of the African patriarchy, as well as a victim of isolation within her own culture. Although Tambu is determined to challenge her culture’s patriarchal values and overcome the oppression she grew up with, “Nyasha, in particular, challenges and deconstructs stereotypical representations of African women” (Aegerter). This is because “Nyasha recognizes that male privilege is a social construction rather than some indelible natural law,” meaning that it is able to be challenged and broken (Aegerter). “Her indignation and rage are at the refusal of those who benefit from the gender-based hierarchy to the Western ideals that revile the very man she is forced to revere, that make a slave of her father, her master”1. The sad irony “is that in turning from the unpalatable patriarchy of her father, she destroys her body through the eating disorder bulimia, a Western disease”, demonstrating how deeply she is confused and torn between both the effects of Western colonization and her father’s patriarchal values (Aegerter).
Nyasha is an example of why the sought-after western education is more harmful than beneficial to African men and women alike. After obtaining an education, Nyasha is no longer able to fit in with other people in her culture; rather, she becomes a sort of outcast and is ridiculed for the way she speaks and behaves. Tambu admires how educated Nyasha is and aspires to be the same, but overlooks the fact that Nyasha is still unable to remove herself from the confines of her father’s patriarchal values. Nyasha may be wordly and experienced, but once she sets foot back in the confines of her own culture, she is once more treated like a second-class citizen just like her female relatives.
Ultimately, Nyasha is arguably worse off after obtaining an education. Her character is somewhat reminiscent of a caged wild animal. She possesses the means which African women consider necessary to escape from their oppressive situations, but her father’s patriarchal values keep her caged and suppressed. This ultimately pushes her to become self-destructive. The reader notices that “periods or incidents of violence or repression by her father are generally followed by periods of starvation by Nyasha” (Vizzard). Despite all of this, “the patriarchal consequence of her race, sex, and class, Tambu has high aspirations for her own education” (Vizzard).
“[Dangarembga’s characters] engage in the interplay of traditional preservation and progress, dancing a dialectic of autonomy and community that leads them to the third point of the dialectic, one that synthesizes traditional notions of African community from a womanist perspective with women’s autonomy defined from an “African” perspective” “As it becomes clear in the novel, African woman’s autonomy is predicated upon and inseparable from her place within her community” (Aegerter).
“Alone, the young women are metaphorically severed from themselves and their culture, but together they symbolize the “wholeness” and “healing” of African womanist identity” (Aegerter).
- Aegerter, Lindsay Pentolfe. “A Dialectic of Autonomy and Community: Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 1 Oct. 1996, https://www.jstor.org/stable/464133?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents.
- Mbatha, P. “A FEMINIST ANALYSIS OF Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions.” Research Space, https://researchspace.ukzn.ac.za/bitstream/handle/10413/390/MbathaP_2009.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.
- Patchay, Sheena. “Transgressing Boundaries: Marginality, Complicity and Subversion in ‘Nervous Conditions.’” English in Africa, 1 May 2003, https://www.jstor.org/stable/40238980?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents.
- Smith, Ann. GIRL POWER IN NERVOUS CONDITIONS: FICTIONAL PRACTICE AS A RESEARCH SITE. https://mje.mcgill.ca/article/viewFile/8539/6472.
- Span, https://wwwmcc.murdoch.edu.au/ReadingRoom/litserv/SPAN/36/Vizzard.html.
- Uwakweh, Pauline Ada. “Debunking Patriarchy: The Liberational Quality of Voicing in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s ‘Nervous Conditions.’” Research in African Literatures, 1 Apr. 1995, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3820089?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents.