Nervous Conditions, set in Rhodesia, portrays not only the complex terrain of a state in turmoil, but also the psychological complexity which comes along with systematic forms of oppression. Author Tsitsi Dangarembga approaches the subjects of Westernization and colonization with succinct clarity, using the voice of female protagonist, Tambu, to convey images and thoughts reflecting on the intersection of racial conflict and self-identity. The patriarchal structure which dictates life in Rhodesia can be seen as a system which swallows and alienates women. The strict outline of gender roles is mandated by the dominant male of the family, causing internal struggle, self loathing, and/or loss of identity, particularly for Tambu. What inevitably happens is what happens to so many children as they seek answers, refuge, and meaning. Tambu rebels – and in a culminating climax, succumbs to the breakdown of her self-identity and security.
Without much outside influence, Tambu is acutely aware that there is more out there for her. She doesn’t see the homestead life being fulfilling for her and is drawn to learning, which has typically been perceived as a purely male interest in her community. She defies convention as much as she is able within the confines of her family and culture. Although she feels repressed by her duties, she does not allow them to consume her and smolder her passion. Instead, she becomes resourceful, growing her own corn crop in order to earn her own school wages. She refuses to become digested by her culture and instead, revolts against it with her calm subversion. Tambu sees opportunity and grasps at it, even though it means going against what nearly everyone deems appropriate for an African girl. This book exemplifies a girl on a mission to find a happy medium between honor and independence, knowing there is more out in the world and keenly aware that if she wants access to it, she will have to work hard and be persistent, even if that means compromising those comforts she held onto as a younger child. With steadfast determination, Tambu takes charge of her circumstances and blazes her own trail.
“And these days it is worse, with the poverty of blackness on one side and the weight of womanhood on the other. Aiwa! What will help you, my child, is to learn to carry your burdens with strength.”
Another dynamic character which makes appearances throughout the novel is Nyasha, Tambu’s cousin, who is tormented by conflict, wearing it like a heavy cloak as it pushes her shoulders down. Her eyes have been opened to other worlds and possibilities and she is no longer satisfied with simple obedience and acquiescence. She is upset with the role that women are expected to portray and, in her attempt to subvert her father, resists his natural order of things. Towards the end of the novel, she slowly deteriorates from bulimia, ending in a nervous breakdown in which she isn’t quite sure of anything anymore. The conflict is too much for her; the disease of embodying rebellion has eaten away at her physically, mentally, and emotionally.
“It’s bad enough . . . when a country gets colonized, but when the people do as well! That’s the end, really, that’s the end.”
Rebellion in the novel is not so different than rebellion experienced in other cultures, or even Western ones. While there are significant cultural differences, the feelings and internal struggles tend to be similar. Children will always resist their elders to some degree, in an effort to sort the world out for themselves. There will always be women who recognize the injustices of discrimination and stand up to it. Struggles between tradition and progress will continue to be battled out amongst those seeking answers and direction.
Yet this isn’t merely a novel about a rebellious girl, but also about the dynamic interplay between racial politics, cultural differences, tradition and family, and gender roles. Tambu’s struggle isn’t only her own; it’s the struggle of many Africans and many women who choose the same path she does. The power of this book is that it illustrates, through a very personal narration, that coming-of-age is more than just growing up. It includes the very difficult attempt to understand a male dominated society, as well as the issues which surround race and culture, and all of the ways in which these concepts are made personal.
Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga
Published November 29th, 2004 by Seal Press