Thursday, December 1, 2011

Review: Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

Author:Tsitsi Dangarembga
Publisher/Format: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Second edition, Pprbk, 224 pages
Year of publication:  2004
Subject: treatment of women in colonial Rhodesia
Setting: Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe)
Genre: fictional autobiography
Source: Maine Humanities Council "Let's Talk About It" book club

From the beginning this story grabbed me.  Young Tambu opens by telling us she is not sad when her brother dies.  Whoa!!!  Who would not mourn the loss of a sibling?  She gives us a picture of her life as one of poverty, lack of education (or opportunities for anything other than the very basics), and utter hopelessness that things might improve.  Until her brother dies.....There are no other sons, so suddenly, she is next in line to be educated, to have a chance to improve not only her life but that of other women of her village. Until then, her life is encapsulated in this quote:
My father thought I should not mind (Not going to school) Is that anything to worry about? Ha-a-a, it's nothing, he reassured me....'Can you cook books and feed them to your husband?  Stay at home with your mother. Learn to cook and clean. Grow vegetables.'  pg. 15.
My father (who was the son of immigrants) had much the same thought about the value of higher education for women. Fortunately my mother had a more enlightened attitude. And Daddy did eventually admit that he was quite proud of all his daughters' accomplishments.

In "Nervous Conditions" Dangarembga gives us a portrait of two cousins in Rhodesia during the late 1960's and early 1970's. Tambu, the main protagonist, is constantly compared and compares herself to her cousin Nyasha, who was raised in England where her parents were studying, until her early teens. After her brother's death, Tambu goes to live at the mission complex when her Uncle (Nyasha's father) is made headmaster of the school. Nyasha is uncomfortable living in Africa, having never been given the chance to experience the language or mores of village life. Tambu, on the other hand, is fascinated with Nyasha's Englishness on the one hand, but repelled by the fact that the English influence is gradually destroying her family and its traditions.

There are other women's stories woven into this one: Tambu's mother, who is unable to see herself as other than the possession of her husband. Tambu's aunt (Nyasha's mother) struggles to reconcile her African identity with the life she lived in England, and the creature comforts she enjoys by virtue of her husband's position and their relative wealth. Lucia, a woman who lives in the village and who has a child by father unknown, wants to better herself, get an education, and doesn't care a fig about social status, or cultural taboos.

Watching all these women react to the men in their lives could paint a picture of bleak despair, but Dangarembga manages to give us hope, offers us a picture of women overcoming the ravages of colonialism, educating themselves and their families to recognize the dignity of human beings, taking control of their own lives, salvaging the traditions of their culture and molding it into a life to be valued and celebrated. Through Tambu's eyes we experience the open-eyed wonder of a young girl who suddenly has clean clothes, a real bed, modern bathing and toileting facilities, not to mention a more varied diet than she'd been used to and her ambivalence about these "privileges" when she returns on school holidays to the family's hut.

Her uncle is viewed as almost omnipotent by both the men and women of the village, the family and the school, and she struggles to come to terms with the power he can exert, his seeming generous support of her family, and the often confusing contradictions of his actions and his English education. It's a fascinating book, beautifully written, and full of puzzling juxtapositions, examples of cruelty and of kindness. The picture it paints of the life of women in Rhodesia during that time period does not give us as many answers as it provokes questions. I certainly hope the author will write a follow-on book about young Tambu. It would be intriguing to see how she turns out as an adult.

I read this book as part of a series of book discussions sponsored by the Maine Humanities Council who provided the books to our library for the "Opening Windows: Women's Stories from Different Cultures" series.  Our group has certainly learned a lot, and enjoyed the previous books in the series.  We all agreed that this was definitely our favorite so far.


  1. This one sounds very powerful. Glad you all liked it.

  2. This is one of the best ever written... it hits home.


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