Friday, August 17, 2012

Review of "Nervous Conditions" by Tsitsi Dangarembga

            Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga is a dramatic novel that relates the story of a young Rhodesian village girl and her family living under British colonial rule in the late 1960’s.  The novel begins with a gripping opening, “I was not sorry when my brother died.”[1]  The narrator, a thirteen year old girl named Tambudzai (“Tambu”), explains that due to her brother’s unexpected death she is allowed to attend the mission school in his stead.  This unfortunate opportunity releases her from a destiny of never-ending labor, childbirth, and servitude to her elders, male cousins and uncles.  She instantly realizes that her life and her future have changed for the positive by this tragedy.  As she leaves her homestead village on the way to the mission school she muses:
 . . . on the day I left my home?  It was relief, but more than that.  It was more than excitement and anticipation  That I experienced that day was a short cut, a rerouting of everything I had ever defined as me intro fast lanes that would speedily lead me to my destination.  My horizons were saturated with me, my leaving, my going.[2]

It is clear that Tambu has won a “lottery ticket” which opens an avenue to a quality education and new opportunities.  The life of a poor village girl that she was painfully aware of would now be cast aside due to the generosity of her father’s uncle, Babamukuru.  Babamukuru understood the value of education since his new wealth and standing in the community was due to his British college education and appointment as Headmaster to the mission school.  Tambu recalls her father telling her:
. . . the sheer amount of education that was possible.  He told me that the kind of education Babamukuru had gone to get must have been of a very important sort to make him go all that way for it. ‘England,’ he told me with weighty authority, ‘is very far away.  It is much further away than South Africa.’[3]

Tambu embraces the opportunity and she is clear that she will make the most of it.  When she finds out that her uncle Babamukuru’s wife, Maiguru, has a college degree and has not taken advantage of that opportunity for the advancement the Tambu believes a college degree can confer, she remarks:
Personally, I thought it was a great shame that Maiguru had been deprived of the opportunity to make the most of herself, even if she had accepted that deprivation.  I was all for people being given opportunities.[4]

Without understanding or realizing that her aunt Maiguru is a victim, Tambu points out the tragedy of gender discrimination by querying what job could her aunt hold without her husband’s permission or without bring shame upon the family?  Tambu is fully aware of the discrimination of women in her family and in her homestead village.  She states that “the needs and sensibilities of the women in my family were not considered a priority, or even legitimate.”[5]  Prior to Tambu’s brother meeting his untimely fate, Tambu’s mother instructs Tambu to accept her position by reminding her:
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.[6]

            The novel gives us a window into rural homestead village life, family relationships, and social rituals.  We witness Tambu and her family cooking meals, cleaning, eating, and travelling to and from the homestead village.  Social events include a burial and a wedding.  These are representative of how life in a homestead village under colonial rule operated.  Tambu paints a picture through the eyes of an idyllic young girl who fails to appreciate the poverty of the village.  “My mother’s family was very poor, poorer even than my own.”[7]  Poverty and the destructive effect it can have upon families and one’s sense of self seems to have little consequence upon Tambu.  However, Tambu is well aware of the limitations placed upon her as a girl.  She observes:
The victimization, I saw, was universal.  It didn’t depend on poverty, on lack of education or on tradition.  It didn’t depend on any of the things I had thought it depended on.  Men took it everywhere with them . . . But was I didn’t like was the way all the conflicts came back to this question of femaleness.  Femaleness as opposed and inferior to maleness.[8]

Before the novel concludes one witnesses Tambu’s transformation from a shy rural village girl into a sophisticated observer of human emotion and psyche.

Then when Nhamo came home at the end of his first year with Babamukuru, you could see he too was no longer the same person. . . . He had forgotten how to speak Shona.[9]

Just as she had observed the change the mission schooling had upon her brother, it takes hold of her and changes her.

… For was I – I Tambudzai, lately of the mission and before that the homestead – was I Tambudzai, so recently a peasant, was I not entering, as I had promised myself I would, a world where burdens lightened with every step, soon to disappear altogether?  I had an idea that this would happen as I passed through the school gates, those gates that would declare me a young lady, a member of the Young Ladies College of the Sacred Heart.  I was impatient to get to those gates.[10]

I don’t doubt that Tambu sees her new future laid out before her.  Attending the mission school is a fork in the road of her personal development.  Her mother sees the transformation and challenges Tambu, to no effect,
Tell me, my daughter, what will I, your mother say to you when you come home a stranger full of white ways and ideas?  It will be English, English all the time.[11]

In regards to Tambu’s view of colonialism, she appears to totally embrace the colonial hierarchy that is in place.  She states with pride,
And it was generally believed that good Africans bred good African children who also thought about nothing except serving their communities.[12] 

I don’t believe that Tambu sees or understands the relationship between education and opportunity within the context of racial ethnic discrimination practiced by colonial rulers.  Tambu totally embraces the colonial system even though she is witness to how destructive it is upon her cousin Nyasha, Babamukuru’s daughter .  Nyasha suffers with bulimia and rebels against her father and the system that he represents.  At the end of the novel Nyasha laments to Tambu her point of view.
. . . ‘It’s not their fault. They did it to them too.  You know they did,’ she whispered. ‘To both of them, but especially to him. They put him through it all. But it’s not his fault, he’s good.’ Her voice took on a Rhodesian accent. ‘He’s a good boy, a good munt. A bloody good kaffir,’ she informed in sneering sarcastic tones.  Then she was whispering again. ‘Why do they do it, Tambu,’ she hissed bitterly, her face contorting with rage, ‘to me and to you and to him? Do you see what they’ve done? They’ve taken us away.’[13]

Tambu doesn’t see the tragedy in how colonial education strips one’s cultural and ethnic identity and transplants it with a foreign (British) world that is treated as the norm.  Tambu’s can’t understand her cousin Nyasha’s rebellion.
If you had asked me before it all began, I would have said it was impossible. I would have said it was impossible for people who had everything to suffer so extremely.[14]

But Tambu sees something about her British education and tries to see how it has twisted her around and inside out.
For I was beginning to have a suspicion, no more than the seed of a suspicion, that I had been too eager to leave the homestead and embrace the ‘Englishness’ of the mission; and after that the more concentrated ‘Englishness’ of Sacred Heart. The suspicion remained for a few days, during which time it transformed itself into guilt, and then I had nightmares. . [15]

I admire Tambu and her story.  It is a wonderful collection of coming of age experiences viewed by a village girl who is given an opportunity to transcend her station.  Her gender, color and tribal relationships would have locked her into a life that did not have any promise or future.  Tambu has ambition and when circumstances allow her to change her future, she grabs it with both hands and never looks back.  It is not until she witnesses the effects of colonial culture does she have any second thoughts.


<![if !supportFootnotes]>[1]<![endif]> Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions, Seal Press, Seattle, 1989, p.1.

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