The personal is political, and this wonderful book is both entirely personal and deeply political. Nervous Conditions (1988) is the story of Tambudzai, a young woman growing up in rural Zimbabwe (then known as Rhodesia) in the late 1960’s, told entirely in her words. Her personal struggle for emancipation is seen through her eyes and her experiences and emotions are those of a determined and single-minded individual trying to make sense of where she comes from and where she might be going.
The development of Tambudzai’s feelings about the challenges she faces is meticulously charted and we share the lessons she learns as she learns them. At the same time, her situation and the options open to her are shaped by the structural sexism, racism and colonialism which are ever-present.
Tsitsi Dangarembga avoids explicit sociological context-setting or political analysis, showing rather than telling, immersing us in Tambudzai’s lived experience and allowing it to speak for itself without the perspective of hindsight. Through Tambudzai’s story, we become aware of the difference between the poverty and hardship of her rural home and the relative affluence of the mission where her uncle runs a school, between ‘traditional’ and ‘Western’ belief systems and between the value attributed to Shona and English. We see how gender, race, culture, language and education all intersect as signifiers of status, and currencies of respect.
Soon after moving from her village to the mission, Tambudzai describes her feelings:
I expected my sojourn to fulfill all my fourteen year-old fantasies, and on the whole I was not disappointed. Freed from the constraints of the necessary and the squalid that defined and delimited our activity at home, I invested a lot of energy in approximating to my idea of a young woman of the world…
For Tambudzai, reading voraciously is a major part of this transformation:
Plunging into these books I knew I was being educated and I was filled with gratitude to the authors for introducing me to places where reason and inclination were not at odds. It was a centripetal time, with me at the centre, everything gravitating towards me.
Tambudzai’s awareness of the structures of male power and white power and the realities of subjugation emerge gradually from her accumulated experience. Her cousin Nyasha is one step ahead in developing her race and gender consciousness and for Tambudzai, Nyasha’s perspective is both fascinating and unsettling. Should she also be challenging the authority of the man who is making her liberation possible through education? Should she also question the system which seems to offer her the opportunity for emancipation? While present and troubling, these decisions are postponed in the interest of getting on with the all-important self-education project she has embarked on.
Tambudzai is expected to commit to transforming her life and that of her family while also accepting the many oppressions of racism and sexism. She senses that she will only have one opportunity and is determined to grasp it. But she is simultaneously experiencing liberation and subjugation, with the added challenge that the principal agent of both is a single individual, her uncle Babamukuru, a man she can neither completely hero-worship nor completely reject.
Tambudzai finds herself caught between the solid certainties offered by her benefactor, on condition of conformity and the questioning and challenging of everything he stands for which emanates from his daughter Nyasha:
I thought my direction was clear; I was being educated…these were the goals and this was how we would reach them. Babamukuru was my touchstone who showed me that this was true…But Nyasha’s energy, at time stormy and turbulent, at times confidently serene, but always reaching, reaching a little further than I had ever thought of reaching, was beginning to indicate that there were other directions to be taken, other struggles to engage in besides the consuming desire to emancipate myself and my family.
Tambudzai’s story is full of reminders that she lives in a deeply unequal and hierarchical society with many layers of oppression, some more explicit than others. While her experience to date provides few first-hand interactions between black and white people, there are many portrayals of the various ways women confront or negotiate with male power, whether rooted in tradition or acquired through education. On a visit to her homestead, Tambudzai witnesses a family conference which excludes most of the women affected. The women’s responses to the debate help her see that:
…it was frightening now to even begin to think that, the very facts which set them apart as a group, as women, as a certain kind of person, were only myths; frightening to acknowledge that generations of threat and assault and neglect had battered these myths into the extreme, dividing reality they faced…
When Tambudzai later debates tradition and ritual with Nyasha, her cousin delivers “a lecture on the dangers of assuming that Christian ways were progressive ways” and makes the link between colonial power and the denial of culture:
‘It’s bad enough’ she said severely, ’when a country gets colonised, but when the people do as well! That’s the end, really, that’s the end.’
Reflecting on another family conflict, Nyasha again provides the opening for a different way of looking at things:
You grow and you compensate. You have to. There’s no other way. We’re all trying to do it, you know. All of us. But it’s difficult when everything’s laid out for you. It’s difficult when everything’s taken care of. Even the way you think.
The story takes us up to the beginning of another major transition in Tambudzai’s life and education, and leaves the reader eager to know what form her full emancipation will take and how she will confront the multiple injustices in her life and in her country. Nervous Conditions feels like the first instalment of a broader ‘coming to consciousness’ story and Tsitsi Dangarembga has written two sequels: The Book of Not (2006) and This Mournable Body (2018) following Tambudzai into adulthood through and beyond the Zimbabwean liberation struggle. While the political themes in Nervous Conditions are allowed to emerge gradually from personal experience, we can expect them to burst through into the foreground in these sequels.
This powerful novel demonstrates how intertwined the political and the personal are through being so personal in its telling and so political in its impact.
From Bamako to Timbuktu (Jul 2015)
W.E.B DuBois: black liberation and education for all (Feb 2016)
What if? – dystopias in fiction (Dec 2017)