Reading Women Writers #3: Tsitsi Dangarembga – Nervous Conditions

This is the third post in the Reading Women Writers series. From now on the posts will be somewhat less formal and won’t be using MLA citations.

Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions is set in 1960-70s Rhodesia and is narrated by Tambudzai (Tambu), a young African girl who dreams of continuing her education.

The novel begins with Tambu stating “I was not sorry when my brother died.”

For though the event of my brother’s passing and the events of my story cannot be separated, my story is not after all about death, but about my escape and Lucia’s; about my mother’s and Maiguru’s entrapment; and about Nyasha’s rebellion — Nyasha, far-minded and isolated, my uncle’s daughter, whose rebellion may not in the end have been successful.

Tambu faces a colonial Rhodesia “with the poverty of blackness on one side and the weight of womanhood on the other.” All of the characters of the novel, no matter how despicable they may seem (Tambu’s father Jeremiah is particularly unlikable), are in their own way reacting to the the colonial dynamics of power and inferiority. The novel at its heart is about having to “choose between self and security,” how those who are inferior in terms of power are at the mercy of those with wealth and power, and how this power dynamic affects identity.

Tambu’s grandmother tells her the story of her family one day in the fields. A few generations prior to Tambu, the family was wealthy “in the currency of those days.” Her great-grandfather had cattle and land, goods to trade, and was able to provide for his children. That was until “wizards well versed in treachery and black magic came from the south and forced the people from the land.” The “avaricious and grasping” wizards kept taking more and more land, leaving less and less for the people. Eventually her family “came upon the grey, sandy soil of the homestead, so stony and barren the wizards would not use it.” Tambu’s grandfather, “lured by the wizards’ whispers of riches and luxury and driven by the harshness of the homestead, took himself and his family to one of the wizards’ farms” which ended up being a trap for slavery.

Her grandmother tells her of “beings similar in appearance to the wizards but not of them, for these were holy” that “had set up a mission not too far from the homestead.” She took Tambu’s uncle, Babamukuru, to the mission and “begged them to prepare him for life in their world.”

This story provides the background of the early role colonialism had on local Africans and her family. It acknowledges that the world as they knew it was fading, and the African world was fatefully transforming into “their world.” In her grandmother’s story “the suffering was not minimised but the message was clear: endure and obey, for there is no other way.”

It also illustrates the good cop, bad cop dynamic of white colonialism: the capitalists and speculators are the bad cop, blatantly using their power to exploit the land and the people; the missionaries are the good cop, appearing benevolent compared to the capitalists yet subjugating the people in their own, more subtle ways. It seemed as if the missionaries “had come not to take but to give.”

The had given up the comforts and security of their own homes to come and lighten our darkness. It was a big sacrifice that the missionaries made. It was a sacrifice that made us grateful to them, a sacrifice that made them superior not only to us but to those other Whites as well who were here for adventure and to help themselves to our emeralds. The missionaries’ self-denial and brotherly love did not go unrewarded. We treated them like minor deities. With the self-satisfied dignity that came naturally to white people in those days, they accepted this improving disguise.

The charity of white missionaries has its price. The “Whites were indulgent towards promising young black boys in those days, provided that the promise was a peaceful promise, a grateful promise to accept whatever was handed out to them and not to expect more.” These whites saw a young Babamukuru, Tambu’s uncle and patriarch of the family, as “a good boy, cultivatable, in the way that land is, to yield harvests that sustain the cultivator.” Despite not wanting to leave his home in Africa, the offer to spend five years in England for education by the whites was not something he could refuse:

Babamukuru was appreciative of the opportunity that he been offered; and further, to decline would have been a form of suicide. The missionaries would have been annoyed by his ingratitude. He would have fallen from grace with them and they would have taken under their winds another promising young African in his place. Unable to obtain the necessary qualifications at home, he had no alternative but to uproot himself for a period of five years in order to retain the position that would enable him, in due course, to remove himself and both his families from the mercy of nature and charitable missionaries.

When Babamukuru returns from England with his wife Maiguru, son Chido, and daughter Nyasha, his new wealth and position enable him to exert his power over his family through charity the way the whites had to him. Initially, Tambu naively thought it was different:

Babamukuru, I knew, was different. He hadn’t cringed under the weight of his poverty. Boldly, Babamukuru had defied it. Through hard work and determination he had broken the evil wizards’ spell. Babamukuru was now a person to be reckoned with in his own right. He didn’t need to bully anybody any more. Especially not Maiguru, who was so fragile and small she looked as though a breath of wind would carry her away. Nor could I see him bullying Nyasha. My cousin was pretty and bold and sharp. You never thought about Babamukuru as being handsome or ugly, but he was completely dignified. He didn’t need to be bold any more because he had made himself plenty of power. Plenty of power. Plenty of money. A lot of education. Plenty of everything.

As Tambu later learns when she takes her dead brother Nhamo’s place at her uncle’s home at the mission, the money, power, and education didn’t mean he wouldn’t exert his power over his family how the white missionaries exerted theirs over him.

Luckily, or maybe unluckily for him, throughout his life Babamukuru had found himself — as eldest child and son, as an early educated African, as headmaster, as husband and father, as provider to many — in positions that enabled him to organise his immediate world and its contents as he wished…. Thus he had been insulated from the necessity of considering alternatives unless they were his own. Stoically he accepted his divinity.

Upon arriving in her uncle’s home Tambu writes: “Babamukuru was God, therefore I had arrived in heaven. I was in danger of becoming an angel, or at the very least a saint, and forgetting how ordinary humans existed — from minute to minute and from hand to mouth.” She has to constantly stop herself from falling into this trap of forgetting what it’s like to be more inferior “by thinking of my mother, who suffered from being female and poor and uneducated and black so stoically that I was ashamed of my weakness in succumbing so flabbily to the strangeness of my new circumstances.” Those who end up acquiring education, money, or power start believing that it entitles them to exert influence over those “inferior” to them, forgetting what it was like to be bullied by superiors and therefore perpetuating the existing power structures.

When Tambu sees Babamukuru nearly beat her cousin Nyasha to death for staying outside the house with a boy longer than he said she should, many of her early illusions end up shattered:

Thinking how dreadfully familiar that scene had been, with Babamukuru condemning Nyasha to whoredom, making her a victim of her femaleness, just as I had felt victimised at home in the days when Nhamo went to school and I grew my maize. The victimisation, 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. Even heroes like Babamukuru did it. And that was the problem.

Men of all backgrounds and circumstances exerted their power over women. Whites exerted their power over blacks. The wealthy exerted their power over the poor. The educated exerted their power over the uneducated. Yet “all the conflicts came back to this question of femaleness. Femaleness as opposed and inferior to maleness.”

So to put myself back on the right path I took refuge in the image of the grateful poor female relative. That made everything a lot easier. It mapped clearly the ways I could or could not go, and by keeping within those boundaries I was able to avoid the mazes of self-confrontation.

Here Tambu temporarily regresses to the path of least resistance, choosing security over self. The powerful have the means to punish those who do not bend to their will. This system says to those without power: You want to have free will? You want to be yourself? Then be yourself in the hell we will make for you for your failure to obey. When Tambu does stand up for herself and say that she does not want to attend the Christian wedding that Babamukuru demands for her parents, he exemplifies this:

‘I am telling you! If you do not go to the wedding, you are saying you no longer want to live here. I am the head of this house. Anyone who defies my authority is an evil thing in this house, bent on destroying what I have made.’

Most people choose to take the path of least resistance, perpetuating the system, but Tambu’s cousin Nyasha spent five years in England and saw first-hand that there were other paths:

‘It’s not England any more and I ought to adjust. But when you’ve seen different things you want to be sure you’re adjusting to the right thing. You can’t go on all the time being whatever’s necessary. You’ve got to have conviction, and I’m convinced I don’t want to be anyone’s underdog. It’s not right for anyone to be that. But once you get used to it, well, it just seems natural and you just carry on. And that’s the end of you. You’re trapped. They control everything you do.’

This is the fate that comes from taking the path of least resistance, and though Nyasha was determined to avoid that fate, Tambu still “sensed the conflict that she was going through of self versus surrender and the content of sin.” It is the fate of Tambu’s mother, whose mind, “belonging first to her father and then to her husband, had not been hers to make up.” The longer a person takes the path of least resistance, the less their identity remains.

Nervous Conditions is an evocative novel that brilliantly presents the struggles and complexities of colonialism, power dynamics, and the burden of femaleness. Dangarembga has written a sequel, The Book of Not: A Sequel to Nervous Conditions, that continues Tambu’s story and I look forward to reading it in the future.

Click here to read earlier posts in the series.