AFRICA SOUTH OF THE SAHARA
The opening lines of Nervous Conditions are disarming, and made me want to read on: “I was not sorry when my brother died. Nor am I apologising for my callousness, as you may define it, my lack of feeling. For it is not that at all….”.
Published in 1988, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions was the first book to be published by a black Zimbabwean woman in English. Dangarembga initially struggled to find a publisher for the book in Zimbabwe, and it was only after the Women’s Press in the UK published Nervous Conditions that Zimbabwean publishers began to show an interest.
Nervous Conditions is considered to be one of the top 12 books to come out of Africa during the 20th century, along with other greats such as Mariama Ba’s So Long a Letter, which I reviewed in 2019 (though even my review of that is heavy going, let alone the book!).
Nervous Conditions was a more approachable read. It is a semi-autobiographical coming of age tale set during the 1960s and 1970s in pre-independence Zimbabwe, then still known as Rhodesia (after the now much-derided colonial-era politician Cecil Rhodes). The novel follows the experience of Tambudzai (Tambu), a young Shona girl from a family of subsistence farmers, and her wealthy cousin Nyasha, who has studied in the UK. Both girls are very bright. To Tambu, Nyasha seems crazily sophisticated, but she is a complicated and confused character, more intellectually critical than Tambu, and she questions the impact Westernization has had on her family, and resents the patriarchal strictures at home that prevent her from socialising with boys and having some independence.
Nyasha’s own mother, Maiguru, has a Master’s degree, obtained in the UK, but much good it does her – her role is as an often passive and effortfully sweet wife, mother and aunt, so she is permitted to exist only really in relation to other people. In contrast, her headmaster husband Babamukuru, the main male character in the novel, is an impassive, opinionated, authoritarian and sometimes cruelly violent presence.
Tambu’s early childhood spent working at the homestead makes her determined to escape the future that she can see laid out before her. She is a rebel in a different way to Nyasha, as she seizes the opportunity offered by Babamukuru to permit her to attend secondary school, a chance hitherto reserved for her brother, although her parents are really not in favour of her leaving her home for an education. Her father sees it as wasted on a girl, while her mother is traumatised after the loss of Tambu’s brother, as well as other infants, and wants her daughter with her.
The book is very much based around the late colonial female experience, in an environment where new educational opportunities were beginning to become available for young people, but where gender-based discrimination and traditional, patriarchal values still dominated and where racial inequalities persisted.
The title comes from a quote by Jean-Paul Sartre: “The condition of native is a nervous condition.” The characters in this novel, now a modern classic, embody that principle.
Strangely perhaps, and entirely coincidentally, I read this at the same time as the 2020 Ugandan novel The First Woman by Jennifer Makumbi, which just won the Jhalak Prize (review to follow). Set during the dictatorship of Idi Amin, and a coming of age tale partly set in a girls’ school, I could see parallels with Nervous Conditions, which was surely an influence on the later book.
Nervous Conditions is the first in what eventually became a trilogy, the final part of which was published in 2020 and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. As well as a writer, Dangarembga is an academic and a political activist (and was briefly imprisoned during anti-corruption protests in Harare, the Zimbabwean capital, in 2020).