Nervous Conditions by by Tsitsi Dangarembga
The first sentence of Tsitsi Dangarembga’s semi-autobiographical novel sets a haunting tone: “I was not sorry when my brother died.” With his death, 13-year-old Tambu is presented with a profound opportunity: even though she’s a girl, as the now-eldest child in her poor village family in 1960s colonial Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), she is promised an education and – for better or for worse – her life will be forever changed. By the end of just the first paragraph, Tambu reveals what happens to the women most important in her life: “… my story is not at all about death, but about my escape and Lucia’s; about my mother’s and Maiguru’s entrapment; and about Nyasha’s rebellion …” In simple, powerful prose, Tambu recounts the path of her education – her “escape” – and the lives of the others she leaves behind.
Tambu’s uncle who is the family patriarch, his wife and their two children, have recently returned from England where they have experienced a lifestyle virtually unimaginable by their rural relatives. Her uncle and his family now reside in great comfort in the town mission – a colonial enclave – where he serves as the school headmaster. Tambu joins the privileged household in her late brother’s place, and grows especially close to her cousin Nyasha whose exposure to the West is reflected in her behavior towards her parents, both fascinating and shocking to the more traditional Tambu.
While Nyasha’s relationship with her parents disintegrates, and the friction between her aunt and uncle escalates, Tambu quietly, eagerly revels in her education. She finds returning to the remote family homestead with her philandering father and long-suffering mother especially challenging. In spite of her uncle’s initial objections, Tambu eventually applies for and is accepted into a prestigious boarding school run by nuns, and distances herself further from her family.
The story with its deceptively simple narrative is a devastating record of the cost of education in the midst of highly-charged struggles of race, class, and gender. Tambu’s “escape” comes at the cost of her family, of all that is familiar, and still she remains an outsider, never quite an equal in her European-dominated colonial world. Meanwhile, knowledge and experience cannot save her cousin Nyasha, or her aunt Maiguru, who are unable to resolve their western ‘freedom’ with their return to the restrictive traditions of their homeland. The road to education proves to be an unpredictable journey, both blessed and damning, enlightening and ensnaring, literally a matter of life and death.
Readers: Young Adult, Adult
Published: 1988, 1989 (United States)