63. Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, A Review

Title: Nervous Conditions
Author: Tsitsi Dangarembga
Genre: Fiction/Novel/Coming-of-Age
Publishers: Ayebia Clarke
Pages: 208
Year of Publication: 1988; (this edition, 2004)
Country: Zimbabwe

Set in a period when women were hardly considered for education because they would soon be married off and therefore be lost to the household from whose meagre financial resources she was educated, Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, tells the story of young Tambudzai - or Tambu as she was known - as she challenges her archetypal family which threatens to consider her as an ordinary member of the homogeneous group of women. However, Tambu's resolve to seek education was so strong that she was not sorry when her brother - Nhamo - died. In the first sentence of the first chapter she says
I was not sorry when my brother died. (Page 1)
This sentence would cause jaws to drop and sensitive people to ask why? However, written in the first person singular narrative and directed at the reader, Tambu tells the events that led to the death and which led her to realise her dreams of being educated and for which she was offering no apologies. The story is not all about the death of Nhamo but about
my escape and Lucia's; about my mother's and Maiguru's entrapment and about Nyasha's rebellion (Page 1).
Knowing that all the individuals mentioned in the above sentence are women, one soon realises that the story is about the female independence or freedom in a patriarchal society. The book does highlight the gender inequality that existed within the society and how it affected women. It is not a book dedicated to the fight against tradition or an Africa versus the West book, it is a book that addresses common sense issues such as education for all, respect for all, and soliciting each other's views in decision-making. It is a book that seeks to equalise humanity irrespective of the gender of the person.

As a young girl Tambu relished to be in school but was prevented from doing so by her father, because he was poor and also because the only son in the household, Tambu's brother - Nhamo - was in school and all financial resources have been allocated towards his education. However, we realise that Jeremiah's - Tambu's father - decision not to educate his daughter does not arise only from poverty but also from the fear that men had for educated women and also from the stratum men and society had placed women. For when Tambu argued with his father concerning her education, his father asked:
Can you cook book and feed them to your husband? (Page 15)
Thus, the traditional duty of a woman to be his husband's keeper and the bearer of his children were being drummed into her at that early stage. As non-conformist as Tambu was and as one who would not accept a decision without challenging it, she asked her mother whether Babamukuru's - their uncle who had taken Nhamo to school at the missions where he is the headmaster - wife (Maiguru) who is educated cooked books for their uncle:
This time, though, I had evidence. Maiguru was educated, and did she serve Babamukuru books for dinner? I discovered to my unhappy relief that my father was not sensible. 
I complained to my mother. 'Baba says I do not need to be educated,' I told her scornfully. 'He says I must learn to be a good wife. Look at Maiguru,' I continued, ... 'she is a better wife than you' (Page 16)
Tambu's quest for education was perhaps borne out of Maiguru's demeanour, which at that point she didn't know it was a facade, and also of Nhamo's reaction to village life whenever he comes on holidays. Nhamo was alienating himself from his sisters and his family; he saw the village as below him and Tambu also wanted to be out of that place, to be like Maiguru. However, when she could no more convince her parents, she decided to grow maize and use the proceeds to pay her fees. Yet, it wasn't until the death of her brother that the family decided to educate her.

In this novel, Tambu tells of how all the women in the story are in one way or the other trapped, including even the seemingly enviable Maiguru, whose level education was at par with her husband's. Maiguru was trapped by marriage and society. With all her education her husband hardly solicits her opinion in matters of familial decision. Consequently, she was unhappy, complains a lot, and lives under the shadow of her husband. And she had to give up a lot in her personal development just to make society happy. She tells of how everybody thought when she travelled with her husband to the United Kingdom, she merely went there to 'look after' him while he studied. No one knows the level of her education and she prefers to keep it that way. Lucia is trapped by poverty and bareness and because of these her family members consider her a witch. However, Lucia is strong-willed and hardworking. Ma'Shingayi - Tambu's mother - was herself trapped by poverty, neglect and illiteracy. Due to these she and her husband lived under the shadows of the more educated Babamukuru, doing things she would personally not have done but had to because Babamukuru had said so. Ma'Shingayi was so broken that when an opinion was asked of her, she jumped into a long tirade, pouring out all that had worked to weaken her psychologically, emotionally and physically in a series of rhetorical questions:
Since for most of her life my mother's mind, belonging first to her father and then to her husband, had not been hers to make up, she was finding it difficult to come to a decision. 
'Lucia' ... 'why do you keep bothering me with this question? Does it matter what I want? Since when has it mattered what I want? So why should it start mattering now? Do you think I wanted to be impregnated by that old dog? Do you think I wanted to travel all this way across this country of our forefathers only to live like dirt and poverty? Do you really think I wanted the child for whom I made the journey to die only five years after leaving the womb? Or my son to be taken from me? So what difference doe it make whether I have a wedding or whether I go? It is all the same. What I have endured for nineteen year I can endure for another nineteen, and nineteen more if need be. (Page 155)
And the last of the women is Nyasha - Babamukuru's daughter. Nyasha is trapped between cultures. Having spent a larger portion her formative years in England and having acquired certain behaviours that are contradictory to the expectations of traditional society, Nyasha was caught in a web-like entanglement with nowhere to go than to push forward or rebel. She shouts at her father, argues and challenges his authority. And in one of such altercations she hits him after he had done so.

In one way or the other all these women - save Ma'Shingayi - rebelled against Babamukuru's authority and societal expectations. Some ended well, such as Maiguru whose opinions began to be solicited in decisions, Lucia who got a job and Tambu herself who was being educated. However, it did not end well for Nyasha who found it difficult merging these two cultures, and so broke down.

Whereas the women were seemingly trapped, the men in the story were either weak and poor such as Takesure and Jeremiah, wealthy and opinionated such as Babamukuru, or ambivalent such as Chido - Nyasha's brother. This is a book of complex emotions and reactions. For relationships that look fresh and thriving on the surface are actually stale and dead on the inside.

To sum it up, I went through a roller coaster of emotions. I got bored at certain points, insane at others, virtually threw the book away, asked deep questions at others, conflicted my initial emotions at more places, and finally fell in love with the book. For instance, as much as I didn't like Babamukuru 'blowing' his daughter I was shocked of the daughter's reply; I was shocked of Tambu's refusal to attend his parents' wedding because it shamed her (I attended my parents marriage when I was about twelve); I wanted to tell Maiguru to stand up to Babamukuru, but Babamukuru was not a monster. He was actually a family man providing for his extended family, showing care as is expected of him. He only was reacting to 'what people might say'. I wanted to tell Nyasha that there are cultural differences because it is always bad to have altercations with your parents or any adult. I wanted Babamukuru to sit down with his daughter and talk to her and to listen to her opinions too. I wanted Maiguru to stop covering up issues. And these are the issues Tsitsi Dangarembga wanted to bring out. Had I reviewed this book just after reading, I would have reacted badly to it. But now, after days of digestion, I know what Tsitsi was about.

This is a typical coming of age story, though I believe things are turning around for many women. I enjoyed this book and would recommend it unreservedly to all readers. And remember there is a sequel to this The Book of Not which I would be reviewing soon, but not next.
Tsitsi Dangarembga
Brief Bio: In 1959, Tsitsi Dangarembga was born in what was formerly referred to as Rhodesia, now called Zimbabwe, in the town of Mutoko. Although born in Africa she spent her childhood , ages two through six, in Britain. She began her education in a British school but concluded her early education, her A-levels, in a missionary school in the City of Mutare. Later, she went back to Britain to attend Cambridge University where she pursued a course of study in medicine.

Back home, she began a course of study at the University of Harare in psychology. During her studies, Dangarembga held a job at a marketing agency as a copywriter for two years and was a member of the drama group affiliated with the university. In 1983 she directed and wrote a play entitled "The Lost of the Soil". She then became an active member of a theater group called, Zambuko. While involved in this groups she participated in the production of two plays, "Katshaa!" and "Mavambo".

In 1985, she published a short story in Sweden entitled "The Letter" and in 1987, she published a play in Harare entitled "She No Longer Weeps". Her real success came at age twenty five with the publication of her novel Nervous Conditions. This novel was the first novel to be published in English by a black Zimbabwean woman. In 1989, it won her the African section of the Commonwealth Writers Prize. Prior to this award she had won a second prize in the Swedish aid-organization, SIDA, short story competition. After Nervous Conditions was published in Denmark, she made a trip there in 1991 to be part of the Images-of-Africa festival. Dangaremba continued her education in Berlin at the Deutsche Film und Fernseh Akademie where she studied film direction. While in school she made many film productions, including a documentary for German television. She then made the film entitled "Everyone's Child", her most recent credit. It has been shown worldwide at various festivals including the Dublin Film Festival. (Source)

ImageNations Rating: 6.0 out of 6.0


  1. An in-depth analysis. The very first sentence, I belief, pulls any reader to ask the question, why? And I am glad you saw that it was not only poverty that informed the decision of Tambu's father not to send her to school. At the same time, I am glad that the scene is gradually changing as more parents are realizing the importance of girl child education. I loved this book.

  2. I've heard a lot about this book, will be borrowing it soon.

  3. Wow: 6 out of 6! I've always wanted to read this book. I didn't know that she was also a filmaker...

  4. @Geosi, this is an excellent book. The voice was just perfect. Initially one might think the extent of analysis and intelligence was a bit more than Tambu but if we see where she was at the time of writing we realise that it wasn't at all.

  5. @Stefania, yes. I reacted seriously to this book. First I asked 'are all men monsters? Why are men also represented so badly in novels by women?' But I also realised that it wasn't that men are monsters. They are working to maintain an old order that was established (probably by them). And besides the men in the novel, esp Tambu's uncle, Babamukur, wasn't a monster. I believe these are the things Tsitsi wants to bring up: facing our humanity. And that accounts for the full rating.

  6. @Myne, this book requires your attention, if possible your Naira(or dollar). lol.

  7. I loved this book when I read it Nana a powerful story as most books from Zimbabwe seem to be recently saw the follow up in library so be getting that read at some point ,Also didn't know she made films can imagine they'd be moving too ,all the best stu

  8. @Stu, yeah I have that too, but don't want to jump right into it now. I am happy I have shared something about her with you.

  9. I've heard so much about this book and can't wait to read it myself. It sounds like it explores a lot of issues. I think any book that can make you go through so many reactions must be interesting to read! Some of it does sound frustrating, but other parts sound fantastic. Great review!

  10. @Amy Thanks. It is a wonderful book, got under my skin in a positive way.

  11. This is a great review!!! Been meaning to grab a copy of this for a while... but now I'm definitely reading it soon! Thanks for sharing!

  12. @yeh, just grab it and you would never be disappointed. Some award-winning books are worth their awards.

  13. Oh Nana, very interesting. I totally agree with you about the conflicting emotions! I think that that makes it a complex and interesting book - much more so than lots of these poor people in Afirca stories, that I know neither of us like!!

  14. Thanks SN. I agree with you. Those stories are always linear.


Post a Comment

Help Improve the Blog with a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

10. Unexpected Joy at Dawn: My Reading

69. The Clothes of Nakedness by Benjamin Kwakye, A Review

Quotes for Friday from Ola Rotimi's The Gods Are not to Blame I