Gender Discrimination in Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga
“Everyone wants a strong woman until she actually stands up, flexes her muscles, projects her voice. Suddenly, she’s too much. She’s forgotten her place…” Throughout the novel, Nervous Conditions, by Tsitsi Dangarembga, gender inequality is a large theme. Dangarembga depicts the complex and difficult trials that the women in Rhodesia had to face back in the 1960’s. This novel focuses on two different types of young women, Tambu and Nyasha. In an interview, Dangarembga states, “ whatever class and/or cultural difference between them, they still have becoming a person given the common constraint of being a woman.” (pg 209) This is referring to the fact that even though they represent different types of women, they both struggle against oppression as they grow up within a strictly patriarchal society.
The protagonist, and narrator, of Nervous Conditions, is Tambu. She is a young fourteen year old girl who is smart and eager to break away from her strict and patriarchal life. Tambu wants nothing more than to escape from the gender limitations that have been enforced for her entire life. Because, Tambu was born a girl, she automatically faced disadvantages. The tradition was that the oldest, male, child is conceived to be the next head of the family. She resented her brother for this from a very young age. Therefore, all of her family’s resources went to her brother. Babamukuru offers to pay for his schooling, so he was sent to get an education so that he could provide the best possible for their family. Tambu wanted an education, but was told, “Can you cook books and feed them to your husband? Stay at home with your mother. Learn to cook and clean. Grow vegetables.” (pg 15) She was allowed no say in her life and was expected to do what she was instructed. One thing she did was look at and pay attention to the women around her. She was trying to fight for an education, and she realized that almost all of the women in her family and around her were being oppressed too. She noticed that even those who were gaining an education, those who had different marital status, and westernized women were ann being treated as if they are inferior to the men in her family. One example was that of her own mother. She says, “The bed and it’s mattress belonged to my father. My mother was supposed to sleep on the reed mat on the floor with her babies.”(pg 62) she recognises that her mother is being treated as less than her father and that she lives a impoverished unrespected life, even though she works all day in the fields to provide for her family. Sh has no other option but to accept the awful life her husband provides for her. Another example is when she discusses her aunt, Maiguru. Maiguru is a very educated hard working women who earns her own paychecks. But despite this, her husband, Babamukuru, gives her no control over her paychecks, she has been stripped of the right to make her own choices or any decision, even choices on how to raise her own children. Instead she must turn to her husband and even though from the outside point of view she may seem to have a perfect life, she has no individual power. She is completely vulnerable and useless when it comes to dealing with decisions or the men around her.
One day, out of nowhere, Tambu’s brother dies and she does not care at all, as the first thing she says in the story is, “I was not sorry when my brother died.” (pg 1) Because he died she is placed next in line to be the future provider, but she still is faced with the limitations of being a female. Her fight for the ability to get an education in order to better her life finally came true. She is sent to a colonial school in her brothers place. She finally moves to the mission, but she is conflicted because she now has a responsibility and duty to Babamukuru, but also a rapid increase of new ways including, hopefully, some independence.
Nyasha is Tambu’s cousin, and Babamukuru and Maiguru’s daughter. Tambu and her go to this colonial mission school together, but she was previously educated in England. Nyasha is different from Tambu though, as she is easily triggered and very strong willed. She is a mixture of two different worlds. Nyasha’s identity is a mixture of both England and Rhodesia which is difficult for her to know her true identity. She was raised in England, where she experienced equality towards her, and then she returns home to Rhodesia and recognises how awful she is treated there. Unlike Tambu, Nyasha has no problem, infact she enjoys, arguing and strongly resisting her father, Babamukuru. This causes constant fighting and often beatings and punishments for Nyasha, because she does not act like a proper female. Because of the way her father treats her, and the unwillingness she has to stop standing up for herself, she is often studying to distract herself and developing unhealthy eating habits such as anorexia as a coping mechanism in hopes to deal with her pain and stress of being a girl who is oppressed in a male world.
Throughout the novel gender inequality and sexual discrimination becomes a large theme that Dangarembga depicts. Every woman in this novel has faced iniquity and oppression from the patriarchal society. This oppression brings complex and difficult trials as it crushes these women and kills any aspirations they might have. These women all have attempted to rebel in their own ways, but some of these women were able to become more empowered and some were burnt down to almost nothing during their fight for freedom. Just like the quote from Dangarembga’s interview that I stated at the beginning, class and cultural differences do not matter, women are women and they still have that constraint. In this story, Tambu comes from the bottom with nothing, so she is unable to question her authority in order to find her own voice. Meanwhile, Nyasha stands up for her beliefs although she is in a society where that in unacceptable, and because of this she is trapped driven to the edge.These women no matter the circumstances are all depicted as inferior to the men.
Nervous Conditions: Tambu’s Experience at the Mission
The extract provided for this essay is revelatory of how heaven fell down upon earth for Tambu as she was making the transition from village life to a mission school. Climbing onto Babamukuru’s car with the knowledge that she was parting with the routine of hard work and everything that threatened her education was such a catapulting experience that rendered everything, including her parents, insignificant. She had never imagined herself being accorded the privilege to attend a mission school, and in fact it came to pass by the default of her brother’s death. No wonder she declared openly in the opening sentence of the novel, “I was not sorry when my brother died.” (Dangarembga, 1989: 1). Far from meaning that she was not humanely affected by her brother’s death, she meant to say the opportunity created by that death for her was far greater and overwhelming, compared to her anguish. This essay will discuss Tambu’s experiences at the mission and how she negotiated the dilemmas and contradictions of colonial education.
Clearly, the extract is loaded with evidence that Tambu was appreciative of her fresh start. It was for her like opening a new chapter in life or rather given a new lease of life. That day alone when she was being taken to the mission school was a climax of everything she had wished for in life, even more; a dream that was unbelievably coming true. It is against this background filled with hope and expectation that Tambu’s experiences at the mission will be discussed in this essay. For a start, Nyasha appears to Tambu as a subverted child in every sense. She has very little sense of appreciation for what she has, despite the fact that she has all the privileges a black, girl child ever wish for. Nyasha’s father being the headmaster lived in a white-painted house with his family, while the rest of the African people at the mission lived in red brick houses. As such, Tambu was honoured to walk away from the squalid conditions in the village into a suburban house and would say, “We were all proud, except Nyasha, who had an egalitarian nature and had taken seriously the lessons about oppression and discrimination that she had learnt first-hand in England.” (Dangarembga, 1989: 63). Ordinarily, civilisation was at the heart of colonial education and the supposition was that education would bring about equality and yet the educated missionaries would seek to live in superior quarters in comparison to those of Africans. Hence while the rest of Babamukuru’s family was grateful for living in a superior house, Nyasha was dismayed by the white missionaries’ separatist tendency of rating themselves superior to the African people. But despite this rational attitude, Nyasha also came through as heavily Anglicized and quite lacking in the manners expected of an African girl.
The gap between village life and life at the mission school meant Tambu had to be transformed rapidly in a short space of time. Yet in this transformation, there were values she could not afford to compromise. On several occasions she reprimanded Nyasha about the way she spoke to her mother. She was so determined to remain good-mannered even though Nyasha constantly teased her about her uprightness. Remaining true to herself, Tambu started to reap good result not only academically but also in being affable to the people around her. However, she was also confronted by certain elements she could not easily explain. A typical example was when she pointed out, “ There was… Anna, who had been someone to talk to, to spend time with, to relax with when I arrived in January, but who now was merely boring.” (Dangarembga, 1989: 97). One wonders who or what had changed between Tambu and Anna. But analytically, it is evident that even though Tambu did not turn out as snobbish and Anglicized as Nyasha was, she nevertheless developed a certain level of sophistication which perhaps could not be acquired by Anna as a housemaid. Many things that Tambu experienced and categorised as mere luxury when she first arrived at the mission would later turn out to be basic necessities. The tea strainer she saw for the first time, for instance, would have been unthinkable in her village. In brief, she had to adjust quickly as she was presented with a vast array of modern facilities at Babamukuru’s house.
On page 97, Tambu almost felt sorry for Anna but on page 101 she actually felt sorry for Maiguru. This is in sharp contrast to her not having felt sorry when her brother died. With respect to Anna it was because she was sort of isolated at the servant’s quarters, while Maiguru had made enormous sacrifices, letting go of opportunities for the sake of security. The realisation that Maiguru had not attained her full potential regardless of having a Master’s Degree was mind-boggling for Tambu. In some sense she was beginning to reckon with the fact that education in the context of colonialism was not going to guarantee absolute freedom. In as much as Maiguru’s life appeared adorable, there was a sense in which she felt alienated from some of her deepest desires, like having her pay at her own disposal. Babamukuru was a workaholic who was increasingly growing irritated by laughter in the house and hence making it difficult for everyone to laugh. Therefore what was supposed to be a successful, happy and integrated family at face value was actually a deeply divided set of individuals under one roof.
Another occasion that typically justifies the title Nervous Conditions is when Babamukuru got enraged after Nyasha came home late from a dance. He his temper and beat up Nyasha who was insisting that she had done nothing wrong. Putting things into perspective, Tambu concluded that Nyasha was victimised in the same manner she herself had been victimised on the basis of gender. Like she had been denied an education opportunity that had been given to her brother, she saw how Babamukuru outrageously denied Nyasha of her decency as he called her a whore. Regrettably Babamukuru who was quite educated and exposed in the Western sense was still narrow-minded to misconstrue her daughter as a whore.
Tambu was eternally grateful for the education she started receiving when she went to the mission. However, that education and everything around it was not devoid of problems. She herself acquired some sophistication that made it uneasy to relate to Anna. Babamukuru was almost perpetually trapped in work, while Maiguru was trapped in family life. Nyasha had been de-Africanised by her education in England. It all begs the question whether or not colonial education was good.
Trying to Balance Modernity and Traditional Practises in Nervous Conditions
The struggle to balance two things is presented in Tsitsi Dangarembga Nervous conditions. Maiguru, Bamukuru’s wife is one of the characters presented struggling to balance these things. She is educated with a master’s degree which she obtained in UK, at the same time she struggles to balance with traditional practises of being an ideal wife to her husband. In other words she struggles to balance modernity and traditional practises. Just like Bamukuru, she has a master’s degree but is she a master of anything in her life other than the degree? Shona culture demands woman to play some roles as a married woman. Does Maiguru despite her education play these roles? With these questions in mind the essay below seek to analysis the Nervous Conditions of Maiguru how she balance being an educated wife and her traditional roles.
To begin with, Maiguru maybe a masters of arts but a master of nothing in her life. This statement is very true to Maiguru character in the novel. She is educated in England and has the same qualities as her husband they both have master’s degree. As evidenced in the book no one viewed Maiguru beyond her being as wife to Bamukuru. As they return from England everyone was celebrating the coming and achievement of their hero Bamukuru. They were singing ‘mauya mauya mauya, Bamukuru!’ (35). They were singing welcoming their hero. Jeremiah jumped from the car, brandishing a staff like a victory spear. He went on to make a speech, “our Father and Benefactor has returned …if you want to see an educated man look at my brother(36).”In contrast Master degree holder Maiguru entered last alone (37). It shows she was not recognised asjust a wife no one attributes her education and she is always inferior to her husband who is celebrated by the family. With the above Maiguru was just a master degree holder but a master of nothing else in her life.
In her quest to balance in the two cultures she fails. She wants her children to keep a distinction and difference that they have achieved from living in England. She defended her kids saying that they don’t understand Shona very well anymore (42). Very interesting Maiguru said, ‘They are too Anglicised’ …They picked up all these ‘disrespectful ways in England’ (74) Was Maiguru concede about how Nyasha was lacking the norms and value of the Shona culture to respect of elders. As she continued saying, ‘it’s taking them time how to behave again’ (74). Given this it shows how maiguru failed to balance the two the values of what they learnt from abroad and the culture of the land, Nyasha’s behaviour also shows how Maiguru failed as a shona mother to make her child acquire the values which a Shona girl is expected to have.
Furthermore, she is a very educated woman of her time but she continued being submissive to her husband. Is this being a good wife to her husband? Or it shows how she is only a master of arts and a master of nothing in her life? When, Tambu asks her about her master degree she exposed her other side. Tambu thoughts she went she just to take care of Baba and Maiguru became serious and it “changed her from a sweet, soft dove to something more like a wasp” (101). This shows the frustrated educated side of Maiguru, due to her insecurities she gave up her personal desires to be a submissive woman. To further show her frustration she said, “I still studied for that degree and got it in spite all of them-your uncle, your grandparents and the rest of the family. Can you tell me now that they aren’t pleased that I did, even if they don’t admit it?” (101)Detecting from her word she can’t express that she education at the same time being a good wife she choose to be a submissive wife suppressing her mind there by being frustrated.
As Maiguru continued conversing with Tambu she continued showing her insecurity with choices she makes against her desires.Tambu asks her, “you must earn a lot of money” (101). Further Tambu state that Maiguru, Laughed, forcing her to be merry again but not succeeding. She gave up, took off her glasses and leaned back on her seat… (101). Maiguru trying to smile but failing shows how it pains her not to receive pay to conform to Bamukuru against her desire.To show how she choose security at the expense of her desire she explains to Tambu that, ‘in England I glimpsed for a little while the things I could have been … if – if – if things were – different – But there was Babawa Chido and the children and the family. And does anyone realise, does anyone appreciate, what sacrifices were made?’ (101). She is in a dilemma between her own desires, opinions, and possible opportunities and her obligations to her family. Choosing her obligation to her family for security over her desires shows that she was master of arts but master nothing in her life, This because she cannot balance the two personal desires and obligation to the family.
Maiguru insecurity are further shown on even in Nyasha her daughter when she said, “I don’t think she will leave” (172).This shows that she was so insecure that even her daughter thought she will not leave or if she does she knows she will come back because she is controlled by patriarchal structures of that time. Furthermore, Tambu realise that when Maiguru was back her baby talk had disappeared. Evaluating, speaking in baby talk it is a sign of insecurity it is highly plausible to state that due to the insecurity Maiguru was a master of nothing in her life other than being a master of arts.
Maiguru leaving the house for five days shows that she was not happy. This cement how she was a master of nothing living in fear that she may have security. In the process of wanting security she supress her desires and expression of her education which was the same as her husband. She is viewed as nothing while she has a Master’s Degree, and she leaves the house for five days (175). Her gender makes her invisible in her family, even though she has the same level of education as Baba, who is viewed as a deity. Her trying to choose one side in of being a good wife in shona culture suppressing her desires thoughts at the end becoming frustrated inside make her a master only of arts and nothing else in her life.
On the other hand to a certain extent despite her education she still plays her role as a tradional woman in her relationship. As argued from above her pay was taken by her husband it shows how submissive she was as a traditional wife though educated. As Nyasha thought she went to England there to look after Bamukuru (101).This might suggest she was performing her duty as a traditional woman this mad people not to recognise that like Bamukuru she also had a master’s degree. In contrast Maiguru wanted also to be more of a modern women rather than traditional. Her insecurity baby talk shows a certain character she learned in England which a traditional Shona woman could behave. Maiguru said, ‘Now you have come. Help yourself, my Daddy-pie” (80). This sought of language shows that she want to be a modern woman in a traditional structure.
Maiguru perfomes some duities as elder woman in the family which also shows that despite her education she still plays a role as a traditional woman. She is more associated of being a person who want to remain with what she learned from abroad. We can evidence on how her kids are growing. She defend them that they can’t speak shona and cant dance (42&43). She even buy some clothes which Bamukuru a traditional patriarch can not allow her daughter to wear. It of this we can argue that Maiguru she was a hybrid her role of was a mixture of being traditional woman with elements she learnt from her time being educated.
Tambu first arrives at the mission school, she defines Maiguru as diffident and my sweet little aunt, who liked to please (72, 73). This description of Maiguru splatters her as an unpretentious, subservient women. Nyasha is at odds with her mother because she always sides with Baba and doesn’t stand up for herself. All these are characteristic of a traditional woman who is welcome. Nyasha’s criticism that she always side with her Father. shows also a character of Maiguru who despite her education she performs her role as a traditional woman by being submissive to her husband. In contray she also fail to perform her role as a traditional Maiguru by refusing to participate in the tribunal, She opted to go and sleep. This may suggest that Maiguru did her role as traditional woman out of fear and insecurity rather than her will.
In conclusion, although Maiguru is educated, her education only serves to make her more angry of her entrapment. Maiguru always works for the demands of her husband. She doesn’t have freedom to express her desires of what she learnt in England. She is forced to keep silent and obedient because of her fear and insecurity in a patriarchal and cultural society. In the family no one recognises that she is educated they view her as a wife who escouted her husband to England that she may take care of the husband and kids. This make her to be merely a master of arts but master of nothing in her life. Her conflict of trying to choose among two things makes her roles not be more associated with those of a tradional woman. Although she did everything for Bamukuru as a submissive woman but on the other hand she wanted also to include her personal desires of what she learnt abroad which was contrary to the traditional roles. Lastly, though she had some nervous conditions at last accept her hybridity. After going away for five days she came back able to balance her two sides and essentially escape, even though she physically continued to live in Baba’s house.
Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga: Representation of Gender Conditions
Gender Expectations of Women
The gender expectations of the Shona culture represented in Nervous Conditions create gender inequalities for Tambu, Nyasha and Miaguru. Shona women are expected to be “servants” and accommodate the men. These expectations signify the limited opportunities and choices that Shona women have. In contrast to the Shona women, the Shona men, including Babamukuru, Nhamo, and Jeremiah, are to view themselves as breadwinners and the heads of their household. The women in the novel, Tambu, Nyasha and Miaguru, struggle with the gender inequalities created by the Shona culture’s expectations of gender.
Tambu’s father, Jeremiah, was not motivated to pay for Tambu’s education because he values the gender expectations in the Shona culture. Tambu worries about missing school due to not affording the fees. Jeremiah tells Tambu, “Can you cook books and feed them to your husband? Stay at home with your mother. Learn to cook and clean. Grow vegetables” (Dangarembga 15). By replacing books with food, Jeremiah reminds Tambu of her expected purpose, which is to accommodate the men and cook for them; this is the female expectation in the Shona culture. Jeremiah’s use of sarcasm and rhetorical question imply that Tambu’s desire to receive an education is a joke and unrealistic to him. Because she is a female, Jeremiah does not take into account that Tambu wants to learn. Tambu faces patriarchal treatment and struggles with gender inequality.
Tambu’s brother, Nhamo, continues to reinforce the expectations of women of the Shona culture. When Nhamo arrives home from school, he always leaves his luggage for Tambu and her cousin. Tambu states, “Once or twice, because there was too much for [my cousin] to manage on her own, I went with her. Knowing that he did not need help, that he only wanted to demonstrate to us and himself that he had the power the authority to make us do the things for him, I hate fetching my brother’s luggage” (Dangarembga 10). The luggage that Nhamo expects his sisters to carry symbolizes gender inequality that Shona women face. The luggage also represents the patriarchal Shona society that Shona women, including Tambu and her cousin, must abide by. Tambu hates the fact that she has to carry the luggage because she is representing the servile expectations that a Shona woman must acquiesce to for the men.
Tambu feels inferior when she serves the men in the household. In the novel, Tambu has the task of carrying the water-dish:
Today it was a doubly tricky day because although Babamukuru was the guest of honour, there were male relatives present of higher status than he… I knelt and rose and knelt and rose in front of my male relatives in descending order of seniority, and lastly in front of my grandmothers and aunts, offering the water-dish and towel. (Dangarembga 40).
The water that Tambu carries around signifies the fact that men have power over women in the Shona culture. The water is clean at the beginning, and the culture honors and respects the eldest men in letting them use the cleansed water first. Only after all the men have washed their hands are the females allowed to use the dirty water. Tambu serving the water-dish and the women using the dirty water illustrate that Shona females are not seen as equally “important” as the males. Thus, this scene proves how unequal the women are to the men in the Shona culture.
Tambu is not the only woman in Nervous Conditions who struggles with the Shona culture’s gender expectations. Nyasha reveals her true feelings about her father, who values the Shona culture. Nyasha tells Tambu:
You can’t go on all the time being whatever’s necessary. You’ve got to have some 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. (Dangarembga 119)
Nyasha discloses how little freedom she has due to the expectations of women in the Shona culture. However, she also accepts the roles of women that are put upon her. In a way, Nyasha represents the Shona women who are struggling to free themselves from the expectations of women that the Shona culture holds. Nyasha’s struggles represent the Shona women who are in misery due to the constant control the men have over them.
Miaguru, Nysha’s mother, also reveals her true feelings about the harmful expectations put upon women in the Shona culture and that her husband reinforces:
Babawa Chido, I am tired of my house being a hotel for your family. I am tired of being a housekeeper for them. I am tired of being nothing in a home I am working myself sick to support… And when I keep quiet you think I am enjoying it. So today I am telling you I am not happy. I am not happy any more in this house. (Dangarembga 120)
By telling her husband she is tired of the way she is treated, Miaguru stands up to male figure in her household, who constantly reinforces the expectations of women in the Shona culture. Miaguru represents the many other Shona women who are tired of these servile perceptions of themselves and want a change. She reveals the anger that many Shona females have about being expected to accommodate men.
Nervous Conditions encourages readers to question the continuing and different perceptions of women today. Readers should consider if the expectations of women today have really changed, and if they are the same everywhere. These harmful expectations of women are important to acknowledge because creating rigid conventions according to gender creates stereotypes and ignores the actual character of people.
Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga: Dynamics of Character Relationship
Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions
Postcolonialism and the Politics of Representation
When considering what I want to explore with secondary research, the reading that comes to mind is Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions. There is, with this reading, no singular question that intrigues me more than others. It is perhaps the basic reason of the novel’s history that intrigues me the most – set in Zimbabwe before its independence (when the country was still called Rhodesia), the novel was published in 1988, right after Mugabe took power and commenced an authoritarian regime. The history that the novel itself represents, too, also begs investigation, in that the novel depicts components of the female experience & interactions with European missionaries at this time and place. With this lens in mind, the guiding inquisitive angle I’ve taken when looking at sources more or less revolves around anything exploring the dynamics of character relationships.
The source I’ve elected to work with discusses the relationship between community and autonomy in the novel, posing the two as parts in a dialectical relationship. The arguments summarized below are advanced by a Lindsay Aegerter in essay form.
The essay begins by discussing the wider context of the work; it contextualizes the novel in the sphere of wider Southern African women’s literature & the inherent struggles this body of work inherets. This, the essay poses, means that the novel (as with all work in this canon) must resist social silencing and disenfranchisement, phenomena prominent in colonial and neocolonial communities. This is primarily achieved through the novels cast, as the novel (and this body of work) places women in a central textual role. The text thusly refuses to marginalize a group historically marginalized people. This can be summarized as characters in a text – female African characters – living in spite of oppression as opposed to living oppressed.
The essay continues by discussing the dialectics of the work. The characters in the novel are engaged in a dialectical relationship between autonomy & community in that they are aligned with both the traditions of African womanhood and women’s liberation; there is here interplay between the notions of “preservation and progress” that leads to a synthesis of African notions of community and women’s autonomy as filtered through an African lense. “They negotiate both individual biography and historical contextuality and community,” as Aegerter notes (231).
Additionally, on this strain of thought, the essay posits that Dangarembga develops a “dialogic” method of depicting the text. By this Aegerter means that Dangarembga gives voices to the narratives that have been excluded from official versions of history. These representations, of multiple women’s perspectives, subvert a singular historical narrative and serve to deconstruct oppressive hierarchies. Aegerter continues by arguing that, in the novel, African women find autonomy through their positions in their communities. Representing this and the dialogic method, there is a collaborative relationship between various concepts that are typically posed as dichotomous: “past and present, individual and group, men and women, children and parents, parents and ancestors, severance and continuity.” (233)
Again, the essay returns to context, and talks about Dangarembga’s having said that her role as an artist in southern Africa was to be responsive to the necessity of women’s liberation and self-definition. Even in other literature of the region, a space for specifically female voices in this literature needed establishing – this highlights the intricasies of oppression, in that various oppressive structures can exist simultaneously and overlap, as southern African literature has also been dominated by male voices which represent an inherently different experience. As Aegerter writes, “Not only does Nervous Conditions offer resistance to colonization through its postcolonial perspective, it also offers a womanist critique of traditional and Western gendered oppression.” (233)
According to Aegerter, Dangarembga is the first black Zimbabwean woman to have a novel published in English. Her autobiographical self is represented in the novel through dual protagonists (Nyasha representing an urban & relatively anglicized self, Tambudzai representing a rural African self) – through this dual representation, she is noting a sense of mixed consciousness and split cultural selves that come about as a result of colonialization. This also comes to represent the “communal ethic at the heart of her African characters’ individual and cultural identities” (234), itself a subversive act against the Western, patriarchical tradition of singular autobiography. It is through this relationship that some of the novel’s critical politics come into light:
“Tambudzai, determined to escape the sexism of her father and the poverty that is colonization’s lingering legacy to rural Africans, slowly but surely learns from Nyasha’s postcolonial and feminist perspectives to hold onto her African identity, even as she revises it. Tambudzai comes to realize, as Nyasha has warned her, that escape from her father’s sexism into colonial racism is no escape at all” (234)
Additionally, the essay discusses how the pair represent the titular “nervous conditions,” a phrase derived from Sartre and Frantz Fanon (particularly linked to The Wretched of the Earth, a particularly salient postcolonial text). Tambu and Nyasha, together, embody some of the schizophrenic, split consciousness psychologies that make up the nervous conditions.
Now, when reading the essay, my understanding of the text was, to a degree, enhanced, as it elucidated numerous components of my initial reading (especially regarding agency and context). However, a question that I frequently consider came to mind while reading the essay. What is the ultimate impact of subversive / radical representations in literature?
This is a question I find particularly salient at this political moment. While, yes, I do wholeheartedly agree with the notions that a. we should have literature that refuses to be defined by colonialist tendencies and b. that representations matter, I’m always slightly put off by the weight that radical academia seems to lend these assertions. Across the board, I and every radical academic with whom I engage (regardless of medium) likely agree that oppression is a bad thing. From this comes the conclusion that texts that challenge oppressive notions are ultimately challenging oppression. This is all good! I have no problems with this conclusion, or any of the other conclusions in the essay. It’s more the implicit understandings of oppression and change that I have something of an issue with.
I will firmly assert an understanding of oppression that is rooted in power. Challenging representations, subversive literature, etc., are certainly acts of resistance and do relate to the question of power. But the impact of challenging these representations – how these acts shape and push back against oppressive power structures – seems somewhat overstated with the implicit understandings of power that this essay (and most radical literary analysis) often posits. While oppression is rooted in power, power is, ultimately, materially based. Having literature that refuses to be defined by colonialism is a good thing, but what does this literature change about colonialism? Politically speaking, I see no empirical basis for change that isn’t based in ideas put into practice. The conclusions re: power that stem from the question of representations, subversive fiction, etc., must be placed in conversation with the material world and struggle.
I realize that this may be a relatively orthodox understanding of power and oppression, but I genuinely cannot think of, from any perspective (that of the leftist, the academic, the writer, etc.), a change in oppressive power structure that has not primarily resulted from action. Now, the impact of representations on such action is absolutely something that should be remembered, but without their being turned into something larger, I don’t see them as peak political action.
There is a tendency within contemporary scenes of resistance that often poses individual modes of challenging representations – basically, the interogation of identity & the depictions / language used in relation to identities – as the main method of fighting oppression. The essay seems to embody this tendency, and strikes me as being somewhat representative of the most active trends within identity politics.
The Relationship between Colonization and Mental Health in Nervous Conditions
Tstisi Dangarembga, author of Nervous Conditions, depicts Nyasha, Tambu’s first cousin, as a product of the hybridization of British and African culture throughout the entire novel. Certainly, Nyasha’s British customs are very prominent even when she returns to Africa, for she spent the majority of her childhood years in the United Kingdom. Her first appearance in the novel clearly illustrates her British customs and Tambu’s strong disapproval of it; Tambu describes her cousin’s appearance, explaining that Nyasha “obviously had [been to England]. There was no other explanation for the tiny little dress she wore…. I would not give my approval” (Dangarembga 37). Despite the fact that she chose to wear a dress that “hardly covered her thighs” (Dangarembga 37), Nyasha does, in fact, realize that she “shouldn’t have worn it” (Dangarembga 37). Similar to this situation, Nyasha, a hybrid, faces many other internal battles regarding her British and African customs. Through an analysis of Nyasha’s behavior, I will argue that escaping one’s hybridity is impossible due to the permanent psychological alterations one experiences as a product of conflicting cultures. Ultimately, Nyasha, a hybrid, attempts to revert back to her Shona-self, but ironically in doing so, she employs Western tactics and experiences nervous conditions.
As a child, Nyasha was forced to accompany her parents to Britain while they received a higher education. Scholar Lindsay Pentolfe Aegerter explains that “she returns to Rhodesia at the onset of puberty” and she has “become ‘European’, understood best as middle-class, urban, Western” (Aegerter 237). Due to her childhood years spent in the Western hemisphere, upon her return to Africa, Nyasha no longer adheres to African customs; she regards Rhodesian customs as a foreign concept. The timing of Nyasha’s move to Britain is crucial to the understanding of her as a hybrid character. According to “The Development of Children Ages 6 to 14” by Jacquelynne S. Eccles, a child is often the most impressionable during his / her prepubescent years. As she explains, “The years between 6 and 14—middle childhood and early adolescence—are a time of important developmental advances that establish children’s sense of identity” (Eccles 30). Precisely, the most impressionable years of Nyasha’s life are the same years she spends living in England. Even Nyasha herself realizes this. She confides in Tambu: “You know it’s easy to forget things when you’re that young. We had forgotten what home was like. I mean really forgotten – what is looked like, what is smelt like, all the things to do and say and not do and say” (Dangarembga 79). In correlation with Nyasha’s realization, author Eccles continues to explain, “During this period, wherever they spend time, children acquire the fundamental skills considered to be important by their culture” (Eccles 33). Following this logic, Nyasha’s development and employment of Western customs even when she returns to Africa can be easily understood. Even when carrying out simple tasks, Nyasha clearly depicts her absorbance of Western culture. For example, she eats with a fork and knife – a British custom – rather than eating with her hands – an African custom. Ultimately, she grew up immersed in Western culture, and therefore, that is the culture by which she subconsciously continues to abide.
Throughout the entire novel, Nyasha’s internal battle between her conflicting cultures causes her to behave irrationally. On the onset of Nyasha’s return to Africa, she is cross with her parents for putting her through the traumatic experience of cultural shifts. She expresses to Tambu her desire to have remained in Africa, saying, “We shouldn’t have gone … The parents ought to have packed us home” (Dangarembga 18). Immediately, Nyasha realizes that her childhood years in England will have a negative effect on her wellbeing during her adolescent years. Specifically, her broken relationship with her parents, especially her father, is a direct impact of her time in England. Tambu, who abides by an African way of life, believes that “Nyasha ought to be more respectful [to her mother]” (Dangarembga 75). In a conversation between Nyasha and her mother, Nyasha openly disobeys her mother’s order to not read postgraduate level books, responding with “It’s only a book and I’m only reading it” (Dangarembga 75). Although to us readers it may seem as though this is a typical conversation between mother and daughter, the type of defiance Nyasha displays is unheard of in Rhodesian culture, which is why Tambu disapproves of it. More frequently, though, the readers can see Nyasha and her father disagreeing. While discussing her father, Nyasha remarks to Tambu, “I can’t help it. Really, I can’t. He makes me angry. I can’t shut up when he puts on his God act” (Dangarembga 193). Nyasha’s behavior in the scene can be seen as contradictory to her earlier behavior, as explained in the paragraph above. On one hand, when she returns from Africa, she clings to her Western identity as a source of comfort. On the other hand, she now finds her father infuriating because he is a symbol of Western culture; by disobeying her father, she is, in turn, rebelling against her Westernization. Again, her conflicting behaviors show the inescapability of hybridization. Occasionally she rebels against her Western culture, yet she also occasionally clings to it.
During a quarrel regarding Nyasha’s late return to the mission, Babamukuru calls his daughter a whore and worries about how others will view her behavior. Eventually, he cries in anger, “Do not talk to me like that, child…. You must respect me. I am your father” (Dangarembga 115). In a clear rebellion of her father’s demand of respect, she responds, “Now why should I worry about what people think or say when my own father calls me a whore?” (Dangarembga 115). Again, her insubordinate behavior towards her parents reflects her revolt against Western culture, which her parents represent. However, ironically, to protest against Westernization, she actually employs the Western concept of standing up to one’s elders – a concept that is widely frowned upon in African cultures. Her intentional rejection of Western ideals in this scene counters her earlier embrace of Western culture. Also, though, her rejection of the Shona tradition of submission conflicts with her desire to revert back to Africanism. These conflicting viewpoints and ironic behaviors portray the difficulties and confusion she faces as a hybrid. Essentially, she is “stuck” between British culture and Western culture, and she is unsuccessful in becoming “unstuck”.In the piece “Negotiating Social Change in Tsitsi Dangerembga’s Nervous Conditions”, the authors D.A. Odoi, Lesibana Rafapa, and E.K.Klu attribute the confusion Nyasha faces as a hybrid child solely to her time abroad in England. The authors attempt to make sense of Nyasha’s behavior as a direct reaction to her hybridization: “She is a Shona but has lived in England for such a long time that it has been made difficult for her to shed her anglicization and revert to being an African” (Odoi 155). With her inability to revert back to Africanism, as already explained, her behavior often conflicts with the behavior her father wishes she demonstrated. In one instance, her father hides her book, and she demands that he return the book due to her belief that she is entitled to the freedom to make decisions – ironically, a Western idea. Odoi, Rafapa, Klu analyze this specific argument: “Nyasha protests by walking out of the dining room, and this is naturally regarded as being ugly or disrespectful because passiveness is expected from a girl or a daughter or female by the section of society epitomized by the traditional Babamukuru.” (Odoi 156). The authors continue to write that Nyasha chooses “not to conform to the traditional roles prescribed by the conservative segment of her Black African society” (Odoi 156). I agree with this piece’s argument that Nyasha does indeed resist her father’s rules and does indeed stand up to him. However, I also contend that Nyasha’s purpose of defying to her father is to reject Western ideals, which Babamukuru represents. Nyasha’s defiance of a customary African woman’s role shows her inability to revert back to her Shona-self due to the opposing Western beliefs that are now engraved within her. These conflicting viewpoints result from the inescapable nature of hybridization.
A direct result of Nyasha’s hybridization is her development of bulimia. Similar to the disobedience she exerts towards her father, her eating disorder is also a means of defying Western culture. The readers can easily trace her poor eating habits as they develop into bulimia. Throughout the text, there are many instances in which her father has to force her to finish her dinner due to her refusal to eat. In one specific example, when Nyasha objects to eating dinner with the family, her father scolds her: “You will eat that food. Your mother and I are not killing ourselves working just for you to waste your time playing with boys and then come back and turn up your nose at what we offer. Sit and eat that food. I am telling you. Eat it!” (Dangarembga 192). After a few mouthfuls of her dinner, Nyasha expresses to her father that she has had enough, yet he insists, “she must eat her food, all of it” (Dangarembga 193). In my opinion, Nyasha’s refusal to eat her food is another way to challenge her father and his Western culture. Similar to the way in which the vomit rids her body of food, she is attempting to rid herself of her hybrid culture. However, it is ironic that she develops bulimia as a rejection of British culture because the disease itself is a Western one. The majority of Rhodesians barely have enough food to sustain themselves, yet Nyasha, who is fortunate to have an abundance of food, wasted it by means of self-inflicted vomit. Essentially, as a sufferer of colonialism, Nyasha develops “nervous conditions” due to the complicated life she lives as a hybrid child. Her employment of a Western force – bulimia – to combat Westernization shows just how torn she is between her two conflicting cultures and how difficult it is to “undo” hybridization.
Author Lindsay Pentolfe Aegerter explores the roots of Nyasha’s nervous conditions in her piece “A Dialectic of Autonomy and Community: Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions”. She claims that when Nyasha rebels against her father in an attempt to revert back to her African self, she fails. Consequently, Nyasha employs an alternative tactic to once again return to her Shona roots – destroying her body. Aegerter writes, “When her resistant diatribes fail, she uses her body to rebel. As her father asserts his authority by forcing her to finish her food every night, she asserts her autonomy by vomiting it up.” (Aegerter 237). I too agree that she uses her body as another method to react to the suffering she feels as a hybrid and to revolt against Westernization. To further her argument, Aegerter explains that, “Her bulimia signifies her refusal to swallow a sexist ideology she cannot and will not stomach…. The irony is that in turning from the unpalatable patriarchy of her father, she destroys her body through the eating disorder bulimia, a Western disease” (Aegerter 238). I agree with Aegerter that Nyasha ironically develops a Western disease in a refusal to swallow an ideology. However, I believe that aside from her refusal to swallow is her father’s sexism – an African belief –, she is also refusing to stomach Western culture. Nyasha tells Tambu, “It’s more than that really, more than just food. That’s how it comes out, but really it’s all the things about boys and men and being decent and indecent and good and bad. He goes on and on with accusations and the threats, and I’m just not coping very well” (Dangarembga 193). In essence, the bulimia that Nyasha develops is a direct result of the confusion she faces as a trapped hybrid. She is simply unable to make sense of her views on African patriarchal values and her conflicting Western values; she does not know by which ideology to abide. Consequently, her bulimia signifies her fight against her uncertainty and these contradictory ideologies she has experienced as a hybrid.
The chapter “Colonial War and Mental Disorders” of the book A Wretched Earth by Frantz Fanon explains the impact of colonization on one’s mental health. Fanon, who has thoroughly studied the ties between colonization and mental health, claims that this feeling is not uncommon among people who live a colonized country. He writes, “since 1954, we have drawn the attention of international psychiatrists in scientific works to the difficulty of “curing” a colonized subject correctly, in other words making him thoroughly fit into a social environment” (Fanon 182). Aware of the fact that her parents consider her a disappointment and her friends judge her for white ways, Nyasha feels as though she neither fits the mold of an English adolescent nor a Rhodesian adolescent, again validating her belief that she is a hybrid. She finds it very difficult to connect with her classmates, causing her to spend the majority of her time excessively studying. Her fixation with schoolwork can be seen as an escape into a different world – a world lacking conflicting cultures. Psychiatrists classify the inability to conform socially, among other actions, “under the heading ‘psychotic reaction’” (Fanon 183). Essentially, experts in the field of both colonization and mental health claim that the detrimental mental conditions experienced by Nyasha and many other colonized subjects are a direct and incurable reaction to hybridism, which explains Nyasha’s inability to adhere to African beliefs, as she once did earlier in her life.
Author Fanon also notes, “the defenses of the colonized are tuned like anxious antennae waiting to pick up the hostile signals of a racially divided world. In the process, the colonized acquire a peculiar visceral intelligence dedicated to the survival of body and spirit” (Fanon ix). The “peculiar visceral intelligence” Fanon refers to is the ability of the colonized to see the world from a different perspective. With the two radically different cultures present within her, she is unsure how to merge these multiple views into one whole person, creating “nervous conditions”. Throughout the entire book, Nyasha can be seen fighting for her survival, which entails learning how to live life as a hybrid. Ultimately, rather than succeeding in her goal, Nyasha learns that the mixing of the two cultures, British culture and Rhodesian culture, is impossible due to the fact that the values of each culture contradict each other. She desperately longs to return to her African self, yet, ironically, she is so Westernized, she attempts to rid herself of Western culture by using Western tactics, depicting to the readers that she is trapped by her hybridity.
Aegerter, Lindsay Pentolfe. “A Dialectic of Autonomy and Community: Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, vol. 15, no. 2, 1996, pp. 231–240. www.jstor.org/.
Eccles, Jacquelynne S. “The Development of Children Ages 6 to 14.” The Future of Children 9.2 (1999): 30. Web.
Fanon, Frantz, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Constance Farrington. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove, 1965. Print.
Odoi, D. A., Lesibana Rafapa, and E. K. Klu. 2014. “Negotiating Social Change in Tsitsi Dangerembga’s Nervous Conditions.” Sosyal Bilimler Dergisi/Journal Of Social Sciences 38, no. 2: 151-158.
The Early Effects of Colonialism on Tambu’s Gender Roles and Oppression
Nervous Conditions, a buildingsroman by Tsitsi Dangarembga, focuses on the life and education of Tambu, a young girl, living in Rhodesia. After the death of her brother, Tambu moves from her homestead into a mission with her uncle and his affluent, educated family. As colonialism spreads through Rhodesia, Tambu’s gender roles constantly change.
This paper will use history, literary criticism, and textual evidence from Nervous Conditions to examine colonialism’s early effect on Tambu’s gender roles and her oppression. The historical account, titled “Patriarchy, Capitalism, and the Colonial State in Zimbabwe”, by Elizabeth Schmidt, published by the University of Chicago, discusses the ways colonialism and patriarchy were used to control women in Zimbabwe. The article focuses on the views held of women and the way capitalism helped shape gender roles. “A Dialectic of Autonomy and Community: Tistsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions” by Lindsay Pentolfe Aegerter, from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, is a literary criticism explaining how Nervous Conditions provides a history for a group that has been “silenced, elided, and ignored in the colonial equation” (Pentolfe Aegerter 232). The article discusses Tambu’s need for independence and what she learns by seeking it.
By examining two specific experiences before Tambu starts her life at the mission, one can see how colonialism and oppression permeate through her life. While she is living on the homestead, colonialism affects her education and independence. Within a day of living with Babamukuru’s family, colonialism has already changed Tambu’s journey to be educated. How does colonialism affect Tambu’s gender roles and the oppression she experiences before she is completely submerged in her new life?
According to Schmidt’s article, “the household, as well as the international economy, has been a fundamental locus of gender stratification, and thus of African women’s oppression” (Schmidt 733-4). This is seen when Tambu’s father comments on her fondness of reading: “Can you cook books and feed them to your husband? Stay at home with your mother. Learn to cook and clean. Grow vegetables” (Dangarembga 15). Her father holds a traditional view of women. Believing women are best suited to work for the family, he dismisses his daughter’s desire to learn while his son is still living. African women were “best” controlled when they were dependent upon their husbands’ access to land and income (Schmidt 738). They were seen as “good mother[s]” when they stayed at home with their children unable to earn money (Schmidt 739). This colonial view resonates in the text:
My mother said being black was a burden because it made you poor, but Babamukuru was not poor. My mother said being a women was a burden because you had to bear children and look after them and the husband. But I did not think this was true…I decided it was better to be like Maiguru, who was not poor and had not been crushed by the weight of womanhood.
Tambu’s ability to see the changes that are taking place within her family is evident. She does not believe she should stay at home to be “crushed by the weight of womanhood” (Dangarembga 16). Tambu’s desire to learn leads her to steer away from the native gender roles. She sees the example of her aunt and uncle who are both wealthy, educated, and black and realizes that she can achieve what they have as well if she works on her own which sparks her idea to grow maize.
Tambu, in her quest for schooling, asks her parents for seed so she can “clear [her] own field and grow [her] own maize….just enough for the [school] fees” (Dangarembga 17). Mimicking what she learned from her grandmother, who was “an inexorable cultivator of land, sower of seeds and reaper of rich harvests…until her very last moment”, Tambu worked in her grandmother’s garden and tended to her maize (Dangarembga 17). In Rhodesia, “the labor of women generated food crops and guaranteed continued access to lineage land” (Schmidt 735). While Tambu’s grandmother and mother were tied down to growing crop for the family, Tambu found her own way to change the normal gender role and avoid oppression. She worked in her family fields for her benefit.
While going to sell the maize, Tambu questions everything she does not understand and it “became evident to [her] that [she] had no alternative but to sell [her] maize and go back to school” (Dangarembga 27). Tambu was not working for anyone’s gain other than her own; she worked around the fact that her family didn’t have enough money for her schooling. Tambu was no longer “dependent” on her father’s “access to land and cash income” (Schmidt 738). She broke away to earn her own money to support herself and momentarily overcomes her father’s patriarchal oppression. Pentolfe Aegerter discusses the change that occurs because of Tambu’s choices:
Although [Tambu] strives for the autonomy her father’s family denies her, an exclusive focus on her individuality negates the communal ethic of her family and culture and risks embracing Western mores that privilege the individual over her community.
Pentolfe Aegerter 235
Tambu looks to become more independent but this changes her relationship with her family and her community. She veers away from the traditional role of valuing the community over oneself and works on her own for individual gain instead of working for her family’s benefit.
While “the control of women’s and children’s labor by older African men was central the establishment and consolidation of colonial rule in southern Rhodesia”, it was not the only way women were subordinated (Schmidt 734). By mixing indigenous and European structures of patriarchal control, new structures of domination were created (Schmidt 734). This “new structure of domination” is seen when Babamukuru talks with Tambu the night of her arrival (Schmidt 734).
After Tambu’s brother dies, she “becomes the equivalent of the male first born, [by] inheriting his privileges as a way to escape sexism” and moves in with Babamukuru (Pentolfe Aegerter 235). Babamukuru calls Tambu into talk with him and she is sure to not sit “so disrespectfully close to her uncle” (Dangarembga 87). She follows the traditional rules concerning patriarchy in order to not disrespect her uncle. Babamukuru sees himself as Tambu’s “father” and “take[s] some time off from [his] work to speak to [Tambu] as a father should speak to a child” (Dangarembga 88). Filled with gratitude, Tambu realizes the “extent of the sacrifice” Babamukuru made in order to pick her up from the homestead because “the work he had missed…was the work that paid [her] school feels and bought the food that [she] was to eat in his house”(Dangarembga 88).
Babamukuru ensures that Tambu understands what he went through so she could benefit. In a new form of oppression, Babamukuru makes Tambu feel that she is in debt to him. This forces Tambu to feel like she must do well in school and be a good person in order to repay Babamukuru for his generosity. Babamukuru explains to Tambu the many benefits of his munificence:
…Babamukuru had summoned me to make sure that I knew how lucky I was to have been given this opportunity for mental and eventually, through it, material emancipation. He pointed out that the blessing I had received was not an individual blessing but one that extended to all members of my less fortunate family, who would be able to depend on me in the future as they were now depending on him….at the mission I would not only go to school but learn ways and habits that would make my parents proud of me. I was an intelligent girl but I had also to develop into a good woman, he said…
Babamukuru exerts his patriarchal control over Tambu through his discussion with her. He tells Tambu that his actions are going to help make her free through the knowledge and wealth education will provide her because of his generosity. While Babamukuru says Tambu is an “intelligent girl” his support of her will make her into a “good woman” (Dangarembga 89). The traditional idea of a “good woman” changes; while woman were once expected to stay at home to raise a family, Babamukuru’s idea of a “good woman” is effected by colonialism. He is helping turn Tambu into a “good woman” by providing her with a good education which will make her wealthy allowing her to support her poorer family members.
Before moving in with Babamukuru, “Tambu [is] determined to escape the sexism of her father and the poverty that is colonization’s lingering legacy to rural Africans…”, but while she lives with Babamukuru, she learns that the “escape from her father’s sexism… is no escape at all” (Pentolfe Aegerter 234). The patriarchal power has transformed and begins to change Tambu. Forced to rely on Babamukuru for support, she feels required to succeed to show her gratitude for the help and in order to help her family in the future. She is no longer seeking education for herself; she is seeking knowledge to help and repay her family.
Tambu’s quest for independence and education changes her type of oppression she experiences and her gender roles. Tambu believes the self she “expected to find on the mission would take some time to appear” but Tambu begins to change before she has spent a week living with her uncle (Dangarembga 86). Colonialism started to change Tambu’s gender roles when she cultivated and sold her own maize in order to pay for her education. While her father’s patriarchal and monetary control was still intact, Tambu found a way to work for her individual benefit. Once she moved in with Babamukuru’s family, Tambu became a victim of a new patriarchal power and gender expectations. Expected to succeed in school out of gratitude for her uncle’s sacrifices, Tambu’s education is needed to help her family in the future. Colonialism forces Tambu’s independent nature to change; her education is no longer only for herself. Tambu is forced to mix new and old ideas about gender roles. She takes from old traditions, like respecting her male elders, and allows colonialisms availability of education to make her new gender role. She draws on the desire to work for the community and her family while she is seeking education to help support them in the future. Because the “African women’s autonomy is predicated upon and inseparable from her place within her community,” Tambu will always be tied to her Rhodesian culture even when she is being educated while embracing colonialism and seeking independence (Pentolfe Aegerter 233).
Pentolfe Aegerter, Lindsay. “A Dialectic of Autonomy and Community: Tsitsi Dangarembga’s
Nervous Conditions.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 15.2 (1996): 231-238.
• This article was published in the journal of Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature. The author, Lindsay Pentolfe Aegerter works at The University of North Carolina at Wilmington. This literary criticism is used to explain how Nervous Conditions acts as a history for an oppressed group. It is used to discuss the value of the group and the individual in African society. It is also used to discuss what Tambu learns about seeking independence.
Schmidt, Elizabeth. “Patriarchy, Capitalism, and the Colonial State in Zimbabwe.” Signs:
Journal of Women in Culture and Society 16.4 (1991): 732-56.
• This article was published in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society and The University of Chicago. This historical account is used to discuss the ways colonialism and patriarchal oppression were used to control women in Zimbabwe. It focuses on the views held about women during that time. The article is also used to discuss the way capitalism shaped gender roles.
Limitations on a Female African in Nervous Conditions
In Nervous Conditions, the main character, Tambudzai, feels restricted within her family and culture because she is female. The people of Rhodesia assert very traditional roles for men and women; the women cook and clean, while the men go to school and earn money. In this culture, females are not supposed to desire an education or a career, they are to get married and be a good homemaker. Tambu decides not to abide by this way of life, the life her mother and father expect of her. She is eager to leave the homestead and live a British life. What she doesn’t realize is that she is at the lower end of the spectrum because she is a female and an African. She is treated unequally within her own society because she is female, and she will be treated unequally in a British society because she is African. Even if her family permits her to attend school, what will she be able to achieve with her education? Tsitsi Dangarembga, in Nervous Conditions, conveys the idea that the society that introduces opportunities for a better education for African women, is the same society that limits these women’s potential. She does this through the British education system in Rhodesia, the patriarchal role of women in the Rhodesian culture, the idealization of the British lifestyle, the expendable position of Babamukuru at the mission, the profound education of Maiguru as well as her limited use of this education in Rhodesia, and Nyasha’s epiphany.Tambu is very young, but she has very mature ambitions for herself. She feels strongly that she does not want to be solely educated in the wifely duties, especially when a formal education is a fairly realistic option for her. The education that exists is an English education, run by Catholic missionaries. The schools are expensive and considered prestigious, but the best education can be obtained by studying in England. For a common Rhodesian family such as Tambu’s, the only priority is to educate their sons. Although females are accepted into the schools, it not typical for a family to send their daughters to school, unless they have the money to do so. In Tambu’s case, the resources are not there. Her family is in poverty, making tuition for school almost impossible. However, when it comes to their son, education is a necessity. Tambu has resentment towards her brother because of this fact. Her brother also belittles her and her younger sister, knowing that girls have this predestined place in society. He made his opinion clear in saying to Tambu, “Did you ever hear of a girl being taken away to school? With me it’s different. I was meant to be educated” (Dangarembga 49). Tambu did not want to accept such a life, taking care of a man, as her fate.Tambu’s brother is not her biggest obstacle. Her father is not on board with her request to go to school. He expresses his stance by saying, “Can you cook books and feed them to your husband? Stay at home with your mother. Learn to cook and clean. Grow vegetables” (Dangarembga 15). In the Rhodesian culture, a son is more valuable to a family because he will remain as a member of the family for all of his days. The son will be the one responsible for caring for his parents in their old age. A daughter, on the other hand, is not as valuable. She will marry into another man’s family, consequently leaving hers, and only be beneficial to her husband. In Tambu’s father’s point of view, there is no purpose to education his daughter because she will be of no use to him in the future. This is an unfair and sexist presumption. Does her father not care of the success and happiness of his daughters as well as his sons? Though he is unable, financially, to provide an education for Tambu, he does not have to be so condescending at the thought of his daughter wanting to better herself. With no other option, Tambu is determined to raise the money for her tuition without the support of her family. She is successful.Tambu is receiving the education she wanted so badly. She is living with her uncle, Babamukuru, the man who is most admired in her family. He is well educated and successful. Tambu sees how his family is so prosperous, and connects this with the fact that they live a predominantly British lifestyle. Babamukuru, and his whole family, spend a great deal of time in England, and return very different. Her cousins do not act in their old African ways anymore, nor do they speak the language. Almost every aspect of their life is British, which to Tambu, seems almost God-like. She illustrates, “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” (Dangarembga 70). She desired this lifestyle and all that it can offer to her. Because of this, she strongly believes that in order to make progress, she must leave old ways behind. Little does she know that, among the whites at the mission, Babamukuru is considered replaceable. By changing his culture, he is unable to change his skin color, which will hold him back as long as he works at a job within the English society. Even with all of his education, he is unable to achieve equality with them.Tambu is unaware of the fact that although she may be equally entitled to a British education as a female, she may not be as equally entitled to a respectful career as an African among whites. At the same time, an educated female in Africa will never reach her full potential. No matter where Tambu decides to be, she will be prohibited by at least one aspect of her identity. This truth reveals itself to her after talking with her aunt Maiguru.Maiguru earns a Master’s degree while in England, despite her family and husband’s disapproval. She has great dreams for herself, as does Tambu, but has to put them away for the sake of her family. She explains her situation to Tambu, “What it is, is to have to choose between self and security. When I was in England I glimpsed for a little while the things I could have been, the things I could have done if- if- if things were- different. But there was Babawa Chido and he children and the family. And does anyone realize, does anyone appreciate, what sacrifices were made? As for me, no one even thinks about the things I gave up!” (Dangarembga 101-102). After hearing this and perhaps relating it to her own possible future, Tambu feels mournful for Maiguru’s losses. The loss of her dreams, her goals, her ambitions, her independence, her self respect. Tambu can’t believe how Maiguru is deprived of the opportunity to make the most of herself. At this point, Maiguru has accepted her decisions and all that she sacrificed, which makes it even worse. Tambu knows what she wants and won’t let anyone get in the way of it. Maiguru knows what she wants, could have had what she wants, and knowingly walks away from it because she knows she can’t have the best of both worlds. At least Maiguru still works and earns money, which wouldn’t have been an option had she not been educated. But that money doesn’t belong to her, it belongs to her husband to provide for himself and their family. Maybe it will feel more worthwhile if her sacrifices are at least acknowledged and appreciated.Babamukuru doesn’t realize that he has put his wife in the same position that he is put in by his family. They depend on him, as the most successful member of the family, but do they understand all of the hard work he put into his schooling to get to life of luxury of which he has achieved? Sure, he has the resources to help the struggling members of his family, but they mustn’t take it for granted, or work any less hard to provide for themselves.Living in England will have disadvantages as well. Tambu can never reach her full potential in England because she is not considered equal to the whites. At least in Rhodesia she is considered an equal as an African. Tambu also learns of the bad that can come from the English culture as she watches her cousin, Nyasha, turn into a stick-figure. The culture that Tambu once longed to be a part of, has taken its toll on her cousin and her perception of beauty. She is beginning to realize that the influence of the English culture is not what she thought. Perhaps this new culture is worse than she once thought her own culture to be. Her eyes open to the truth when Nyasha awakes in the night and speaks of the how the colonizers have ruined her exclaiming, “They [the colonizers] did it to me… Why do they do it, Tambu, to me and to you? Do you see what they’ve done? They’ve taken us away. They’ve deprived you of you, him of him, ourselves of each other. We’re groveling. Daddy grovels to them. We grovel to him. I won’t grovel… Their history… Their bloody lies… They’ve trapped us. I won’t be trapped” (Dangarembga 200- 201). This powerful epiphany is not overlooked by Tambu. After seeing her own cousin fall, the girl she grows so close with, the girl who is so willful and headstrong, she ponders how she will ever survive. She decides that she should begin to question her surrounding and every aspect of the society that she was so quick to surrender to. She’s not going to be brainwashed any longer. Nyasha warns Tambu earlier in the novel, “It’s bad enough when a country gets colonized, but when the people do as well! That’s the end, really, that’s the end” (Dangarembga 147). This is the truth. Tambu realizes that maybe she was too eager to leave the homestead. Had she not had a complete flip in her perception, she would not have been able to retell her story with such transparency. It is a more neutral insight that she offers the reader about her struggle between African and English traditions. But as it comes to be known, sometimes it’s the unknown lifestyle that you desire, that will destroy you. The Africans are victims of Englishness, not blessed by it.The colonizers expect to barge in, educate these people to “better” their country, yet not accept them as an imperative asset within the country that they are educated to be like. It is such an unfair position that these African females are put it, especially when they know that can achieve so much more than a degree in chores and gardening. It is amazing how Tambu refuses to let poverty or her father stand in the way of her goals, but can she succeed beyond the traditional role of a woman in her society? Even if she can, she can’t get past the fact the she is the minority in the lifestyle she desires. At the same time, home is where these girls are safe. They may not have a career, but at least they are raised with decent morals and values, and many women do enjoy their job as mother, as long as they are loved and appreciated. Isn’t there a better solution for colonized girls who want the best of both worlds?Works CitedDangarembga, Tsitsi. Nervous Conditions. Seattle: Seal Press, 1988.
Victims Victims Everywhere!: Getting to the core of the anti-colonial struggle and the relationship between African men and women
“The victimization, 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” (Dangarembga, 115). These ideas, which had been ingrained in Tambu since she was a child, came crashing down while she attended her uncle’s school. Her education there was not only one of textbooks and essays, but also an unveiling of the awful truths about the male-female and settler-native relationship that existed in her society. Her cousin Nyasha was already aware of the intricacies of these relationships and eventually had an emotional breakdown because of them. Through Tsitsi Dangarembga’s skillful writing of Nervous Conditions, one can see the core of the conflict between Nyasha and her parents when they examine her sudden breakdown. The dynamics of their relationship stem from the colonization of Babamukuru and Maiguru’s past and parallel the relationship of African men and women. Nyasha’s outburst hits the core of the problems that exist between her and her controlling parents. Dangarembga carefully chooses Nyasha’s words when she says, “‘They’ve done it to me,’ she accused, whispering still. ‘Really, they have” (200). “They” refers to Babamukuru and Maiguru and the role that they have played in Nyasha’s despair. She feels that her parents have tried to suppress the person that she is and wants to be. Instead of allowing their daughter to grow into a self-assured, intelligent, sexually free young woman, they have attempted to make her an inferior, well-behaved, subordinate little girl. Babamukuru and Maiguru have taken away books that they felt Nyasha should not be reading, forced their daughter to eat when she said that she was not hungry, and even used violence to reprimand her for staying out too late with a boy. Nyasha has felt animosity towards her father and mother since these things have occurred. Her disdain is quite apparent from the words that she uses to address Tambu. Nyasha is very angry with her parents because she “accuses” them of oppressing her, while she also seems to be timid in letting the world know this, as she “whispers” to her cousin. This has been a continuing struggle for Nyasha as she wants to be the strong and confident young woman that she knows exists inside of her, but cannot be that way all the time as a result of her controlling parents. Much of Nyasha’s outburst concerns the unbalanced relationship that exists, as the dominant settlers do not allow the controlled natives to have any self-dignity or pride in their homeland. After explaining her own suppression, she continues to discuss her parent’s oppression saying, “‘It’s not their fault. They did it to them too. You know they did'” (ibid). Nyasha is explaining to Tambu that her parents are not to blame for the problems in their relationship, as the settlers also oppressed them during colonization. It is Nyasha’s insight into her parent’s lives that allows her to sympathize with them. She knows firsthand the hardships of fighting to be oneself and failing because of those holding her back. Just as the colonists took away the rights and-more importantly-the dignity of her parents, Babamukuru and Maiguru have taken away the privileges and happiness of their daughter. At one point during her spasm, Nyasha changes to a Rhodesian accent, one used by a white settler in Africa. She uses this voice to pretend to be a settler and then insult her father by calling him a “good boy, a good munt. A bloody good kaffir” (ibid). This statement has many facets to it, as it applies to the treatment of Babamukuru specifically, in addition to the way that black African men were treated as a whole. It expresses how the colonized society was thought of as inferior and forced to be obedient to the white settlers. Dangarembga shows this through the use of the term “good boy,” which implies a social hierarchy in which someone called “boy” is towards the bottom. The despair in Nyasha’s soul comes out when she asks her cousin, “‘Why do they do it, Tambu,’ she hissed bitterly, her face contorting with rage, ‘to me and to you and to him? Do you see what they’ve done? They’ve taken us away. Lucia. Takesure. All of us. They’ve deprived you of you, him of him, ourselves of each other. We’re groveling. Lucia for a job, Jeremiah for money. Daddy grovels to them” (ibid). Nyasha is expressing the natives’ fundamental complaints about colonization: they are furious that they have not been allowed to be themselves in their own land, and that the relationships in their lives have suffered as a result. The psychological issues that Nyasha has been having, including her bulimia, are directly correlated to these problems. She has not been allowed to be her true self, breaking down her relationship with her mother and father. More that just losing sight of oneself, Nyasha speaks of the way that the natives have been forced into the inferior role of beggar. She mentions the groveling of Lucia, Jeremiah, and Babmukuru; all three are people of varying respectability in the eyes of Nyasha. She relates to Lucia as they are both strong females, dislikes her uncle Jeremiah because he constantly lets down his family, and hates Babamukuru because of the ways in which he controls her. These individuals show that all types of colonized people are forced to grovel, whether they are male or female, rich or poor.The final portion of Nyasha’s emotional unveiling can be understood on different levels, as both the heart of the anti-colonial struggle among the natives and settlers, in addition to the fight between men and women in African society. As Nyasha begins to rock her body back and forth she reveals, “‘I won’t grovel. Oh, no, I won’t. I’m not a good girl. I’m evil. I’m not a good girl.’ I touched her to comfort her and that was the trigger. ‘I won’t grovel, I won’t die,’ she raged and crouched like a cat ready to spring” (ibid). On one hand, Nyasha is referring to the fight between the natives and the settlers. This is only one interpretation, as she is a determined native that refuses to be subjected to a life of begging and inferiority. Dangarembga’s other point is that Nyasha, as a female, refuses to grovel to the men around her. She is an adamant young woman that has been battling with her father for some time, and is proclaiming that she will battle with the men in her life in the future before lowering herself simply because she is female. This parallel, of the settler to the native as the man is to the woman, is one of the most important points in Nervous Conditions. Earlier in the novel, Nyasha was refused to grovel to her father after staying out too late with a boy. When she struck her father he furiously retaliated back, creating a stressful situation for all involved. “Nyasha fell on to the bed, her miniscule skirt riding up her bottom. Babamukuru stood over her, distending her nostrils to take in enough air” (114). In this image, Nyasha is physically beneath her father while he is in a fit of rage, creating a physical representation of the role of men and women in African society. This scene can be interpreted sexually, as it appears that Babamukuru is capable of raping or sexually assaulting his daughter from his current position. Because she grew up during a period of colonization, Tsitsi Dangarembga is extremely knowledgeable about the struggle between the natives and the settlers. As a female maturing during this same time period she knows the exact parallels that exist between the settler-native relationship and the male-female relationship. Through intricate characters like Nyasha, Dangarembga has successfully brought the reader to the heart of the anti-colonial struggle, while also showing the parallels to the male and female dynamics in African culture.
The Six Mountains on African Literature
Chinese revolutionary Mao Zedong is quoted as having said that a Chinese man has three mountains on his back. The first is colonial oppression, the second is the oppression of tradition, and the third is his own backwardness. A woman, however, has a fourth mountain on her back: men. Nigerian feminist critic Molara Ogundipe argues in her essay “African Women, Culture and Another Development” that an African woman has two further mountains burdening her back: her color, and herself. An examination of post-colonial and anti-colonial African literature can illuminate the way these six mountains interact to oppress African women. The novels Nervous Conditions by Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga, Xala by Senegalese author Sembène Ousmane, and The Madonna of Excelsior by South African author Zakes Mda each portray the struggles of African women facing these six forms of oppression. The novels give examples of how African women are negatively affected by indigenous traditions and colonial laws in ways that African men are able to escape, which can explain some of the problems with the creation of a national culture discussed by Frantz Fanon in his theoretical work The Wretched of the Earth. The novels suggest that both black and white men not only directly oppresses black women with law and tradition, but make women feel as if they are a burden upon men as well. The texts also show that the sixth mountain, “herself,” is formed from the combined weight of the other five mountains, particularly as women come to consider themselves not only inferior to men but as burdens upon them.
Sembène Ousmane’s novel Xala takes place in Senegal shortly after it wins independence and focuses on El Hadji, a prominent politician and businessman, and the families of his multiple wives. The novel shows the double standards in the way tradition affects men and women: men frequently choose to follow the traditions they find beneficial while ignoring the ones they see as inconvenient, whereas women are significantly more burdened by tradition. This is most clear in the issue of polygamy. El Hadji invokes his African tradition in defense of having multiple wives and being in control over them. “His honour as an African in the old tradition was being called in question… Had the country lost its men of yesterday? Those brave men whose blood flowed in his veins?” Ousmane writes when El Hadji feels that his masculinity is being threatened by the suggestion that he has to consult his first two wives before taking a third (Ousmane 7-9). His wives are not completely without power, as they are able to choose a divorce. However, the women recognize that their value in society is largely based on having a husband. As El Hadji’s first wife Adja Awa Astou says to their oldest daughter Rama, “You think I should get a divorce? Where would I go at my age? Where would I find another husband?” (12). The only alternative she puts forth is to be remarried, suggesting that in Senegalese society there are few options for women, so even with the legal freedoms such as divorce that they have, it is often more beneficial for them to go along with traditional power structures. His second wife Oumi N’Doye is told by her mother “But why divorce him? Without a man’s help a woman has to fall back on prostitution to live and bring up her children,” further emphasizing the idea that for Senegalese women, the freedom of divorce is a hollow one (34).
However, despite El Hadji defending his freedom to take multiple wives by invoking a sense of African tradition, he ignores other traditions with which he disagrees. When Yay Bineta, a relative of his new third, wife suggests that he participate in a fertility ritual before consummating his marriage, he refuses, saying he will not “make a fool of [himself] with this hocus-pocus,” showing that he does not believe in the efficacy or importance of this tradition (18). “He was sufficiently Westernized not to have any faith at all in this superstition,” Ousmane writes, showing El Hadji to be a hypocrite; he may be “Westernized” enough not to believe in a fertility ritual, but he is not too westernized to stop believing in his entitlement to polygamy (18). This suggests that El Hadji does not care as deeply about following African traditions as he claims, but instead invokes them as an excuse to continue following the traditions he wants to, such as polygamy. Effectively, El Hadji agrees with African traditions to the extent that they allow him to maintain his power, particularly his power over women.
Xala’s women, unfortunately, are not able to shrug off the mountain of tradition as easily as the men can. Yay Bineta, his third wife’s relative, for example, is trapped by another “superstition,” while El Hadj can afford to ignore things he considers as superstitious. “Yay Bineta had always been hounded by bad luck,” Ousmane writes. “She had had two husbands, both now in their graves. The traditionalists held that she must have her fill of deaths: a third victim. So no man would marry her for fear of being this victim,” which is problematic for her in a society where women seem to have few options besides marriage (30). This suggests that Senegalese society as a whole is not “sufficiently Westernized” to forget certain traditions that burden women, only those that burden men. Ousmane says Yay Bineta lives in “a society in which very few women overcome this kind of reputation” (30). Even here, rather than saying “in which few people overcome this kind of reputation,” he chooses to emphasize women’s inability to escape tradition, implying that men, even less “Westernized” ones, are not quite so trapped by traditions and superstition. This suggests that El Hadji is not a special case because of his status as a wealthy intellectual politician and businessman, but that he is the rule.
The men in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel Nervous Conditions have similar views on traditional gender roles, particularly the narrator Tambu’s older brother Nhamo and her uncle Babamukuru. Nhamo is able to go to school while Tambu mostly has to stay at home with her family. When Nhamo returns from school, he makes his sisters go to the bus station to carry his remaining luggage, even though he is capable of carrying it all himself. “He did not need help,” the narrator says, “he only wanted to demonstrate to us and himself that he had the power, the authority to make us do things for him” (Dangarembga 10). This attitude informs Nhamo’s interaction with Tambu; he only uses traditional roles as an excuse to support this attitude, but does not really care about tradition. For instance, when he makes Tambu fetch his luggage and she asks him to look after their younger sister while she is away, he says that “minding children [is] not a man’s duty,” implying to Tambu that this is instead a woman’s duty, therefore her responsibility, and that as a woman’s duty it would be improper for him to do (9). However, Nhamo shows that cares very little about what his traditional duties as a man are supposed to be. As Tambu says, “helping in the fields or with the livestock or the firewood, any of the tasks he used to do willingly before he went to the mission, became a bad joke” (7). After spending time away at school, he is no longer willing to help his family do farm-work, showing that he does not really care about fulfilling his “man’s duty.” Just as El Hadji ignores traditions he does not like in favor of ones that give him power over women, Nhamo enforces the idea of women’s duties versus men’s duties as an excuse to make his sisters do more work while he does less, making himself feel powerful even while ignoring his duties as a man.
Tambu’s uncle Babamukuru in fact seems to have relinquished most of his African culture except, of course, for his patriarchal position of power over his family and over women. He, his wife Maiguru and their children have spent five years studying in England, and when they return the children hardly remember how to speak Shona, their native language. Babamukuru and Maiguru seem to encourage their children to emulate English culture and leave their Zimbabwean heritage behind. However, even though Maiguru is as highly educated as her husband, she is still relegated to a position of inferiority to her Babamukuru and still has to serve him. This in fact seems to be indicative of the novel’s characters’ general perception of educated women. Tambu’s father asks the narrator “Can you cook books and feed them to your husband?” when she expresses a desire to further her education. “Stay at home with your mother,” he says. “Learn to cook and clean. Grow vegetables” (15). This is what their society sees as a woman’s role. Even though the roles are expanding for both men and women to allow new things such as higher education, the same basic gender roles remain; the man being the dominant head of the family and the woman remaining subservient. This is also a source of women’s third mountain, “backwardness.” It is cultivated by society by denying women the same educational opportunities as men. Even when refuting her father’s argument to herself, saying “Maiguru was educated, and did she serve Babamukuru books for dinner?” Tambu still emphasizes Maiguru’s ability to serve her husband, since the idea that the wife must serve her husband is so ingrained in her society (16).
Babamukuru more directly exerts patriarchal control over his daughter Nyasha, which allows Tambu to realize how females are being victimized unfairly in her society. When both Nyasha and her brother Chido come home late, Babamukuru turns all his rage against Nyasha, telling her “no decent girl” would act as she is, saying she is behaving “like a whore,” whereas before this he only tells Chido “you children are up to no good,” which he says “cordially,” showing the different gendered standards he holds his children to (114-6). Babamukuru begins to beat Nyasha, and in self-defense she hits him back. His response to her action is telling of his opinion on gender roles in their society; “Babamukuru bellowed and snorted that if Nyasha was going to behave like a man, then… he would fight her like one” (117). By equating Nyasha’s actions to “behaving like a man,” Babamukuru equates manhood to violence. Furthermore, he equates manhood to the ability to resist, denying that this is a possible or permissible trait in women. He tells her “Not even your brother there dares to challenge my authority,” but this is largely because Chido has no reason to challenge his father’s authority; it is not unfairly used against him as it is against Nyasha. Tambu interprets this as Babamukuru making Nyasha “a victim of her femaleness, just as [she] had felt victimised at home… The victimisation,” she says, “was universal. It didn’t depend on poverty, or lack of education, or tradition… Men took it everywhere with them” (118). Tambu recognizes appeals to “tradition” for what they are; not legitimate devotion to African tradition but excuses for powerful men to stay powerful.
The tendency among these novels’ male characters to ignore certain African traditions except for those that allow them to maintain their power over women highlights a connection between Molara Ogundipe’s essay and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, which offers a possible explanation for why men can ignore traditions while continuing to enforce such traditions over women. Ogundipe argues that colonialism “has brought out the basic sexist tendencies in pre-capitalist Africa” by rearranging society in ways that effectively erased any existing sources of female empowerment (Ogundipe 109). Fanon, in his essay “On National Culture,” also writes about how colonial powers worked to restructure African societies and how this affected indigenous traditions and power structures. He argues that the goal of colonialists was to “hammer into the heads of the indigenous population that if the colonist were to leave they would regress into barbarism, degradation, and bestiality” (149). The result of this is that when colonial power is finally overthrown, even though the indigenous people feel the urge to embrace their old, suppressed culture, colonial manipulation still exists in their minds. Fanon says “the intellectual is terrified by the void, the mindlessness, and the savagery. Yet he feels he must escape this white culture” (157). In Ousmane’s words, the African people, particularly intellectuals such as El Hadji and Babamukuru, have become “sufficiently Westernized” by the colonists’ efforts to undermine indigenous culture, yet in rebellion against the ousted colonists they still feel the need to reject white culture. The novels suggest that this paradox is resolved through cultural double standards; the men appeal to feelings of African culture, tradition and heritage to lift themselves up and to keep women down, and as a way to satisfy their need to reject white culture. Still affected by colonialism, however, they no longer seem to believe in many African traditions beyond those which are useful to them, allowing men to pick and choose which traditions they follow while women are bound much more closely to tradition. So in effect, African women are still oppressed by colonial manipulation of indigenous culture even after direct colonial rule is removed from individual countries.
These novels also display ways in which women are made to feel as if they are a burden upon men, another source contributing to their issues with self-image, or the sixth mountain, “herself.” El Hadj constantly, if ironically on Ousmane’s part, complains about having to go back and forth between his three homes and families. The oppressive quality of these complaints is clearer in Nervous Conditions. When Tambu’s brother Nhamo dies, Babamukuru tells their father Jeremiah that “it is unfortunate that there is no male child to take this duty, to take this job of raising the family from hunger and need,” implying that Tambu is burdensome simply because she is not a male, and therefore will not be able to contribute in any way they find meaningful (56). Her father responds saying that her “sharpness with books is no use because in the end it will benefit strangers,” further implying that educating her would be another unnecessary burden since it would only benefit her future husband, not her family (56). Even while beating Nyasha for staying out too late, Babamukuru asks “How can you go about disgracing me… I am respected at this mission. I cannot have a daughter who behaves like a whore” (116). Everything women do in the novels is considered in terms of how it affects men, and anything that does not benefit men, even if it benefits the women, is considered a burden upon the men, even though they are clearly already in a dominant social position over the women.
This tendency is most obvious and most disturbing in Zakes Mda’s novel The Madonna of Excelsior because the perception of black women as burdens upon men comes not from other black men, but from the white Afrikaner colonizers, dominant not only over women but over all native Africans. The novel also shows how the colonial legal system directly oppressed black women in ways that did not affect black men. The novel frequently shows white South African men frequently coercing black women into sex, despite the country’s “Immorality Act” prohibiting such relations between black and white people. However, instead of convicting the men who not only initiated these relations but coerced the women into them, South Africa’s legal system instead upholds the men’s innocence while condemning the women. Reverend François Bornman, a respected church leader in the community and one of the white men being tried under the Immorality Act, states that “the devil had sent black women to tempt him” and that “the devil had always used the black female to tempt the Afrikaner” (Mda 85). Even though he says it is his own fault for not resisting this temptation, he still places the bulk of the blame on black women. This, much like the men’s appeals to tradition in the other novels, is an excuse adopted by men who refuse to admit that they have raped black women; another way to explain their superiority. In this way, even the white colonial oppressors claim to be burdened by black women, further deteriorating their self-image.
All of this oppression adds up to form the sixth mountain: “herself.” Black women in these novels are constantly being portrayed as their own and each other’s enemies. El Hadji’s wives are constantly bickering and accusing each other of all sorts of immoral activities. They, as well as women in the other novels, frequently call each other “whores,” harkening back to the Afrikaner’s vision of black women as demonic temptresses. The Madonna of Excelsior also deals directly with black women’s problems with body image. Niki, one of the novel’s central characters, tries to appear whiter by using skin lightening cream, even though it only harms her skin. The novels never mention men using such products, only women, implying that they did not face the same image issues.
Popi, Niki’s mixed race daughter fathered by one of the men tried under the Immorality Act, spend most of the novel insecure about her white features, hiding her light, straight hair in a head-wrap, but at the end of the novel she finally comes to accept her differences and see herself as beautiful; “Lately Popi spent all her mornings looking at herself in the mirror, admiring her blue eyes and brushing her long golden-brown hair. She no longer hid it under huge turbans. She wondered why she had been ashamed of it all these years, why she had never noticed its beauty” (256). Mixed race women had their own unique problems in South African society, so it is undoubtedly positive that Mda portrays Popi reaching a place where she can accept herself for who she is. However, none of these novels show a fully black woman reaching a similar place; in this moment, Popi is accepting and loving the parts of her that are white, not black, which for her is positive and necessary. However, darker women are left behind in a place of self-loathing. While Mda praises the beauty of black women throughout the novel, neither Niki nor any of the women who use skin lightening cream reach a moment like Popi’s, at least explicitly, where they come to find the beauty of their blackness. Mda perhaps means to imply that one way to alleviate the burden of the sixth mountain is to work toward self-acceptance and the rejection of colonial standards of beauty. In Xala, Adja Awa Astou and Oumi N’Doye, El Hadji’s first and second wives, occasionally reach moments of harmony and cooperation, but this does not last, as they eventually fall back into patterns of bickering and accusation. While Molara Ogundipe listed several ways to fight against the weight of the six mountains at the end of her essay, there is one she perhaps missed that these novels try to suggest: to alleviate the burden, African women should accept themselves as they are and work together with other women, instead of engaging in unnecessary conflict and holding themselves to unrealistic beauty standards, fighting against the chaos and hatred sown by colonialism instead of furthering it.
Dangarembga, Tsitsi. Nervous Conditions. Ayebia Clarke Publishing Ltd, 2004.
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Richard Philcox. Grove Press, 2004.
Mda, Zakes. The Madonna of Excelsior. Picador, 2002.
Ogundipe-Leslie, ‘Molara. “African Women, culture and another development.” Theorizing Black Feminisms: The Visionary Pragmatism of Black Women, edited by Stanlie M. James and Abena P. A. Busia, Routledge, 1993, pp. 90-101.
Ousmane, Sembène. Xala. Lawrence Hill Books, 1974.