Nervous Conditions: Standing Up for Women Against Societal Oppression
Nervous Conditions is a novel by Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga which takes places in Rhodesia between the late 1960s and early 1970s. The novel revolves around two main female characters, Tambu (Shona) and her cousin English Nyasha growing up in colonial Rhodesia. The novel is written in a first person narrative, which is proven by the I as Tambu is chosen due to her better psychological condition. However Nyasha is indeed the most sensible of the conditions as the author describes as nervous, this statement will be discussed in my essay.
The novel begins with Tambu’s brothers funeral where she states that she was not sorry that her brother has died (Dangarembga;1988.1), as this presents her with an opportunity to her bright future, an escape from the fields and bathing in Nyamarira. Nhamo’s death gave Tambu her education. A family gathering made Tambu feel rather uncomfortable towards her cousins Nyasha and her brother Chido, whom had returned from England with their parents. She felt as if her cousins turned into strangers, Tambu noticed the western effects which Nyasha had picked up and brought back with her from England. There was no other explanation for the tiny little dress she wore, hardly enough of it to cover her thighs (Dangarembga;1988.37). Nyasha’s western style of dressing was unacceptable of the people belonging to Rhodesian families, it was seen as being disrespectful or not decent enough. Furthermore they have forgotten their tongue language. I racked my brains for odd English words that I could slip into my sentence to help her understand what I was saying, but it was no use (Dangarembga;1988.51). Their Shona was gone and the English was set in so deep that I could hardly recognise my once favourite cousin.
Tambu’s quest for education sent her to uncle Babamukuru’s house. He was extremely kind, well educated and generous. He sent Tambu to the Mission School together with Nyasha, he was responsible for her school fees, clothing and food which was all catered for very well, Tambu saw him as a human God! Tambu, despite her impressions of Nyasha grew rather close to her cousin in the time they lived together, despite thinking of her as rude or ungrateful especially towards her own father. She spoke with a loose tongue however this is justifiable to a certain extent as this is what actually makes her quite sensible. This is seen through Nyasha’s profound thinking traits and serious mindfulness. She is extremely intelligent, inquisitive, strong willed, questions any and everything. Nyasha is old beyond her years. Therefore to further analyse Nyasha we have too look at the other characters whom played a vital role in her life and who may or may not have had a hand in her nervous condition.
In the novel we see how colonialism affected Nyasha and her family. Its bad enough when a country gets colonised, but when the people do as well! That’ the end, really that’s the end (Dangarembga;1988.150), here Nyasha scolds her cousin for embracing the colonial mindset that Christianity is progress, rather then an equally absurd replacement for the Shona tradition. Nyasha’s father Babamukuru was the headmaster at the mission, head of the household and extremely strong minded. He expected his daughter to conform to the norms of society and be a decent girl. Babamukuru’s instructions just went without once considering the opinions of others, although he was kind he also held his male dominance higher. We see this when Tambu’s mother Mainini expresses her frustrations at the idea of Babamukuru wanting his brother Jeremiah and Mainini to get married in the Christianity way, as they have being living in sin for the past nineteen years, he never asked considered others opinions in most matters. When he says jump we must, as he is the educated and financially stable one. However towards Nyasha he is nothing close a human God, he is over powering and never considers his very own wives opinions. He expects Nyasha to be a decent girl, wear the appropriate clothing, never talk to white boys or attend parties even school events, even getting into a fist fight with his own daughter and threatening to disown her if her behaviour does not improve. Male dominance is his strongest suite however even this fails him in the end.
Maiguru, Nyasha’s mother whom holds not one but two degrees does set her a few feet apart from the other female characters as she is much more educated. Maiguru is also a teacher at the mission whom has not received her own salary once, after all Babamukuru is the head of the household. Although she is a good mother, always finding an excuse for her daughters behaviour and an extremely obedient wife, even a strong women suffers silently. She too faces challenges of economic entrapment which leaves her completely dependant on her husband for survival. Maiguru does have a breaking point in her life where she leaves home for five days, this encourages Nyasha to be more strong and ensures her that an escape is possible, however when her mother returned she was somewhat disappointed. Maiguru,s leaving did show Babamukuru that his wife surely has a spine! And will no longer succumb to his over powering dominance, she will speak up and not be oppressed his status of husband. She will do things in the way she sees fit. I do not think Maiguru is too proud as Mainini would often say, she finally found the courage to stand up and speak her mind and for that she should definitely get some recognition.
Mainini, Tambu’s mother had no formal education however she often spoke true words. Mainini was trapped in a marriage, bound financially despite her husband not having much and being very lazy, she on the other hand was extremely hard working not only on the fields but also at home. Mainini does not want her daughter to go away from the homestead, and warns her against the dream of education which she believes is unrealistic and about the corruption it will bring bring to her life just like it did to Nhamo and now Nyasha. Its the Englishness, it will kill them if they aren’t careful,this was one of her famous lines and Tambu soon realises that her mothers words where true. She too has a nervous condition, her depression had gotten so bad that she hardly washed and ate in days but which however was lightened by lucia’s form of shock therapy.. During her break through day she finally gathered the courage to speak up, which included the sad death of her son, the fact that her own sister Lucia had slept with her husband and that she is not considered a wife but merely a servant. Mainini calls the patriarchal system a nonsense that she has lived with for nineteen years but entrapment lingers near as she remains stuck in this hell as of marriage until her last living day.
Lucia, Tambu’s provocative aunt returns to the homestead to look after her sister whom didn’t keep herself well during her last pregnancy. Lucia was similar to Nyasha in the way that she had the nerve to speak whatever was on her mind, she was bold and strong, therefore compared to being a witch or even a man at times however she never really took serious to such mediocre statements. She too was oppressed to male dominance being impregnated by Takesure or Jeremiah no one was sure. Babamukuru of course suggested marriage and moving away from the homestead as she was bringing evil to the family, however bold Lucia never took seriously to his suggestions. Even though Lucia took zero nonsense from these men she became obligated to obey Babamukuru as he provided her with a stable job which gave her and escape from the poverty at the homestead and her education which allowed for her own identity. She too became entrapped by male power!
Upon Nyasha and Tambu’s spark of friendship, Tambu realizes that her cousin is not very popular at mission, she hardly has any friends, most girls think she’s a snob, too white for a Shona girl with her English accent and being the headmasters daughter made it all worse. Not having many friends Tambu became Nyasha’s confidant, the laughed at things they supposed to cry about just so they could escape the world they lived in for a little while. They grew closer each passing day until the day they received news that Tambu was awarded a full scholarship to a Coven mission, Scared Heart, which of course as the name suggest is fancier then the mission and is run by Christian white nuns. Nyasha was both happy and sad for her cousin but wished her well on her new journey. They promised to write each other often, Nyasha kept to her promise and wrote quite a lot informing Tambu about all the latest gossip however due to Tambu’s new ever busy schedule her replies slipped her mind, and this is around the same time when Nyasha’s nervous conditions manifested itself so greatly that the poor girl was almost disappearing.
Nyasha threw herself into her books even during the school holidays, her father saw this as a brilliant decent child being completely oblivious to the internal trauma his daughter was inflicting upon herself. Nyasha called it her new diet, to discipline the body and keep the mind occupied. You’ll find a svelte sensuous me (Dangarembga;1988.200). That is what Nyasha wrote in her last letter to Tambu. Upon arrival a few months later Tambu noticed that her cousin had become a skeleton, pathetic to see (Dangarembga;1988.202). She looked so frail as if she would simply break in half! The turning point happened when Nyasha passed out into her plate at dinner, her father thinking she is acting ordered her to her room unknown to the fact that all hell was about to break lose in the early parts of the next morning. Nyasha had developed an eating disorder and was in a terrible deteriorating mental state. Nyasha denounced that the system failed her, she did not want to hate her father but they made her, she went into a suicidal range, jabbing herself with whatever she could get a hold of (Dangarembga;1988.201). From this is where we learn that she feels as if she does not belong. She announces that she needs help, somewhere she would be safe and looked after. Nyasha was taken to see a psychiatrist, where she was admitted into a clinic for several weeks (Dangarembga;1988.206). Nyasha did improve slightly however her survival was still unsure off.
The significance of Nyasha being sensible in her nervous condition involves her rebellious nature and reluctance to accept the norms and unwillingness to conform to the forces of the patriarchal system. Nyasha proves to be sensible in her way of thinking, to question what she feels is not right, to stand up for the wrong which nobody else would do. She challenges her father and by doing this she is one of the most related characters to most readers. Nyasha may have lost the fight in the end but her efforts never went in vein, it now encourages Tambu to continue in her wake, to be strong in a male dominated society, to be courageous and bold…and to always keep moving!
Dangarembga presents a beautiful novel which relates to any women who has finally gathered up the strength to stand up for themselves against the search for identity and male oppression. Together these women found comfort in each other and offered support to one another which lacked from a paternal society, for without each other the cornerstone of their security will crumble (Dangarembga;1988.199).
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