Book Review: Nervous Conditions

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga (ISBN: 978-0-9547023-3-5, Ayebia Clarke Publishing, Ltd., 2004) was first published in 1988, but escaped my notice for many years. I kept seeing the compelling cover on the shelves of Exclusive Books in O.R. Tambo airport in Joburg and I finally decided to give it a go. I’m glad I did. This is a very good novel. 

Superficially, Nervous Conditions resembles Powder Necklace, by Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond (previously reviewed here). Both are semi-autobiographical coming of age novels by African woman about teenage African girls struggling to attain an education. Both feature an element of Africans from abroad returning home and dealing with the culture shock of being the same but somehow very different. But whereas Powder Necklace is set in contemporary London and Ghana, Nervous Conditions takes place in the 1960’s in pre-independence Zimbabwe (then known as Rhodesia). Thus it is immersed within the political and social change that swept the world in the 1960’s.

Is blood thicker than water? Is education for self-improvement or for the collective good? What are the obligations of an educated family member to provide for his/her family? Is a girl’s education as valuable as a boy’s? These are some of the themes addressed within Nervous Conditions. It examines a poor rural family in which one member has managed to attain an education courtesy of missionaries, who then becomes the family benefactor. The patriarch then forms a well-intended, if rather cynical, plan to educate at least one child from each branch of the extended family in order to lift the entire clan out of poverty. The pressure this puts on the chosen one to support an extended family is obviously immense. The saintly patriarch himself sometimes cracks under the pressure, to the detriment of his marriage and his relationship with his children.

Tambu, the narrator of Nervous Conditions, is not an entirely likable character. From the first sentence of the book, where she declares “I was not sorry when my brother died,” we are left struggling to identify with her motives. She seems wholly self-serving, determined to better her condition at all cost. For most of the narrative she is self-righteous and condescending, convinced of her own moral and intellectual superiority. But none of the characters of this story are actually very likable. Tambu’s father is a sniveling and spineless toadie, suckling at the teat of his elder brother’s cash cow. Her mother is harsh, unloving. Her saintly uncle is so morally rigid he becomes unlovable, thoroughly crafted by the unseen missionaries in their own image, at the expense of his African traditions.

However unlikable, all the characters of this novel are complex and real. The theme is a real one that persists to this day. In many parts of Africa an educated and successful child is expected to support his or her less-successful family members. Being born with a good brain is in some ways a curse because it means a lifetime of servitude to one’s family. But who is to say whether this system is any better or worse than the American “each man for himself” culture?

Read this book if you want to hear an authentic tale told from the voice of an African woman who endured the struggle to educate herself in a male-dominated society. While her single-mindedness doesn’t necessarily make her likable, it is apparent that without it she would not have been able to survive under this system. The fate of her rebellious cousin Nyasha serves to emphasize this point. Sometimes the squeaky wheel only gets crushed under the weight of the burden.

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