Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga's first novel Nervous Condition pitched both traditional and Western beliefs against each other and raised very critical questions about the price of an African's soul at the flea market of Western culture. Written without a compromise of Shona's rich literary anaesthetic it once and for all exposed the invisible prison that many Africans find themselves arrested wtihin by merely over-observing and modeling themselves after everything English. Many years after its publication, and with the issues it raised pertinent in post-apartheid South Afrika and many post-cononial Afrikan democracies author/artist Portia Mahlodi Phalafala (Uhuru by reputation) revisits Dangarembga's wisdom and critics it in the context of a traditional African communal set-up, where patriarchy dictates the weather forecast. This is the first of a two part series about th
e novel.

Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions is considered a modern classic today because of the entrance it gives us, the readers, into the minds of its female characters which represents the mind of many other African women. A lot of stories told by the male authors of this continent fail to let us into the struggles and hardships of its women; moreover, a lot of these male stories have been privileged in the literary canon which left a huge void for female stories. Some of these stories that the male authors tell have active female characters in them but they fail to voice out holistic everyday struggles that face them. In an essay called The Mother Africa Trope, politics of women’s struggles are addressed. This essay is critical of the manner in which authors of these canonized novels/stories present the African woman as a mother, a wife and symbolic of Africa as a fertile land. This presentation sounds positive and complementary but the essay strives to voice out the inner struggles of the woman subject. The essay concurs that the woman is a wife and a mother but urges us not to Romanticize this position by looking deeper into the politics that surrounds that position. There have been some women writers in Africa who wrote stories with this ‘synthesizing of women issues’ as a motif, and Dangarembga was one of them.

She set her novel at the time when Zimbabwe was at the beginning of the anti-colonial guerilla war, but makes very little mention of it because she is setting this war in parallel with the war that goes on in two households, particularly one that faces her female characters. She juxtaposes the national war that is considered to be physical and masculine against the more personal wars of women that are emotional. Although there are some women that partake in the national war like Mbuya Nehanda, it is the men who are usually acknowledged as being on the front line. As Pauline Ada Uwakweh observes, “…despite women’s participation in national struggle, the Zimbabwean male attitude to their women remains unchanged in the post-war years”. As I discuss this later, we will see that their participation in war is not the only one that is not acknowledged; their physical and emotional war in running the domestic spheres also goes unnoticed. Through her narrator, Tambudzai, Dangarembga is able to introduce us to other women, four of which she presents as embodiments of escape, entrapment and rebellion (page 1). Also, the women in her novel experience a double oppression. While Zimbabwe is fighting an anti-colonial war, the women are fighting those colonial experiences and also the experiences of living in such a patriarchal society. They are dealing with the predicaments of African women and expectations thereof, also the economical and cultural politics linked to class, race and gender.

In her opening paragraph, Dangarembga informs us that her story is of four women and their responses to the double oppression abovementioned. When we read further we see the complexity of the ‘war’ in which they find themselves, which is one parallel to the national war in Zimbabwe. Dangarembga therefore appropriately borrowed one of Frantz Fanon’s terms to make a diagnosis of these women’s experiences. These four women have a nervous condition within the societies and families they find themselves in. What makes it more complex is that this nervous condition becomes psychological and paralyzes or ‘entraps’ some of our four women. This entrapment of their minds and bodies eventually leads to psychological breakdowns. The four women in question are Tambudzai’s mother, Maiguru, Nyasha and Lucia; and I will also look at Tambudzai as the fifth woman.

Tambudzai’s mother

Tambudzai’s mother, as far as I can read, is the embodiment of double oppression. She endures so much hard work, pain through death and birth (her four infants died and the death of Nhamo) and she is a site of female subjectivity. She is nothing more than the possession of the male older characters. Her husband does not work so she has to work extra hard so she can be able to send her children to school. She is silenced by poverty and at times patriarchy so the only time she voices her ‘knowledge’ is to those who are not in power. When she reflects on her hardships and sacrifices, she warns Tambudzai that “the business of womanhood is a heavy burden” and that you cannot just decide that you want to be educated when you have to bear children (page 16). She goes on to coin the phrase “poverty of blackness” which, when combined with the weight of womanhood, articulate the double oppression that she is paralyzed by. This “poverty of blackness” economically stifles her and binds her to social stratifications of colonialism. In her war against these forces, she can only do enough to keep herself alive and later she is even unable to do this as she loses all hope until Lucia comes to help. She also suffers a psychological nervous condition, where she is consumed by her fear of ‘Englishness’ because she believes that it killed her son and now Tambudzai is next. She is so silenced by patriarchy that when Babamukuru imposes a western marriage as a solution to a cultural problem she is unable to dismiss it as ‘Englishness’.


Women like Lucia who are single and sexually liberated are usually labeled witches and other demeaning terms in a patriarchal society. She is outspoken and ‘manly’ when confronted by these forces. On one occasion when there is a family meeting with the men discussing issues around them, she shocks all the women by entering the meeting which is held by men only. After Takesure accuses her of witchcraft and walking the night she bursts in and questions his manhood. She asks Babamukuru, “would you say this is a man?” (page 146). This way she uses the patriarchal way of thinking to make her own point. She also plays an important role when she gives Tambudzai’s mother a voice by telling the men in the meeting that Jeremiah “has given her nothing but misery since the age of fifteen” (page 147). Although she might seem self-centered and selfish, she is the one who heals Tambudzai’s mother back to health when her ‘war’ starts to paralyze her. This is particularly important because the little time she gets to voice her concerns to other women, they just respond by normalizing this condition that she ends up feeling like it is a hopeless war to fight. But Lucia sees the situation for what it is and challenges the strong patriarchal force that surrounds them. She represents the women who have escaped because in the end she is able to manipulate Babamukuru into getting her a job that would make her independent and give her financial security. But her war is not over because she is now dependent on Babamukuru to fund her education. Nevertheless he has some respect for her when he eventually mentions to Maiguru that “she is like a man herself” (page 174).


Maiguru is also fighting a battle of double oppression, where she caught between her experiences as female in a highly patriarchal society and those in a colonial society. She seems to be caught in contradictory positions at times because whereas she is educated and experienced the western way of life, she gets silenced by her memories of tradition and custom. This makes her shift between the roles of an excessive mother, a wife and a child; with terms like daddy-dear, lovey-dovey and sugar pie. One instance where we see this is when they are at the dinner table and she holds out a pot for her husband to dish out but then they have to delay eating till the gravy is done. When the gravy gets to the table she decides that the food should be cold by now and that she will eat it. Even he thought she “was making a fuss about nothing” (page 82). She is educated in the face of the colonial society but cannot assert herself in the face of patriarchy. Only later in the story does she voice her ‘war’, and her coming out seems to be brought on by Lucia, who found her in the house and insisted that she could talk to no one but Babamukuru. She voices her concerns about the resources that she works hard for being distributed to her husband’s family, then she ‘escapes’ by leaving the household, only to come back a few days later. As Nyasha observes, “it’s everything, it’s everywhere. So where do you break out to”; and furthermore, her mother has nowhere to go because “her investment… (is) all at the mission” (pages 176-7). She complains of nerves and her condition is from the tension between tradition and modernity.

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