A Perspective on the Colonised Psyche: A Review of ‘Nervous Conditions’ by Tsitsi Dangarembga

‘Quietly, unobtrusively, and extremely fitfully, something in my mind began to assert itself, to question things and refuse to be brainwashed, bringing me to this time when I can set down this story.’

This novel written by Dangarembga, who grew up in Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe),  explores the psyche of the colonised individual: in particular, the colonised woman. Taking its title from Frantz Fanon’s famous work The Wretched of the Earth (in which he offers a psychiatric analysis of the dehumanising effects of colonisation upon the individual and the nation), Dangarembga offers a powerful and sensitive portrayal of the impacts of the colonial system, which ultimately poisons the sense of self and self-worth of the protagonists.

“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.”

This novel starts with the bold statement that ‘I was not sorry that my brother died’, which instantly draws readers into the complex psyche of Tambu, a young girl in colonial Rhodesia. Her education was not prioritised due to the unchallenged focus on only providing for the education of her brother. Determined to educate herself, Tambu fights against her father’s lack of interest in her education by growing mealies (corncobs) on a small patch of land, with the intention of funding her own schooling. Eventually this leads to her attending school, where she flourishes, and she later takes on her brother’s place at the mission school when he dies. Indeed, this story is in part the narrative of a girl’s fight for her right to education, in a society suffused with patriarchal domination and consequent suppression of the female voice. On the surface, you could see this as a novel encouraging people to fight for their right to an education; however, this work is much darker than this.

Dangarembga communicates the corrosive power of colonial rule upon young women in Rhodesia through several characters, but most significantly through Nyasha, who is the same age as Tambu, but has spent part of her childhood in the UK, due to the education provided for her father by a mission. The influence of ‘The English’ (as they are referred to) leads her towards a struggle of identity, where she finds herself internally (externally) conflicted with the rules presented to her by the society around her, represented by the character of her father. This conflict eventually leads to the deterioration of her own physical and mental well-being; indeed, even those characters who appear more resilient are subconsciously effected by the pyschological residue of English domination over traditional Rhodesian values.

“The problem is the Englishness, so you be careful!” (Ma’Shingayi)

Tambu’s mother uses “Englishness” as an explanation for Nyasha’s dangerous eating disorder, suggesting that anglicisation is a disease. She views the influence of the west as the route of all of Babamukuru’s children’s troubles, representing the postcolonial viewpoint that Western culture ultimately degrades African values, making them struggle to live a life of value that fits with their own society.

“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.”

I’d definitely recommend this book for a powerful insight into the colonised mind, and a careful portrayal of the issues related to class, gender and colonial rule, told through the voice of a fiercely determined young girl, which is evidently in part the voice of Dangarembga herself.

5 thoughts on A Perspective on the Colonised Psyche: A Review of ‘Nervous Conditions’ by Tsitsi Dangarembga

  1. I like her strong convinctions and confidence to work on her own without phyical obstacles and attacks from her father. This made her achieve her goal.
    I some cases in Ghana, a girl has no single power to do anything for herself.
    I can remember one girls was beaten by the whole extended family daily after selling her own things just to be able to go to school and the money is being collected from her.
    She was made to work like a slave in her own mother and her family house. She couldn’t endure the regular beatens and torture from them any longer so she ran away from home at age 9 that very night, her uncle’s friends caught her and tried to rape her. Fortunately and unfornately, the uncle appeared and saves her by beating and slaping his friends.
    His uncle decided to help her because he was aware of all what she was going through and even gave her feeding money for school for the next day and promise to hide her and bring her school uniforms to her. During this conversation, the uncle was fondling with her breast, just a chest with no breast, she did not take it serious until the uncle starting trying to finger her. Innocent girl; she ran back home and just upon arriving beatings with stones and sticks all over her. She tried to tell what the uncle tried to do and they accused her of seductive and beat her the more. This is just one scene of her life.

    Do you think this lady will ever have confidence if not empowered somehow? Can she ever be positive in her thinking, abilities and perceptions? Would her despondency affect her relationships; marriage, work and friendships?

    Even to do her own things just like Tsitsi was shattered. She is very timid even till now. Always scared of family coming after her, which always happens. Now she feels like she needs someone strong enough to control her thinking and activities; precolonialism. She cannot own something for herself, but can be an excellent caretaker. Very rare contrast to the views of majority. She would have prefered the colonial rule.

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