EduSpots’ Book of the Month Article – June 2024

Book Title: Nervous Conditions

Author: Tsitsi Dangarembga

Welcome to EduSpots’ Book of the Month, June edition! Every month, we delve into literature that not only broadens and challenges our understanding of development, but also inspires action towards a more just and equitable world.

Tsitsi Dangarembga’s seminal work in postcolonial literature, “Nervous Conditions,” tells the story of Tambu, a young girl in colonial Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), her journey and her pursuit of education. This coming-of-age novel explores the tensions between education as a means of individual liberation and social assimilation under the wider colonial hierarchy, and as hinted at in the title, the increasingly nervous conditions Tambu finds herself in as this realisation grows. The title is taken from Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, an incendiary analysis of the psychological construction of the coloniser-colonised identities. Moreover, by focusing on the young female protagonist and the various women around her — her cousin Nyasha, her mother, and her aunts — Dangarembga positions gender as a key theme in Nervous Conditions.

Memorably, the book opens with Tambu stating: ‘I was not sorry when my brother died.’ She explains that it was the singular event that enabled her access to education, and therefore this death ‘cannot be separated’ from her story, one that is about ‘escape’. Immediately, we are made aware of her doubled burden — not only by her socioeconomic status but also by her gender. Whilst a staggeringly apathetic stance, it exactly expresses the unattainability of education for girls like Tambu at the time. This underscores Tambu’s attitude as she progresses through and excels first in her uncle Babamukuru’s mission school, and later at a prestigious boarding school that only extends a few scholarships to native students. Dangarembga creates a diverse cast of female characters, portraying the different ways in which they operate, wrestle with, or survive under the patriarchy. For instance, in Tambu’s eyes, her mother is the archetype of poverty and backwardness, where her mind has belonged ‘first to her father and then to her husband’ — this solidifies Tambu’s desire for ‘emancipation’ through education.

However — Western hegemony in this journey increasingly surfaces until it is painfully undeniable, complicating the benevolent narrative of education. Tambu’s story is then not of liberation but one that is filled with tensions and deconstructions. This includes themes of white saviourism, the imposition of foreign cultures, as well as the internal fragmentation of cultural identity. She reflects retrospectively on how her younger self felt obligated to ‘love the Whites’ and viewed white missionaries as ‘holy’. Later on, in the admission test to the boarding school, she was examined on knowledge that was based on unrelatable Western experiences: such as picking ‘the odd item out of gumboots, galoshes, snow shoes and bedroom slippers. Dangarembga was also interested in the impact of these imbalances on the individual psyche — it is particularly manifest in Tambu’s cousin Nyasha, who, due to her upbringing in England, has become alienated from their native Shona tongue and culture upon return to Rhodesia. She experiences a range of volatile relationships with those around her and with herself, embodying the emotional rupture of the clashing of values and wrestling of powers. Tambu is exposed to all these conflicts, causing her to question and interrogate how she ought to operate as a young African woman — this remains unsolved at the end of the book.

A powerful, reflective, and detailed portrait of colonial society, Nervous Conditions tackles the intersections of education, gender and colonialism. It is highly relevant for those involved in the work of EduSpots as it underscores the necessity for thoughtful and critical design of educational frameworks that genuinely empower individuals. In the process of our work, we are ultimately creating a network of active citizens, engaged in developing and empowering their home communities through education.

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