“I was not sorry when my brother died.”

The novel begins with this shocking confession from Tambu, the principal character and narrator. Tambu has had a murky, often ambivalent relationship with her brother, Nhamo. He represents everything she is denied and the principal failing of the social structure and family hierarchy into which she has been born. Simply because he is a male and the eldest, he is the sole repository of the family’s hopes and ambitions. Tambu, regardless of her intelligence, talents, and abilities, must be satisfied with a secondary role, an understudy whose sole job it is to support and assist Nhamo as he makes his way in the world. With his sudden and unexpected death, Tambu’s life takes a dramatic turn for the better.

Set in colonial Rhodesia during the 1960s, Nervous Conditions is the coming-of-age story of Tambu, who seizes the opportunity to leave her rural village to attend the missionary school run by her wealthy, British-educated uncle. While excelling in her new school, Tambu witnesses how her cousin Nyasha rebels against her father, as both girls increasingly move farther away from their cultural heritage. Through Tambu’s eyes, the reader observes and learns about the conditions of various aspects of her life - her family, her proscribed role as a woman, and the inherent evils of colonization.

In Nervous Conditions, Dangarembga focuses in particular on a small group of women who struggle to be heard and to succeed in a world that often aggressively seeks to silence and control them. Though in a way these women are successful in their struggle, their victories are not grand. They do not openly challenge the status quo, topple repressive systems, or alter prevailing behaviors and ways of thinking. Instead, their victories lie in the strength they muster to navigate a world that is unsympathetic to their concerns, and their success is rooted in their unflinching desire to succeed where others have readily failed.

Exploring themes of gender inequality, the influence of colonization, traditional values vs. modern approaches, Nervous Conditions is a great asset to African literature.

Sources: Sparknotes, Amazon

Article By: Nkem Owoh

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