“The condition of native is a nervous condition” – from an introduction to Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth
So reads the quote from which Tsitsi Dangerembga derives the name for her novel, Nervous Conditions. Indeed, this bildungsroman is underscored by a disquieting current of anxiety and tension even as we follow the protagonist, Tambu’s journey of emancipation from the clutches of tradition in her rural village in Zimbabwe to the beginnings of her transformation at the mission in the first half of the novel.
The tension between the opposing colonial and local culture is apparent already in the opening pages of the novel. Colonial Zimbabwe illustrates the “phenomenon of the contact zone…where disparate cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other” (264). Contact with the culture of the British colonizers engenders the process of mimicry, which is a driving force that shapes many characters in the novel as they imbibe the culture of their colonizers in different degrees.
Tambu displays the ambivalence that is both a product and producer of mimicry. Tenacious and bright, her desire to procure an education is birthed as a result of the contrast she is provided between the squalor of her family and the relative prosperity that education has offered her uncle and his family. However, being female adds an added layer of complexity to the clashes between the disparate worlds of Zimbabwean and British culture. Education is perceived as the province of men in her native cultural climate, but deemed incompatible with its staunchly patriarchal designation of the space of women at home.
Nonetheless, Tambu is not discouraged when her father tells her that she does not need to be educated and must instead learn to be a good wife: “Can you cook books and feed them to your husband?” (15). On the contrary, her fervent desire to go to school only grows stronger. The divergent pathways of the educated versus the uneducated women in her family spurs Tambu’s determination to not be consigned to the same fate as her mother, forever dependent and subservient to her husband. Instead, she aspires to be her aunt, Maiguru, “who was not poor and had not been crushed by the weight of womanhood” (16).
However, the odds are stacked against her from the start, and the fact that her brother is offered the opportunity by Babamukuru to study at the mission further underscores the injustice of her situation. As Tambu quickly learns, being female greatly compounds the nervous condition that is the fate of the native.
In the first half of the novel that I read this week, Tambu has yet to be fully transformed by this process of mimicry, unlike her cousin, Nyasha who is classified as a “been-to”, having spent her childhood in England. Her reactions to the culture of the colonizer are thus characterized by ambivalence. On the one hand, she desperately wishes to acquire the Western education that would allow her to emulate her aunt and uncle in manners and lifestyle but, at the same time, is equally suspicious of this same culture as seen in her reactions to Nyasha.
Although she does not recognize it at the time, this suspicion underlies her immediate disapproval of her cousins upon meeting them for the first time after their return from England (39). In fact, she is bewildered, disappointed, and even offended that they have forgotten how to speak Shona (42). Later on at the mission, she is aghast at Nyasha’s attitude (perceived as disrespectful according to local customs) towards her parents even as she submerges herself in reading the books of British authors such as Enid Blyton and the Bronte sisters (94). Nyasha is at once stranger and compatriot to Tambu in the reincarnation that she so greatly desires.
While Tambu’s hostility towards Nyasha gradually thaws as they begin to forge a friendship, the same cannot be said of her friends parents and friends. Nyasha’s assertiveness and keen intelligence (cultivated by her formative years in Britain) is misperceived as defiance by her parents and arrogance by her peers, as these characteristics are the antithesis of those traditionally prescribed for females by local custom. Consequently, she is constantly at loggerheads with her parents and is vilified by her peers because of her adoption of Western manners and dress.
Nyasha thus serves as a prime embodiment of the end result of mimicry according to Homi Bhabha: “almost the same but not white” (269), presenting an image of what Tambu might become. Decidedly “English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect” as Lord Macaulay would say, she is nonetheless “Anglicized”, which “is emphatically not to be English” (267). While Bhabha posits that this mimicry disrupts colonial authority in revealing the ambivalence of colonial discourse, I would argue that this partial presence comes at a cost especially for the women in this story. This Anglicization is already precluding Nyasha’s reintegration into her native society, and will continue to plague her later on as indicated in the introduction to the novel. Tambu’s fate, however, remains to be seen.