Post-Colonial theory is filled with examples of the effects of colonization. In many cases, western scholars take on the challenge of understanding and writing about colonization. But, European and American writers examining instances of resistance, and how gender, race, and class function within the confines of colonial societies may not accurately or fully depict the complicated and unimaginable experiences of the colonized. When the topic of oppressed individuals comes up, readers tend to find first-hand accounts more credible. Tsitsi Dangarembga is an African author. In Nervous Conditions, she writes about the lives and emotions of Rhodesian girls and women. Hers and other stories are based upon the lives of real people. They are startling, truthful depictions of women in post-colonial African societies. Dangarembga points out the duality of oppression for women living with the burdens of colonialism and patriarchy. These institutions allow them no chance to escape psychological and physical strains and are something it may be difficult for the modern reader to fully realize except through in-depth analysis.
The narrator, Tambudzai, carefully observes small indications of the power men have over women taking place in the home each day in both affluent and indigenous African families. Even the little girls in the novel such as Tambu, can see the implications of men having their hands washed first at meals, eating food first, even if none is left for women or children. Men sleep in beds while women, even while pregnant sleep on the ground in the “domestic” space of the kitchen. Men must be seated at the head of the table, signifying their place within the family structure and are always educated first. Without ever being told, Tambu knows that her brother will be the one to go to school at the mission where her educated uncle, Babamukuru, lives with his family and works as the headmaster. It is through her brother, Nhamo’s, idealistic and sometimes exaggerated portrayal of his opportunistic “new” life that Tambu begins to realize the constraints of her own.
As Tambu continues to live her life on the traditional African homestead, her brother returns from the English school with new ideas about the regression or backwardness of life sustained through labor outside the city. Though Nhamo is expected to help with harvest and chores, he skips them to read, knowing that as an educated male he will never be forced to live in poverty again. Nhamo does not mind watching as his pregnant mother and his small sisters bear the burdens of rural life until dark each night. He even orders his young sister with a baby on her back to carry his luggage for him. The signs of his changing grow greater as he begins to forget his mother tongue for the English he is learning. He is the male who will lead his branch of the family out of poverty.Cruelly reminding his sisters of their lack of hope for the future is only realistic.
Tambu’s lack of feeling or regret upon the death of Nhamo seems disturbing, which is the reason the novel begins with her admission of this fact. With his death, Tambu is given a chance to make change. When Babamukuru, his wife Maiguru, and their children Nyasha and Chido return from living in England for five years, it is decided that Tambu will take Nhamo’s place at the mission school. She will live with her Uncle Baba’s family.
In much the same way that Tambu is struggling to adjust to a completely new life in post-colonized Rhodesian society, Nyasha who has forgotten her native Shona languag,e must adjust to finding her self-identity somewhere in between the blurry lines of English post-colonialism and traditional Shona cultural customs.
The contrasting environments in which the girls have been raised have lead to extreme personality differences between them and what the two deem acceptable behavior. Where Tambu is timid, Nyasha is outspoken and wants to make her cousin see what’s going on around her. Ironically, much of Nyasha’s behavior is a result of her parents taking her to a country where they do not fully approve of the customs or behaviors of women. Now they move her back to their homeland and expect her to change, while forgetting the things she learned abroad. Nyasha is confused about how to act and who she is. Nyasha sees her parents compromising who they are, further prompting her to disagree with her father for succumbing to White supremacy. Both girls realize that the problems they experience penetrate far deeper than they can imagine.
Despite the attempts at resistance, a world controlled by men and foreign government could not be escaped. Tambu continued to attend an English school, yet, failed to see hope of a brighter future for herself. The reader is made aware that Tambuzai is an adult looking back on her naiveté. ‘Something in my mind began to question things, to assert itself and refuse to be brainwashed.’ After years of observing the process of herself as a native being “colonized,” she finally understands its implications.
It could be said that the girls have too much knowledge for their own good. With knowledge comes having to face the consequences of the truth and the future-good or bad. Nyasha cannot cope with trying to be two different people in a divided society. In an attempt to gain control, she becomes obsessive about her schooling and eventually bulimic. Tambu does not reveal Nyasha’s fate to the reader, as though the fate of all citizens in this situation is unknown. It would appear as though Nyasha had been virtually destroyed. It goes without saying that all others involved remained forever altered.
The boundaries dividing the African and Englander; the necessity to choose one’s future above the past and family are a choice that should never have to be made. It is easy for people in English speaking countries such as the U.K. and the United States to live a life-time without ever considering the impact colonization has made on African society. Tsisti Dangarembga has done much for Zimbabwae (once Rhodesia) and her family and ancestors in creating a piece of writing which transcends a national and cultural gap and reaches to the heart of emotional issues we can all relate to. Each person who claims they wish the world were a better place needs to start listening to and reading stories like this one.
Final Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
For more information:
Read: The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon
Orientalism by Edward W. Said
Post-colonial Africa: http://www.spectrezine.org/Africa/ErikAfrica.htm