Being a woman in Zimbabwe, as in many African countries and other parts of the world, comes with a slew of difficulties. They are born into an unequal world. They grow up in a world of inequality and regard it as their lot in life. They are aware that they are inferior to their male counterparts as they grow older. They are expected to respect all males in society, including their siblings. Access to education is a significant indicator of inequality. Females are expected to stay at home and learn what they need to know to become excellent wives, cooks, and housekeepers, while males are expected to go to school. It is in this light that the essay critically analyses Nervous Conditions.
Nervous Conditions is a novel by Tsitsi Dangarembga which portrays the state of gender oppression and complex systems, including those of class, colonisation, and culture. The author gives illustrations of the many struggles that result from the oppression. In the novel, Tambudazi (Tambu in short), the narrator, gives an illustration of the experiences of the various female characters. Tambu begins with narrating how oppressed she felt at first by her brother, then by her father. The oppression that she undergoes through her brother makes her to declare that she “…was not sorry…” when her brother died (Dangarembga 1). Neither does she apologize for the callousness that may be seen through her admission.
The narrator explains how her brother, Nhamo got an opportunity to go to school and complete his studies while she was being encouraged to learn domestic work so that she can grow into a woman who would take good care of her husband and please him. Her brother goes on to make it clear to her that she was not meant for things like education and it was pointless to try and attain education. Nhamo and, later, her father, were trying to teach her to accept her position in the society. When Nhamo goes off to school, she feels a bit relieved. And when he dies away at school, she feels delighted because being the eldest child, she would now get a chance to be educated. This indicates the inequality in the acquisition of education for the females and the males. In the Zimbabwean community, where the novel is set, males are expected to go to school, excel in their studies, and become important people in the society. Women, on the other hand, are expected to be experts in the domestic work only which is clearly explained to Tambu by her father, mother, and brother. When her father finally comes to terms with her passion with education, he comments that becoming educated would only prepare her better for the task of taking good care of her husband, children, and home. Her father’s idea is that women are meant to remain in the kitchen.
Maiguru, Babamukuru’s wife and Tambu’s aunt, studied abroad and has a Master’s degree, she does not use her education to overcome her situation and be free from her husband’s oppression. Even though she has the capacity to break free from the oppression, like Tambu’s mother, she is too loyal to her husband to attempt to free herself. She leaves Babamukuru, but only to run to another man, her brother. She only leaves for a short while and then returns to her husband. However, she is troubled by her condition, she even complains that “…no one even thinks about the things I gave up” (Dangarembga 103). She even knows that she has also contributed to the success of her husband through her hard work and says the same to Tambu (Dangarembga 104). This implies that the roots of gender oppression are far reaching. Education alone cannot be enough liberation for the women.
Even though Maiguru is educated and has a job, all the money she earns is managed by her husband. She cannot do whatever she wants with her earned money. She works hard and earns good money, but she cannot even afford to buy a car for herself (Dangarembga 104). To liberate themselves, Dangarembga implies that women have to rebel from the social constructs. Through Tambu, we learn that her only liberation from the oppression by men is that she has to pursue her education independently and then challenge the men in their ideologies. She also tries to help other girls and women to break loose from their cages, like Nyasa.
Nyasha also attains education abroad and is divided between embracing her culture and the foreign culture. She gets confused in her rebellion against domination by males and surprises even Tambu when she hits her father back and is constantly fighting with him. Even though she rebels against the oppression by men, especially her father and her brother, the conflict within her ends up destroying her mentally and psychologically. When she craves for the company of Tambu and even continues to write to her after she goes away for studies, it is evident that only women can support each other morally and help each other solve their problems (Dangarembga 199). Her father compares her to a whore when she comes home late because a man was teaching her some more dancing moves. The contrast is illustrated by the fact that her brother, Chido, has a white girlfriend and even spends the night at her “friends’” places. It reveals that the males are superior and can do whatever they want to, but the females have to account for their actions to their fathers, and also to their brothers.
Lucia, Tambu’s aunt, just like Tambu, is able to transcend and overcome her situation. She establishes herself by attaining a high level of education and finds herself work. She openly challenges men, even her brother, Babamukuru, who is respected and feared in the community. She illustrates that, women in that community can choose to liberate themselves, even if it involves choosing not to be married like Lucia.
All the women in the Nervous Conditions begin their lives subdued by men. Some of them, like Tambu and Lucia, manage to break free from the oppression. Some, like Nyasha rebel but are trapped. Others, like Tambu’s mother, Maiguru, and the other women in the story, are trapped and accept the oppression as societal norms. Even though Maiguru complains about her condition, she chooses to remain loyal to her husband which is the fate of many women around the world. Education alone cannot liberate them as it is evidenced by Maiguru’s entrapment despite her education.
Dangarembga, Tsitsi. Nervous Conditions. Evanston, Ill.: McDougal Littell, 2009.