THIRTY years after Nervous Conditions was published, the book continues to command literary attention. Just last week, it was rated number 66 in the list of ‘The 100 Stories that Shaped the World.’
By Beniah Munengwa
Title: Nervous Conditions
Author: Tsitsi Dangarembga
Publisher: Seal Press (2004)
The poll was conducted by experts of literature including “108 authors, academics, journalists, critics and translators in 35 countries — their choices took in novels, poems, folk tales and dramas in 33 different languages, including Sumerian, K’iche and Ge’ez.”
The list is topped by Homer’s Odyssey followed by Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Morrison’s Beloved also feature on the list.
Recognition from a former colonial structure tempted me to probe the psychology of the post-colonial construction of gender-conscious literature using the title, Nervous Conditions.
According to the BBC Culture website, the list “is just a starting point, aiming to spark a conversation about why some stories endure; how they continue to resonate centuries and millennia … And why sharing those stories is a fundamental human impulse: one that can overcome division, inspire change, and even spark revolutions.”
Centred on a girl called Tambu, the book, as noted by Rodgers (2013), focuses on “the detrimental effects of colonisation and its impact and legacy as it assimilates with traditional patriarchal structures.”
Nervous Conditions details Tambu’s fight to acquire education against a backdrop of colonialism and deep-seated patriarchy.
The source of Babamukuru’s attitude has mostly been misread as emanating from purely traditional African structures.
“We only experienced a contemporary patriarchy that mixes African traditional and Victorian values. However, I do believe that if African patriarchy did not work to oppress and suppress women, there would have been more push back against the Victorian values. It seems to me that there were many synergies and that they made comfortable bedfellows in the quest to subjugate women,” Dangarembga told Between the Lines.
Tambu opens up the world of womanhood in the face of an imposed institutionalised Victorian ideal. Schmidt’s report reveal, the church played a role in the creation of perceptions of incorporation in colonial Rhodesia along the lines of gender.
The report reveals, “Father F J Richartz, the Jesuit superior of Chishawasha, pronounced Shona girls “totally devoid of seriousness, both of mind and character.”
Therefore, colonial machinery played a role with its institutions in distorting the functional setup of the family. It disenfranchised the woman and helped perceptions around manpower development across gender lines.
Women became modelled along the lines of England, where in time, they were restricted to house chores in the home setup before the advent of second wave feminism between the 1960 and 1980s that then put up a fight against the domestication of women in Europe.
Renowned poet and critic, Memory Chirere problematises the novel saying “it is a white man’s fancy for s/he thinks that, Nervous Conditions is a fight against puritarian patriarchy, when in fact the book is a pointer of the disruptions posed by colonial systems on the family unit.”
Babamukuru as a colonial creation not only patronises women, but fellow men like Jeremiah and Takesure, who he emasculates as he renders them lazy and weak.
Of his absence they say, “Whew! It was good to have Mukoma here, it was good … but it puts a weight on your shoulders, a great weight on your shoulders!” (p. 152)
The implications of colonial society emanating from Babamukuru’s distancing education gains big presence.
However, the emasculation of men by other men is not limited to colonial orientation alone for Okonkwo’s father in Things Fall Apart was subject to that in the precolonial setup.
Interacting with Dangarembga, she was evidently grateful for being named alongside many others. She told me, “The naming of my book alongside the 99 others means a lot to me, and it gives both my book and I exposure.”
But she reflects that just like other local artists, she is struggling. Funding is scarce and it is even more scarce for older women, when emphasis is on the young, demographic dividends and youth bulges.
It was difficult to get Nervous Conditions published, because of patriarchal values in the publishing world. That resulted in my giving up hope of being recognised as a writer.”
Her decision to go to film school was a form of escape from the masculinity syndrome that pervades the world from Hollywood to the everywhere else.
“I went to film school, only to discover that the same biases against women and particularly women of colour exist in the film industry as well. In the professional industry they are generally not interested in stories from Africa.” Thus the condition of the African woman is a nervous one.
There are few that she celebrates, the very few funding African art or film based on merit.
She said, “I am grateful to the EU ACP Cultures + programme, which is one of the only consistent funders of African art and film based on merit and with a real desire to develop the sector.”
Thus the position of the artist in Africa is complex and perplexing in that, there is no guarantee for welfare in the post-practise phase of life. We need no more examples of artists who pass on wallowing in poverty.
Sadly, government policy is devoid of supporting artists.
“Our government is intentionally clueless about supporting the cultural industries. At the moment, artists do not even get the 5 percent government incentive for bringing foreign currency into the country,” Dangarembga bemoaned.
I probed, as I always do, whoever shall win the elections must revise his or her policy towards arts and publishing business.
“I am not satisfied with the position of women 30 years on. It makes me sad that most of the issues addressed in Nervous Conditions are still challenges, except the one of direct colonial rule,” Dangarembga said.
The writer, though in refuge in film, seeks the world to pray for her to extend her resilience in writing in an unrewarding world so that she will, “go on to write more successful literature as well as produce some of the film scripts that I have already written,” and be able to, “emerge again from the ashes of effort and lack of resourcing.”