Imagine a society where the only way a woman will be able to get an education is if her older brother, who was going to school himself, died, and since she’s the oldest of the family, now she has to go to school in his place.
For author Tsitsi Dangarembga, this wasn’t too far from the truth. In fact, she wrote a semi-autographical novel about it, called Nervous Conditions, about the plight of girls who want an education living in Zimbabwe (or what was then called Rhodesia). The novel follows Tambu, who’s older brother dies of ‘becoming Anglicized’, but in an effort to have at least one member of the family educated at the Catholic school their uncle manages, Tambu is sent to school to take over her brother’s position as eldest of the family. She does this knowing her mother hates it, knowing her father wants her to do it, and knowing that she will never be as close as she used to be to her culture.
The main characters of the novel, Tambu and her cousin Nyasha, have an incredibly dynamic relationship, being incredibly different but able to support each other positively whenever the other needs. Unfortunately, Nyasha does not fare well, becoming, towards the end, a product of the pressure to be perfect, and a part of a society she wants nothing to do with. While a smart girl, Nyasha is a victim of the extreme patriarchy of her father’s reign at the school, and a black woman in a colonized society that views them as nothing more than the natives of the land.
Tambu, on the other hand, excels, meeting her own obstacles of self-identity, both as a girl who spent the majority of her life up to now living in a homestead learning to become the perfect wife, and as a black woman being educated in a white man’s colony. She triumphs over her obstacles, but one can only assume how much she had to pay for that to be said in the first place.
Nervous Conditions is a brilliant novel, written by an author who knows the struggle, and presented to a society who will never understand the difficulty of acquiring an education. My honest recommendation is 4/5; everyone should read this book, especially those interested in history.
Luckily for you, if you’re an English student at the University of Malta, the chances are you’ll have to read this in your second year!