Nervous Conditions review: Almost 30 years later this seminal novel is just as relevant and important as it was upon release


It’s been almost 30 years since the novel Nervous Conditions was published in 1988. Written by Zimbabwean author, Tsitsi Dangarembga, it was her third novel and to date is one of only four novels the author has published (a sequel to Nervous Conditions was published in 2006). Set in late 1960s and 70s Rhodesia, an unrecognised state from 1965 to 1979, now Zimbabwe, the novel is especially relevant considering the recent events. The recent coup of the national party, Zanu PF and the forced resignation of revolutionary turned dictator, Robert Mugabe who ruled the country for 37 years prompt a look back at this novel. The interesting thing about the novel is not it is not overtly political. Set in the 60s and 70s this was before Zimbabwe began independent from British rule and before Mugabe became president. The novel follows its protagonist, a little girl named Tambudzai, as she navigates the oppressive patriarchal domination in her home. After her older brother, Nhamo, dies Tambu is sent to the missionary school, where Nhamo studied, away from home with her wealthy middle-class uncle Babamukuru and his family. She finds it difficult to assimilate into the culture of the missionary school and is alienated from the white British missionaries and their children who speak Shona rather than English. Her cousin, Nyasha, after arriving back in Rhodesia from England where she had spent a significant portion of her childhood struggles to fit back into the oppressive patriarchal landscape of Rhodesia. The novel highlights the way in which assimilation is not necessarily a positive thing but can be a difficult and traumatic experience. It also points to the way women experience assimilation might be different from men. Both female characters experience this change in very different ways. The politics of the novel is not explicit or overt but is represented in the mental states of the characters and what colonialism has done to the natives of the countries it’s affected. It’s certainly not the first but is an important representation of African feminism and the struggles which black (especially African) women go through. The novel however does not wallow in despair it’s certainly dark at times but it’s ultimately uplifting and recommended reading for everyone especially young black girls.