Nervous Conditions | Study Guide

Tsitsi Dangarembga

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Nervous Conditions | Context



Britain colonized the area of Rhodesia on the African continent in 1890, maintaining control until 1980, when Rhodesia gained its independence and became Zimbabwe. Gold prospectors inundated the region, and the British government sent forces to annex the land and suppress local uprisings. Immediately, Britain began exploiting the area for its vast natural resources.

With a completely white government, the country was segregated, and black citizens were stripped of their civil rights. In the 1960s—when Nervous Conditions is set—black nationalist groups emerged as Zimbabweans started the long fight to regain independence from the colonizers. Pro-independence leader Robert Mugabe rose to power when Rhodesia gained its independence in 1980. Mugabe has continued to rule Zimbabwe despite international outrage over his abuses of power.

Mission Schools

Throughout Africa, colonizing forces—including England and France—set up mission schools to educate local children in the upstanding ways of their governments. The founding belief of these schools was that native children could be educated and saved through Christianity, which meant replacing traditional cultural beliefs with Christian beliefs. To make these changes, African children (such as the protagonist of Nervous Conditions, Tambu) were taught that behaviors outside the boundaries of Christian morality were sinful, shameful, and primitive. African children were instructed in English or French, and many lost their native languages as a result—as Tambu's cousins Nyasha and Chido do in the novel.

Shona Culture

The Shona people of Zimbabwe are traditionally sorghum, corn (also called mealie and maize), and millet farmers who live in villages organized through paternal (father) family lines. Most live in mud huts with thatched (straw) roofs, and share livestock in a common pen. Although the Shona culture has declined, it remains known for its ironwork and pottery, which Nyasha, the cousin of the narrator, practices in Nervous Conditions upon returning to the homestead.

The most notable characteristic of Shona culture as seen in the novel is the strong patriarchy. According to patrilineal rules, when a woman marries she becomes part of her husband's family, meaning any money she earns benefits her husband's bloodline before her own. The order of power begins with a family's eldest male, known as the patriarch, followed by his brothers, then sons.

Postcolonial Novels

Postcolonial novels, or novels that come after a period of colonization, aim to reclaim a history sabotaged by colonizers by "rewriting the textbooks," or by telling the events of history from new points of view. In doing so, postcolonial authors validate the indigenous cultures suppressed through colonization.

Important characteristics of postcolonial literature include the following:

  • Resistant Descriptions: Postcolonial novels provide detailed descriptions of native people to purposefully resist negative characterizations, such as being savage or uncivilized, that are perpetuated during colonization.
  • Appropriated Language: Although postcolonial authors are often fluent in their native tongues—Dangarembga, for example, is fluent in Shona—they may choose to write their novels in the language of their colonizers, claiming this forced language as their own. Other authors choose to write in their native tongues.
  • Reworked Format: Postcolonial novels often manipulate or subvert typical literary formats to reflect the art forms of native people. In Nervous Conditions, for example, Dangarembga uses cyclic time rather than chronological order.
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