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Purging a plate full of colonial history: The 'Nervous Conditions' of silent girls.
Tsitsi Dangarembga's novel 'Nervous Conditions' focuses on the alienation of Shona women from restrictive traditional practices. Barred by custom from disagreeing verbally with their family, one woman chooses to rebel by feigning paralysis while another refuses to eat food. In both cases, the women express rebellion through the body. Dangarembga's novel illustrates how the acquisition of education and the adoption of Western ways can have painful consequences for modern African women.

Women authors, African (Criticism and interpretation)
Hill, Janice E.
Pub Date:
Name: College Literature Publisher: West Chester University Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Literature/writing Copyright: COPYRIGHT 1995 West Chester University ISSN: 0093-3139
Date: Feb, 1995 Source Volume: v22 Source Issue: n1
Named Person: Dangarembga, Tsitisi
Accession Number:
Full Text:
Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga is currently writing the sequel to her first novel, Nervous Conditions (1988).(1) Indeed, the conclusion seems to invite a sequel:

It was a process whose events stretched over many years and would fill another volume, but the story I have told here, is my own story, the story of four women whom I loved, and our men, this story is how it all began. (204)

Dangarembga's narrator, Tambu Sigauke, describes the events that lead up to the conclusion of her story as a seed she buries in her mind. "But seeds do grow," Tambu tells her reader (203). By the end of the story, she has begun the "long and painful process" out of which narrative voice will grow(204).

In Dangarembga's novel, however, the cultivation of voice and of the mind through education is inextricably connected with a problematic silencing that is manifested through symptoms of illness. Tambu, who is unable to express disobedience verbally, does so through her body. She refuses, by feigning paralysis, to become complicit in events over which she has little control. For her cousin, Nyasha, the refusal to eat food and later, the regurgitation of food become acts of rebellion. She expresses a voiceless anger through her body and her mouth.

The title, Nervous Conditions, comes from a statement Dangarembga uses as the prologue to her novel - "The condition of native is a nervous condition" - taken from the introduction to Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth (1963), in which he wrote about the psychosocial effects of colonization. Thus, illness is a preexistent, thematic condition under which the events of the novel take place. For Nyasha and Tambu, the condition of native as a nervous condition comprises not only colonization but also the condition of gender and the condition of female education. Their attempts to function in a society that does not allow them socially acceptable verbal or written outlets as educated, female Africans result in their being punished for inappropriate expressions of dissatisfaction and anger.

Because Nyasha is the character who articulates most of the historically "real" political events mentioned in the narrative, she expresses most clearly Dangarembga's thematic articulation of illness as a colonial condition. On a metaphoric level, colonialism and Western influence are presented as contaminations that infect and threaten the lives and health of the colonized. If physical and psychological illness can be read as symptomatic of colonialism, it can be cured only by independence, so the ending of Dangarembga's narrative looks ahead to the time of Zimbabwean independence, although the novel itself ends several years before then. And since Nyasha's rebellion against the silencing of her voice and body is a gendered rebellion against patriarchal authority, her personal experience of rebellion figures the guerilla war taking place in Southern Rhodesia during the 1960s and 70s when the novel is set.

Silence and obedience are important values in Shona culture, the Sigauke family's ethnic tribe, and in colonial Southern Rhodesia. In an anthropological work entitled The Genuine Shona: Survival Values of an African Culture (1973), which was published about the time the events of the novel, but not the story, were coming to a close, Michael Gelfand describes Shona families as being structured by a clearly defined paternal system of rank. Women were lower in rank than men, gaining in status as their brothers and sons moved higher in family rank. The Shona displayed respect for anyone of a higher status through what Gelfand describes as "good manners," by being silent and obedient in that person's presence. Gelfand contends that, among Shona family members, "harmony" reigned, and there was an "appreciation of the status of every member of the group." This led "to a well disciplined unit" that ensured the avoidance of "friction" (29, 33). Such a tradition of silence and obedience was reinforced by the way colonial government stratified society along racial lines. Southern Rhodesia's codified system of segregation ensured that Whites, legally higher in rank, were treated with silence and obedience by Africans. In Nervous Conditions the use of spoken language, particularly English, signals power, and the lack of language signals lack of power. Because Nyasha disregards rank, her speech disrupts and threatens the authority of gender- and race-determined status in colonial society.

Colonial education, and the drive of the entire Sigauke family to educate themselves and each other through the colonial system, drive and complicate much of the action of the novel in ways that are directly connected to silencing and voice. Although Whites often determined that the Africans who benefitted most from a colonial education were the ones least likely to threaten the social order, mastery of written and spoken English had currency in Shona society because it provided access to economic power in a way that circumvented race-determined rank. "Whites were indulgent towards promising young black boys in those days, provided that the promise was a peaceful promise, a grateful promise to accept whatever was handed out to them and not to expect more" (106). Nyasha's parents, Babamukuru and Maiguru, owe their current prosperity to the missionary system, so they place a high value on colonial education.

Under Babamukuru's direction, the family uses its limited resources first to educate the sons, then to educate the daughters, although not in the same style. Nyasha's brother, Chido, goes to a boarding school on a scholarship arranged by Mr. Baker, the white missionary who sends his sons, but not his daughter, to boarding school. Nyasha and Nyaradzo Baker are being educated at the mission school. And while Tambu's brother, Nhamo, attends school at the mission, Tambu goes to the village school until she replaces him at the mission after his death. It is through education that Nyasha and Tambu develop many of the skills that enable them to question the validity of the patriarchal and colonial system according them an inferior status, but their questioning is always silenced in a way that is crucially connected to the nervous conditions they develop.

In a country where most Africans are poor, the currency of food is both real and symbolic. Nyasha uses the refusal of food as a weapon of control and power, but in addition to the eating disorder she develops, issues of food permeate the narrative in tangled power relationships with education, language, gender, race, and class. During the period when Babamukuru and Maiguru are in England on missionary scholarships, studying for Master's degrees, Tambu is prevented from attending school for lack of fees, so she grows a field of maize to raise the money herself. Nhamo's education demonstrates one of the many ways that food is used as a weapon by those in privileged positions. He is sent to school because education is seen as more important for sons than for daughters. Nhamo understands that he is able to enjoy his gender-based privilege only because their mother raises the money by selling food at the local bus terminus, at the expense of the family's own meager food supply. Yet he steals ripening cobs from Tambu's field to sabotage her efforts. Ironically, the fight that follows when Tambu discovers his acts of sabotage provides Tambu with the opportunity to sell her mealies in Umtali. There, Doris, a White woman who is pleased by Tambu's enterprise, donates enough money for several years worth of fees while calling her a "plucky piccannin." Thus, Tambu has her first exposure to a world of race and class discrimination and privilege where money is sometimes acquired with "no thought for the method" and the acquisition of food is not viewed with any sense of urgency, as Doris demonstrates when she declines the cobs Tambu offers her (29). Rather, education becomes the transaction of necessity.

When Tambu's father, Jeremiah, refers to colonial education, he metaphorically equates images of letters and books with the consumption and preparation of food, and the images he chooses correspond to traditional expectations about gender roles in the society. When Tambu's teacher, Mr. Matimba, offers to assist in her effort to earn school fees, Jeremiah sees the offer as a threat to his paternal authority. He tells her Mr. Matimba "thinks that because he has chewed more letters than I have, he can take over my children. And you, you think he is better than me" (24). Jeremiah lauds Babamukuru's educational achievements; however, he will benefit from the money his brother earns as a result of education. He exclaims:

Our father and benefactor has returned appeased, having devoured English letters with a ferocious appetite! Did you' think degrees were indigestible? If so, look at my brother. He has digested them! If you want to see an educated man, look at my brother. (36)

As Jeremiah speaks, he brandishes a "staff like a victory spear," symbolically indicating that the ability to digest English letters like food is a weapon of power for an African man (36).

When he extends this metaphor of education to women, Jeremiah associates the imagery of letters with cooking rather than eating. He asks her, "Can you cook books and feed them to your husband? Stay at home with your mother. Learn to cook and clean. Grow vegetables" (15). Although Mr. Matimba points out that Tambu's education will enable her to earn money, Jeremiah is concerned that upon marriage, the money she earns would instead contribute to the upkeep of the family she marries into. And it is true that the salary Maiguru earns contributes not to the upkeep of the family she was born into, but to Babamukuru's extended family - although her contribution goes largely unrecognized by those who benefit from it. Indeed, a substantial portion goes to Jeremiah, who seems to be continually in need. As a daughter, Tambu has no need of education since her marriage would bring the family bridewealth (a son needs an education to earn the bridewealth required to acquire a wife); therefore, Jeremiah views Tambu's education as interfering with her ability to learn the social roles and duties that would make her a marriageable woman.

Food and its lack are a constant preoccupation in the first chapters of Tambu's story while she is on the homestead. Much of the action revolves around its procurement, cultivation, gathering, and preparation. After Nhamo's death, when she leaves the homestead to live at the mission with Babamukuru's family, food becomes characterized by its overabundance and is associated with Babamukuru's established success, wealth, and power. In such an atmosphere of class and educational privilege, the concept of cultivation becomes abstracted from bodily necessity. For the first time, Tambu uses the language of cultivation in relation to growth of the mind and to pleasure. When she sees a bright bed of canna lilies, she thinks:

I too could think of planting things for merrier reasons than the chore of keeping breath in the body . . . Bright and cheery, they had been planted for joy. What a strange idea that was. It was a liberation, the first of many that followed from my transition to the mission. (64)

Tambu's instantaneous transition from a situation of poverty to one of opportunity is an important structural frame through which she represents Nyasha's rebellious nature, her class privilege and her use of food as a weapon. Tambu's oppositional position as a poor cousin emphasizes Nyasha's status as the daughter of a powerful, wealthy African. As she is entirely dependent upon Babamukuru's generosity for the opportunity of being educated at the mission, her relationship to the privilege she now enjoys is radically different from Nyasha's. She has difficulty understanding how Nyasha could be so disrespectful as to talk back to her parents and why Nyasha would question the relative degree of the privilege she was born into without voicing more gratitude. But by exposing the ways in which gender limits Nyasha's and her own positions of privilege, Tambu justifies her cousin's rebellion even while questioning its effectiveness.

Through narrative description that emphasizes Tambu's sense of naivety and wonder at her new surroundings, Dangarembga foreshadows the ironic contrast of the material trappings of prosperity and consumption with the later condition of Nyasha, skeletally thin and critically unhealthy. Tambu remembers being intimidated by her uncle's dining room with its "large, oval table spacious enough to seat eight people," and conjectures that the table's

shape and size had a lot of say about the amount, the calorie content, the complement of vitamins and minerals, the relative proportion of fat, carbohydrate and protein of the food that would be consumed at it. No one who ate from such a table could fail to grow fat and healthy. (69)

Indeed, in such an atmosphere, Tambu narrates, "I grew quite plump," a physical condition with a close cultural connection to the material condition of prosperity (95).

For Nyasha, the sprawling dining table functions not as a symbol of nourishment, but as a field of battle upon which the conflicts of the family are disputed. If a great deal of the conflict over Nyasha's behavior occurs during family dinner, it may be because Babamukuru works such long hours that mealtime is usually the only time they are together. In the middle of Tambu's first meal at the mission, Nyasha, a voracious reader and a gifted student, discovers that the copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover she has been reading has been taken away. Although Nyasha is aware she does not have permission to read the book (obviously because of its sexual content), she becomes upset at the thought that neither parent will acknowledge having taken it. When she tells her mother she has no "right" to have removed the book, Babamukuru demands her silent obedience:

"Er, Nyasha," said Babamukuru to his food, "I don't want to hear you talk to your mother like that."

"But Dad," persisted the daughter incautiously, "I'd expect, really, I'd expect - "

"I expect you to do as I say. Now sit down and eat your food."

Sulkily Nyasha sat down and took a couple of mouthfuls. "Excuse me," she said. She rose from the table, her food unfinished.

"Now where are you going?" Babamukuru demanded.

"To my bedroom," replied Nyasha.

"What did you say?" cried Babamukuru, his voice cracking in disbelief. "Didn't you hear me tell you I don't want to hear you answer back? Didn't you hear me tell you that just now? Now sit down and eat that food. All of it. I want to see you eat all of it."

"I've had enough," explained Nyasha. "Really, I'm full." Her foot began to tap. Instead of sitting down she walked out of the dining-room. (83-84)

In this exchange Nyasha is told that speech is inappropriate behavior and that her refusal to be silent and obedient is disrespectful. When Babamukuru connects obedience to the eating of food, the effect on Nyasha is loss of appetite, an emotional strategy that will become increasingly effective for her and develop systematically into anorexia and bulimia. By saying "I'm full," Nyasha shifts the site of battle from the dining table controlled by Babamukuru to the territory of her own body, which she controls. Her refusal to eat food becomes a weapon of power in an otherwise powerless situation. The words have little to do with the original conflict, so they have the effect of shifting the subject to one in which she can have the last word. And by removing herself bodily, she controls the way in which the conflict is ended.

As an African gift in a colonized country, Nyasha is expected to be silent and obedient. For her to enact rebellion through her body and voice is socially unacceptable, and it brings constant censure, although this does not seem to cause Nyasha to change her behavior. From the time Nyasha is first introduced, her speech and dress are continually characterized as Westernized, and this is nearly always censured as disrespectful or morally indecent. Nyasha tells Tambu that her experience of living in England has turned her and Chido into cultural "hybrids," and that she does not "know what to do about it, Tambu, really I don't. I can't help having been there and grown into the me that has been there. But it offends them - I offend them" (78). If Nyasha is perceived by others, particularly by Babamukuru, as a problem, it could be argued that, in acting more like a daughter of Western parents than the daughter of African parents, she threatens the strict ordering of a cultural and legal system that circumscribes her existence, both as female and as African. By appropriating attitudes of the "mother country," Nyasha underscores ways in which her own native, colonial government mimics but can never duplicate England, for Southern Rhodesia is inferior in a stratified imperial system (see Bhabha). Nyasha has trouble adapting her conduct to the rules of her native country, having spent five years in England absorbing its culture and being aware that "oppression and discrimination" are, at the very least, topics open to public debate (63).

The development of eating disorders is strongly connected to the way a young woman feels or is made to feel about sexuality and the sexual development of her body, particularly by her family. When Nyasha and her family return to Southern Rhodesia after a five-year absence, Tambu observes that Maiguru does not look as though she had been to England, but that Nyasha "obviously had. There was no other explanation for the tiny little dress she wore, hardly enough of it to cover her thighs" (37). In 1965, when they return from England, the European fashion industry was introducing miniskirts. In the West, skirt length was being reinterpreted as a referent to a woman's age, sense of fashion, and the thinness of her legs, rather than as a means of locating morality through her body. Having picked up this Western preference, Nyasha transports it back with her to colonial Africa. Wearing miniskirts could be read as a subversive gesture by which she demonstrates the control she exerts over her female body. But the power of such an act must be called into question, for it is enacted within a cultural and legal system that circumscribes and limits the movements of her gendered, raced body, then marks her socially as disrespectful and indecent. Babamukuru, in particular, thinks Nyasha's short skirts and make-up compromise her "decency" (109). In this sense, Western influence can be read as responsible for disrupting the balance of the Shona family and the colonial system by creating friction and destroying harmony.

Within the text of Nervous Conditions, the notion of "decency" connotes sexual moraliW while to be a "good girl" consistently connotes the notion of silence and obedience. In each of the three major fights between Nyasha and Babamukuru, he makes accusations about Nyasha's sexual or moral conduct and the inability to be silent. These fights are always followed by some form of anoretic or bulimic behavior. Before she attends the Christmas rave at the Beit Hall with Tambu and Chido, Babamukuru asks Nyasha where she thinks she is going dressed in such an "ungodly manner" (109). He does not realize that his wife, not Nyasha, had bought the clothing his daughter is wearing. After the dance is over, Nyasha stays outside their house a few extra minutes with Andy Baker, the son of Mr. Baker, which causes Babamukuru to tell her angrily,

I do not like the way you are always walking about with these - er - these young men. Today this one, tomorrow that one. What's the matter with you, girl? Why can't you behave like a young woman from a decent home? What will people say when they see Sigauke's daughter carrying on like that? (113-14)

As the eldest male in the Sigauke family, Babamukuru holds the greatest social control over the other members, who are lower in rank. In turn, their behavior reflects Babamukuru's ability to exert control over them and reflects back on his status in the society. Nyasha challenges her father's expectations of her as a daughter by replying, "You've taught me how I should behave. I don't worry about what people think so there's no need for you to." By saying this, she insinuates that his control over her is contingent upon her willingness to meet his expectations, and she calls into question whether he is more concerned with his own reputation or with hers (114). This last question is more relevant when one considers that he has no action to accuse her of, other than the indiscretion of standing outside alone with a White boy. However, such an indiscretion is thoughtless and serious in a racially segregated country, and it could conceivably jeopardize Babamukuru's reputation in his position as the African headmaster of a racially mixed mission.

Babamukuru is a powerful African, but he operates within a missionary and colonial system that circumscribes and apportions the power he holds, so others' sense of his worth is often directly connected to his willingness to stay within the boundaries in which he wields the power granted to him by Whites. In turn, his willingness to stay within constructed racial boundaries reinforces the higher rank of Whites in the society. He tells Nyasha, "I am respected at this mission. I cannot have a daughter who behaves like a whore." Although Babamukuru connects the perception of her reputation to his in order to justify its management, he does not dwell on the precariousness of his raced position so much as he invokes the authority of his gender-based position of power. A violent fight erupts between the two, and both Maiguru and Chido must intervene to stop it. After being subdued physically by Chido, Babamukuru insists:

he would kill Nyasha and then hang himself. "She has dared," he said, sweat pouring off him, his chest heaving with the grossness of the thought, "to raise her fist against me. She has dared to challenge me. Me! Her father. I am telling you," and he began to struggle again, "today she will not live. We cannot have two men in this house. Not even Chido, you hear that Nyasha? Not even your brother there dares to challenge my authority." (115)

His response to Nyasha's disrespectful behavior illustrates his shame at not being in control of a daughter in a society that equates his maleness with authority, but the fact that he must invoke patriarchal authority calls its very strength into question. Although Tambu faults Nyasha for tactlessness and lack of respect for Babamukuru, she is profoundly disturbed by his

condemning Nyasha to whoredom, making her a victim of her femaleness, just as I had felt victimised at home in the days when Nhamo went to school and I grew my maize. The victimisation, I saw, was universal. It didn't depend on poverty, on lack of education or on tradition. It didn't depend on any of the things I had thought it depended on. Men took it everywhere with them. Even heroes like Babamukuru did it. And that was the problem. (115-16)

When the confrontation causes Tambu to doubt her hitherto unquestioned worship of her uncle for the first time, she is equally disturbed: "I was beginning to suspect that I was not the person I was expected to be. . . . So to put myself back on the right path I took refuge in the image of the grateful poor female relative . . . It mapped clearly the ways I could or could not go" (116). By consciously choosing an oppositional course of direction in relation to the class-privileged course her cousin follows, Tambu is able to silence the "mazes of self-confrontation" that might cause her to deviate from her path toward educational liberation (116).

As the head of the family, Babamukuru holds decision-making power over the others, but in that capacity he is obligated to lead them in a direction that will foster the overall good of the family. Shortly after his fight with Nyasha, as a solution to problems in the extended family, Babamukuru makes the decision that Tambu's parents must be married in a Christian ceremony, despite the fact that they were married years before in a traditional Shona ceremony. It is over this situation that Tambu questions Babamukuru's ability to make constructive decisions for her Shona family. The idea of a wedding is a costly and merely cosmetic way of camouflaging what is not a problem while solving none of the actual problems in the family. In actuality Tambu's Aunt Lucia, her mother's sister, has become pregnant and has named Tambu's father, Jeremiah, as the father of her child. A Christian ceremony would eliminate the possibility of Jeremiah's taking on Lucia as a second wife, an acceptable practice among the Shona. But the idea is unacceptable to Babamukuru who strictly adheres to Christian values, and as the head of the family, he requires the other members to mimic his values.

As with Babamukuru's relationship to Nyasha, the behavior of his extended family reflects, to a certain extent, his ability to exert control over them, and they in turn reinforce his status as head of the family. When Babamukuru insists that the family mimic his Westernized beliefs, in effect he colonizes them. With Nyasha, Western influence can be seen as responsible for rupturing the balance within the family; with Babamukuru it is colonization that has been responsible for rupturing the balance within the family by creating friction and destroying harmony. Such Africans as Babamukuru, who had embraced the moral and spiritual values of colonial missionaries, were perceived by their benefactors as the most worthy of help. Babamukuru has been rewarded through education with the opportunity of enjoying a standard of living far above that of most Africans in Southern Rhodesia by being one of the "good Africans," who, Tambu says, "thought about nothing except serving their communities" (107). But during Babamukuru's rise through the colonial missionary system, he has become divided economically, socially, and by extension politically from uneducated Africans, and he has been divided culturally from his Shona heritage in a way that constructs him as both participating in and oppressed by colonial power structures.

Tambu believes that a Christian wedding will have "made a mockery of the people I belonged to and placed doubt on my legitimate existence in this world" (163). If a Shona marriage lacks religious legitimacy, and if her parents are, as Babamukuru says, "living in sin," then she and her sisters are also illegitimate and their existence sinful (147). And if a Shona union lacks cultural value, then her existence as a Shona also lacks value. Such concerns, she narrates:

put me in a difficult situation. Naturally I was angry with him for having devised this plot which made such a joke of my parents, my home and myself. And just as naturally I could not be angry with him since surely it was sinful to be angry with Babamukuru. Babamukuru who was my benefactor, my father for all practical purposes and who was also good, deserving of all love, respect and obedience. (149)

For the first time Tambu realizes that her God-like reverence for Babamukuru's authority "had stunted the growth of my faculty of criticism, sapped the energy that in childhood I had used to define my own position. It had happened insidiously" (164). Although she questions his authority, she is unable to voice her objections to the wedding. Instead, whenever Tambu thinks about it, her resentful silence expresses itself through the body: "I suffered a horrible crawling over my skin, my chest contracted to a breathless tension and even my bowels threatened to let me know their opinion" (149). Thus she expresses anger and indignation physically because no socially acceptable verbal outlet exists for a dependent African girl who is expected to be silent and obedient.

The symptoms culminate on the day of the wedding when she is literally unable to move out of her bed. Apparently paralyzed, Tambu is able to cope with her situation only by psychically dislocating her mind from her body: "in the end I appeared to have slipped out of my body and was standing somewhere near the foot of the bed" (166). Although Tambu cannot be verbally disobedient, this psychic rapture allows her to disassociate the silent obedience that she has affected from her body's performatively disobedient actions. When she understands about herself that, "I was not evil to have endured all that terror in order to be sure of my decision," then she is able to tell her uncle she does not want to go to the wedding (167). As a child, Tambu had defined her position as female through the act of growing maize. Now through the acts of voicing her objections and refusing to participate in the wedding, she redefines that position, which had been subsequently silenced. In so doing, Tambu's position reemerges in a more complex form as she defines herself both as female and as Shona. Although Tambu is punished for disobeying Babamukuru, she accepts it with "masochistic delight," noting that the punishment "was the price of my newly acquired identity" (169). Unlike Nyasha, Tambu has a sense of "What could or couldn't be done" (203). By knowing this, she is able to contain, to silence the suspicions that have begun to trouble her by burying them in her subconscious because such suspicions would interfere with her plans for obtaining an education (203).

Tambu's mother, Mainini, is the only character other than Nyasha to openly denounce the ways in which colonialism has ruptured the traditional structure and value system of her family and their way of life. She feels hostility toward education and the "Englishness" it represents. Originally Mainini had been determined that Nhamo should be educated, but Nhamo alters after moving to Babamukuru's mission school and learning English. He returns home as little as possible, and when he does return, he refuses to speak Shona with his family although his uneducated mother cannot speak English. She wants him to have the benefits of education, but she confides to Tambu, "even more, she wanted to talk to him" (53). Gradually, Mainini begins to regard colonial education as an evil that divides her from her son. They are separated physically as he leaves the farm to live with his uncle at the mission, and they are estranged linguistically as Nhamo devalues his parents' and his own native language. Finally they are divided literally. When Nhamo dies, Mainini curses Babamukuru and Maiguru, hissing, "First you took his tongue so that he could not speak to me and now you have taken everything," and concluding, "you and your education have killed my son" (54). Fearing the divisive power of education, Tambu's mother objects when she is told that Tambu will take Nhamo's place at the mission. She tells her husband, "She will not go. Unless you want me to die too. The anxiety will kill me" (56). Indeed, when Tambu does leave, Mainini expresses her suffering through a depression that reflects her sense of powerlessness. By the time Tambu is offered a scholarship at the exclusive, and almost-exclusively White, Young Ladies College of the Sacred Heart, her mother's fears of a language barrier have escalated into complete estrangement from her daughter. She asks Tambu, "Tell me, my daughter, what will I, your mother say to you when you come home a stronger full of white ways and ideas?" (184). Although Mainini speaks out, from her physically isolated position on the farm, she is not perceived as threatening to Babamukuru's patriarchal authority. Therefore, unlike Nyasha, she is not silenced. Rather, her opinions are categorically ignored, a condition that contributes continually to her sense of powerlessness and to her depression.

Because Tambu suppresses her voice, Babamukuru considers her to be "a paragon of feminine decorum," and it is for all the things she does "not think or do" that he compares her so favorably to Nyasha in an attempt to shame his daughter into silence. Tambu narrates:

I hardly ever talked unless spoken to, and then only to answer with the utmost respect whatever question I had been asked. Above all, I did not question things. It did not matter to me why things should be done this way rather than that way. I simply accepted that this was so . . . I was not concerned that freedom fighters were referred to as terrorists, did not demand proof of God's existence nor did I think that the missionaries, along with all the other Whites in Rhodesia, ought to have stayed at home. (155)

When Nyasha expresses her concern that freedom fighters are being referred to as terrorists, she is the only character to acknowledge the guerrilla war taking place in Southern Rhodesia at that time. But Nyasha's parents have prospered economically under colonialism, so in speaking out against missionaries, she risks disrupting that very system of colonial culture to which her family owes its current prosperity. At a point when outward expressions of emotional hostility become dangerous for Nyasha, vomiting back food becomes a covert but disruptive act of rebellion enacted through the body. When she rejects food, Babamukuru considers it to be a challenge to his culturally and legally sanctioned patriarchal authority. She uses binging and purging for the first time when he connects her disobedience to the withdrawal of his economic support by threatening, "She must eat her food, all of it. She is always doing this, challenging me. I am her father. If she doesn't want to do what I say, I shall stop providing for her - fees, clothes, food, everything" (189). Although she is compelled to swallow the food her father provides at the dinner table where she is compelled to sit, he cannot compel her to keep it down once she leaves the table. When she evacuates the body, Babamukuru's authority over her body is emptied. Fanon writes that "autodestruction in a very concrete form is one of the ways in which the native's muscular tension is set free" (54). Outwardly, Nyasha knows that her behavior is illogical, but it does make her feel better, and as it continues to be her only effective emotional strategy, she continues.

Typically an anorexic gift becomes focused internally as a coping mechanism when she is unable to deal effectively with her external situation. For Nyasha, focussing internally allows her to perform silence and obedience externally. Although she manages an outward performance, she continues to enact rebellion inwardly, through the body, until the binging and purging cycle becomes ritualized into what Tambu describes as "a horribly weird and sinister drama" (198). Both figuratively and literally, her attempt to be silent and obedient is killing her. Nyasha's parents see that she is losing weight, but because she eats, they have no idea why, nor do they know how to help her, other than to force her to eat. Babamukuru may be as frightened and concerned as the rest, but because he is only able to understand his daughter in the context of being dutiful, he has only one method of handling Nyasha, that of using his authority. At a point when she is so sick that she passes out during dinner into her plate, he sincerely believes she is making a scene deliberately, so he punishes her by sending her to her room. Outwardly obedient, Nyasha goes to her room and remains silent for the rest of the night, not even studying.

At this point, when Nyasha has lost control even of her body, it appears that she has also conformed completely in behavior (in fact it is the point where her body has failed her as an effective expression of emotional hostility, and it marks the breakdown of her attempt to simulate the image of the silent and obedient daughter). The emotional outburst of rage that follows is far greater in its verbal and physical violence than any of Nyasha's previous expressions of anger. When she screams, "I'm not a good girl. I'm evil. I'm not a good girl" (200), not only does she reaffirm her inability to keep silent, but her use of the word "evil" rather than "bad" can be interpreted as a reappropriation of bad into a meaning which is more powerful: the speech of a bad gift is inappropriate; the speech of an evil gift is defiant and rebellious.

Nyasha makes the accusations, "They've done it to me," and "It's not their fault. They did it to them too. You know they did . . . To both of them, but especially to him. They put him through it all. But it's not his fault, he's good" (200). Although the ambiguity of her words may seem to defy definitive interpretation, Nyasha seeks to understand everything, including her own condition in its largest context, so when her voice takes on a Rhodesian accent with "sneering sarcastic tones," it is clear that she has taken her rage to the context of colonial oppression. In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon writes:

In the colonial context the settler only ends his work of breaking in the native when the latter admits loudly and intelligibly the supremacy of the white man's values. In the period of decolonization, the colonized masses mock at these very values, insult them, and vomit them up. (43)

As loudly as the settler would have the native shout the supremacy of "the white man's values," Nyasha loudly, violently rejects them. But Nervous Conditions is set in the period of colonization, not decolonization. In the dual context of colonial oppression and Nyasha's eating disorder, it is highly significant that she begins to shred her history book with her teeth. Colonial education has forced Nyasha to binge on a plate full of history, which she purges, so to speak, when she says, "Their history. Fucking liars. Their bloody lies" (201). Symbolically then, Nyasha's nervous condition is symptomatic of the disease of colonialism.

As eating disorders are primarily diseases of the West, the question of why Dangarembga might choose to focus on a character who is actually a statistical anomaly is an important one to ask. According to a 1987 medical review on eating disorders among blacks, there were only two reported cases in all of Africa. Strikingly, one was a Zimbabwean woman from an upper-class family who had been sent to school in England (see Brumberg 280).(2) Despite the medical accuracy of Dangarembga's depiction of Nyasha's illness, despite Nyasha's class positioning, and despite the surface similarity between her background and the above statistic, in creating such a character, Dangarembga distorts the realistic possibilities of how an African character might develop in a realistic African novel.

I believe an answer to the question, "Why an eating disorder?" lies in the intersection of Fanon's conceptualization of illness as symptomatic of the disease of colonialism and Nyasha's self-description as a hybrid. Nyasha's hybridity, a condition that has been produced by Western influence, has rendered her unsuitable within her family and Southern Rhodesia, both as a female and as a native subject of colonialism. She is punished because she resists her father's demands that she stop behaving in ways that reflect her hybridity and instead behave as a proper female African child. This script of resistance and punishment demonstrates the ways in which hybridity is symptomatic of the infection of Western influence.

That Nyasha's (mostly) failed strategies of resistance should develop into a life-threatening disease points to the irony of the ways in which both colonialism and Western influences have contaminated the lives and health of the colonized, even those who have supposedly benefitted from it. Although Nyasha's self-conscious rejection of "white man's values" may disrupt the structure of colonial society and expose it as diseased, those values still dominate and circumscribe both her and her family's existence. Instead, colonial society constructs Nyasha as sick. If her eating disorder is indeed symptomatic of the disease of colonialism, then independence must be the cure. Literally however, Nyasha is near the point of death from bulimic starvation, so her bodily illness poses a more immediate danger to her life than symbolic sickness poses to the life of colonial society. Independence, more than a decade away, is too distant a cure for Nyasha's more immediate medical needs.

Much of the discontent that the women in the Sigauke family express with the patriarchal power structure according them an inferior status and not allowing them either a legally or socially acceptable means of expression mirrors the discontent that Africans expressed with colonial power structures during the 1960s and 1970s - structures that accorded them an inferior status and did not allow a legally acceptable means of expression. In particular, I read Nyasha's struggle against Babamukuru's authoritative attempt to silence her as figuring the struggle of African freedom fighters in the long and bloody guerrilla war against Southern Rhodesia's government. For speaking out against the White government, the very same revolutionaries who would lead Zimbabwe to independence in 1980 (such as Robert Mugabe, the Shona leader of ZANU) were detained, jailed, tortured, killed, and exiled from the country. Like Nyasha, Zimbabwe's freedom fighters often appeared to be losing a futile battle, and many died. Closure leaves Nyasha with her life and progress out of anorexia and bulimia "in the balance," and so was the progress of Zimbabwe's revolutionary war often in the balance in the years leading up to and following closure in Dangarembga's novel (202). If indeed Nyasha's nervous condition symbolizes colonialism as disease, and her rebellion against silence is a mirror of Zimbabwe's struggle for independence, Dangarembga would not be able to provide her reader with closure because it would be mediated temporally by the intervening years between the end of the novel and the date of independence. In other words, closure would be years and a long fight away, and the narrative, written in retrospect, is looking to a time beyond its own closure.

While Nyasha's progress "was still in the balance," Tambu narrates, "so as a result was mine," so closely are their lives and stories intertwined (202). Tambu tells herself that by being silent, she is "a much more sensible person than Nyasha" (203), but the events that end the story mark the beginning of the end of her silence, and they mark the time when she says, "something in my mind began to assert itself, to question things and refuse to be brainwashed" (204). Although Tambu has told her readers early in the story, "The needs and sensibilities of the women in my family were not considered a priority, or even legitimate," the narrative establishes Tambu's positionality yet again by legitimizing and privileging the needs of the women she loves (12). Just as Nhamo's death, the first event in the story, put Tambu "in a position to write this account" (1), perhaps closure can be read as a beginning, with civil war not so much about the end of Southern Rhodesia as about the beginning of Zimbabwe, not so much about silencing as about the beginning of the long period of germination out of which will grow narrative voice - a voice that, in the end, successfully refuses to be silenced.


1 My thanks go to Ngugi wa Thiong'o for providing me with this information, and to Kathy Gale of The Women's Press for confirmation.

2 The original article cited in Brumberg is L. D. Gregory and T. Buchan, "Anorexia Nervosa in a Black Zimbabwean," British Journal of Psychiatry 145 (1984): 326-30.


Bhabha, Homi. "Of Mimicry and Men: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse." October 28 (Spring 1984): 125-33.

Brumberg, Joan Jacobs. Fasting Girls: The Emergence of Anorexia Nervosa as a Modern Disease. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988.

Dangarembga, Tsitsi. Nervous Conditions. Seattle, Washington: Seal, 1988.

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991.

Gelfand, Michael. The Genuine Shona: Survival Values of an African Culture. Mambo, 1973.

Verrier, Anthony. The Road to Zimbabwe: 1890-1980. London: Jonathan Cape, 1986.

Hill is a graduate student in English at New York University, and an instructor at Monroe College. Her central focus is on postcolonial literature and film, and feminist, postcolonial, and postmodern theory. She has delivered papers on Hanif Kureishi's screenplays; this is her first published essay.
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