Nervous Conditions: a matter of identity

  • This story explores how the character’s personal and cultural belief systems as well as the political ideologies of the day in Rhodesia affected how they lived their lives and how they behaved as people.

  • The story also looks at how the characters see themselves and others and how these opinions influence their behaviour and their actions.

  • While there is some reference to the wider political situation in Rhodesia there is a greater focus on the specific power relationships between people of the same family. Many of these relationships are affected by gender.

We need to look specifically at how this novel explores the issues of identity. Firstly let us agree that this story is the autobiography of the character Tambu and NOT that of the author.

One question we can ask is “Who is Tambu?”

Tambu herself seems to be asking the same question during the course of telling her story. When she leaves the homestead to make her new home at the mission she says:

How can I describe the sensations that swamped me when Babamukuru started his car, with me beside him on the day I left my home? It was relief, but more than that. It was more than excitement and anticipation. What I experienced that day was a short cut, a rerouting of everything I had ever defined as me into fast lanes that would speedily lead to my destination. My horizons were saturated with me, my leaving, my going. There was no room for what I left behind.” (p. 58)

At this stage, Tambu is convinced that she will be able to totally reinvent herself, merely by changing her context: Tambu, poor homestead, rural girl becomes Tambu, part of a well to do black family living in a mission home and soon be educated. She believes this “other self” and this “new me” will now be able to assert itself because she has left the old self behind her.

“(I) expected to find another self, a clean, well-groomed genteel self who could not have been bred, could not have survived on the homestead” (p.58 – 59)

If we were to ask again “Who is Tambu?” her answer at this stage would be quite different to her previous reply.

Perhaps it is more accurate to say that her identity is not fixed, but rather something that shifts and changes as her context changes. She is not only obedient and hard-working, she is also adventurous, rebellious and strong-willed. She takes on the role of daughter, cousin, niece, school girl, confidante and self.

As Tambu’s story progresses so does the change in how she perceives herself. As she struggles to come to make sense of her life in the various contexts she finds herself in (living at the mission and then at the convent) she attempts to understand who she truly is. Both the first paragraph and the last show how this story explores Tambu and her unfolding identity.

“…I shall not apologise but begin by telling the facts as I remember them that led up to my brother’s death, the events that put me in a position to write this account.” (p.1)

“Quietly, unobtrusively and extremely fitfully, something in my mind began to assert itself, to question things and refuse to be brainwashed, bringing me to this time when I can set down this story.” (p.204)

This journey that Tambu undertakes is a long and sometimes painful one. She calls her journey a “process of expansion” and acknowledges that it covers many years and that the story that she has told here is only a small portion of the whole.


The reality of the patriarchal distribution of powers affects each of the characters in one way or another:

As in many African cultures the Shona community complies to the laws of patriarchy. Men make the rules and they implement them while the women simply obey. From an early age children are taught these role divisions and are conditioned into accepting that men are stronger and more important than women and that females need to be looked after.

This goes some way to understanding Nhamo’s comments to Tambu when he points out that he “is the one that who has to go to school” – he genuinely believes that he is entitled to things she is not merely because he is male.

Even Babamukuru (with all his Western education) thinks in the same way. He is educating Tambu to prepare her for marriage. He does not expect his own wife to have an opinion so when he asks her whether she has something to say about Tambu attending Sacred Heart he is surprised to hear that she does in fact have something to say.

In Shona culture the ideal woman should be quiet and subservient, kind-hearted, hard-working, patient and accommodating. She should accept her lot with stoic silence because, as Tambu’s mother points out “this business of womanhood is a heavy burden… Learn to carry your burdens with strength” (p.16)

So, whether a woman is poor, uneducated and black (like Tambu’s mother) or rich, educated and black (like Maiguru) she is still expected to conform.

NOTE though that patriarchy is not the only reason given for the situation in which Tambu and the other female characters in the novel find themselves – it goes beyond this to the existence of the colonial system in Rhodesia. Whites held all the power: black people (both men and women) lacked any political power therefore patriarchy is only half the problem.

Conditions of Nervousness

“The condition of native is a nervous condition” Jean-Paul Sartre

This extract is taken from the book by Frantz Fanon called “The Wretched of the Earth”.

The book looks at what it might feel like to be colonised – to be the “native” in a colonial system. Fanon’s work analyses the colonial system and depicts the misery and hopeless subjection of black people under European colonial rule.

He goes on to discuss that the colonised Africans cannot truly choose between their own indigenous culture and that of the European because in order to survive “they must have both. Two worlds (…) the status of native is a nervous condition introduced and maintained by the settler among colonised people with their consent”

What Sartre is trying to say here is that it is the settler (coloniser) that introduces the “nervous condition” by importing a foreign culture, but then who also maintains that feeling of insecurity. In other words the settler has an interest in promoting the instability of the native. The settler would naturally want to retain control over the colonised people. At the same time the colonised people may begin to accept or “buy into” the culture of the coloniser in order to ensure their existence and this causes further fragmentation of identity and further psychological unease or “nervousness” amongst the colonised.

Sartre’s idea that some colonized people consent to their “nervous condition” is clearly illustrated by the character of Babamukuru. He, of all the characters depicted in the novel, most obviously “buys into” the white man’s culture. His school teaches black children entirely according to the model of “white education”.

Tambu, Nyasha and Maiguru all, in their own ways, demonstrate an uneasiness with their cultures that they gain access to: all three these women find themselves at odds with their Shona culture and adopted European culture – they seem torn between these two worlds.

Tambu’s condition can often be described as “nervous” – at times she is afraid and lacks confidence in the new world she has chosen for herself. She is caught between the familiar world of home (keeping her connected to her Shona roots) and the less familiar Europeanised world that she finds so attractive (but to which she clearly does not belong). It seems though that neither world can offer her total satisfaction and security. It is only at the end of the story that she is able to consider that “she had been too eager to leave the homestead and embrace the “Englishness” of Sacred Heart” (p. 203)

We can presume that it is with this realisation that her true journey towards some sense of real identity is only just beginning.

Even if Tambu were to follow Nyasha’s example and totally reject her Shona culture she would still be no more than a pawn of the supposedly superior of the ruling white class. She has no idea that her dream to escape is exactly what the white settlers want to encourage – that black people turn their backs on their “primitive ways” and embrace the white way of life.

This makes Tambu’s desire to “better herself” very complicated. As she becomes more Anglicised she becomes increasingly more indoctrinated. But, as she herself puts it, she began to see what was happening at Sacred Heart and she could no longer allow herself to be “brainwashed”. Because of this growing self awareness Tambu never totally lets go of her past. Perhaps this is what saves her.

The phrase “nervous conditions” usually refers to a form of anxiety, illness or an actual physical disorder. In this novel the idea of the title is to imply that the political and social situation the characters find themselves in have a very real and penetrating influence on their lives – an effect which can be seen (or read) in their bodies. The title suggests that being native is complex and takes on many different forms for each of the characters involved in this story. The identity of being native is not fixed but rather a process of coming to terms with a conflicting environment. Dangarembga suggests that the conditions in which each of these characters live, while different, can be changed.