Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Bewilderers: 1960’s Rhodesia

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

The condition of native is a nervous condition.

It is no wonder that Zimbabwean author, Tsitsi Dangarembga, chose this line of Sartre's from his introduction to Fanon’s landmark study The Wretched of the Earth as the epigraph and title for her very fine first novel, Nervous Conditions. Indeed, arguably no one has ever written more cogently, more redoubtably, about the cultural and existential catastrophe of colonialism (and the need for violent rebellion against it) than Martinique-born, French-Algerian psychiatrist, philosopher, revolutionary, and writer, Frantz Fanon.

Early on in his book Fanon talks about what he calls ‘the bewilderers,’ that multitude of moral teachers and counselors employed by a colonial power to separate the exploited from those in power, to drop upon them daily—in their homes, in their workplaces and schools—what Kenyan novelist Ngugi Wa Thiong’o calls the ‘cultural bomb.’ “The effect of a cultural bomb is to annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves.”

Filled with preachers and teachers, Dangarembga’s a novel wrestles with exactly that matter. Never dogmatic, never didactic in temperament or style, Nervous Conditions is a profoundly human, astutely articulated tale about a young girl’s coming-of-age in 1960’s Rhodesia* (now Zimbabwe)—one of the last, most stubborn colonial holdouts on the continent, excepting only Namibia (1990) and Eritrea (1993). With great attention to detail, Dangarembga follows the main character, Tambudzai, or Tambu, as she struggles against the odds to negotiate her way through the tangled web of life under colonial rule, that Gordian knot of Christianity, patriarchy, racism, materialism, and cultural self-loathing that defined (perhaps in part still defines) the experience of Black Africans from Morocco and Egypt to Namibia, South Africa, and Mozambique. Fortunately for Tambu, she is a quick study, so that when her spoiled older brother Nhamo, the prince and hope of her all but impoverished family, is swiftly destroyed by the colonial system, his identity shattered to bits, she is finally given a chance to make her way. This not to reveal the story prematurely, as the author herself gives us this and more in the novel’s opening paragraph, a provocative sketch of the story as a whole:

I was not sorry when my brother died.  Nor am I apologizing for my callousness, as you may define it, my lack of feeling.  For it is not that at all.  I feel many things these days, much more than I was able to fell in the days when I was young and my brother died, and thee are reasons for this more than the mere consequence of age.  Therefore I shall not apologize but begin by recalling the facts as I remember them that led up to my brother’s death, the events that put me in a potion to write this account.  For though the event of my brother’s passing and the events of my story cannot be separated, my story is not after all about death, but about my escape and Lucia’s; about my mother’s and Maiguru’s entrapment; and about Nyasha’s rebellion--Nyasha, far-minded and isolated, my uncle’s daughter, whose rebellion may not in the end have been successful. 

I came across the novel one year, while teaching at a boy’s school in Manhattan, when I set out to find a book, preferably by a female author of color, that I could pair with Richard Wright’s Black Boy. Nervous Conditions proved the perfect choice. As I wrote back in 1991, in an article for The Collegiate Review:

The mere juxtaposition of these books was enough for the students to begin comparing them after only the first reading in Nervous Conditions. Using each as a lens by which to view the other, the students were quick to recognize that in both cases the protagonist was an innocent child opening his or her eyes to a world in which, for reasons largely coded and obscure to them, they were outsiders and outcasts. We were forced to investigate the issues of cultural identity and the crippling, often paradoxical demands of assimilation. 

Seen in retrospect, through Tambu’s keen and dauntless eye, Nervous Conditions is a sophisticated, highly readable, deeply satisfying tale that you’re sure to find persuasive. Recommended by the African Book Club as “a thought-provoking novel that packs a huge number of complicated ideas into a simple and engaging story,” Nervous Conditions was awarded the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 1989.

Also recommended:  The Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon and Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature and Moving the Center: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. 

* Rhodesia was named after English-South African mining magnate, founder of De Beers diamond company, politician, and ardent proponent of colonialism, Cecil Rhodes. In 1902 he established the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, which is funded by his estate. 

Tsitsi Dangarembga was born in Rhodesia, now called Zimbabwe, in 1959.  She lived in England from age two through age six. She then returned to Rhodesia and finished her schooling in a missionary school there. She later returned to England to pursue a degree in medicine at Cambridge University but homesickness soon drove her back to Rhodesia where she continued her studies, first in psychology and then in film production and direction. She has written a play called She No Longer Weeps and a sequel to Nervous Conditions entitled The Book of Not (thanks in part to

Peter Adam Nash

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