We have a tendency in the West to think of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa as a “first world problem.” Surely such disorders are confined to upper-middle class young white women from American suburbs, right?
Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, a 1988 novel from Zimbabwe, suggests otherwise. This perceptive novel, set in the late 1960s and early 1970s, dramatizes the coming-of-age stories of two main characters. One of them is Tambu, a girl who is determined to get an education in order to pull herself and her family out of poverty. The other girl is Tambu’s cousin Nyasha, who spent several childhood years in England, where her parents completed their graduate degrees.
At the beginning of their relationship, Tambu is in awe of Nyasha, who seems to have everything. She is pretty and smart. Her parents, Babamukuru and Maiguru, are well-educated and relatively wealthy, at least compared to Tambu’s family. Not only that, but their sojourn in England left them all with an aura of glamour and sophistication that Tambu finds intoxicating. At the same time, Tambu also is somewhat disapproving of Nyasha because of her tendency to question everything, including the authority and benevolence of her father Babamukuru, whom everyone else adores.
Eventually, the two girls become close and the readers observe both of them as they grow up and learn more about the ways of the world. Their relationship is complicated, though; Tambu and Nyasha do not always understand each other. They do, though, learn about some harsh life lessons from each other’s experiences. In particular, the girls struggle against two main forces: the sexism of the men in their community, and the toxic effects of colonialism on their minds and bodies.
Tambu, for example, has to fight tooth and nail simply to get an elementary education because her family favors her brother and sends only him to school. Nyasha, on the other hand, struggles against the sometimes violent authoritarianism of her father, who expects her to obey him unquestioningly. She also resent his implication that she is on the road to becoming a “bad girl” in a sexual sense, even though she gives him no reason to doubt her. Nyasha learns that simply having a female body is reason enough for men to think of her primarily as a sexual object.
Perhaps this is the reason—or, one of the reasons—Nyasha develops an eating disorder. Dangarembga never explicitly states why Nyasha becomes anorexic, but she implies that it is the only way Nyasha knows how to rebel against her father and his expectations of what it means to be female. She does not want to be seen as primarily a sexualized body. Nor does she want to become like her mother, who must be submissive to her husband’s will despite her own advanced education and professional job. It is implied that by starving herself, Nyasha is attempting to remove all traces of her adult female body, and thus the fate of all the women she knows.
This explanation over-simplifies the themes of Nervous Conditions, however. In addition to criticizing the effects of sexism in her community, Dangarembga is also illuminating the even more insidious effects of English colonialism on the minds of the Shona characters. (In the late 1960s-early 1970s, Zimbabwe was still a British colony and was still called Rhodesia.) The title Nervous Conditions was taken from Jean-Paul Sartre’s preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, a famous work detailing some of the pernicious psychological effects of colonialism on the colonized.
Sartre wrote that “The status of “native” is a nervous condition introduced and maintained by the settler among colonized people with their consent.” Sartre explains that colonized people carry huge rage against their oppressors. However, they cannot express this rage against the colonizers unless they are willing to be killed or imprisoned for doing so. Therefore, Sartre states that “if this suppressed fury fails to find at outlet, it turns in a vacuum and devastates the oppressed creatures themselves.”
This is what happens in the novel Nervous Conditions. Nyasha is not the sort of person to accept the status quo unthinkingly and without question. The more she reads about the world and observes the people around her, the more enraged she becomes at the way people exploit each other. The English exploit the Shona people while rewarding a few “good natives” such as Babamukuru. In turn, the Babamukurus become mini-colonizers themselves, lording over the rest of his community like a god. The whole system drives Nyasha mad, quite literally. Eventually, she starves herself nearly to death and then explodes in a fit of rage.
“Why do they do it, Tambu,” she hissed bitterly, her face contorting with rage, “to me and to you and to him?” Do you see what they’ve done? They’ve taken us away. Lucia. Takesure. All of us. They’ve deprived you of you, him or him, ourselves of each other. We’re groveling. Lucia for a job, Jeremiah for money. Daddy grovels to them. We grovel to him.” She began to rock, her body quivering tensely. “I won’t grovel. Oh no, I won’t. I’m not a good girl. I’m evil. I’m not a good girl.” I touched her to comfort her and that was the trigger. “I won’t grovel, I won’t die,” she raged and crouched like a cat ready to spring.” .. . . Nyasha was beside herself with fury. She rampaged, shredding her history book between her teeth (‘Their history. Fucking liars. Their bloody lies.’), breaking mirrors her clay pots, anything she could lay her hands on and jabbing the fragments viciously into her flesh, stripping the bedclothes, tearing her clothes from the wardrobe and trampling them underfoot. “They’ve trapped us. They’ve trapped us. But I won’t be trapped. I’m not a good girl. I won’t be trapped.” (200-201)
Finally, Nyasha’s family realizes how troubled she is and they take her to a clinic to get some help. Whether or not she will be able to survive, much less thrive, is unclear by the end of the novel.
For her part, Tambu was baffled by Nyasha’s illness. She did not understand why someone like Nyasha, who seemingly had it all, to “suffer so extremely.” Perhaps Tambu did not understand, but her mother did, very clearly.
‘It’s the Englishness,’ she said. ‘It’ll kill them all if they aren’t careful,” and she snorted. ‘Look at them. That boy Chido can hardly speak a word of his own mother’s tongue, and you’ll see, his children will be worse. . . You’ll see. . . . “About [Nyasha] we don’t even speak. It’s speaking for itself. Both of them, it’s the Englishness. It’s a wonder it hasn’t affected the parents too.” (203)
The “Englishness,” in other words, the colonializing process, is what drives Nyasha and other characters to the brink, especially when combined with the sexism of their own culture. Tambu, her mother, and her aunt also experience their own “nervous conditions” of various sorts. In the interests of space, however, I will not go into detail on their struggles.
Nervous Conditions was Dangarembga’s debut novel, written when she was still a young woman. It is a relatively short (200 page) novel, and one that is quite engaging. More significant, however, this novel insightfully portrays the devastating effects of sexism and colonialism on the minds and bodies of African women. I highly recommend it.