Nervous Conditions (1988)

By Tsitsi Dangarembga

I can’t seem to get an image from Michelle Cliff’s “If I Could Write This in Fire, I Would Write This in Fire” out of my mind. She tells a story from her school days of classmate who had a grand mal seizure during the morning singing of hymns. “While she flailed on the stone floor,” writes Cliff, “I wondered what the mistresses would do. We sang ‘Faith of Our Father,’ and watched our classmate as her eyes rolled back in her head.” The white mistresses offered only their typical response as aid: “keep singing.” The grotesque hypocrisy of these missionaries leaves me, as a Christian, frustrated and angry. Reading Nervous Conditions only makes me madder.

Early in the novel, Tambu tells the story of her Uncle Babamukuru’s rise to success. In doing so, she makes her message clear: “endure and obey, for there is no other way.” By twisting the words of the popular Christian hymn, Dangarembga gives the reader a glimpse of the colonized view of faith. Christian love is replaced with obedience, hope is abandoned for endurance, and redemption is more like punishment. In Postcolonial Representations, Francoise Lionnet writes of how the Christian era transformed traditional representations of the body (the Greco-Roman emphasis on health and beauty) to those that emphasize suffering and death (Christ being the ideal representation). “The body,” writes Lionnet, “thereby becomes a text on which pain can be read as a necessary physical step on the road to a moral state, a destiny, or a way of being” (88). Necessary? It repulses me to think so.

Yet throughout Nervous Conditions Lionnet’s thoughts are exemplified as Tambu, Babamukuru, and the other African characters are dehumanized by the whites. Baba is called a “good boy, cultivatable in the way that land is, to yield harvests that sustain the cultivator” (such a beautifully detestable metaphor). He is forced to take his family to England so that his position might not be given to “another promising young African.” And he is taught to breed “good African children.” Similarly, when Tambu receives the great honor of attending Sacred Heart (the Roman Catholic Church being the one which creates the most virtue), she is quickly relegated to a cramped room with the other Africans. Those professing to be servants of God, charitable workers, treat the Other collectively. There is no Tambu, Nyasha, Baba, or even Zimbabwean. There is only African.

The other snapshots of religion offered in Nervous Conditions are equally disturbing. Through Tambu we see a child’s image of God. She speaks of being caned on Monday mornings for not attending the previous day’s Sunday School class. She waits in line as she and the other Africans are inspected for missing buttons and dirty socks. She sees her beloved uncle chastise his daughter for the embarrassment she causes him at church. And worst of all, she accepts it.

Tambu (representative, obviously, of all colonized) is a character fighting to find her place in two worlds. She struggles to reconcile the traditional beliefs of the homestead with the teachings of the missionaries (and their contradictions). Her family says grace to begin a celebration then offers “much clapping of hands” and “praising of the gods for their providence.” When Tambu eats dinner with her aunt and cousin she only knows that their prayer has ended when she hears “Amen.” This white God, it appears, only hears the white language.

The results, unfortunately for the colonizer and colonized, are miscommunication, confusion, and damage. For Tambu, this means that she mistakes the message of the whites for the message of the Bible. (Actions, they say, speak louder than words.) It’s no wonder that she is unable to comprehend the stories of the Prodigal Son and Mary Magdalene. Undeserved forgiveness is as alien to her as physical resurrection.

Trinh T. Minh-ha redefines anthropology as “gossiping,”—us talking about them. She criticizes anthropologists for their “prejudices as well as scientifical-professional-scholarly-careerist hypocrisy” and recommends that they(we) write “close to the other.” In my discussion of religion, this means (I think) that it is ridiculous for whites to plan ways of converting the natives (to use a cliché). They(we) should instead examine critically what they believe and live accordingly. It seems that this is what Tambu begins to do at the close of Nervous Conditions. A dramatic change occurs when Baba decides that Jeremiah and Mainini must marry: Tambu disagrees. She struggles with her opinions of Baba and her understanding of sin (“It had to be avoided because it was deadly, I could see it. It was definitely black, we were taught”—wow). She struggles with the notions of witch doctors and marriages. But she is persuaded by her family pride, by the thought of her parents made comic relief, by the absurdity of the idea. In one passage, Tambu examines her beliefs and begins to grow:

Babamukuru did not know how I had suffered over the question of that wedding. He did not know how my mind had raced and spun and ended up splitting into two disconnected entities that had long, frightening arguments with each other, very vocally, in my head, about what ought to be done, the one half maniacally insisting on going, the other half equally maniacally refusing to consider it. I knew it was not evil to have endured all that terror in order to be sure of my decision, so when Nyasha asked whether I would go, I was able to tell her clamly, ‘No.’ But I accepted that I had forfeited my right to Babamukuru’s charity.