Tsitsi Dangarembga: Those Nervous Conditions

Tsitsi Dangarembga: Those Nervous Conditions

Tsepiso S Motibi

That equality in its true sense is an aspect of humanity we merely speak about is fact, and that what we often declare as commitment to a given credo is in truth lacking if one is to truly bother measuring the fullness of such commitment in terms of action. Men have signed declarations for centuries (or millennia even), committing themselves to certain causes in oaths and pledges of allegiance, but far too often, the hands that put signatures in ink on paper be the same hands that rescind or sell out when it comes to the performance of what has been declared.

The darker peoples of the world have an excuse for being how they are; they were colonised… they were enslaved… which is true, but no one seems to have a valid excuse as to why there is glaring inequality in gender even though woman and man go chest to breast, waist to waist, in the progression of the population of the world. Many a great man and mind have been whetted to the katana sword sharpness they are by the hands and the minds of women who bothered to raise a boy into manhood, even though they knew that they would have to bow to him on the morrow for the ways of the world so teach and declare, or, have declared since the beginning of recorded and unrecorded history.

Male hegemony is not a feminist concern, it is a human reality, and it will not be fleshed out of humanity as easily as most women’s rights activists seem to believe; it will have to be gently taught out of the psyche/s of mankind for, the present method, if it is to be commenced with in the manner and the pattern currently in employ, will never succeed.

Rather than teaching man to be more tolerant of woman’s equality, the present method of ridding the world of ‘male dominance’ will only make man a creature more violent than he already tends to be.It will take little girls to prove to the world of patriarchy that girls are born equal, for indeed; girls can do what boys do on the playground. It is only later in life that our women seem to think they should be treated different, that they should be treated as the ‘fairer’ sex. The strength the girls showed on the playground is forgotten, the mirror and the powder box take their place, and there woman assumes her ‘place’.

But it turns out, she does not like that place a bit, as the spate of feminist activities have in recent yearsproven; women are as equal as men, but they will have a hard time trying to prove it,for the guardians of patriarchy often look upon their struggle for freedom with disapproving stares that border on disdain. The girl child should however not give up on her struggle for gender equality, for some of us male humans are enlightened enough to realise that she is equal as we are, and should therefore be granted the rightful opportunity to express herself on terms equal to our own. Forget the religious dogmas and the tenets of the books; all human beings are born equal, and none is more equal than others in the eyes of the universe. The nervousness with which the lady in question this day attempts to assert her place in the hegemonic world proves that women are indeed equal, despite or inspite of the patriarchal lores and laws of the world. He who thinks different is high on testosterone, or so I am forced to assume.

When I first watched the cinematic adaptation of the sad and soulful tale of a widow struggling against the wretched and esurient tendencies of her late husband’s male siblings, in the biopic Neria, only the soundtrack sung in Shona by the Zimbabwean legend, Oliver Mtukudzi, resounded in my mind. The wails of the woman forced into a life of squalor with her brood of children did not really matter back then, but upon reading into the meaning behind the Shona words in the song and finding out that it was Tsitsi Dangarembga who penned the script, the meaning behind the words really struck home: I began to realise how unjust we males can often be when it comes to addressing the struggles of our women in post-colonial African society.

Though the song is popular and its chorus is a sing-along tune at many a party in our different communities, the meaning it presents is quite often misunderstood, because we tend to love the sound and not the meaning. That the great king Oliver ‘Tuku’ Mtukudzi put so much soul into the song is often solely credited to his prowess as a master guitarist and vocalist: the voice of the girl that penned the tale is not heard or acknowledged. We forget that it was Tsitsi Dangarembga that inspired the words:

Neria,Neriaooo, Usaoremoyo kaNeria, Mwari anewe, Mwari anewe, mwari anewe kaNeria mwari anewe

This is not just a song but the lament for a woman struggling against a system that has for ages declared the woman a perpetual member of an underclass whose role in the decision-making practices is minimal, if not totally non-existent. The anguish of her bereavement is forgotten in the meleethat follows the death of her husband, and as the male members of her extended family fight over the late husband’s properties, she is trampled like grass beneath two clashing bull elephants. Post funeral battles often turn into wars in our African society as siblings to a dead man often come forward with cudgels, knives, guns and pangas to claim a part of their ‘brother’s’ property.

Tsitsi Dangarembga 2

The dead man’s wife and children are often just swept aside and robbed of the right to own what is in every essence theirs. Tell me not that you have not seen this tale unfold before your eyes, if you do, I might be tempted to think of you as mendacious: this is a common African tale we should work really hard towards its total annihilation and abolishment. Let us protect our women at all costs; even if their men are not there to defend them.

A brief biographical account of Tsitsi Dangarembga states that she was born in 1959 in Mutoko, Zimbabwe (which was Rhodesia at the time). She moved to England as a young girl and received her elementary education there. She returned to Zimbabwe at the age of six and finished her education in a missionary school in Mutare, where she also re-learned her native language, Shona. In 1977, she returned to England to study medicine at Cambridge University. In 1980, Dangarembga returned to Rhodesia to study psychology at the University of Harare. Shortly thereafter, the country gained independence from Britain and became “Zimbabwe” under black-majority rule.

While Dangarembga was a student, she worked as a copywriter for a marketing agency and also discovered her love of theatre. She wrote several plays that were put into production at the university. In 1983, her play The Lost of the Soil got the attention of Robert McLaren, and Dangarembga joined his theatre group, Zambuko. She also wrote the 1987 play She Does Not Weep. Her first short story, The Letter, was published in Sweden in 1985. Nervous Conditions, her first novel, was published in England in 1988, when Dangarembga was only twenty-five years old. It was the first novel to be published in English by a black Zimbabwean woman and won the African Section of the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 1989. The sequel, The Book of Not, was published in 2006.

Similar in a lot of ways to Dambudzo Marechera’s House of Pain or the scatologically pornographic presentation of women in Meja Mwangi’s Going Down River Road, Tsitsi Dangaremgba’s Nervous Conditions clearly shows the destructive impacts of colonisation on the indigenous people in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The novel focuses mainly on the oppression of females as well as the formation of the hybrid identity in this territory. Colonisation looked upon the native as a barbaric subhuman whose elevation to humanity could only be achieved by Westernisation, and many an African male began to think and rely on the European standard as the only point of definition when it comes to the issues of identity.

Oppressed on the basis of their race, many a native began to think that they would be considered more enlightened and ‘civilised’ if they wore spats and top-hats, whilst in the same process losing their aboriginal identity. Kicked in the butt by their ‘baas’ at work on the farm, or in the gangs digging the land to make way for railway lines into their lands interiors, or working like moles in the belly of the mines of Johannesburg, and living for endless months in crowded mining camps, the black male turned his wrath upon the weaker sex considered the underclass by the patriarchal system.

Tsitsi Dangarembga 1

Beaten by apartheid, the male hegemony used patriarchy as the main tool to subvert the women, and for long, far too long I believe; women suffered in silence until they learned how to use their education to speak up against the system that had turned their young boys and men into monsters. Their speaking puts them in a nervous condition now that the colonisers are gone and they have to put their house of Africa in order. I know that once fully emancipated, women will set things right in this confused house of pain we call Africa. After all, it is them who have had to do the housekeeping for the many past centuries. Dangarembga presents their plight with finesse; only we male fellows should understand her and the many voices of women speaking against the subjugation of Africa by the memories of a sad past.

By representing the disruptive influence of colonisation over the local Rhodesians in her Nervous Conditions, Tsitsi Dangarembga unravels the femaleAfrican’s status in a colonised society. She chooses Tambudzai (a female) as the protagonist of her novel in order to show that women are doubly colonised in the colonial African society. Women are in actuality marginalised by both patriarchal ‘norms’ and racism, and Dangarembga shows the suffering of women in Rhodesia through the depiction of Tambudzai’s ordeal in rising to the status of an educated woman.

On the one hand, she suffers the horrible influence of colonisation and its resulting racial inequalities; on the other hand, she is subjugated by the patriarchy which is a serious obstacle for any female in African society. She is not granted any chance to receive an education as long as Nhamo, her elder brother, is alive. For example,she insists on enrolling at school, and her father rebukes her and says:


Can you cook books and feed them to your husband? Stay at homewith your mother. Learn to cook and clean. Grow vegetables…

For some chauvinist swine these words sound wise, but in these hard times, any man that believes his woman should stay at home when she could be helping out with the budgetary load is in many ways similar to an ox trying to strike a deal with a butcher in an abattoir. Our women are smart, and they are industrious, and pushing them aside on the basis of their possessing pudendum is delusion. We should as male members of African society forget our private parts and focus on uplifting this continent out of the depths of nervousness instilled by colonialism. We do not know Europe in totality, will never fully comprehend America’s ever-changing dynamics, but we live with our women and raise our girl children: we therefore should be more considerate when it comes to liberating them from the status of servitude colonialism and segregation put us all in.

Letsema, our main indigenous and reverend industrial practice, used to be performed by men, women, and children working in unison towards the attainment of society’s common good. I believe that we should adopt its philosophies when it comes to the eradication of gender inequality and the nervousness with which we deal with each other. You may wonder: Why are we nervous? We are nervous because we have been in a darkness imposed by colonialism for far too long. Reach out and lift her up, then you won’t be so nervous when you work with her, when you live with her. She is after all, your mother, your sister, your daughter, your kind, your human kind who gives birth to you, nurtures you to maturity, gets pregnant with your brats, single-handedly raises them, and comforts you in your old age. And she is not nervous when it comes to reaching out to you. She is…your woman.

  1. S. Mothibi, Esq.
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