Published by: Seal Press
ISBN-10: 1-58005-134-0
ISBN-13: 978-1430324836

Reviewed by: Pixie Emslie

Genre: Fiction

The story of a young African woman's struggle to be educated, and through that education, to be freed from the constraints of the men around her—father, brother, uncle—is hardly new. Indeed it is so much part of life in Africa that it is a brave theme to choose for a novel.

Tsitsi Dangarembga's story, "Nervous Conditions" speaks in the voice of the young protagonist, Tambu, whose chance for an education comes only because her brother dies from illness. That is where she begins her story, with the words, "I was not sorry when my brother died." Of course Tambu's callous words are later explained and her need for education becomes the thread running through the book. Her transformation from peasant to sophisticate is her dream and when she gets to ride away in her uncle's car, to go a live with his family in order to attend the mission school, she lives the dream.

"When I stepped into Babamukuru's car I was a peasant……This was the person I was leaving behind. At Babamukuru's I would have the leisure, be encouraged to consider questions that had to do with survival of the spirit, the creation of consciousness rather than mere sustenance of the body"

The fact is that life is never so simple, even when there is the golden thread of education to liberate one's body and soul. The one person Tambu becomes friends with is her cousin Nyasha who spent her young years in England. For this reason she is also seen as different from her school friends.

The two cousins share teenage secrets, giggle together and begin to grow up together but all the while Nyasha is suffering under the illusion that she is not good enough, not as good as her cousin, not as clever. She longs for a boyfriend, a lover, in her life, and believes that she is too fat, too stupid ever to attract one. Tambu is the only one who recognises the cry for help when it comes in the form of bulimia.
"I was closer to her than anybody else and so I sensed the conflict that she was going through of self versus surrender and the content of sin."
Nyasha eventually succumbs to the disease and dies in a white hospital.

The issues of gender equality which run through the text are not new to the Western reader. But to the African woman, especially those of 20 years ago when the book was first published (1988 The Women's Press), this was a major battle. The fact is that the Zimbabwe of then has changed politically, and dramatically so, since then but the issues have not. If anything they are more pronounced today than ever before and it is to Dangarembga's enormous credit that this novel has been republished by Seal Press.

In this edition a forward by Dr Kwame Anthony Appiah says: "It is because the world Tsitsi Dangarembga opens up in this novel is fully realised, so compelling, that Tambu has found so many friends in so many places around the planet."

Pixie Malherbe is a South African journalist and communication consultant. She was on newspapers for years, worked on women's magazines in London and then ran her own communication consultancy for about 12 years. She was President of IABC Southern Africa (International Association of Business Communicators) and was given their Chairman's award in Toronto in 1995. She is currently a stringer for local newspapers.

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Sleep Before Evening, by Magdalena Ball | Playing in the Light, by Beate Sigriddaughter
Nervous , by Tsitsi Dangarembga