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Nervous Conditions: Being a Woman in a Patriarchal Society

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We women have fought for a lot, and I mean a lot. From being able to have our voices heard to being able to have control of our own ovaries, we continue to fight in the face of a male dominated society. If you look back through time at different civilizations, you will notice how the institution of patriarchal societies have become the root of many cultures. In Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga we gain an individualistic first-person p.o.v from the main protagonist Tambu, who takes us on a journey of what it is like being a woman in a patriarchal society. We also get to see how race/colonization plays an effect on the characters in the book, as well as elements of education.

The book, Nervous Conditions follows Tambu, a fourteen-year-old girl living in Rhodesia in the 60s. Tambu struggles with her identity as a woman, because her gender places limitations on her need for growth. She is portrayed as being hardworking and ambitious and wanting to be able to attend school but is not able to do so because in Shona culture the wants and needs of women are not prioritized. Comparing this to an article we’ve read titled Mothers of The Revolution by Irene Staunton, a woman by the name of Meggi talked about how her father would try to force her to attend school. Eventually she chose the route of getting married rather than getting an education. This to me was very different because from my understanding from Nervous Conditions I had this idea that Africa as a whole was a very patriarchal society that did not care about the needs of its women, but in Mothers of The Revolution, the father, unlike the father in Nervous Conditions actually wanted to send his children to school, both boys and girls alike. In Nervous Conditions, Tambu’s father brushes off her interest in wanting to go to school, he states “Can you cook books and feed them to your husband? Stay at home with your mother. Learn to cook and clean. Grow vegetables.” This quote shows how in Shona culture the only purpose of being a woman is to stay home and play the role of the wife/mother. Tambu’s father shows no regard to her wanting to go to school because to him education is of no value when you are a woman. This helped me understand something major about Africa, many women probably had a choice to attend school, but I believe it ultimately came up to the male figure in the family to give them that option. Tambu’s father had a very traditional ‘a woman must stay home’ mindset which therefore hindered Tambu’s need to attend school, while in Mothers of the Revolution, Meggi herself disregarded that option all together and followed a more traditional lifestyle.

Something else I found interesting was the whole idea of tradition vs progress. I thought it was weird that in order to progress within the Shona culture one would have to undergo European assimilation. For me it was like why should you have to let go of your traditions and everything you’ve known since birth just to “make it.” However, colonization in the book did have some good aspects to it, for example, African men and women were able to attend school abroad or seek higher education, but that also meant that they had to destroy who they were before. Colonization has a very negative effect on Tambu’s brother Nhamo, because once he started viewing the world through a newer lense, he became very arrogant, and became ashamed of who he was before which was a poor farmer’s son. He essentially looked down on his family because his way of life now, exceeds what he was originally used to. Now after reading this I began to wonder if most of Africa had not only been colonized physically, but mentally as well. In a lecture conducted by Dr.Freed she stated that many Africans didn’t know whether they should go back to their old traditions or if they should adopt the new European lifestyle, which is quite similar to the book because at the beginning Tambu does not understand why her brother would have such negative thoughts on where they lived, and it wasn’t until she herself was exposed to that feeling of white culture she began to understand and no longer wanted to be involved in her old traditions. It states “I had been too eager to leave the homestead and embrace the ‘Englishness’ of the mission.” Going back to the idea I had earlier about Africa being colonized mentally, I think Tambu’s eagerness to abandon her Shona side shows how strongly influenced she was by colonial rule. I’d like to think around this time many Africans were still resisting colonial rule, but I can’t help but also think that maybe the Europeans didn’t need to fight wars in order to colonize Africa. I think one of the main problems with Africa being colonized was that many people just gave in, many resisted, but many also chose to just be colonized.

Nervous Conditions shows you just how much colonization changed people within the Shona culture. Nhamo became a malicious, and arrogant bully. Nyasha, after being exposed to European culture, begins to struggle with an eating disorder. I personally feel like the phrase “ eating disorder” might have been foreign in Africa before colonisation took place, Nyasha’s eating disorder was definitely a byproduct of that exposure. I feel as though European influence of Africa has rewired the way many Africans think, and that makes them mentally a slave to European rule. “It’s the Englishness,’ she said. ‘It’ll kill them all if they aren’t careful, I knew she was thinking about him and I could see she considered me a victim too: ‘The problem is the Englishness, so you just have to be careful!” “The Englishness” Ma’Shingayi speaks of is the influence of colonial rule, she has seen for herself just how disastrous it can be, and what comes of those who succumbs to it.

Reading this book has made me think of just how much Africa and just black people in general have had a long history of being influenced by outside cultures, and I don’t believe that means we are weak, but we gave in a lot easier than needed. I know that even though many Africans today still hold on to their culture there is still an inconvenient truth that many Africans have been affected by western rule. I think if you have an interest of understanding different aspects of Africa you should check this book out. Not only does it speak about colonization, but it also touches on subjects such as sexism, patriarchal power, eating disorders. It is a real eye opener that these things do happen, and they are very much real and still plague places like Africa today.

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Nervous Conditions: Being a Woman In a Patriarchal Society. (2022, April 21). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 24, 2022, from
“Nervous Conditions: Being a Woman In a Patriarchal Society.” GradesFixer, 21 Apr. 2022,
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