Choosing a topic that is often left out in post colonial African literature, Tsitsi Dangarembga seems to point out the representation of African girls and women as worthy subjects of education. In Nervous Conditions, education is not only represented as a process of imparting knowledge but rather as a pedagogical encounter with the culture of colonialism which shapes the characters. If the colonial ethnology of nervous disorders is dramatized in the novel, it is to better depict the psychological effects that the colonial experience had on those it subjugated. Previous critics have considered education as a positive input but I will argue that in Nervous Conditions, education is represented as ambivalent. On the one hand, it is represented as a toxic institution insofar as it strengthens Eurocentric perceptions of the West’s entitlement as a legitimate superior figure to Africa. Education therefore reaffirms the preeminence of a central system of power. On the other hand, the pedagogical encounter is considered valuable as it provides an institution of contesting values which allows our characters to develop the critical faculties through which they become aware of and negotiate the intersectionality of their identity. If education is examined as double edged, a consideration of how the psychological trauma of colonization can be perceived through education and what it implies in terms of identity can make us think about education in a different way.
If Mgadla defines education as a necessity ”for the progression of Africans from their ‘primitive’ society to a civilized world”, it is because education allows the reproduction of colonial ideologies and the upholding of social binaries. This is Sally’s perception, when she relates the characters’ experiences to various post-colonial theories about how dominant cultures construct an inferior other to reinforce their own power. Symbolizing the African colonial product that the mission education can generate, Babamukuru’s figure offers an insight into how being educated can alter one’s identity. By implicitly reinforcing the colonizer’s self-representation as an authority of intellectual and material superiority, Babamukuru appoints the Occidental intellectual system as the ideological model towards which Africans should strive. At the patriarchal level, he does so by keeping his whole family dependent on his financial support and by taking all the decisions. Valuable because of his education, authority and money, he acts as an intermediary between the East and the West by emphasizing the merits of the colonial education. This is enhanced by how Tsitsi Dagarembga chooses to portray him which is relevant in the way in which Tambu admires what he represents: ‘in his mission clothes he was a dignified figure and that was how I liked to imagine him’. The use of the adjective ‘dignified’ highlights how he distinguishes himself from the rest of the patriarchy. The representation of education seems to be in accordance with Fanon’s perception that ‘There is but one destiny for the black man. And it is white’. which suggests that colonial education promotes awareness of a particular teleology of success. However, education does not always come with meliorative aspects as it is the case for Maguru. As opposed to Babamukuru, her education only serves to make her more resentful of her entrapment. She is forced to keep silent and obedient while her education is considered an oddity. Indeed, her femininity makes the inhabitants of the village assume that she only has a domestic role and that she only went to England take care of her husband. The comparison of these two characters already foreshadows how education can be perceived as double edged, an institution which does not always result in what could have been expected of it.
The ambivalence of the pedagogical encounter is asserted with Tambu who dreams of being educated but who is also afraid that it would make her forget her identity. Raised in a farm in Umtali where she is responsible for household chores, her experience of injustice only starts to fade away when her dream is fulfilled thanks to the death of her brother. In this respect, Nervous Conditions represents the school and the teleology it prescribes as the key for possibilities and progress. However, this is contradicted by the mission school becoming a symbol of decomposition of tradition as Tambu becomes conscious that the institution promotes the reproduction of colonial ideologies. One can argue that the school’s teleology grounds cultural dissension creating self alienating nervous conditions. This friction is relevant in Tambu’s learning of English which is perceived as a mark of power but at the same time which makes her forget her native language. Gilian argues that language functions as a symbol of cultural hegemony and an agent of alienation. Nyasha points out the contradiction of language in her letter to Tambu: ‘They do not like my language, my English, because it is authentic and my Shona, because it is not!’. Her perception reflects Tsitsi Dangarembga’s childhood struggle as she went to Britain from the age of two to six and forgot most of her Shona. This linguistic struggle can represent Tambu’s struggle through education as it allows her to develop critical faculties to better understand the intricacy of colonial Africa in which she lives but education also gradually gets her further away from her identity. The possibility of her becoming a stranger to herself just like her brother became a stranger to her is what gives education such a strong power.
The narrative voice represents the struggle between experiencing education as a legitimate institution which provides the possibility of emancipation and education as an illegitimate institution which creates overlapping and interdependent systems of disadvantage. This in between is made explicit through the inner thoughts of Tambu in the narration. Tsitsi Dangarembga chooses Tambu as an African woman in a rural village who gets to be educated to find her own voice to speak out about particular inequalities within the society. The actual plot being set up in the past is significant as some moments between her brother being educated and her going to school are left blank. The novel could be read as a recollection of events which slowly allow the reader to find the missing pieces and figure out what comes out of this pedagogical encounter and what explains the opening of the book: ‘I was not sorry when my brother died’. Indeed, the narrative voice suggests that education and time are closely related, time allows characters to shape and reshape their identity while trying to get accommodated to traumatic history and elicit the contesting values of education. Nair’s argument can therefore be perceived as narrow when she suggests that Tambu’s education allows her to escape the limited options of the demonizing treatment of colonial education. She encourages the reader to understand Tambu as a liberated character who manages not to be affected by the West monopolizing the whole African society. I would argue that Tambu succeeds to free herself from her ignorance but this entails that her new critical faculties make her realize the limitations that colonization imposes on them.
However, it can be argued that the civilized mission alienates more than it educates. Although education intended to bring Europe and Africa closer together, the pedagogical encounter with the culture of colonialism in the space of the school also provides a conceptual framework for questioning the civilizing rhetoric of colonialism, and becoming aware of the intersectionality of identity. Nyasha’s critique of assimilation represents this idea as education damages the psychology of the colonial subject who realizes the scheme of power at work. The pedagogical encounter therefore initiate a disavowal of the Western teleological system and nostalgia for tradition. Nyasha’s come back to Africa after being educated in England makes allows her to discern the disparities between the European and the African culture. Her inner turmoil is revealed through the eyes of Tambu who does not know what kind of lives women in Europe lead. Unlike her mother, Nyasha has no memories of traditions and customs, she finds herself caught in between two worlds: her schoolmates who shun her for her white mannerisms and her not having any Shona mannerisms to fall back on. Unlike Tambu who was afraid of forgetting her identity, Nyasha does not have anything to forget, for she was never taught her culture and origins. The phenomenon that occurs in Nyasha is relayed by Abdou Moumouni when he notes that colonial education effects ”the veritable ‘depersonalisation’ of Africans” . In Nervous Conditions, the extended metaphor of digestion could represent Nyasha being worried about forgetting because it’s not there for her to remember but also because she realizes how colonization puts the colonized at disadvantage and she refuses to be a part of this discrimination. Tsitsi Dagaremba portrays a character who wants to resist getting ‘comfortable and used to the way things are’. Her resistance is relevant through her eating disorder which is a means for her to physically show that she will not be part of this oppression. The trope of digestion becomes poignant with Nyasha’s history-book-shredding purge which reveals her perception of colonial teleology: ‘Their colonizers history, Fucking liars…They’ve trapped us…But I won’t be trapped. I’m not a good girl. I won’t be trapped… They want me to, but I won’t’. The use of the term ‘good’ indicates her understanding of the conflict and the ambivalence inherent within the colonial encounter when it relies on a series of binaries: colonizer and colonized, civilized and uncivilized, modern and traditional. It unveils how Nyasha and the author herself stand for the acknowledgement of ontological and phenomenological ambiguities.
Thus, the punishment both girls endure can be read as the result of imposing an illegitimate education on them insofar as it does not correspond them but corresponds the West. Nyasha and Tambu’s attempts to function their own way by not eating for Nyasha or by refusing to attend her mother’s wedding for Tambu are punished. In this respect, education leads them to their downfall to a certain extent as their knowledge of what is behind the pedagogical encounter makes them aware of their entrapment. Collins argues that Tambu’s experience as an individual character is intended to embody and reflect the experiences of Zimbabwe as a nation on its ‘conflicted path’. Indeed, she reads Nervous Conditions as an African Bildungsroman, a genre in which the protagonists deals with struggles before the ultimate enlightenment. Tambu’s education prospects afford her a ripened ability to discern the racial and gendered dimensions of domestic paradigms. When she suggests that ‘with the poverty of blackness on one side and the weight of womanhood on the other’ no escape is conceivable, she becomes alert to the intersectionality of one’s identity. Her punishment can therefore be read as the first time she speaks out for herself, just as she had been watching Nyasha doing it.
While raising modern questions about education and the intersectionality of identity, Nervous Conditions attempts to look at how legitimate can education be in a system of discrimination. Through the extensive process of alienation from the ideologies of their education, Nyasha and Tambu become conscious of the intersectionality of their identities and the problem it implies when situated within the complexities of patriarchal colonial Africa. The narrative reveals two mature adolescents’ insights of the colonial and patriarchal conundrums. Colonial education provides them with the capacity to become aware of and negotiate the depravities imposed by the colonial enterprise. The pedagogical encounter therefore allows Tsisti Dangarembga to question the accepted standard of hierarchy imposed by colonization.