Postcolonial Text / Author

Like Cattle for Slaughter? Reading Nervous Conditions' Pedagogical Interventions

Elizabeth Jackson
McMaster University

I first encountered Nervous Conditions in an undergraduate course on postcolonial fiction. Following my professor's approach to the text, for years I viewed it simply as a book about the devastating impacts of British colonization on Zimbabwe's indigenous populations, and, to a lesser extent, about their efforts to resist the effects of colonization. While these concerns are certainly at the heart of Dangarembga's text, I am interested in reading Nervous Conditions from a different, somewhat less conventional perspective. Returning recently to the novel, I was struck by its density; this is a text of seemingly unlimited scope, addressing issues ranging from environmental degradation to patriarchal oppression, political struggle to eating disorders. My challenge, then, was to decide how I would approach the text.

As I considered how to respond critically to Nervous Conditions, I came across an immensely helpful article by Deepika Bahri which describes the novel as being consistently informed by what she calls "the centrality of Dangarembga's feminist agenda" (para. 5). The notion that Dangarembga's writing was motivated by her commitment to a particular "agenda" intrigues me: in this paper, then, I will read Nervous Conditions for its political motivations and messages, remaining mindful of Dangarembga's striking statement that her goal in writing the text was "to write things about ourselves in our own voices" and that she sees the text as successfully "serving this purpose for young girls in Zimbabwe" (qtd. in Bahri para. 5). Taking these comments as my point of departure, and because so much of Nervous Conditions' narrative centres on depictions of educational institutions and practices, my project here is to assess the text's statements on the subject of formal education. To put it plainly, I am reading Nervous Conditions as a text about education. My motivating questions are: "What can Nervous Conditions be seen to contribute to discussions of pedagogical practice? What are its criticisms of conventional models of colonial education, and what might it recommend in their stead?"

To address these questions, I will read Nervous Conditions' educational narrative against the works of contemporary pedagogical theorists including Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, and bell hooks. While such theories originate in vastly different socio-political contexts than that which shapes Nervous Conditions, placing them in conversation with Dangarembga's text provides an opportunity to read the novel in a new light. Without seeking to deny or elide the many material and attitudinal factors which distinguish Dangarembga's 1960s colonial Rhodesia from, for example, hooks' 1990s America, I draw on these critical pedagogies to provide a conceptual framework and a critical vocabulary with which to assess the text's pedagogical commentary. This will enable me to identify the tenets of the text's critique and suggestions, and to develop an understanding of Dangarembga's pedagogical vision. My discussion will be organized around those tenets and grounded in textual detail in order to clearly illustrate where I am locating the text's pedagogical principles, and how they play out in the text. I am particularly interested in evaluating the experiences of the two young female students, Tambu and Nyasha, whose positions as potential role models to Dangarembga's imagined readership, and centrality to the narrative, make them important figures. While education does not ultimately open the "limitless horizons" the young Tambu breathlessly anticipates (Dangarembga 58), Tambu's story, and with it Nervous Conditions' pedagogical model, offers a way to work toward a better future for "young girls in Zimbabwe" and Dangarembga's readers elsewhere.

Setting the Scene: General Attitudes

I will begin with an appraisal of the various attitudes toward education that circulate in the text's communities of the homestead and the mission. These ideas about the role and effects of formal education offer illustrative evidence of the values and ideologies informing Tambu's and Nyasha's experiences of and responses to their schooling, and also provide early insights into Dangarembga's political and pedagogical preoccupations. I have identified three key beliefs and attitudes, which can be described as "the material connection," "social obligation," and "gender differences."

The text's first discussion of education occurs early in the first chapter, as Tambu relates the circumstances surrounding her brother Nhamo's enrolment at the mission school. Their uncle, Babamukuru, decided that Nhamo should go to school and do well enough to "enter a decent profession" and secure a good income (4). Nhamo's father, Jeremiah, emphasizes the importance of this move, lamenting that if he had Nhamo's brains the family would be living "in a brick house with running water, hot and cold, and lights" rather than barely subsisting on their farm (5). This equation of education with physical comfort and monetary gain is the material connection: throughout the text, characters consistently indicate their conviction that the two are causally linked. Tambu's headmaster Mr. Mukoma convinces her father to allow her to attend school by demonstrating that "in terms of cash my education was an investment" (34), and Babamukuru's hesitance about sending Tambu to the convent school is based on his conviction that her existing education has sufficiently prepared her to earn money, "be married by a decent man and set up a decent home" (180). In other words, the role of education is to secure material wealth; once this need is met, further education is at best unnecessary, at worst a threat to a woman's success as wife and homemaker. It is significant that Babamukuru's biggest concern is that Tambu's convent education, by allowing her to "associate too much with these white people, to have too much freedom," will compromise her "future life" by preventing her development as a "decent wom[a]n" (180). Babamukuru's concern is ironic in light of Tambu's earlier reflection that, over the course of her mission education, she has already "grown much quieter and more self-effacing than [is] usual," evidence that her education has already served colonial interests by shaping her into exactly the acquiescent, compliant, "exemplary young lady" both English and Shona patriarchies believe "a daughter ought to be" (155).

In contrast to her relatives' emphasis on the material connection, Tambu's urgent desire to continue her education derives largely from her love of learning and her fervent belief that it will contribute to the "survival of the spirit, the creation of consciousness, rather than mere survival of the body" (59). Clearly, in her mind, the purposes of education go beyond material gain and have more to do with personal development and fulfilment. Although the text's proponents of the material connection are undeniably accurate in their insistence that education often functions to secure material stability, their privileging of material gain over the concerns Tambu relates can negatively effect what students put into, and expect from, their education. I wonder if part of the text's critique is aimed at the conditions that make it possible, and even necessary, to approach education only as a means of making money or increasing social status. In other words, while her characters must not be faulted for apprehending the reality of their situation, Dangarembga's text highlights the serious limitations of their viewpoint, and, crucially, of the cultural conditions in which it has emerged. Tambu's comments reveal another problem: the tendency, in conventional Western thought, to divide "consciousness" from "the body," placing the two in opposition to one another. The physical and emotional difficulties Tambu, and more strikingly Nyasha, face as they complete their studies illustrate very clearly the dangers of expecting students to maintain the mind/body split encouraged by conventional Western thought and pedagogy.

The second key belief I have identified is that of social obligation, and it is directly linked to a belief in the material connection. As Babamukuru describes the outcomes of Nhamo's education, he reveals his underlying, unquestioned belief that, having secured a good job and a good wage, Nhamo will put his money to use helping his family "out of the squalor" in which they are currently living (5). A similar sense of social obligation motivates Babamukuru's continued support of his extended family through donations of food, money, and household equipment. Nyasha also has a strong sense of social obligation, although one significantly at odds with that of her father. Rather than negotiate the conventions of their racist and sexist culture, and do the best she can within those confines, Nyasha comes to believe it is her duty to consistently rebel against systemic oppression in all its forms. This, in her mind, is the most pressing obligation of all. As Tambu anxiously awaits Babamukuru's decision regarding the convent school, Nyasha is increasingly frustrated with her narrow obsession: "Really, Tambudzai," she scolds, "there's more to be done than that" (179). Crucially, Nyasha's project of rebellion and social transformation ultimately fails, while women like Lucia and Tambu, who negotiate strategically between resistance and complicity, are able to attain a greater degree of agency in their lives.

It seems to me that, despite their differences, these understandings of social obligation share the founding conviction that each individual is responsible for helping, in whatever way she or he can, to support the well-being of the broader community. I take this to be a central tenet of Dangarembga's pedagogy. Mary Jane Androne, in a different context, also acknowledges what I call social obligation to be a central element of Dangarembga's message. She observes the role of narrative structure in underlining the importance of community and cooperation, saying that the text makes this point by "ironically juxtaposing the idealized' plot of the Bildungsroman where the protagonist progresses in a predictable pattern with the trajectory of disillusionment Tambu ultimately must acknowledge to be her lot" (274). Androne contends that the plot's shift from "Tambu's individual, assimilationist rise to collective effort and collaboration with all her female relatives and friends" is a clear signal of the crucial role of mutual support and cooperation in resisting and overcoming injustice (276).

Susan Andrade also comments on this shift in the narrative's focus, finding yet another way of understanding its significance. She argues that "Tambu's hunger for education...is replaced by Nyasha's self-starvation in the second part" and, ultimately, "Nyasha's eating disorder fuels the narrative trajectory of the second part and looms over the ending" (41-42). For Andrade, this shift in focus signals a need to re-read the entire text in relation to questions of "eating and control" (42). While I agree that such an approach to the text is warranted and informative, I would like to re-frame Andrade's observations in relation to my own concern with the text's pedagogical interventions. Seen in this light, the shift from Tambu's "securely plotted" development to Nyasha's illness and self-destructive behaviour takes on a new meaning. I propose that it serves as a warning about the risks involved in conventional Western education.

Tambu's intellectual and emotional struggles are one example of the dangers that come with this pedagogical system; Nyasha's physical and mental breakdowns - which often follow long periods of withdrawal and intense solitary study - are an even more stark, and potentially deadly, manifestation of these same dangers. While I agree with Androne that the text can be seen to move from Tambu's individualistic narrative to one that emphasizes collaborative relationships, I see both sections performing similar critiques of individualism. In later sections of the text, Dangarembga asserts the absolute importance of community involvement and social obligation as she demonstrates the severe consequences that ensue when Nyasha conforms to Western ideals of the solitary, self-sufficient intellectual. Both Tambu's and Nyasha's experiences, for all their differences in motivation and outcome, underscore the importance of community to students' successful negotiation with systems of formal education. Dangarembga locates much of her critique of Western individualism in the scene of education; significantly, the text suggests, the problems it causes can also be addressed pedagogically.

As I have suggested, characters' attitudes are characterized by an often explicit belief that gender differences justify differential treatment in terms of access to education and other opportunities. Tambu's opening discussion of her brother's preferential treatment - he is given better food than she is, he does not contribute to chores on the farm, he is treated as the family's great hope while she works silently to keep them all fed - indicates the extent of her bitterness. Her anger at "the injustice of my situation" surfaces most strongly when she recognizes that gender differences are the reason she is "in Standard Three in the year that Nhamo dies, instead of in Standard Five" as she should have been by that age (12). Throughout the text, we see women eating less nutritious food than men do, performing more difficult physical labor than men do, being systematically denied educational opportunities, and, as in Maiguru's case, having their own wages taken from them and controlled by their husbands. It is perhaps in her unflinching, unapologetic depiction of the injustices of both Shona and British patriarchies that Dangarembga most explicitly reveals her "feminist agenda" (Bahri para. 5). I think the text makes a clear and compelling argument for the development of cultural and pedagogical practices that work together to combat the systemic sexism that constrains women's opportunities and actions within and beyond the classroom.

Learning as Forgetting

Nervous Conditions also makes an important observation concerning the personal and cultural alienation produced when African students are subjected to Western colonial culture and modes of education. Throughout the text, we see characters losing touch with their cultural heritages, their families, and even themselves in part because of their participation in formal education. When Nyasha and Chido return from England, for example, they no longer dress, speak or behave as they used to. In fact, they have all but lost their knowledge of Shona language and cultural practices. Nyasha, for example, does "not talk beyond a stuttered greeting" and, tellingly, neither does she "smile any more at all" (51). The major changes Tambu sees in her cousin make her miss "the bold, ebullient companion...who had gone to England but not returned from there" (51; my emphasis). Nyasha has been so altered by her English education, and by her distance from her home culture, that she is an altogether different person: a much sadder, more withdrawn and isolated person. Nhamo's time at the mission has an eerily similar effect, rendering him silent and surly. Worse, he returns in the "inexplicable state" of having forgotten Shona (53), leading his mother to lament that she can no longer communicate with her own child. This is, of course, a heartbreaking realization. She does appreciate his education, she tells Tambu, "but even more, she wanted to talk to him" (53).

Later in the story, to her mother's immense distress, Tambu herself becomes increasingly disconnected from her family and culture. Rahul Gairola offers an insightful explanation for this phenomenon, describing the effect of Western education as a splitting of the subject's self, a "cultural schizophrenia" in which Tambu loses contact with her culture while nonetheless remaining deeply invested in it (para. 8). In Gairola's view, Tambu is compelled to negotiate an impossible contradiction: on one hand, she sees English education as a necessary element of her personal growth; on the other, it becomes clear to readers that "each addition of a Western cultural element" entails "a subtraction of a Shona cultural element" (para. 15). Tambu's English education, in other words, necessitates a process of "unlearning" Shona language and heritage; full integration of the two cultures, Gairola suggests, is not an option. Indeed, in order to survive and succeed in the mission school system, Tambu feels the need to exclude and suppress elements of herself that interfere with her smooth negotiation of that system. In that context, she sees her lived experiences and personal knowledge as irrelevant, obstacles to be overcome. I will return to this issue in my discussion of "the rule of engagement," presenting Freire's and hooks' suggestions for addressing students' struggle with this apparent conflict between personal identity and academic success.

Ron Scapp, in dialogue with hooks, comments upon the erasures and repressions demanded and inflicted by conventional educational systems in the United States. He argues that, in order to get by, students are obliged to behave as though their personal histories and lived experiences of racist and other oppressions are not relevant to their classroom learning. "Recognition of that [reality of oppression] must be suspended; and the rationale for this erasure is that logic which says, What we do here is science, what we do here is objective history'" (Teaching to Transgress 140). This denial of the interrelations of students' academic and personal lives, of politics and pedagogy, functions similarly in Nervous Conditions. As the text powerfully illustrates, such denial leads to harmful self-erasures on the part of students like Tambu who feel their backgrounds or beliefs render them incompatible with, and unacceptable to, the institutions they attend. However, by the close of her narrative, Tambu seems to have reached a new understanding of the relationship between her Shona heritage and her English colonial education. The older Tambu seems to have attained some sort of balance between the two, suggesting that the "forgetting" involved in her education was neither complete nor permanent.

Discussing the role of socio-economic factors in shaping students' experiences in the classroom, hooks argues that the American educational system is built around upper-class values, beliefs, and practices; students with working-class or poor backgrounds, then, are expected to relinquish and/or conceal all links to these cultures. When hooks herself began attending university, she tells us, it was taken for granted that she and other such students "would willingly surrender all values and habits of being associated with this background" (Teaching to Transgress 182). I see a similar process at work in Nervous Conditions. As a telling example, both Nhamo and Tambu adapt to their new surroundings at the mission school by determinedly imitating the behaviors of the wealthier people whose world they now inhabit. On her first day of school, Tambu tells us, "I strutted along beside my thoroughbred cousin, imitating her walk and the set of her head so that everyone would see that we were a unit" (92; my emphasis). Clearly, Tambu is conscious that her poor, rural roots render her somehow unfit for the world of the mission: when she first encounters her uncle's vicious guard dogs, she sees their lust for her blood as "justified: they knew I did not belong" (66). Aware that the real Tambu will not be welcomed at the mission, she sets about erasing all signs of her origins. On later visits to the homestead, she is conscious that the changes demanded by mission life have also changed her relationship to, and feelings about, her home. When Chido wriggles out of a Christmas visit to the homestead, Tambu sympathizes with him, observing that he is "too old now - we all [are], and too civilised too" to be satisfied with the foods and activities that characterize life on the farm (120).

Confronted with her students' similar sentiments and experiences of disjuncture, hooks urges them to "reject the notion that they must choose between experiences" and, instead, to strive to "inhabit comfortably two different worlds" (Teaching to Transgress 182-183). By the end of her story, Tambu does seem to be aware of the unavoidable, ongoing influence of her poor rural roots on her character and behaviour, however far from home she may travel. While I am not certain she has attained the level of comfort hooks describes, I do see Tambu replacing her initial embarrassment and shame about her cultural identity with a sense of acceptance and appreciation. She seems to recognize that her position within and between these two cultures, while it presents numerous challenges to her development, is also a site of opportunity and possibility. It is, after all, only by drawing on the values and resources offered by each of these cultures that she is able to develop into the narrator of her own story.

Tambu's efforts to reinvent herself, Nyasha's resistance and ultimate breakdown, and even Nhamo's death can all be read as the consequences of their attempts to negotiate an educational system that demands their obedience and self-effacement. Hooks reminds us that "often in a dominator context there is less a concern for whether students are brilliant hard workers and more a concern with whether they are willing to play the roles assigned them" (Teaching Community 88). Nyasha's crisis, and her father's disapproval, stem precisely from her refusal to comply with the demands of the oppressive systems within which she lives. By refusing the roles of dutiful daughter, desirable wife, and good African, Nyasha seeks to maintain her own identity. Her fragile and unresolved state at the end of Nervous Conditions is, in my view, a cautionary message about the difficulty, perhaps even the impossibility, of attaining this goal in the absence of broader social change. Dangarembga's text suggests that the crucial task facing critical educators and others with a liberatory agenda is to work for broad-based material and attitudinal change at the same time as they focus on the development of individual intellects.

Many critics have taken up the question of whether Tambu's and Nyasha's quests for self-actualization have succeeded or failed; they have reached various, divergent conclusions, with critics defining success in varying, sometimes conflicting, ways. What they tend to have in common, though, is the belief that Nyasha's efforts are less successful than Tambu's. Even when Nyasha's refusal of food is depicted as a form of resistant agency, critics recognize the sad fact that her actions serve to re-enact precisely the same "violence on woman and native" that motivates her outcry (Bahri para. 26). As I reflect on Tambu's story, I am reminded of Biman Basu's suggestion that Tambu, like Nyasha, is trapped by the very system that claims to be empowering her, and that her desperate strategy of "masochistic complicity" (17), which I have detailed above, is ultimately insufficient. I am hesitant to concur that Tambu's efforts have completely failed: she has certainly succeeded in furthering her education, and her narrative is testament to her ability to critically engage with the legacies of her personal and national histories. Perhaps Tambu is best understood as what Valerie Braman would call an "educational hybrid," a colonial subject whose European education "alienates [her] from [her] own culture at the same time that [her] skin color and national origin alienate [her] from English society" with the result that she must continually negotiate two often conflicting cultures while remaining at least somewhat alienated from both ("The Educational Hybrid" para. 1; 3). Seen in this light, Tambu's struggle both for self-development and to maintain a sense of identity and purpose can be seen as quite successful. She has escaped the paralysis that could follow from her colonial education and the ways it has complicated her identity, either by "splitting" it, to borrow from Gairola, or by hybridizing it, per Braman's argument.

As I have suggested above, Tambu's self-described "escape" has been interpreted in varying ways beyond her literal departure from the poverty and gruelling labour of the homestead. Given my concern with Tambu's narration of her education, two interpretations seem most relevant here: escape as coming to voice, and escape as coming to consciousness. While these readings of Tambu's escape are sometimes presented independently, most of the critics I cite here present them in nuanced and interlinking ways, and within the context of broader readings of Dangarembga's text.

Pauline Ada Uwakweh makes a compelling argument for reading Tambu's escape as a coming to voice. In the face of both traditional and colonial cultures that work to suppress or deny women's voices and concerns, she argues, Tambu - as narrator -and Dangarembga - as author - have each succeeded in asserting their presence as "a conscious being capable of independent thought and action" (para. 3). Defining "silencing" as "all imposed restrictions on women's social being, thinking and expressions that are religiously or culturally sanctioned" (para. 1), Uwakweh contends that Tambu "achieves voice through narration, an act that gives her liberation from her patriarchal-imposed silence and offers hope in the resilience and success of female challenge" (para. 13). Dangarembga's strategy of having Tambu narrate her own story, and the older Tambu's power to interpret that narrative, serve as challenges to sexist and colonial silencing of African women. Dangarembga's text, by depicting Tambu's growing awareness of the injustices surrounding her, and her coming to voice as narrator and interpreter, thus works to challenge and resist patriarchal oppressions both within and beyond the world of the text. In Uwakweh's reading, Tambu's escape lies in the combination of "this awareness and in her status as narrator" (para. 35).

Many critics agree upon the importance of what Uwakweh calls Tambu's "developing awareness of the ramifications of domination" (para. 34). Maurice Taonezvi Vambe describes Dangarembga's text as a "complex analysis of the liberation of the mind" (para. 6), a characterization that nicely articulates the idea of Tambu's escape as a coming to consciousness. Commenting on the "emerging consciousness of Tambu" over the course of the text, Michelle Vizzard finds significance in the fact that Nervous Conditions "ends with Tambu beginning to gain the insight needed both to come to terms with the events of her life and to write them down" (para. 11; 16). Tambu the narrator, Vizzard argues, has clearly "gained a political awareness which was lacking in the girl" (para. 16), and is thus better able to turn a critical gaze on her surroundings and perform a sophisticated analysis of the workings of oppression within her community.

The importance of each of these types of readings lies in their understanding of Tambu's escape as more than a literal, physical one. Dangarembga's text clearly communicates the importance of personal, intellectual and emotional resistance to, and escape from, systems of oppression, and its educational narrative plays a significant role in suggesting the ways in which formal education can contribute to, or hinder, these escapes. Drawing on the work of N. Chabani Manganyi, I would argue further that the story of Tambu's personal development and coming to voice and consciousness can be seen as a work of "literature of the oppressed" which performs the crucial task of "achiev[ing] for the artist and his [sic] readership a long-term unmasking of the false consciousness" (67). In other words, Dangarembga's text describes and illuminates the processes through which their colonial context and education has constructed her characters as subordinates and encouraged their "unconscious collusion" with their own "dehumanisation" (64). This opens the possibility that readers will come to recognize their own positions within socially constructed systems of power and oppression, enabling both oppressors and oppressed to work toward new ways of relating as what Manganyi calls a "natural community" rather than one based upon injustice and oppression (67).

To return to the text itself: Tambu tells us that she considers herself to have achieved her goal of "escape," which is often understood as her physical escape from the poverty of the homestead (1). She is less confident about Nyasha's fate, musing that her rebellion against the systems of oppression shaping her life "may not in the end have been successful" (1). Dangarembga, perhaps unsurprisingly, shares Tambu's views, and sees the "really important" problem of "forgetting - remembering and forgetting" as a key determinant of the young women's differing fates at the close of the text (qtd. in Androne 276). While both Nyasha and Tambu have to some extent lost contact with their culture, their losses are different. Nyasha, Dangarembga points out, has been embedded in English culture for so long that she effectively "does not have anything to forget" (qtd. in Androne 276). Tambu, on the other hand, "has that kind of experience Nyasha is so worried about forgetting" and eventually becomes aware that "this is the framework of her very being" (qtd. in Androne 277). Near the end of her story, Tambu recognizes that "If I forgot them, my cousin, my mother, my friends, I might as well forget myself. And that, of course, could not happen" (188); this moment, Dangarembga confirms, is key to Tambu's survival and ultimate success.

In this way, Androne explains, "Dangarembga's narrative implies that not having a language and a culture...Nyasha cannot free herself from those internalized values and pathological behaviour patterns which all too often shape Western women's consciousness" (277-278). Despite her keen perception and incisive observations of her situation, Nyasha is ultimately unable to save herself for two major reasons: first, she doesn't have the resources of cultural belonging that would support her in this struggle; second, her case demonstrates that "consciousness is not an end in itself and that individual struggle and insight are merely that in a society where women's lives are circumscribed by sexist, racist institutions that determine them psychologically as well as politically" (278). Again, Dangarembga's text asserts the importance of community and the need for intellectual development that is deliberately and consistently paired with social and institutional change.

My discussion of the insufficiency of isolated intellectual activity brings me to Nervous Conditions' next pedagogical tenet, which I am calling "the rule of engagement." I have argued elsewhere that "students' individual experiences must be respected as legitimate sources of knowledge, rather than dismissed as irrelevant to in-class work" (Jackson 31). Such a move, I believe, would enable students to make connections between their classroom learning and their other lived experiences, and to engage themselves more fully and more productively in academic and other work. In Nyasha's case, the ability - and opportunity - to perform a sustained analysis of her own situation might have helped her to connect with her family and fight off her breakdown. How different might Tambu's experiences at the mission have been if her childhood on the homestead had been recognized as a source of insight and ability that could complement, rather than threaten, her success at school? As Freire provocatively asks: "Why not discuss with the students the concrete reality of their lives...Why not establish an intimate' connection between knowledge considered basic to any school curriculum and knowledge that is the fruit of the lived experience of these students as individuals?" (Pedagogy of Freedom 36).

Hooks is also critical of the restrictive nature of conventional pedagogy, calling, with her mentor Freire, for a more explicit recognition of students' complete identities. She describes her own long struggle to "overcome years of socialization that had taught me to believe a classroom was diminished if students and professors regarded one another as whole' human beings, striving not just for knowledge in books, but knowledge about how to live in the world" (Teaching to Transgress 14-15). Her ultimate success in developing new pedagogical practices has been intensely enriching, both for her and her students. Insisting on the need to integrate all aspects of oneself into the educational process, and on the superiority of such an approach, hooks reasserts in a recent work that teachers must "affirm to our students that academic brilliance is not enhanced by disconnection" and develop a pedagogical approach that will "show that the student who is whole can achieve academic excellence" (Teaching Community 180).

One of Nervous Conditions' characteristically striking moments occurs as Nyasha prepares for her Form Two exams. Studying night and day, Nyasha is increasingly panicked and physically drained by the process. Not only is she required to stifle her own ideas and work in ignorance of her cultural traditions, but she must simultaneously take in and retain huge amounts of information. The difficulty and strain involved in these processes are apparent in Nyasha's anxiety, long hours of study, and failing health; she even admits to Tambu that she is feeling incredibly nervous about her upcoming exams. She feels, she says, "As if there's everything to learn and I'll never know it all. So I have to keep reading and memorizing, reading and memorizing all the time. To make sure I get it all in" (108; my emphasis).

Nyasha's language here is telling. Her anxiety at having to "get it all in" suggests that she is suffering from more than what Tambu calls "exam nerves" (108); I think her problems really arise from the misinformed philosophy behind her school's pedagogical tactics. The mission's approach to education is characterized by memorization and repeated "eliminating exams" that determine which students will stay in school and which will have to leave (179). Freire's work is helpful in explaining the limitations of such systems. He is scathing in his criticism of what he calls the "banking" model of education in which "the teacher is the depositor" of knowledge and information into the willing, and presumably empty, receptacles of students' minds (Pedagogy of the Oppressed 53). With its complete lack of student engagement and its privileging of teachers as all-knowing experts, this is a seriously flawed - yet unfortunately common - pedagogical model. Nyasha's struggle is compelling evidence of the tremendous, and sometimes unmanageable, pressure and alienation imposed by the banking model of education. Only Nyasha's intellect, and a very narrow portion of it, is relevant to this form of banking pedagogy: a clear violation of Nervous Conditions' rule of engagement, which insists that students must be fully and actively involved in their own education.

"Serving" Dominant Interests

This image of Nyasha struggling to "get it all in" is echoed later in the novel, as Tambu's mother reacts with terror at Babamukuru's decision to send Tambu to the convent school. "Does that man want to kill me," she cries, "fattening my children only to take them away, like cattle are fattened for slaughter?" (Dangarembga 184). Indeed, as Nyasha crams in the contents of her textbooks, Tambu's body is being similarly filled and expanded: she has grown plump during her time at the mission. Tambu's mother's language is, of course, metaphorical; Tambu's physical transformation signals the profound influences of colonial power on her mind and body. Nonetheless, this vision of schools as holding pens where children are fed on English ideas and values, and then ultimately served up to the ruling class as yet another "good African" treat, is apt. Earlier in the text, responding to Nhamo's death, his mother has already identified Western pedagogy as a deathly force (54); Tambu's transformation merely confirms her suspicions.

Nyasha, too, sees Western education, particularly that offered at the white-run convent school, as a destructive force. She warns Tambu against attending the school, saying that Tambu's supposed opportunity is in fact a strategy of assimilation "intended for the precocious few who might prove a nuisance if left to themselves" (179). According to Nyasha, the only appropriate response to the offer of admission, which is really an invitation to collude with systems of oppression, is to refuse. This principle is informed by Nyasha's uncompromising sense of social obligation that, in her understanding, necessarily involves supporting Zimbabweans' collective interests by working to change social structures, rather than merely seeking personal fulfillment in private accomplishments.

Nervous Conditions uses Nyasha's words, and her and Tambu's experiences, to suggest that conventional Western pedagogy serves to contain, rather than emancipate, colonized people. In this way, the educational system works to promote and serve oppressive social and political systems and to maintain white, English dominance in Zimbabwe. As Valerie Braman notes, "education, as it was set up in the colony of Rhodesia, and as it continued in Zimbabwe, was not designed to teach the student how to be a productive and successful member of his [sic] own society and culture" but was rather built around "the colonizer's curriculum" with its goal of "creating a student who is sympathetic to the needs and goals of colonizing powers" ("The Effects" para. 10, my emphasis). In light of this sobering reality, Nervous Conditions' pedagogical intervention becomes all the more pressing, and its stakes higher. Education must equip students not only to recognize these gestures of assimilation and containment, but also to take action against them. Nyasha's harmful and unsuccessful rebellion reveals the importance of developing students' ability to move from critical analysis of their constraints to effective action against them. While Nyasha has keener analytical abilities than the young Tambu, by the time she is narrating her story Tambu has developed "Critical Power Literacy," which I have defined in previous work as "a set of knowledges, analytical practices, theoretical and linguistic tools that enable students to identify and negotiate the workings of power in a variety of contexts" (Jackson 33; emphasis added). Given the differences between Tambu's and Nyasha's stories, it is illuminating to note Ira Shor's insistence that reading and writing are central to the development and practice of critical literacy, which he states is useful insofar as it works toward the goal of "promoting justice in place of iniquity" ("What is Critical Literacy?" para. 2). Tambu's education and her later narration of that experience can both be understood as an extended exercise in "reading" and understanding her position within the systems of power that shape her cultural and historical moment. Interestingly, as Tambu struggles to survive in an educational system that endangers and constrains her, that very system provides her with the critical tools she may ultimately use to dismantle her constraints. Here, then, Dangarembga suggests the positive potential of even explicitly colonial systems of education: once in the hands of students like Tambu, the knowledge and skills taught at the mission school and the convent might possibly be used to ends far from those they were designed to serve.

Shor describes a final, crucial element of critical literacy. This process, he writes, "challenges the status quo in an effort to discover alternative paths for self and social development" and involves consistent examination of one's own developing subjectivity ("What is Critical Literacy?" para. 2). The parallels between this concept of critical literacy and Tambu's process of reflection and writing are striking. It is here that I locate Nervous Conditions' clearest expression of hope. By reading Tambu and her narrative as a case study in critical analysis and liberatory pedagogy, Dangarembga's readers witness an inspiring and accessible demonstration of the steps they might begin to take in their struggles for self-determination.

I do not mean to suggest that Tambu has fully liberated herself: as I have already mentioned, I think she has only attained partial "escape" by the close of her narrative. Indeed, given the systemic function of racist, sexist, and other oppressions in delineating subjects' identities and opportunities, I am not certain full escape' from cultural constraints is ever possible in the absence of radical social change. We know from the narrator's gently humorous reflections on her youthful idealism and naivet that she has come to a more nuanced and pragmatic understanding of the benefits and disadvantages of her education, but the older Tambu's precise beliefs and situation are left unclear. At the text's closure, readers are called upon to take up the challenge of imagining just what Tambu's long, untold "process of expansion" has led her to (204). Once again, Androne's comments are provocative. She writes:

In commenting on the influence of oral African folktales in her writing, Dangarambga speaks of places in those works where the reader must respond and is hence drawn into the tale. The open-ended, unresolved ending surely accomplishes this in Nervous Conditions. The absence of narrative closure leaves the reader to speculate on the relation of contemporary African women to the power structure that has evolved in Zimbabwe since the late 1960s. (279)

Community, Not Competition

Androne's and Dangarembga's attention to the role of readers in creating meaning leads me to the next, and final, element of the text's proposed pedagogy. This principle, which can be summarized as community, not competition, is the central, unifying element of Nervous Conditions' teachings. This tenet is introduced early in the text, as Tambu relates her childhood relationship with her grandmother. Working in her maize garden, Tambu reflects on this relationship, which evidently played a central role in Tambu's development and early, informal, education. Tambu's grandmother, who was "an inexorable cultivator of land, sower of seeds and reaper of rich harvests" (17) right until her death, taught Tambu, through her patient example, how to work the garden. Importantly, we learn that she gave young Tambu "history lessons as well" (17), alternating between bouts of field work and stories about their family's ancestry, history, and migration to their current homestead. In this informal, fully engaged, and practical way, Tambu's grandmother provided her with crucial survival skills, a sense of her own cultural history, and a general understanding of the process and effects of English colonialism in Zimbabwe. In my mind, this is the text's most positive and productive pedagogical scene. Its lessons have clearly stayed with Tambu, as they come easily to her mind as she hoes her garden. Contrast this moment with Nyasha's struggle to prepare for her exams, and Dangarembga's pedagogical values become impossible to miss.

In addition to the tenets I have already discussed, I think Nervous Conditions has a statement to make about the often unrecognized and undervalued wisdom of poor and formally "uneducated" women. Tambu's grandmother, a poor peasant, clearly has much to offer the project of developing new, more inclusive and empowering pedagogical theories and practices. In this text, wisdom and insight are clearly shown to be entirely independent of social status or institutional accreditation. As hooks compellingly argues, "the possession of a term does not bring a process or practice into being; concurrently one may practice theorizing without ever knowing / possessing the term, just as we can live and act in feminist resistance without ever using the word feminism'" (Teaching to Transgress 61-62). In my view, this sentiment is a crucial element of Dangarambga's text, and of her vision of what Nyasha calls a "useful education" (179).

Androne cites the cases of Lucia and Maiguru to argue that the text's depictions of women's resistance to patriarchal oppression are a suggestion "that the strongest, most resilient females are not the women educated and liberated' in the West and privileged within their societies, but the women who emerge from rural Africa and are shaped by agricultural labor" (276). Crucially, in light of my focus in this final section, these most resilient women "live within communities where women support and work with one another" (276). Indeed, it is only when Tambu and her African schoolmates are forced to compete for admission to the convent school that they develop antagonisms and animosities. Tambu relates that "The effect [of this competition] was drastic and dangerous," leading girls to stop "liking each other as much as we used to" in preparation for the "pangs of jealousy" that would follow a girl's offer of admission (Dangarembga 178). Hooks remarks that "Competitive education rarely works for students who have been socialized to value working for the good of the community. It rends them, tearing them apart" (Teaching Community 49).

In stark contrast to this divisive situation at school, Tambu's and Nyasha's personal relationship quickly develops into one of mutual dependence and support. Tambu reflects that "Nyasha was something unique and necessary to me" (Dangarembga 151), and Nyasha writes to Tambu that "In many ways you are very essential to me in bridging some of the gaps in my life" (196). The centrality of this collaborative network of women is also evident in the fact that Tambu's "escape" from her uncle's household to the dubious sanctuary of the convent school is only made possible when "an emboldened Maiguru intervenes on her behalf and persuades Babamukuru" to allow her to attend the school (Androne 279). It is important to note that, in this and other instances, women's successful resistance to conventional modes of living are often dependent upon men's provision of permission or resources. While the cooperative power of the women in the text should not be underestimated, it is significant that their moments of freedom and escape are always mitigated by their location in a broader social context of injustice. Just as Tambu negotiates between the worlds of the mission and the homestead, and between the values of English and Shona culture, so too must all of Dangarembga's characters perform their resistance and self-determination within the range of possibilities and limitations that make up their world. One of Nervous Conditions' key lessons comes from its persistent depiction of characters' successful resistance to and negotiation of systems of power and domination.

Learning from Nervous Conditions

Treating Nervous Conditions simultaneously as a novel partly about pedagogy and as a work of pedagogical theory opens an important space from which to consider the text's many insights about the processes and effects of formal education. Having analyzed the text from this perspective, I maintain my conviction that Dangarembga's text communicates not only the events of Tambu's story but also Dangarembga's own pedagogical principles. When we remember that Dangarembga saw the novel as a way of telling young girls recognizable stories about themselves, her ability to maintain this duality without rendering the text incomprehensible becomes even more commendable. Nervous Conditions is a compelling and moving story, with or without the pedagogical analysis; what is astounding about Dangarembga's work is that she has managed to combine so many observations, criticisms, and suggestions in one highly engaging novel.

Nervous Conditions is more than simply an expos of the damages of colonialism and patriarchy. It also offers the intriguing tenets of an emerging liberatory pedagogy based upon principles of feminism, social responsibility, community involvement, personal engagement, and deliberate, committed anti-oppressive action. Dangarembga seems to be urging us to read against the grain and to engage with her text, and our worlds, in a process of continual critical reading. My discussion has only begun to suggest the range and abundance of valuable insights such practices can discover.

 

Works Cited

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