The Relationship between Colonization and Mental Health in Nervous Conditions
Tstisi Dangarembga, author of Nervous Conditions, depicts Nyasha, Tambu’s first cousin, as a product of the hybridization of British and African culture throughout the entire novel. Certainly, Nyasha’s British customs are very prominent even when she returns to Africa, for she spent the majority of her childhood years in the United Kingdom. Her first appearance in the novel clearly illustrates her British customs and Tambu’s strong disapproval of it; Tambu describes her cousin’s appearance, explaining that Nyasha “obviously had [been to England]. There was no other explanation for the tiny little dress she wore…. I would not give my approval” (Dangarembga 37). Despite the fact that she chose to wear a dress that “hardly covered her thighs” (Dangarembga 37), Nyasha does, in fact, realize that she “shouldn’t have worn it” (Dangarembga 37). Similar to this situation, Nyasha, a hybrid, faces many other internal battles regarding her British and African customs. Through an analysis of Nyasha’s behavior, I will argue that escaping one’s hybridity is impossible due to the permanent psychological alterations one experiences as a product of conflicting cultures. Ultimately, Nyasha, a hybrid, attempts to revert back to her Shona-self, but ironically in doing so, she employs Western tactics and experiences nervous conditions.
As a child, Nyasha was forced to accompany her parents to Britain while they received a higher education. Scholar Lindsay Pentolfe Aegerter explains that “she returns to Rhodesia at the onset of puberty” and she has “become ‘European’, understood best as middle-class, urban, Western” (Aegerter 237). Due to her childhood years spent in the Western hemisphere, upon her return to Africa, Nyasha no longer adheres to African customs; she regards Rhodesian customs as a foreign concept. The timing of Nyasha’s move to Britain is crucial to the understanding of her as a hybrid character. According to “The Development of Children Ages 6 to 14” by Jacquelynne S. Eccles, a child is often the most impressionable during his / her prepubescent years. As she explains, “The years between 6 and 14—middle childhood and early adolescence—are a time of important developmental advances that establish children’s sense of identity” (Eccles 30). Precisely, the most impressionable years of Nyasha’s life are the same years she spends living in England. Even Nyasha herself realizes this. She confides in Tambu: “You know it’s easy to forget things when you’re that young. We had forgotten what home was like. I mean really forgotten – what is looked like, what is smelt like, all the things to do and say and not do and say” (Dangarembga 79). In correlation with Nyasha’s realization, author Eccles continues to explain, “During this period, wherever they spend time, children acquire the fundamental skills considered to be important by their culture” (Eccles 33). Following this logic, Nyasha’s development and employment of Western customs even when she returns to Africa can be easily understood. Even when carrying out simple tasks, Nyasha clearly depicts her absorbance of Western culture. For example, she eats with a fork and knife – a British custom – rather than eating with her hands – an African custom. Ultimately, she grew up immersed in Western culture, and therefore, that is the culture by which she subconsciously continues to abide.
Throughout the entire novel, Nyasha’s internal battle between her conflicting cultures causes her to behave irrationally. On the onset of Nyasha’s return to Africa, she is cross with her parents for putting her through the traumatic experience of cultural shifts. She expresses to Tambu her desire to have remained in Africa, saying, “We shouldn’t have gone … The parents ought to have packed us home” (Dangarembga 18). Immediately, Nyasha realizes that her childhood years in England will have a negative effect on her wellbeing during her adolescent years. Specifically, her broken relationship with her parents, especially her father, is a direct impact of her time in England. Tambu, who abides by an African way of life, believes that “Nyasha ought to be more respectful [to her mother]” (Dangarembga 75). In a conversation between Nyasha and her mother, Nyasha openly disobeys her mother’s order to not read postgraduate level books, responding with “It’s only a book and I’m only reading it” (Dangarembga 75). Although to us readers it may seem as though this is a typical conversation between mother and daughter, the type of defiance Nyasha displays is unheard of in Rhodesian culture, which is why Tambu disapproves of it. More frequently, though, the readers can see Nyasha and her father disagreeing. While discussing her father, Nyasha remarks to Tambu, “I can’t help it. Really, I can’t. He makes me angry. I can’t shut up when he puts on his God act” (Dangarembga 193). Nyasha’s behavior in the scene can be seen as contradictory to her earlier behavior, as explained in the paragraph above. On one hand, when she returns from Africa, she clings to her Western identity as a source of comfort. On the other hand, she now finds her father infuriating because he is a symbol of Western culture; by disobeying her father, she is, in turn, rebelling against her Westernization. Again, her conflicting behaviors show the inescapability of hybridization. Occasionally she rebels against her Western culture, yet she also occasionally clings to it.
During a quarrel regarding Nyasha’s late return to the mission, Babamukuru calls his daughter a whore and worries about how others will view her behavior. Eventually, he cries in anger, “Do not talk to me like that, child…. You must respect me. I am your father” (Dangarembga 115). In a clear rebellion of her father’s demand of respect, she responds, “Now why should I worry about what people think or say when my own father calls me a whore?” (Dangarembga 115). Again, her insubordinate behavior towards her parents reflects her revolt against Western culture, which her parents represent. However, ironically, to protest against Westernization, she actually employs the Western concept of standing up to one’s elders – a concept that is widely frowned upon in African cultures. Her intentional rejection of Western ideals in this scene counters her earlier embrace of Western culture. Also, though, her rejection of the Shona tradition of submission conflicts with her desire to revert back to Africanism. These conflicting viewpoints and ironic behaviors portray the difficulties and confusion she faces as a hybrid. Essentially, she is “stuck” between British culture and Western culture, and she is unsuccessful in becoming “unstuck”.In the piece “Negotiating Social Change in Tsitsi Dangerembga’s Nervous Conditions”, the authors D.A. Odoi, Lesibana Rafapa, and E.K.Klu attribute the confusion Nyasha faces as a hybrid child solely to her time abroad in England. The authors attempt to make sense of Nyasha’s behavior as a direct reaction to her hybridization: “She is a Shona but has lived in England for such a long time that it has been made difficult for her to shed her anglicization and revert to being an African” (Odoi 155). With her inability to revert back to Africanism, as already explained, her behavior often conflicts with the behavior her father wishes she demonstrated. In one instance, her father hides her book, and she demands that he return the book due to her belief that she is entitled to the freedom to make decisions – ironically, a Western idea. Odoi, Rafapa, Klu analyze this specific argument: “Nyasha protests by walking out of the dining room, and this is naturally regarded as being ugly or disrespectful because passiveness is expected from a girl or a daughter or female by the section of society epitomized by the traditional Babamukuru.” (Odoi 156). The authors continue to write that Nyasha chooses “not to conform to the traditional roles prescribed by the conservative segment of her Black African society” (Odoi 156). I agree with this piece’s argument that Nyasha does indeed resist her father’s rules and does indeed stand up to him. However, I also contend that Nyasha’s purpose of defying to her father is to reject Western ideals, which Babamukuru represents. Nyasha’s defiance of a customary African woman’s role shows her inability to revert back to her Shona-self due to the opposing Western beliefs that are now engraved within her. These conflicting viewpoints result from the inescapable nature of hybridization.
A direct result of Nyasha’s hybridization is her development of bulimia. Similar to the disobedience she exerts towards her father, her eating disorder is also a means of defying Western culture. The readers can easily trace her poor eating habits as they develop into bulimia. Throughout the text, there are many instances in which her father has to force her to finish her dinner due to her refusal to eat. In one specific example, when Nyasha objects to eating dinner with the family, her father scolds her: “You will eat that food. Your mother and I are not killing ourselves working just for you to waste your time playing with boys and then come back and turn up your nose at what we offer. Sit and eat that food. I am telling you. Eat it!” (Dangarembga 192). After a few mouthfuls of her dinner, Nyasha expresses to her father that she has had enough, yet he insists, “she must eat her food, all of it” (Dangarembga 193). In my opinion, Nyasha’s refusal to eat her food is another way to challenge her father and his Western culture. Similar to the way in which the vomit rids her body of food, she is attempting to rid herself of her hybrid culture. However, it is ironic that she develops bulimia as a rejection of British culture because the disease itself is a Western one. The majority of Rhodesians barely have enough food to sustain themselves, yet Nyasha, who is fortunate to have an abundance of food, wasted it by means of self-inflicted vomit. Essentially, as a sufferer of colonialism, Nyasha develops “nervous conditions” due to the complicated life she lives as a hybrid child. Her employment of a Western force – bulimia – to combat Westernization shows just how torn she is between her two conflicting cultures and how difficult it is to “undo” hybridization.
Author Lindsay Pentolfe Aegerter explores the roots of Nyasha’s nervous conditions in her piece “A Dialectic of Autonomy and Community: Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions”. She claims that when Nyasha rebels against her father in an attempt to revert back to her African self, she fails. Consequently, Nyasha employs an alternative tactic to once again return to her Shona roots – destroying her body. Aegerter writes, “When her resistant diatribes fail, she uses her body to rebel. As her father asserts his authority by forcing her to finish her food every night, she asserts her autonomy by vomiting it up.” (Aegerter 237). I too agree that she uses her body as another method to react to the suffering she feels as a hybrid and to revolt against Westernization. To further her argument, Aegerter explains that, “Her bulimia signifies her refusal to swallow a sexist ideology she cannot and will not stomach…. The irony is that in turning from the unpalatable patriarchy of her father, she destroys her body through the eating disorder bulimia, a Western disease” (Aegerter 238). I agree with Aegerter that Nyasha ironically develops a Western disease in a refusal to swallow an ideology. However, I believe that aside from her refusal to swallow is her father’s sexism – an African belief –, she is also refusing to stomach Western culture. Nyasha tells Tambu, “It’s more than that really, more than just food. That’s how it comes out, but really it’s all the things about boys and men and being decent and indecent and good and bad. He goes on and on with accusations and the threats, and I’m just not coping very well” (Dangarembga 193). In essence, the bulimia that Nyasha develops is a direct result of the confusion she faces as a trapped hybrid. She is simply unable to make sense of her views on African patriarchal values and her conflicting Western values; she does not know by which ideology to abide. Consequently, her bulimia signifies her fight against her uncertainty and these contradictory ideologies she has experienced as a hybrid.
The chapter “Colonial War and Mental Disorders” of the book A Wretched Earth by Frantz Fanon explains the impact of colonization on one’s mental health. Fanon, who has thoroughly studied the ties between colonization and mental health, claims that this feeling is not uncommon among people who live a colonized country. He writes, “since 1954, we have drawn the attention of international psychiatrists in scientific works to the difficulty of “curing” a colonized subject correctly, in other words making him thoroughly fit into a social environment” (Fanon 182). Aware of the fact that her parents consider her a disappointment and her friends judge her for white ways, Nyasha feels as though she neither fits the mold of an English adolescent nor a Rhodesian adolescent, again validating her belief that she is a hybrid. She finds it very difficult to connect with her classmates, causing her to spend the majority of her time excessively studying. Her fixation with schoolwork can be seen as an escape into a different world – a world lacking conflicting cultures. Psychiatrists classify the inability to conform socially, among other actions, “under the heading ‘psychotic reaction’” (Fanon 183). Essentially, experts in the field of both colonization and mental health claim that the detrimental mental conditions experienced by Nyasha and many other colonized subjects are a direct and incurable reaction to hybridism, which explains Nyasha’s inability to adhere to African beliefs, as she once did earlier in her life.
Author Fanon also notes, “the defenses of the colonized are tuned like anxious antennae waiting to pick up the hostile signals of a racially divided world. In the process, the colonized acquire a peculiar visceral intelligence dedicated to the survival of body and spirit” (Fanon ix). The “peculiar visceral intelligence” Fanon refers to is the ability of the colonized to see the world from a different perspective. With the two radically different cultures present within her, she is unsure how to merge these multiple views into one whole person, creating “nervous conditions”. Throughout the entire book, Nyasha can be seen fighting for her survival, which entails learning how to live life as a hybrid. Ultimately, rather than succeeding in her goal, Nyasha learns that the mixing of the two cultures, British culture and Rhodesian culture, is impossible due to the fact that the values of each culture contradict each other. She desperately longs to return to her African self, yet, ironically, she is so Westernized, she attempts to rid herself of Western culture by using Western tactics, depicting to the readers that she is trapped by her hybridity.
Aegerter, Lindsay Pentolfe. “A Dialectic of Autonomy and Community: Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, vol. 15, no. 2, 1996, pp. 231–240. www.jstor.org/.
Eccles, Jacquelynne S. “The Development of Children Ages 6 to 14.” The Future of Children 9.2 (1999): 30. Web.
Fanon, Frantz, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Constance Farrington. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove, 1965. Print.
Odoi, D. A., Lesibana Rafapa, and E. K. Klu. 2014. “Negotiating Social Change in Tsitsi Dangerembga’s Nervous Conditions.” Sosyal Bilimler Dergisi/Journal Of Social Sciences 38, no. 2: 151-158.
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