NOT TO BE MISSED
"A fleur de peau", a novel by Tsitsi DANGAREMBGA
Paris: Albin Michel, 1992. (270p.).
Translated into French by Etienne Galle. Original title: "Nervous conditions" .
Ce compte rendu en français
The year is 1968. The place, Rhodesia. Tambu is thirteen and her life is about to change when her brother Nhamo dies. With no other boys on whom to entrust the future of the family, the elders decide, although reluctantly, to leave that responsibility to fall on Tambu's shoulders. To her father, investing in a girl's education is a dead loss as, sooner rather than latter, she will get married and "sharpness with her books [will be] no use because in the end it will benefit strangers" (p.56). Her mother's opposition is even stronger as she tells her husband: "Are you mad? Have you eaten some wild shrub that has gone to your head? [...] She will not go. Unless you want me to die too" (p.56). But the head of the family holds firm and Tambu leaves the farm, embarking on a fascinating journey of discovery in the face of well-entrenched socio-familial hierarchies and expectations.
Tambu' s determination to succeed is second to none, and succeed she does, being regularly head of her class and eventually gaining entry into the best college of the country on a scholarship. But the novel is not so much about her academic achievements and intellectual prowess, but rather on the personal cost of an education that leads to conflicting allegiances; it is on the limits of knowledge and the difficulties born of the cultural impositions that define the limits of people' s freedom; not only Tambu' s, but also that of significant others, such as her brother Nhamo, her uncle Babamukuru, her auntie Maiguru, her cousin Nyasha, and many others confronted by the conflicting demands of modernity and traditional beliefs.
The irreconcilability of mutually exclusive surmises makes cultural syncretism difficult, if not impossible. The fate of Nyasha proves the point. She is certainly the character of the novel who feels most acutely the pain and suffering dealt out by two unbending and antagonistic masters. She has spent a few years in England with her parents who went overseas to complete their postgraduate studies and, upon her return to Zimbabwe, she is lost in a no-man's land sundering Shona and British values. Unable to meet social expectations, she undergoes tense relationships with everyone around her: her classmates who cannot stand her English accent; her mother who is endlessly apologising for the rudeness of her children and blaming their sojourn in Britain for their lack of good manners. She is also at loggerheads with her father who tries to bully her into becoming a dutiful daughter, submissive and respectful of traditional duties and hierarchies.
But unlike her mother who abdicated her "Western" privileges from the day she set foot back on her native land, Nyasha is not able to abandon her recent past, to renounce her freedom of thought and to entrust her life into her father's hands. "When you have seen different things, she argues, you want to be sure you're adjusting to the right things. You can't go on all the time being whatever's necessary. You've got to have some conviction and I'm convinced I don't want to be anyone's underdog. It's not right for anyone to be that" (p.117).
In contrast, Tambu is happy to comply with others' impositions as long as they do not jeopardise her dream to do well at school. She has a deferential regard for her uncle Babamukuru and her teachers, and she happily respects family hierarchies. Her pursuit of wisdom aims at an accumulation of knowledge rather than a critical analysis of its usefulness in the "real world". She enjoys discovering the hidden treasures of the library for the sake of it and, oblivious to her submissiveness to authority, she cannot understand why her cousin Nyasha does not enjoy such a privileged life, why she always complicates matters, why she casts such a critical eye on everything she is taught; she cannot see why her cousin does not simply submit to her father's authority and let the bliss of intellectual pursuit run her life.
The true cost of her meek compliance will eventually catch up with her and she will realise that "Science without conscience is but the ruin of the soul". But first, she will have to learn the hard way that among her entourage, knowledge counts for nothing when it contravenes patriarchal wisdom. "If I had been more independent in my thinking then, she says, I would have thought the matter through to a conclusion. But in those days it was easy for me to leave tangled thoughts knotted, their loose ends hanging" (p.116). For Nyasha it is not so. She is unable to comply with social order as it deems "femaleness" to be "opposed and inferior to maleness" (p.116), thus her impossible reconciliation with her father, her frenzied search for a satisfactory solution to the issue and her increasing despair at discovering that there was none.
People were playing to the tune of social expectations and challenging the norms only attracted scorn. Ergo, no-one minded well educated women as long as they continued to behave like uneducated ones; i.e., as long as they remained modest, submissive and abiding by their husband's decisions and demands. Nyasha's mother Maiguru illustrates perfectly this subjugation to male jurisdiction. The Masters' Degree she gained in England put her on par with her husband and, she says, "I glimpsed for a little while the things I could have been, the things I could have done if if if things were different" (p.101). But things are not different and upon returning from England, Maiguru became again the wraithlike character she was expected to be, moving silently in the shadow of her husband, condemned to let him spend her income as he saw fit and coerced into going along with his peremptory rulings.
While rigid hierarchies laid down by custom are especially hard on women, they also limit the freedom of men. They foster compliance rather than change, as people of both genders can only tweak at the edges of conventions. For example, even Babamukuru is squeezed between his duties as head of the family, the missionaries' demands, his brothers' sloth and complacency, rigid social "does and don'ts" and his daughter's open challenge to his authority. Everyone ends up complying with his demands, but people's acquiescence means little as it does not change their innermost beliefs. The attitude of Babamukuru's brother Jeremiah bears witness to this resistance to change. Jeremiah always agrees with his elder brother's rulings without a flinch but he never takes initiatives to improve the farm, re-thatch his roof, send his children to school, or provide better living conditions for his wife and family. Jeremiah is a good-for-nothing drunkard convinced that while it is his duty to obey his elder brother's demands, it is also his right to enjoy the benefit of the latter's wealth, to be fed by his wife and, to spend the little money the family can get at the local tavern.
The churlish attitude of Jeremiah's son towards his younger sisters is just another rendition of well-entrenched customary privileges bestowed on the males of the lineage, while the girls have to slave on the farm, fetch water, work in the field and even, in this case, carry their brother's suitcase from the bus station when he returns home from school. This led Tambu to hate her brother, but with hindsight she realises that, like all the men of her family, her brother was conforming to social norms and expectations and his mean personality was only making matters slightly worse. Like her uncle and her father, her brother Nhamo was "not interested in being fair" (p.12); he was only keen to make sure that the benefit of change would be channelled his way without altering the fundamental tenets of social structures and hierarchies.
People's temperament is critical, but norms and conventions are of paramount importance, thus, Tambu says: "Perhaps I am unfair to Nhamo, laying all this blame on him posthumously, when he cannot defend himself and when I have seen enough to know that blame does not come in neatly packaged parcels. Perhaps I am making it seem as though Nhamo simply decided to be obnoxious and turned out to be good at it, when, in reality, he was doing no more than behaving, perhaps extremely, in the expected manner" (p.12). Yet whatever the forces at play, she adds: "The needs and sensibilities of the women in my family were not considered a priority, or even legitimate" (p.12).
Tambu's schooling does not make an exception to the rule and, like her aunt Maiguru, her qualifications mean nothing so long as her future is not for her to decide. Nothing will really change as long as her fate is in the hands of her uncle, her father or her future husband. Education yields little freedom while so ever it is in thrall of patriarchal rule. In contrast Nyasha's critical appropriation of knowledge and challenge to the status quo is heroic, even if it leaves her bereaved. She is a flag-bearer of change, someone who has not been yoked to the lure of subjugating wisdom, although her floundering and despair show the limits of one's power to change the world. The contrast between these two bright young women is tantalising, but the deportment of both signals a major shift in women's agency and aspirations. "Nyasha's rebellion [...] may not in the end have been successful" (p.1), the narrator suggests, and Tambu's compliance with the rules may well prove difficult to sustain in the long run, but whatever is awaiting both teenagers in subsequent decades, their experience marks the beginnings of a new chapter in women's place in Zimbabwe's society.
This novel was published some twentyfive years ago, yet many of the issues raised are still significant today. Gender inequality, unequal access to education, forced marriage, dowries, biased distribution of domestic chores, rigid family structures and the squandering of limited resources by men accountable to no one but themselves are just some of the problems still compounding women's woes, in Zimbabwe and elsewhere, where living conditions are no better and many would even argue much worse than a few decades ago. Moreover, the difficult reconciliation of traditional practices with conflicting wisdom gained overseas is still a source of existential angst, both for people returning home, and those leaving the country to take up residence in Europe or elsewhere, at the beginning of the 21st century.
Nervous conditions proposes a snapshot of Zimbabwe women's condition in the late 1960s. It exposes gender biases, lays bare the difficulties confronting wives and mothers, and uncloaks the desperate search for freedom of teenagers eager to take charge of their destiny and to change the world. This novel was among the "Africa's 100 best books of the 20th century" selected by a literary panel assembled in Accra in 2002 . It was high on the list, and it is very much deserving of the honour. Recommended reading.
1. "Africa's 100 best books of the 20th Century" [https://www.ascleiden.nl/?q=content/webdossiers/africas-100-best-books-20th-century Sighted 26 December 2013].
A sequel to "Nervous conditions" was published under the title "The Book of Not" (Oxfordshire: Ayebia Clarke, 2006). A translation of this latter novel into French is not available at this time. [December 2013].
This review is based on the French translation of the novel but quotes and page numbers are from the English original published by London Women's Press in 1988.
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The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities