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Nervous Conditions Final Paper

In: English and Literature

Submitted By jmoore91
Words 1900
Pages 8
Joseph Moore

Professor Krystyna Michael

Comparative Literature 102W

December 6, 2011

Cultural Change in Nervous Conditions Related to the Functions of Eating and Ingestion Nervous Conditions is a novel that explores the dichotomy of both the English and Shona cultures. Tambu Siguake, is the central character and narrator who is preoccupied in this identity crisis. Tambu observes the polarizing effects of these intertwining cultures on the people around her, which in turn raise questions about the nature of colonialism. Tambu’ slow progression through assimilation is documented throughout the novel using food related metaphors. The interesting aspect of this novel is the correlation of food metaphors associated with Nyasha who has her own identity crisis of her own which culminates in her anorexia and bulemia. Dangarembga uses these metaphors, which relate to food, to expose the effects of cultural change. In doing so, she makes the reader question the effects of colonialism and assimilation on the Siguake family, particularly Tambu and Nyasha, and the Shona society as a whole. The novel begins with Nhamo, Siguake’s brother, going to school at the mission in which his uncle, Babumukuru, is the headmaster. The household which he originally lived in is typical of the Shona culture in comparison to the Anglicized mission. Upon his return to the household, Siguake observes his changes, many of which are attributed to his stay at the mission. Siguake mentions several distinctions, but there is one that is food related, “… where he ate sadza regularly with his fingers and meat hardly at all, never with a knife and fork” (Dangarembga 6). This simple observation leads to the issue of assimilation that has surreptitiously overcome Nhamo. Where he was formerly a contributing part of the household, Nhamo began to think of himself superior to Siguake because of his education. Therefore, his assimilation into the English culture creates a barrier between him and Siguake, thus separating the family. Siguake goes to the mission after Nhamo dies and at her first dinner there, it is clear that she has not been assimilated to their culture yet:
The food looked interesting, which made me suspicious of it since I knew that food was not meant to be interesting but filling. Besides the rice, there was something that might have been potato: I could not be sure since it was smothered in a thick, white, tasteless gravy. Although I gallantly placed small portions of it in my mouth, it refused to go down my throat in large quantities. In fact nothing as going down my throat in large quantities. I discovered that using a knife and fork was not as easy as it looked; most of my supper was landing on the table, on my chest, in my lap – everywhere except in my mouth. In a way this was not a bad thing because the taste of those potatoes made everything else, even the meat, which was properly cooked with plenty of salt and onions and tomatoes, taste funny. (Dangarembga 83) This passage shows that the food and utensils are foreign to her and she has not been Anglicized like the rest of her uncle’s family. The theme of eating is present again, where she could not swallow the potato. This can be seen as Siguake not being able to stomach these new cultural changes that were being imposed upon her. It is interesting that Maiguru decided to dish out sadza, a traditional Shona dish, which “nobody else would eat” (Dangarembga 84). Siguake was the only one who ate the sadza, thus showing her inherent culture. Dangarembga’s use of food illustrates the cultural differences between Tambu and the rest of her family at the mission, Tambu maintaining her Shona roots, while her family is Anglicized.
Tambu’s foreign mannerisms as opposed to her Anglicized cousin can be seen at her first breakfast at the mission, “At breakfast, the food would not go down. My throat constricted more tightly with each mouthful I tried to swallow…Watching Nyasha work her way daintily through egg and bacon and tea, having declined the porridge and toast because too much food would make her fat” (Dangarembga 93). The obvious disparity is how Nyasha could easily eat the breakfast while Tambu couldn’t. However, the underlying point of this passage is that Nyasha has assimilated into the English culture and Tambu has not. Tambu mentions that Nyasha had turned down food which furthers the notion of Nyasha’s Anglicized ways.
Tambu eventually assimilates to the English culture by means of living at the mission. This is seen when Tambu talks about why Chido did not come home for Christmas with the rest of his family, “You couldn’t blame him really for not wanting to go home, because he was too old now – we all were, and too civilized too – to be amused by eating matamba and nhengeni” (Dangarembga 122). Tambu began to develop a sort of identity crisis which was much more subtle than her cousin. Further, Tambu’s cultural change can be seen later on while the family has breakfast at their Christmas gathering where she would rather “eggs and bacon” (the English breakfast) as opposed to bread and margarine (the Shona breakfast). (Dangarembga 136). Tambu’s real identity can be seen before she goes to Sacred Heart and has one last meal with her mother, “I washed my hands, sat down beside her and swallowed a few morsels of sadza without tasting them, moulding them much longer between my fingers than was necessary” (Dangarembga 187). From the beginning of the novel, Tambu’s favorite dish was sadza and by the end, she did not even have an appetite for it, in fact she started treating the food like a toy, playing around with it. These subtle transitions show Tambu’s progression through assimilation, thus becoming Anglicized.
Not only does the act of eating refer to cultural change, but Tambu’s father, Jeremiah, equates food with images of letters and books (Hill 80). Tambu tries to sell maize to pay for her school fees and when her teacher, Mr. Matimba, offers to take her to the city to sell her product, Jeremiah is infuriated, “Does he think he is your father? … He thinks that because he has chewed more letters than I have, he can take over my children” (Dangarembga 24). This notion of eating is associated with education and yet again associated with cultural change, this time between Mr. Matimba and Jeremiah. The more educated Mr. Matimba tries to help Tambu, while her father tries to keep her home away from learning. Tambu ultimately changes once she is assimilated into the mission schooling system, however it leads to a better life than what she would experience at her parent’s household. She rebels against her father’s wishes and gains the money to pay for her schooling fees, prior to going to the mission.
Jeremiah changes his perspective on education when Babamukuru comes back from England and uses another food metaphor, “Our father and benefactor has returned appeased, having devoured English letters with a ferocious appetite! Did you think degrees were indigestible? If so, look at my brother. He has digested them!” (Dangarembga 36). Jeremiah sees these ‘English letters’ as food and Babamukuru’s subsequent ‘ingestion’ of education is not seen as assimilating to the English way, but lucrative. Since Jeremiah will benefit from his brother’s education, he will not question the overall cultural change he had partaken in while he was in England studying for his Master’s degree.
Tambu’s mother, Mainini has her own way of associating food with education. When the fight between the women erupts during the Christmas gathering, Mainini says “Because she’s rich and comes here and flashes her money around, so you listen to her as though you want to eat the words that come out of her mouth. But me, I’m not educated am I? I’m just poor and ignorant, so you want me to keep quiet, you say I mustn’t talk” (Dangarembga 142). Mainini is referring to Maiguru, who is educated and is of the highest status among women in the Siguake household. Mainini is frustrated that her voice is not heard compared to Maiguru’s because of their disparities in education. The notion of eating returns and Mainini makes it sound as if Maiguru’s words are vital with her eating analogy. The other women’s ‘eating’ of her words is attributed to her higher status which she achieved in England through her Anglican education. This cultural separation is one of the reasons why the women are divided.
The processes of food and ingestion have been associated with assimilation. The rebellious aspect to these processes is linked to Nyasha. She develops anorexia and bulimia, the acts of both regurgitation and refusing to accept both the food and culture. Nyasha is caught up in an identity crisis of her own, much more severe than Tambu’s. Nyasha’s heartwarming conversations with Tambu are testaments to this fact, in particular the one they have when Tambu first arrives at the mission:
We shouldn’t have gone,’ Nyasha was saying, looking disheartened. ‘The parents ought to have packed us off home. They should have, you know. Lots of people did that. Maybe that would have been best. For them at least, because now they’re stuck with hybrids for children. And they don’t like it. They don’t like it at all. It offends them. They think we do it on purpose, so it offends them. And I don’t know what to do about it, Tambu, really I don’t. I can’t help having been there and grown into the me that has been there. But it offends them – I offend them. Really, it’s very difficult.’

Nyasha is not accepted by her peers because of her Anglicized ways and she develops a hatred for colonialism and refuses to accept assimilation. Babamukuru imposes his will upon Nyasha to be a ’good and decent’ girl, but Nyasha rebels against her father, using her anorexia and bulimia as a method of resistance. At the dinner table, Babamukuru forces Nyasha to eat her food before she is allowed to be excused, however, when it sees as if she has succumbed to her father, Tambu observes that that is not the case, “She went straight to the bathroom, spent a long time there. Excusing myself from the table, I waited in the bathroom. I could hear her gagging and choking” (Dangarembga 193). This nervous condition which she had developed can be seen as an act of rebellion against the cultural changes that she had incurred.
Dangarembga does a good job of incorporating serious issues of assimilation and rebellion through the means of eating and ingestion. Since food was so vital in Shona culture it is intelligible why it was referred to metaphorically throughout the novel. The various issues raised about colonialism in the story questioned the reader of whether assimilation was a viable method for the Rhodesian people. Tambu had slowly lost her Shona roots, but ultimately profited with the education she received, while her rebellious cousin, Nyasha who had been born in significantly better circumstances questioned whether or not her identity because of her assimilation and her status at the end of the novel is unknown.


Dangarembga, Tsitsi. Nervous Conditions. England: The Woman’s Press, 1988. Paperback.

Hill, E. Janice. “Purging a Plate Full of Colonial History: The 'Nervous Conditions' of Silent Girls” College Literature 22.1 (1995): 78-90. Web. 7 Dec. 2011.H

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