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Nervous Conditions

Tsitsi Dangarembga

Theme: Personal Freedom in an Oppressive Culture
Grades: Grades 11-12

Nervous Conditions is a novel about the coming of age of its narrator, Tambudzai. The oldest daughter of a native Shona family living in the British colony of Rhodesia in the 1960s, Tambudzai is intent on getting an education and developing her independence. To do so, she must overcome the autocratic authority exercised by the men in her family and the racism and patriarchy of the colonial culture. Much of her growth comes through her relationships with four women—her mother, whose life is one of neglect and deprivation; her two aunts, who experience mistreatment from the men in their lives; and her cousin Nyasha, who rebels against her oppressive father and eventually develops an eating disorder. By being with these women and witnessing the injustices they endure and the losses they suffer, Tambudzai acknowledges the realities of her world and the kind of clarity and strength it will take to make her way beyond it.

Note: Nervous Conditions refers to situations and topics that some readers might find objectionable. You may wish to preview the novel before assigning it to your students.

  1. Role-Playings.
    Have students discuss or role-play the following situation. Ask them to consider how they would feel if the opportunity to do something that they cared about very much and were well qualified for was given to someone else simply because of his or her gender, social position, age, or some other reason unrelated to the activity. Would they protest what was done? How would they relate to that person? Would they look for another opportunity to pursue?
  1. Linking to Today: Discrimination.
    Have students work together to list groups of people who have experienced discrimination in some form—for example, ethnic minorities, the physically or mentally challenged, women, and the elderly. Then have each group discuss incidents of discrimination that they have read about, witnessed, or possibly experienced. Encourage them to discuss what it would feel like to be discriminated against, what causes discrimination, and what the effects of it are on individuals and on societies.
  1. Your Choice.
    Suggest that students create a collage that symbolizes the main themes of the novel. Students can choose a variety of materials to use, including pictures, objects, words, photos, cloth, newspaper images or articles, and artwork. students can work individually or in pairs to design the collage and to assemble it.

  1. The Time of Her Life.
    Have students create an illustrated time line showing the main events in Tambudzai's or Nyasha's life. Students can use simple figures and shapes or, if they wish, more elaborate drawings and designs to illustrate people, places, and incidents from different periods of her life.
  1. Zimbabwe Today.
    In this project, students will explore life in contemporary Zimbabwe. They will investigate how life has changed since the days of a white-dominated government and explore the problems and challenges that face the people of Zimbabwe. Students will work in small groups and present their findings in the form of a television documentary, narrated by one of the characters from the novel.

    Suggested Procedure:

  • Lead a class discussion of how life may have changed for the people of Zimbabwe after a majority-rule government was established. Ask students to draw inferences based on what they learned in the novel and to share any other knowledge that they have about Zimbabwe or post-colonial Africa in general. On the board, write a list of statements about life today in Zimbabwe derived from the discussion.
  • After the preliminary discussion, list possible topics for research, such as Zimbabwe's economy, social problems, political conflicts, and so on. If possible, these topics should be drawn from the list of statements generated by the class discussion.
  • Divide the class into small groups and assign a topic to each. Encourage the groups to use world history or geography textbooks, library reference works, and the Internet in their research.
  • Once groups have completed their research, help them plan a presentation. The presentation may be done in the style of a television documentary, featuring a character in the novel who acts as narrator. You might give students other presentation options such as the following: a multimedia report, a magazine, an Internet home page, or a promotional brochure.
  1. African Women Today.
    Ask students to research the position of women today in the countries of southern Africa. Suggest they try to find out what kinds of work women do, what level of education is available to them, and what their economic status is. In addition, ask them to gather information about one or two women who have achieved political or professsional success. Students then prepare a written report that presents their findings.