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Imitators and the supposed dissenters in the global South are a part and parcel of the Western bourgeoisie and their agenda; and it is the reason why the global South never has a voice of our own that is at once eclectic to confront imperialism. 

Colonialism might have come to an end but the neurosis of the colonised continues in [former colonies of] the third world. We are shamefully racist in the colour gradation we employ in our day-to-day lives. Our education system justifies torture and confinement of the young under the pretext of retaining the best of tradition against the so-called temptations of globalisation. Our movies are imitations or rather charades of what our lives are. Our popular culture is borrowed like everything else and made to fit the demands of an imaginary market of which we have no idea. Our societies are progressively dangerous because we have internalised the violence of colonialism against our own selves. We continue to see ourselves in a western mirror looking for the face that we think is ours. In his preface to The Wretched of the Earth, Sartre says: “the only violence is the settler’s; but soon they [the colonised] will make it their own.” A representation of the violence that we made our own is at the heart of Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions.

Violence, like charity, begins at home. The violence in the family is an expression of the violence of the oppressor successfully adapted to local conditions to make it a normal feature of life at home. In the novel, Babamukuru, as head of the family internalises the humiliation of the colonised but instead of outward, the anger is directed inward towards the vulnerable wife and daughter. To the colonial apparatus that made him Christian and gave him western education with a degree and a career, Babamukuru is thankful no matter how much he unconsciously suffers the humiliation of being a second-class citizen. He is thankful for the fact that the education saved him from the poverty of his brother Jeremiah and the latter’s family. Babamukuru treats his brother and his family with condescension because he is in a position of superiority as far as they are concerned. They are in turn obsequious with Babamukuru for being the big brother who brings a lot of stuff to them, gives them advice and wants to educate their children.   

Life in the third world is where you are either grateful to someone in a way that recipients of private charity funds are expected to be or patronising with those who are less privileged than yourself. Far from being exception to the rule, Babamukuru embodies the rule. Sartre notes that, “colonial aggression turns inward in a current of terror among the natives. By this I do not only mean the fear that they experience when faced with our inexhaustible means of repression but also that which their own fury produces in them.” The fury of the colonised is reflected in the “nervous conditions” of day-to-day existence with its widening class, gender, ethnic, caste, income and other disparities.  

Despite her illiteracy, Mainini, the intuitive wife of the poorer brother Jeremiah, attributes the son Nhamo’s death to the education that he was supposed to receive with the assistance of Babamukuru.  She turns hysterical when she hears of her son’s death, loudly wailing, “Why do you come all this way to tell me what I already know…You are a pretender, you. First you took his tongue so that he could not speak to me…I spit at you. You and your education have killed my son” (p. 54). Nhamo dies of no apparent cause; but, as readers, it is not difficult to surmise that the boy died of some kind of depression, an inexplicable sense of failure, self-hate, despondency, a feeling of emptiness, a refusal to find meaning in living, the absence of a “tongue” that could relate him to his mother and by extension the land and people of his country, a tongue that could express the feeling of pain and loss. Nhamo is the victim of an education system that took away his language – a tongue that could describe his self – and rendered him at war with himself, a war that could only come to an end with his death.

The mother knows that Nhamo died because he had no language to describe how he felt; the education system was responsible for leaving in Nhamo a vacuum by giving him the weapons to destroy his own people just like it happened with BabamukuruNhamo’s death is the fury of the colonised that has come back to destroy them because they have no voice in which they could speak of their real selves. This is the death the working poor relentlessly experiences in the third world. Deprived of a language to describe their feelings, they stand as helpless testimonies to the failed projects of so-called modernisation or globalisation. They have no language in which to comprehend the meaninglessness of their poverty and dehumanisation. Consequently, the mad engulfing fury of the speechless, works full-time towards their destruction. Brecht says in one of his poems:

Every year in September when the school term begins

The women stand in the stationers on the city’s outskirts

And buy textbooks and exercise books for their children.

Desperately they fish out their last pennies


From their tattered handbags, moaning

That knowledge costs so much. They have no inkling

How bad the knowledge is that is prescribed

For their children.

The knowledge prescribed for the children is “bad” because it is an education that forces the poor to hate themselves, something that is true of the colonised as well. Bitterness and malice will replace any program of real liberation, which ought to happen body and soul and not just in a piecemeal manner. It sets children against parents and the parents against each other. Tambu dare not be upset at the death of the brother because it only would mean that she be forever deprived of the possibility of education and by extension her own liberation, a deprivation that is accentuated by the fact of her being a poor girl in a backward rural community.

We are either imitators of the west or dissenters from the west; either way we still are operating within a western paradigm in the third world. Both, the imitators and the supposed dissenters, are a part and parcel of the bourgeoisie and their agenda is more or less the same which is that we never have a voice of our own that is at once eclectic because its origins are multiple as well as individual since we experience it in a specific context. The deadly contradictions of life in the third world are a legacy of colonialism, which continues thanks to the cultural imperialism of the United States and its corporate henchmen in the third world. We continue to be colonised therefore. Since we are not able to deal with the violence from without we allow the violence to destroy us from within. If colonialism persists, decades after the coloniser has left, it is simply because colonialism within continues unabated.

Towards the end of the novel, Mainini is able to offer a diagnosis of the suffering that emerged because of the contradictions in the life of NyashaBabamukuru’s daughter, who is on the verge of a mental breakdown. The point when Nyasha realises what she has done to herself, what her father has done to her, what father and daughter have done to each other and how “they” [the colonial system] have destroyed both the father and the daughter, this is a moment of clarity; however, it is a moment that will consume Nyasha’s energies and leave her hysterical and shattered in body and spirit. Mainini blames the “Englishness” of the family for the problems, the Englishness that makes it impossible for them to be proud of who they are, an Englishness that leaves them in a state of perpetual anxiety to be what they are not. Nyasha’s eating disorders are a product of that alienating Englishness, an Englishness that seems to give worldly comforts and security at the expense of a real self that is connected to life around oneself.   

The bottom line is simple: we have to fight Englishness whether it takes the form of American imperialism or brutal ruling classes who serve their own interests as well as the interests of global elites, largely European and American. Unless we do away with institutions that are a part of the colonial legacy, unless we genuinely respond to the needs and imagination of the third world masses across Africa, Asia and Latin America we will continue to inhabit those nervous conditions that lead to emotional and spiritual paralysis because our private lives are as colonised as our public lives. The machinery that served our colonial masters those days is in the hands of conscienceless third world politicians and bureaucrats who will not let go of the power they possess, the power meant for the welfare of the masses but used instead to increase the profits of corporations. 

The anxiety neurosis of the colonised is about dealing with the violence that has turned inward. Sartre notes that we must read Fanon in order to “learn how, in the period of their helplessness, their mad impulse to murder is the expression of the natives’ collective unconscious.” As the preeminent psychiatrist of the colonial world, Fanon observes, “The Algerian’s criminality, his impulsivity, and the violence of his murders are therefore not the consequence of the organisation of his nervous system or of characterial originality, but the direct product of the colonial situation” (p. 309). If the colonial situation must end, Fanon notes, “Let us decide not to imitate Europe; let us combine our muscles and our brains in a new direction. Let us try to create the whole man, whom Europe has been incapable of bringing to triumphant birth.” Alternatively, “If we want to turn Africa into a new Europe, and America into a new Europe, then let us leave the destiny of our countries to Europeans. They will know how to do it better than the most gifted among us” (p. 315).

Works cited

Brecht, Bertolt, “Every year in September when the school term begins,” Poems: 1913-1956, London: Eyre Methuen, 1976.

Dangarembga, Tsitsi. Nervous Conditions. Oxfordshire, UK: Ayebia Clarke, 2004.

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. NY: Grove, 1991.

Sartre. “Preface” to The Wretched of the Earth. Online.

* Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher, researcher and professor of English Literature at The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, India. His research interests broadly include women’s studies, film studies and Third World politics and writing.