Primary Source

British Empire: Fiction, Nervous Conditions


In 1959, Tsitsi Dangarembga was born in Africa in the British colony known as Rhodesia, now called Zimbabwe. From the age of two, she spent four years living in Britain. On her return to Rhodesia, she attended a missionary school in Mutare. In 1977, she went back to Britain to attend Cambridge University, but became disillusioned with life and politics in Britain, returning home without completing her medical degree. She continued her education in University of Harare in psychology. In 1988, Dangarembga achieved success as a novelist with the publication of Nervous Conditions, the first novel to be published in English by a black Zimbabwean woman. In 1989, Nervous Condition won the African section of the Commonwealth Writers Prize. Dangarembga took the title of her book from Jean-Paul Sartre's introduction to Franz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth: “The condition of native is a nervous condition.”

From around 1850, British explorers, settlers, and missionaries moved north from southern Africa, eventually leading to the creation of the colony of Rhodesia, named after Cecil Rhodes of the British South Africa Company. During the 1960s, demands by black Rhodesians to be included in the political process led a conservative white-minority government to declare independence from Britain. Under Ian Smith, white Rhodesians withstood British pressure, economic sanctions, and guerrilla attacks until 1980, in an attempt to cling to white supremacy. In 1980, the white minority finally consented to hold multiracial elections, and Robert Mugabe won a landslide victory. The country achieved independence on April 17, 1980, under the name Zimbabwe.

Nervous Conditions is set in Rhodesia in the 1960s. The central character is Tambudzai, a young Shona girl who lives on an impoverished farm. After the death of her brother, Tambu has the opportunity to live with her Western-educated uncle and to receive a missionary Western education. The book depicts a picture of colonial domination from the perspective of a young girl.

In this excerpt, Tambudzai is on her way to attend the Young Ladies College of the Sacred Heart after receiving a scholarship.

This source is a part of the Women in the British Empire, 1800-2000 teaching module.


“Excitement. Anticipation. Elation and exultation. It was all very much the same as it had been on that first day that I went to the mission, the day that I began my new life. Yes, it had begun so thoroughly that January afternoon two years ago when I went to the mission, and it was continuing. Everything was coming together. All the things that I wanted were tying themselves up into a neat package which presented itself to me with a flourish. There should have been trumpets, truly there should have been. For was I—Tambudzai, so recently a peasant, was I not entering, as I had promised myself I would, a world where burdens lightened with every step, soon to disappear altogether. I had an idea that this would happen as I passed though the school gates, those gates that would declare me a young lady, a member of the Young Ladies College of the Sacred Heart. I was impatient to get to those gates. The drive was too long. The car had to go faster to get me there in time . . .We found a parking space, though this was not easy, and disembarking, walked, taking the general direction of the stream of parents and pupils ahead of us, over crazy-paving of geometrically cut stone, through a corridor of creamy-white roses to the door that appeared to be the main entrance. Anticipation. Disappointment. I looked and looked and searched carefully through the crowd, but I could not find a single black face which did not belong to our party, except of course for the porters. The porters were carrying the trunks, but none of them offered to carry mine. At the door a nun, smiling beatifically, made us welcome by shaking our hands and asking us ‘Which one is this?’ before taking us up steps and down corridors to a room at the end of a long hallway. ‘All the first-formers live on this corridor,’ she explained as she led the way. ‘And the Africans live in here,’ she announced triumphantly flinging the door to my new life wide open. The room was empty. I was, it seemed, the first black first-former to have arrived. It was not a small room but then neither was it large. It certainly was not large enough for the six beds that stood in it, three along one wall and three along the other, all of necessity so closely arranged that there was barely space to walk between them.”


Dangarembga, Tsitsi. Nervous Conditions. Seattle: Seal Press, 1989.

How to Cite This Source

"British Empire: Fiction, Nervous Conditions," in World History Commons, [accessed December 7, 2023]