Tambudzai, the heroine of this female bildungsroman, travels from her small Rhodesian village to live in Umtali town with her successful, British-educated uncle and his family. She gets this chance for change and formal education when her brother dies suddenly from a mysterious illness a year after entering the mission school.

The novel, set in 1968, unites a classic coming of age narrative with the particular tensions of an African colony under European rule. While Tambu struggles to assimilate into her uncle's family, her cousin Nyasha becomes a compulsive student and develops a serious eating disorder while struggling with the biculturalism of her childhood, spent mostly in the United Kingdom. Tambu's university-educated aunt gradually rebels against her domineering husband.


Illness, and particularly eating disorders, are both a literal and metaphoric result of colonialism in this novel. The title, the book tells us, derives from an introduction to Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth: "The condition of a native is a nervous condition." Nyasha's anorexia is convincing both as a sociologically oriented representation of an eating disorder, and as a metaphor for cultural imperialism, the subtle and insidious domination of one culture by another--in this case, Rhodesian village culture by British colonials.

Dangarembga focuses not only on domesticity and family life (including the more complex hierarchical structures involving uncles and aunts), but also on education, as sites in which cultural imperialism takes place. It's a particularly interesting examination of the complicated dynamic between British-educated parents who want their children to surpass them but feel betrayed when those children are so successfully assimilated as to have shallow or no African roots.

The connection between colonial Africa and anorexia surprises students, and as culturally specific as this narrative is, it also strikes a chord in particular with students, who have assimilated enough academic/pre-professional culture to become somewhat strange to their families and friends, while not yet familiar to established professionals in their discipline.



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