The Most Nervous of Conditions: The Implications of Nyasha's eating Disorder in Nervous Conditions

Valerie Braman

Nyasha grew weaker by the day. She weaved when she walked and every night was the same. Although we were on vacation she studied fourteen hours a day to make sure that she passed her "O" levels. She worked late into the night to wake me up regularly and punctually at three o'clock with a problem -- a chemical equation to balance, the number of amperes in a circuit to be calculated or an irregular Latin verb to be conjugated, although I was only in Form One and could not often help her. "I have to get it right," she would whisper with an apologetic smile. It was truly alarming, but nobody commented, nobody acted; we were all very frightened. One evening, at supper, she passed out into her plate. . . .

The next morning she was calm, but she assured me it was an illusion, the eye of the storm. "There's a whole lot more,' she said. "I've tried to keep it in but it's powerful. It ought to be. There's nearly a century of it," she added, with a shadow of her wry grin. "But I'm afraid," she told me apologetically. "It upsets people. So I need to go somewhere where it's safe. You know what I mean? Somewhere where people won't mind." [ pp. 200-201]

These passages, and the quite violent and disturbing scenes that precede and follow then, may come as a surprise to the reader of Dangarembga's Nervous conditions. However, clues as to the development of the eating disorder that plagues Nyasha are present throughout the text in each mention that the young woman makes of her figure, or of how the day's meals will affect her stomach and rear. These comments stand out even more in contrast to the attitudes of most of the other Shona women, including Tambudzai, towards their bodies and towards food. Yet more telling is the situation in which Nyasha finds herself, as she remarks to her mother, "I am not one of them but I'm not one of you." (p. 201)

This in-between space that Nyasha occupies, neither Shona nor English, accepted neither by her peers nor her family because she cannot and will not submit to the established patterns and traditions of subjugation, seeking affirmation in her attention to her studies and to her figure (the only things that she feels she can truly own and control), makes her the perfect candidate for the eating disorder, which, in and of itself, is an English import to her homeland. In turn, Nyasha's self-induced wasting away is strikingly and harshly symbolic of the issues and burdens that eat away at the other women and men in the novel. Even the official name of Nyasha's illness, "Anorexia Nervosa," recalls the title of the novel, and the predicament in which the "native" finds herself.

The anorexic looks to her disease, which manifests itself not only in food and body related ways, but also in extremism and perfectionism of all kinds, as a way to deal with other issues in her life which are too complex or difficult to truly be taken head on. Instead, she turns to such things as dieting and heightened attention to schoolwork, as does Nyasha. The purging in which Nyasha engages on two specific occasions in the novel are significant in that they represent a direct rebellion against the wishes and rule of her father. Babamukuru, in these instances, not realizing that his daughter's starvation is a refusal to swallow any more dictates, forces her to clean her plate. Nyasha does so, and immediately purges her stomach of the offensive food, and the more offensive patriarchal law that produced it.

What is particularly interesting about Nyasha's Anorexia in the context of Rhodesia is that this is a disease that even to this day is seen extremely rarely in women of color. Anorexia is primarily a European and American woman's disease, as it is virtually only in these cultures (and not even consistenly there) that a woman's worth is based on her appearance, and more specifically, her slimness. Nyasha's female relatives prize plumpness, delighting in their round hips and recognizing that the heavier one is, the better off her family is. After all, only one who can afford an abundance of food would be able to put on weight in this environment of scarcity and constant physical labor.

Nyasha, in contrast, belongs to such a wealthy branch of the family that food is never in short supply. She has been to England, and has been subject to their fashions, their food, and their neuroses. Once she has returned to her home at the mission, she is subject once more to the English's colonial legacy, as well as the male dominated Shona society. She is neither here nor there, neither allowed to foster the values she has acquired in England, nor to fully embrace those her parents and family embody. Nyasha is confused, tortured, always struggling to make her way. However, she is a hybrid woman in a hybrid land, and the competing values and expectations both within and without her are too much for her to navigate. Truly, the English have engendered this "nervous condition" in Nyasha.

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