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What is civilization?

The novel, Nervous Conditions, is a story filled various topics ranging from gender issues, educational barriers, and post colonial tension. A theme that was commonly found throughout the whole text, no matter where Tambu lives, is the idea of civilization and whom is civilized or not. Who determines this and what are the qualifications? The definition of civilized is “marked by well-organized laws and rules about how people behave with each other; polite, reasonable and respectful; pleasant and comfortable” (Merriam Webster). When Tambu arrives back home during Christmas she claims,

“you couldn’t blame [Chido] really for not wanting to go home, because he was too old now – we all were, and too civilized too – to be amused by eating matamba and nhengeni, and by trips to Nyamrira” (122).

In the beginning of the novel, Tambu is angry with her brother, who had an opportunity to get an education. When her brother came home, he brought foreign items, such as plastic bags and condiments, but the longer he is educated away from home the more he changes. The novel takes place in a period after the Unilateral Deceleration of Independence and before Zimbabwean independence. During this time, Rhodesians (as the country was called before 1980) struggled with finding an identity. The black Africans tried to gain power in the government, but the white minority gained power. The white Europeans brought colonization and the idea of civilization as a way to separate themselves from the natives and a way to make the natives feel inferior.

By the time that Tambu comes home for Christmas, she recognizes that she has changed too. As her cousin reflects on England influencing her behavior, Tambu is influenced by white education, including the social and economic qualities of those being educated.

Tambu’s mother gets very upset upon the return of her extended family, claiming that all the women sided with Maiguru because she is “educated….because she’s rich and comes here and flashes her money around” (142). Tambu’s mother feels as if the rest of the family views her as “poor and ignorant” (142) therefore she cannot have a voice or an opinion. She roots this is Maiguru’s “white ways” (143) which view Ma’Shingayi’s lifestyle as uncivilized, such as not brushing their teeth, having a dirty toilet and eating vegetables instead of meat (143). Ma’Shingayi feels that she cannot provide for her daughter anymore and that the way of life that colonizers brought, the civilized way of living, is the way that Tambu prefers.

An article, entitled “Sources of African History”, comments that “ ethnohistorians working in Africa today need no longer accept the generalization of early nonprofessional historians that most African tribes were essentially the same: uncivilized and anarchistic, with no centralized government.” What does it mean to be uncivilized and who are we do judge?


Mulira, James. “Sources of African History.” Current Anthropology 20.1 (1979): 227-29. JSTOR. Current Anthropology. Web. 11 Sept. 2014.