Nervous Conditions, written by Tsitsi Dangarembga in 1989, is a semi-autobiographical coming of age story about a young woman in modern Africa. The story takes place in Rhodesia in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The story centers around Tambu and Nyasha, female cousins who, until their early teens, lead very different lives.
Tambu was raised on her family’s farm in Umtali where she was responsible for household chores, gardening, and caring for her younger siblings. Tambu’s dreams of getting an education are only fulfilled when her brother dies and she becomes next in line for school since she has no other brothers. She is allowed to stay with her aunt and uncle while she attends school at the mission. While there, Tambu shares a room with her cousin, Nyasha and the girls teach each other many lessons.
Nyasha spent most of her formative years in England while her mother and father were getting their education. When she comes back to Africa she realizes the vast differences between European culture and African culture–especially where women are concerned. She experiences inner turmoil as she tries to come to terms with being a woman in Africa. As we see Nyasha’s struggles through the eyes of Tambu, we begin to understand the continuing devastation countries are experiencing as a result of colonization by another culture.
Nervous Conditions Plot Summary
Nervous Conditions tells the story of a Rhodesian girl’s journey in pursuit of education from impoverished homestead to missionary school and finally to private Catholic school. When the novel opens, 14-year-old Tambu lives on an homestead with her parents and siblings. The family, who lives pitifully off the land, relies almost entirely on Babamukuru, Father’s brother. As a child, Babamukuru excelled academically and was selected for further education at a Christian missionary school. After five years of training in England, Babamukuru now runs the missionary school and lives a relatively pampered existence at the mission. He visits the homestead throughout the year to dole out money and guide the family in social betterment. Before leaving for his training, Babamukuru suggested Tambu’s family invest in education as a way of lifting themselves out of poverty. They scrounge up enough money to send Tambu’s older brother, Nhamo, to school but they don’t have enough to send Tambu. Determined to be educated, Tambu starts growing mealies (corn or maize) to sell in town to white tourists in the hopes of raising enough money to pay school fees. Nhamo threatens her success by jealously stealing and eating her mealies. When she finds out, Tambu attacks her brother at Sunday school, prompting one of the teachers to take her to town to sell what she has left. In town, a white woman takes pity on Tambu’s poverty and gives her 10 pounds toward her education, an unprecedented sum that covers her tuition.
When Babamukuru and his family return from England, everyone at the homestead notices changes in the family, particularly the children. After five years away, Chido and Nyasha no longer speak their native language, Shona, and their mother doesn’t want them partaking in customary dances and music, which Tambu finds strange. Tambu excels at the local school and is disappointed when Babamukuru selects Nhamo to join him at the missionary school for further education. She understands and fully expected Nhamo to be chosen because of his gender, but remains frustrated at being overlooked simply because of her gender. Tambu’s jealousy worsens due to Nhamo’s incessant bullying and superiority, also results of gender expectations. When Nhamo dies unexpectedly from mumps, however, Tambu receives her wish and takes his place at the mission school.
Moving to the mission transforms Tambu’s life. Rather than living in squalor, she lives in “white” luxury, with a bathtub and running hot water, three hearty meals a day, and no chores to distract from her studies. She shares a bedroom with her cousin, Nyasha. Although Nyasha appears aloof when Tambu first arrives, the two grow to share a deep, meaningful friendship. The family dynamics become clear to Tambu on her first day. Babamukuru, like most Rhodesian men, acts as figurehead and master of the home. Whatever he says, goes. Nyasha, raised in England, pushes against the strong patriarchy by regularly disobeying her father’s requests. This behavior shocks Tambu who would never dream of disrespecting Babamukuru, whom she has come to revere as a god. She does not understand how Nyasha, raised with everything, could possibly be unhappy. Later, the volatile relationship between Nyasha and her father boils over to violence after he catches her with a white boy after a dance without a chaperone. He accuses her of being “a whore” and whips her, but she fights back, punching him in the face. Babamukuru threatens to kill her and hang himself, but his wife, Maiguru, and Tambu defuse the situation.
Time passes as Tambu grows comfortable in her new, privileged lifestyle. When she returns to the homestead for Christmas, she—much like Nhamo—feels embarrassed by her family’s obvious poverty. She chides her mother for failing to clean the latrine while she was away, but her mother, now pregnant and depressed, doesn’t care. Babamukuru has bigger problems to worry about than the decrepit homestead. Mother’s sister, Lucia, has returned to the homestead to care for her ailing sister. Unmarried and pregnant by Babamukuru’s cousin, Takesure, Lucia has also been sleeping with Father, whom she has been accused of seducing in an attempt to marry. Babamukuru worries how Lucia’s “loose” behaviors will affect the family’s respectability. Babamukuru had ordered her off the homestead weeks earlier, but she refused to leave. When he repeats his request, Lucia promises to leave only if she can take her sister, Tambu’s mother, with her. She claims Jeremiah, Tambu’s father, treats her poorly and fails to provide anything for his family. The patriarchal elders meet to discuss what should be done, with the men all blaming Lucia for the family’s struggles. Meanwhile, Maiguru works tirelessly to cook and clean for the extended family all crammed onto the tiny homestead, with little help or appreciation. In the end, the family allows Lucia to stay and care for Mother, but Babamukuru decides Mother and Father must have a proper church wedding and stop living “in sin.”
The family prepares for the lavish wedding, which Maiguru notes will cost Babamukuru much more than their own wedding did. Mother arrives at the mission hospital to give birth. Lucia arrives soon after to care for her, but before returning to the homestead, she asks Babamukuru to find her a job that will put an end to her reliance on men at the homestead. Babamukuru finds her a job in the mission school kitchen. To her delight, Lucia earns enough money to be independent, while taking night classes to advance her own education. As the wedding approaches, Tambu begins feeling anxious—then angry—that her parents must be subjected to the ridiculous ceremony. She fears they will be a laughing stock, so she refuses to attend. In uncharacteristic defiance, she refuses to get out of bed when Babamukuru orders, shocking even herself. Even when Babamukuru threatens to withdraw her from school and cut off her funds, Tambu refuses. When Babamukuru returns home from the wedding, he lashes Tambu and orders her to perform the maid’s duties for two weeks, but does not send her back home.
In an unusual fight over Babamukuru’s punishment, Maiguru asserts that he has been taking advantage of her for too long. He doesn’t appreciate her financial contributions or value her as his partner. She leaves him and spends time visiting her son, Chido. For the first time, Babamukuru must get by on his own. When she returns a few days later, Maiguru has regained her voice and doesn’t fuss nearly as much over the family. She also refuses to care for Babamukuru’s extended family any longer.
As Tambu and Nyasha prepare for their final exams, nuns from the private Catholic school visit and administer a test, offering a scholarship to the student who earns the highest grade. The school offers an incredible educational experience, but Nyasha warns Tambu she would essentially have to give up her “African-ness” and fully embrace white culture if she were accepted. Tambu earns the scholarship and eagerly announces her desire to attend the school. Everyone—Babamukuru, Nyasha, and Mother—tells her it would be a bad idea, but Maiguru defends Tambu’s choice to make her own future. Tambu chooses to attend. The convent school touts itself as integrated, but the six African students must cram into the same small bedroom. Nevertheless, Tambu busies herself with her studies, spending long hours in the vast library. She falls out of touch with Nyasha, rarely responding to Nyasha’s many letters.
When Tambu returns home for the first time, Nyasha looks like a skeleton. She rarely eats, and when she does, she immediately vomits afterward. One night, overcome with emotion, Nyasha rages about the evils of colonialism that have stolen everyone’s souls, her own and Tambu’s included. She tears her books and thrashes at her skin before falling asleep. Alarmed, Nyasha’s parents admit her to a psychological hospital where she gradually recovers. After the episode, Tambu vows to question her place within a colonized society more carefully and to use caution when allowing white culture to influence her beliefs.
Nervous Conditions Character Description
- Tambu: Jeremiah and Mainini’s daughter. Tambu is the novel’s main character and narrator of the story. Her desire for an education and to improve herself seem strong enough to overcome just about anything. She is very hard on herself, and always strives to do her best and make the correct decisions.
- Nyasha: Tambu’s first cousin, Babamukuru and Maiguru’s daughter. Her desire to be independent gets her into a lot of trouble, including numerous arguments with her father. Her time in England showed her a different life, and she is having trouble assimilating back into Rhodesian society, suffering from some kind of eating disorder.
- Babamukuru: Tambu’s uncle, and the head of her family. He is married to Maiguru and has a daughter, Nyasha. His actual name is never mentioned in the novel; he is only referred to by clan names in the Shona language. Tambu always calls him “Babamukuru”, which means “father’s older brother”; Tambu’s father’s generation call him “Mukoma”, which means “oldest brother”. A well-educated man, he is the dean of the missionary school. As head of the family, he feels responsible for the rest of his extended family; he also regards them as insufficiently hard-working, which makes him rather authoritarian towards them. By contrast, he shows subservience to the people who helped him get his education.
- Maiguru: Nyasha’s mother. Maiguru is a well-educated woman who is forced to be reliant on her husband, Babamukuru. She is frustrated because while she has the potential to provide for herself, she is prevented from doing so by patriarchial forces.
- Chido: Babamukuru and Maiguru’s son. Because Chido is Babamukuru’s son, he received a good education, but he succumbed to the customs of the white colonists.
- Jeremiah: Babamukuru’s brother and Tambu’s father. Jeremiah received very little education and is barely able to provide for his family. He acts grateful to Babamukuru for the education he provided his children with.
- Lucia: Mainini’s sister. Lucia stays relatively unknown during the course of the novel. She is believed to have had many affairs with wealthy men. She is a very independent woman, and is determined to educate herself and not fall into the normal roles of women in her society.
- Mainini: Tambu’s mother. After Nhamo’s death, when Tambu goes to the mission, she becomes very resentful of Babamukuru for taking another one of her children to his school.
- Nhamo: Tambu’s brother. As the eldest son in the family, Nhamo is chosen to go to the mission school. After being at the school, he feels he is superior to the rest of his family, and takes no part in their daily tasks. Eventually, he starts going home from the mission less and less until his death.
Nervous Conditions Major Themes
Gender and patriarchal oppression encompass one major theme expressed in the novel. The Rhodesian female characters are oppressed on the basis of gender, and this is a driving force behind many of the story arcs in the novel.
Colonialism is another major theme in the novel – it is another driving force behind many of the plot points, including the fixation on (Western) education and Nyasha’s internal struggles with race and colonialism. Additionally, Tambu’s trajectory starting with her early education and ending with her acceptance at the nun’s school reveals the colonial nature of that scholarship, since the African students were not treated the same as the white Western students.
Perspective and Narrator
Nervous Conditions is narrated in the first person from the perspective of the protagonist, Tambu.
Nervous Conditions is narrated in the past tense by an adult Tambu looking back on her childhood experiences.
About the Title
Nervous Conditions suggests the mental state of native people during colonization, including Tambu, Maiguru, and Nyasha.
Relevant Sources and Notes: