Nervous Conditions Summary

Tsitsi Dangarembga

Nervous Conditions

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Nervous Conditions Summary

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Nervous Conditions (1988) is a semi-autobiographical novel by Tsitsi Dangarembga, a Zimbabwean author. It tells the story of a Rhodesian family facing issues of race, gender, and colonialism in post-colonial Rhodesia in the 1960s. The central character is female protagonist Tambu. The book, considered among the most important African novels of the twentieth century, had as a follow up 2006’s The Book of Not. Nervous Conditions takes its title from Jean Paul Sartre’s introduction to The Wretched of the Earth, a 1963 book by Frantz Fanon. In the introduction, Sartre says of native people in a situation of colonialism that their status is, “a nervous condition introduced and maintained by the settler among the colonized people with their consent.” With respect to the female characters in Dangarembga’s novel, the nervous conditions stem from many years of colonialism and from oppression under the Shona system of power. Tambu learns about her own history and that of the oppressed women in Zimbabwe from her grandmother.

Early in the novel Tambu’s brother, Nhamo, is expected to return home having completed his term at the mission school which he attends, however, he does not arrive. It is later learned that he died of a strange illness. Tambu does not seem terribly affected by her brother’s death and is somewhat relieved that she does not have to make preparations to celebrate his return. The narrative then turns to Tambu thinking about the events that came before the death of her brother. Their family was poor, lacking the money to send Tambu to school, although they managed to send Nhamo, so she turned to raising and selling vegetables to earn the money on her own. She found Nhamo had been stealing from her garden and got into a fight with him at Sunday school. Mr. Matimba, her teacher, had taken her to a more urban locale to give her the opportunity to sell some of her produce. There, a white couple took pity on her and gave Mr. Matimba money to pay for Tambu’s education.

Members of Tambu’s extended family had a celebration for her cousins Chido and Nyasha, and their parents Babamukuru and his wife, Maiguru, who had returned from England. Chido and Nyasha were no longer able to converse in Shona, their native tongue, and Maiguru did not want them to take part in traditional dances and such. After they finished a meal, Tambu was sent to fetch bowls of water for each person to use for hand washing. The three siblings of Babamukuru congratulated him on the success he achieved. He suggested helping to educate a member of each branch of their family. After the unexpected death of Nhamo, they chose Tambu to take his place.

The narrative returns to the present time and finds Tambu elated by life at her aunt and uncle’s home, which is on the grounds of the mission school she is now to attend. She is welcomed, and her aunt provides her with new clothing as the opening of the school term approaches. Tambu takes to her studies well and develops a friendship with her cousin Nyasha. Tambu observes that Nyasha and her father argue frequently, and that Maiguru is very well educated. When the school term ends, Tambu and Nyasha attend a dance along with the white missionaries’ children. Tambu is unsure about being part of the celebration. Late in the evening, Nyasha is outside learning a new dance with one of the boys. Her father accuses her of acting in a sordid manner and a fight ensues between them. During the confrontation, Nyasha hits her father, who declares he will kill her because assaulting one’s own parent is a forbidden act. Although in subsequent weeks Tambu tries to help her cousin deal with the guilt she is feeling, Nyasha continues to distance herself.

During the vacation time between school terms, the family returns to the homestead where the extended family awaits. Maiguru is expected to do the cleaning and cooking due to her position as the senior-most wife in the family. Also at the homestead, to Babamukuru’s dismay, is Lucia, the sister of Tambu’s mother, and a relative named Takesure from Tambu’s father’s side. Lucia and Takesure are expecting a child together, leading to a family meeting to decide their fate. They are allowed to stay, and Babamukuru next addresses the issue of his brother Jeremiah and says that he and the woman he is with, Ma’Shingayi, are to have a Christian marriage ceremony to legitimize the relationship.

As time moves on, Tambu continues to work hard at her education and earns the opportunity to attend Sacred Heart to further her studies at that school, which is run by nuns. She comes to realize that there is really nothing left for her at the homestead and grows apart from her mother. She develops a strong bond with Myasha, and through her relationship with her cousin, Tambu learns that the way to progress in life is to constantly question everything around you and to challenge limitations set by others.