Nervous Conditions

by

Tsitsi Dangarembga

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Nervous Conditions: Chapter Five Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
For a while after Maiguru leaves, Nyasha pointedly reads and ignores Tambu. Eventually the girls begin looking sideways at each other and finally, Nyasha laughs. They talk about school and then, Nyasha says seriously that she's glad they'll be friends. She admits that she was worried since Tambu was rude when she returned from England. Tambu, speaking in Shona, says she was just disappointed that Nyasha and Chido only spoke to Nhamo. Shyly, Nyasha admits that she was frightened, as she'd forgotten what home was like. Tambu tells the reader that this is how their friendship began, and says that her relationship with Nyasha was much like a love affair—it was the first time she loved someone that she didn't approve of.
By characterizing her relationship with Nyasha as a more adult love affair, Tambu acknowledges that Nyasha is the one who eventually taught Tambu how to think critically and see shades of gray. Loving someone that she doesn't fully approve of is something that requires Tambu to live with ambiguities and questions, which in turn will bring her towards maturity as an adult.
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Morosely, Nyasha says that she and Chido shouldn't have gone to England, as Babamukuru and Maiguru are now "stuck with hybrids for children" and don't like them. Tambu tells Nyasha that she should still be respectful to Maiguru. Nyasha says bitterly that Maiguru doesn't want to be respected; if she did, she'd have nothing to complain about. Tambu is sure that Nyasha is wrong, as Maiguru is kind and concerned for everyone.
The girls view Maiguru through entirely different lenses. Tambu sees her as a traditional, self-effacing wife, while Nyasha sees her as a more Western woman who likely wants to be free of the constraints of marriage. This is indicative too of how each girl sees the rest of the world.
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Tambu doesn't have a chance to explain this to Nyasha, as Anna appears and kneels in the door. Nyasha snaps at her to stand up, but Anna tells the girls that supper is ready and then disappears. Nyasha deems Tambu clean enough to go to dinner but shows her the toilet anyway. Tambu squats on the seat and then heads towards the dining room. She's concerned about how early it is; she fears that she won't stay full.
Again, Tambu's concerns about not being full after eating dinner so early come from a life of poverty and food scarcity. Though she expects she'll be well fed here, she doesn't know what that means or what that feels like. This turns dinner into another cultural experience for her.
Themes
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Tambu enters the dining room. The table is covered with serving dishes, and Nyasha sits at one end, reading. Nyasha puts her book away when Maiguru comes in. Seated, the women say grace, and then Babamukuru arrives, annoyed that they started without him. He grunts in response to their queries about his day, and then Maiguru begins to help Babamukuru serve himself. Babamukuru gets to the third dish and discovers that Anna forgot to make gravy. Nyasha leaps up to make it, and Maiguru puts the rest of the food in the warmer.
Babamukuru's unwillingness to speak to his dinner companions suggests that he might not be as wonderful and godlike as Tambu thought he was. His callousness implies that he doesn't see them as appropriate or worthy dinner companions, while his objection about the lack of gravy shows that he expects the world to work in whatever way he wants it to.
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Maiguru shows Babamukuru Nyasha's copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover. Babamukuru insists that his daughter won't read such an inappropriate book and takes it away. When he returns, Maiguru says that she was going to let Nyasha read it, but Babamukuru reprimands her for spoiling the children. Nyasha returns with the gravy and Maiguru insists that Babamukuru serve himself fresh food. Nyasha rudely starts to serve herself before Babamukuru is through and insists that she doesn't like cold food.
The exchange between Maiguru and Babamukuru about Lady Chatterley's Lover shows that Maiguru has little power in their relationship. She doesn't have the power to parent her children as she sees fit and certainly doesn't feel comfortable advocating for her children, as it seemed she might when she originally let Nyasha keep the book.
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Tambu eyes the meal and is concerned, as the food looks interesting, and she knows that food should be filling, not interesting. None of it will go down right, and she struggles to use her knife and fork. After a few minutes, Maiguru rings a bell and asks Anna to bring sadza and a spoon for Tambu. Tambu finds all of this embarrassing.
Receiving sadza and a spoon singles Tambu out as poor and provincial, as she's never used silverware before. This shows her that in order to compensate, she'll need to be even more obedient so that instances like this are less noticeable.
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Nyasha realizes that her book is gone and wonders if she forgot it somewhere. She pushes back to go check in the bedroom, but Maiguru scolds her to stay put and to not talk about the book. Nyasha accuses her mother of taking her book and then immediately apologizes. However, she becomes increasingly distraught until Babamukuru steps in and scolds her. Nyasha talks back and leaves the table, ignoring his angry protests. After she leaves, Babamukuru mutters that there's something wrong with Nyasha to behave like that. Maiguru comforts him and points out that he did take her book. Tambu, feeling very uncomfortable, finishes her meal and excuses herself.
It's telling that Babamukuru allows Maiguru to take the blame for taking Nyasha's book, as it suggests that he feels as though being the villain like that is beneath him. It also means that he doesn't have to reprimand Nyasha until she becomes particularly belligerent—in other words, he allows Maiguru to do the dirty work of parenting and enforce his rules.
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Nyasha invites Tambu to come outside so she can smoke a cigarette. Tambu is aghast and feels that Nyasha is beyond redemption, and she insists she wants to stay inside and read. In reality, she's terrified that Babamukuru would die of shock or kill Nyasha if he saw the cigarette. Nyasha waves at her bookshelf and heads outside.
Smoking cigarettes marks Nyasha again as a lesser woman, which will help Tambu to start to think of herself as superior. The fact that she thinks of Babamukuru indicates that she's already leaning hard into the belief that she needs to impress him.
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A few minutes later, Anna kneels in the doorway and tells Tambu that she's wanted in the living room. She uses an honorific to address Tambu, which Tambu finds distressing. She thinks that Anna never used to use it and really shouldn't, since she's older than Tambu. Tambu is also perplexed that Anna went from a talkative person to someone who barely talks. Tambu believes that the change must be her fault and it makes her feel strange and unfamiliar. She roughly tells Anna to just talk to her, but Anna gets up and leaves without responding.
This change in Anna indicates that Tambu is now part of the upper echelons of the household, whether she recognizes or accepts it or not. When Tambu thinks it's her fault rather than recognize that it's just a symptom of being a guest in Babamukuru's house, it shows that Tambu is inclined to try to shape herself and blame herself rather than interrogate the structures that are actually responsible.
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Tambu nervously walks into the living room. When Babamukuru asks her to sit, she initially sits respectfully on the floor in the corner. When he asks her to sit on a seat, she struggles to choose where to sit: there's room on the sofa next to Maiguru and an armchair next to Babamukuru, but both would be too close to her uncle to be respectful. Tambu decides to take the chair across from Babamukuru and spends the next two minutes questioning her decision.
The agony that Tambu feels shows her struggling to reconcile living in such a Western house with what she knows about how to respect her elders. This shows her struggling against the Western culture that to a degree downplays the need to respect.
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Babamukuru talks about how he often spends evenings in his office instead of at home. Tambu thinks that he looks impressive when he talks like this; she notes that throughout his life, he's had the power to organize his world however he likes, and everyone listens to him. Tambu feels immense gratitude as he tells her how much he's sacrificing to take the evening off to speak to her and pay her school fees. In closing, he explains that Tambu will need to be a good student and become a good woman so she can have a good future and raise up her family. He asks Maiguru if she has anything to add. She doesn't, so Babamukuru excuses Tambu.
Note that Babamukuru doesn't seem to see any irregularities with asking Tambu to be both a good student and a good future wife. The two things he asks her to be represent two different cultures: a student is questioning, independent, and more Western, while a proper wife is none of those things. In this way, Babamukuru sets Tambu up for failure, especially given her tendency to see things as black and white and not engage with the nuances.
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As Tambu returns to the bedroom, she vows to be like Babamukuru: hardworking, straight, and true. Nyasha is already in bed and asks Tambu to turn off the light, saying she can't sleep with it on. Tambu's ability to sleep with light makes her feel superior, so she pulls off her dress and jumps into bed. When Nyasha asks about the light, Tambu ignores her but recognizes she also doesn't know how to turn it off. Nyasha climbs out of bed, calls Tambu a peasant (though Tambu hears "pheasant" and feels even more offended) and shows her how to switch the light on and off.
At this point, Tambu sees Nyasha as being everything that Babamukuru doesn't want. She's opinionated and too anglicized—in other words, she won't be a good wife someday. The fact that Tambu lets this make her feel superior shows that Tambu still adheres to the traditional gender roles and sees Nyasha's uncertain marital future as something to be ashamed of.
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After Nyasha gets back into bed, she notes that Tambu didn't put her bedclothes on and says she'll have to do it in the dark. This makes Tambu's smugness disappear, and she suddenly feels inadequate. Tambu falls asleep quickly and then dreams of Nhamo. He dribbles a ball through a cornfield and eats cobs. Tambu, watching from a desk at the end of the field, begs Nhamo to stop but discovers that she's holding a cigarette. The dream turns to a nightmare when Nhamo accuses Tambu of deserting her husband. Babamukuru and his vicious dogs come to take Tambu back to her husband.
Pointing out that Tambu didn't put on pajamas allows Nyasha to turn the tables and feel superior, as she essentially points out that Tambu doesn't know how to properly conduct an evening routine in a wealthy Western home. Tambu's nightmare betrays that she's already caught between the Western school system and the traditional system, given that she dreams both of being in school and of neglecting a family.
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Tambu wakes up halfway to the bathroom. She runs herself a bath and scrubs herself three times just to enjoy feeling clean. Tambu finishes her bath when Maiguru knocks and then generously runs Nyasha's bath for her. Tambu makes note of what Nyasha is wearing and finds what must be bedclothes when she returns to her room. After Tambu dresses, she admires herself in her school uniform. She's shocked to see that she's pretty, and when Nyasha returns from her bath, she confirms this assessment.
For Tambu, the bath and the Western clothes help her feel superior and like a new person, not the dirty girl she left on the homestead. However, the fact that this shift happens through external means suggests that an internal shift will take longer and be far more difficult to make, if she makes it at all.
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Tambu struggles to eat at breakfast. She's impatient to be at school where she knows she can succeed. She watches Nyasha eat bacon and eggs and refuse porridge on the grounds that it might make her fat. Maiguru worries over Tambu and finally, gives her a shilling to buy buns at break. This is a lot of money and Tambu is embarrassed, but she puts it in her sock and decides to bring it home at lunch. She does her best to imitate Nyasha's walk on the way to school.
Though Tambu doesn't say outright, it's a Western thing for Nyasha to be concerned about becoming overweight. This indicates that Nyasha's "hybridization" may have direr consequences than just her father's disapproval, and suggests too that Western culture and ideals can be dangerous and alienating.
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Addressing the reader, Tambu says that this is the beginning of her period of reincarnation. She devours Nyasha's library of nineteenth-century novels. Nyasha is dismissive, as she's interested in history and current events. However, Nyasha still makes suggestions, and, on the weekends, she paints Tambu's nails and cooks with her. Soon, Tambu realizes that Nyasha doesn't have many friends at school. Girls make fun of Nyasha behind her back and accuse her of acting too white, proud, and loose.
The accusations of the other girls at school suggest that they're more like Tambu than they're like Nyasha, as they're also threatened by how Western Nyasha's behavior is. However, the time she spends with Tambu painting nails and reading introduces Tambu to Western ideas in a nonthreatening way, thereby beginning Tambu's transformation.
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Fortunately, Tambu escapes Nyasha's fate. Though she quickly becomes fluent in English, she doesn't have a British accent. Boys are uninterested in her, and she refuses to accompany Nyasha to school dances. The teachers love Tambu as well. All of this is very strange for Tambu. The only normal thing is that she continues to do well in school, as Babamukuru and Maiguru give her the time and the space to study.
Remember that Tambu's family wasn't particularly keen on anything she did. The positive attention from her classmates and teachers allows Tambu to feel as though this where she belongs, which in turn allows her to believe that Western culture as presented by the mission school is good.
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With so much food at hand, Tambu becomes plump and begins to menstruate. Mainini had already given Tambu reusable napkins. However, Tambu finds that washing them is embarrassing and is even more mortified when Nyasha offers her tampons. Nyasha teases her that it's better to lose her virginity to a tampon than a man and says that men keep hymens as trophies. When Tambu finally realizes that Nyasha was just teasing, she starts to use the tampons and finds she likes them. Nyasha assures Tambu that despite the expense of tampons and the fact that nice girls don't use them, Maiguru would rather buy them than have either girl get pregnant.
Maiguru's willingness to buy tampons suggests that she's more progressive than Nyasha would like to give her credit for, especially since it's likely she's keeping these purchases a secret from Babamukuru. This suggests that in some situations, Maiguru will defend the young women in her care and give them what they need to succeed and feel comfortable, even if it means going against her husband or traditional ideas of womanhood in the process.
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Tambu thinks that Nyasha is perplexing: she has everything and should be content, but she isn't. Nyasha believes that Maiguru is trapped and miserable, which Tambu doesn't understand at all. Tambu says that she and other students find Nyasha superior; adults think she's a genius; and Babamukuru and Maiguru worry about her. Tambu privately agrees with her aunt and uncle and reasons that thinking critically is dangerous.
The fact that the teachers (and by extension, the colonial school system) thinks that Nyasha is a genius suggests that the true issue is that she behaves in a white and Western manner. This begins to situate her in a place in between being properly black and African and being white.
Themes
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Despite this belief, Tambu engages in her own thought experiments. She thinks of Anna, who used to be interesting and is now just boring. Tambu also wonders about Maiguru, who seems to have every reason to be content in her beautiful life. Maiguru may be lonely, but Tambu reasons that none of the other women on the mission want to talk to someone so highly educated.
Tambu's thoughts about Maiguru's loneliness suggest that she does think there are some negative consequences to being so highly educated, but she notably seems to think this is a fair tradeoff given how beautiful and easy Maiguru's life seems.
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Tambu discovers how highly educated Maiguru is one Sunday. After church, Tambu meets up with Nyasha to chat with friends. Nyasha pointedly ignores her parents, as she still struggles to greet people properly and embarrasses Babamukuru. However, Tambu and Nyasha stand with Babamukuru and Maiguru on days that he drives to church so they can hitch a ride.
In the case of not being able to greet people properly, Nyasha finds that her time in England is separating her from her native culture. This again shows that the colonial system that sent her to England in the first place can wreak havoc on life here at home and turn Nyasha into a stranger.
Themes
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One morning, Tambu listens to her headmaster compliment Babamukuru on Nyasha, who he says will bring home a master's degree just like Maiguru. He also compliments Tambu, and the news that Maiguru has a master's degree piques Tambu's interest. Nyasha is slow and hesitant in greeting her former headmaster, which angers Babamukuru. On the drive home, he reprimands her for not being polite and then refuses to let her talk during dinner.
For Babamukuru, having Nyasha behave properly reflects well on him and has little to do with Nyasha herself. This again shows that what Babamukuru cares about most is making himself look good. Like Jeremiah with Tambu, Babamukuru sees Nyasha as a means to an end, not an individual in her own right.
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After dinner, Tambu finally asks Maiguru if she actually has a master's degree. Maiguru is flattered, though sarcastic when Tambu notes that people only say that she went to England to look after Babamukuru. Tambu, still awed, comments that Maiguru must earn lots of money and is aghast when Maiguru says she never receives her salary. Maiguru tries to force herself to look happy, but doesn't succeed. She sighs and explains that she had to choose between self and security. She says that the worst part is that nobody thinks of what she gave up. Tambu thinks it's a shame that Maiguru never got the opportunity to reach her full potential.
Though Maiguru never says where her salary goes, she implies that not getting it is worth it because she has her stable life with Babamukuru. That security, she suggests, is more meaningful than having money and being alone. The fact that nobody talks about Maiguru's degree indicates that even when a woman does receive an education, it doesn't mean that education has the power to make the women seem worthy and important to their relatives.
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Tambu feels sorry for Maiguru because everything she said was reasonable: she's being prevented from reaching her full potential or using the money for her own desires because she's married. This is all complicated in Tambu's mind, however, because Maiguru is married to Babamukuru, which means that the marriage can't be bad. Tambu also can't quite figure out who her uncle is. He's seldom around, and when he is, they never laugh or even talk.
All the clues point to the possibility that Babamukuru isn't actually a god. His kindness is questionable when it seems as though people are afraid to talk around him, and it's implied that he's the one controlling what happens with Maiguru's paycheck. Tambu's obedience, however, won't allow her to question any of this.
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