Nervous Conditions

by

Tsitsi Dangarembga

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Nervous Conditions: Chapter One Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Tambu explains that she wasn't sorry when her brother died and has no intention of apologizing for seeming callous. Instead, she'd like to tell the reader about the events that led up to Nhamo's death and that allowed her to write this story. She insists that the story isn't about Nhamo's death as much as it's about her and Lucia's escape, Mainini and Maiguru's entrapment, and the many rebellions of her cousin, Nyasha.
By immediately centering the story on women, Tambu makes it clear that her story isn't necessarily about the men in her life. Instead, men act as villains and forces to work against, while the true players are the women striving to dismantle sexist power structures.
Themes
Men vs. Women Theme Icon
Nhamo dies when Tambu is thirteen. She and her family expect Nhamo to arrive from the mission by bus, a mode of transportation he detests: he doesn't like the smells or how slow it is. He prefers it when their uncle and the headmaster of the mission school, Babamukuru, drives Nhamo home. Nhamo also suggests often that the school hire a special bus for him and the one other student in their area, but this would still mean that Nhamo would have to walk about two miles from the bus stop to the homestead.
Nhamo's suggestion that the mission hire a private bus for just two students suggests that Nhamo is becoming extremely self-important. At this point, it's not clear whether this is just how Nhamo is or if it's a result of his education at the mission, but his desire to be driven shows that he thinks he deserves special treatment and is above walking.
Themes
The Limits of Education Theme Icon
Tambu doesn't understand why Nhamo feels this way. The walk home winds through fields where friends work, through fruit trees, and by the river, which is called the Nyamarira. Tambu explains that there are several spots where children can swim, and others where women do laundry. However, Tambu says that when she was young, the government built District Council houses near where everyone washed, which meant that people began crossing the river there to reach the shops and an ale house. Regardless, Tambu doesn't understand why Nhamo hates the walk and explains that he usually avoids it altogether by staying at the mission for holidays.
Tambu's love of the walk home shows that even though she wants to leave the homestead and pursue an education, she still finds that there's a lot to love about life there. This indicates that Tambu is living between two worlds, given that she wants to join Nhamo in becoming Western and educated while also wanting to respect and enjoy the pleasures of traditional farm life.
Themes
The Limits of Education Theme Icon
Colonialism Theme Icon
Tambu explains that it was Babamukuru's idea to enroll Nhamo at the mission in 1965, as it would allow Nhamo to enter a profession and raise the family out of poverty. By that time, Nhamo was already doing well at the local school. Tambu and Nhamo’s father, Jeremiah, quickly saw the sense in this plan. Jeremiah would often tell Nhamo that if he had brains like Babamukuru, he'd be a doctor. Once, Tambu asked Jeremiah to explain how smart Babamukuru is; Jeremiah replied that Babamukuru had been an avid reader and had been given the chance to learn.
It's important to note that Jeremiah makes it clear that Babamukuru was given the chance to learn. Though he doesn't say anything about himself, the reader learns later that Jeremiah wasn't afforded the same opportunities. This likely impresses upon Tambu that the only barrier to education is simply having or not having access, which simplifies the issue and shows how childishly naïve Tambu is at this point.
Themes
The Limits of Education Theme Icon
Obedience vs. Independence Theme Icon
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On this day in 1968, Babamukuru has a meeting and therefore can't drive Nhamo, though Tambu suspects that Babamukuru secretly wants Nhamo to take the bus. She explains that except for Jeremiah, they're all worried about Nhamo's development. Not long after going to the mission, Nhamo stopped coming home for holidays, always citing the need to study. This allowed him to avoid the corn harvest, which is uncomfortably itchy work. However, Babamukuru does make Nhamo come home in the fall for the planting. When he's home, he has to bathe in cold water and can only read by candlelight. The poverty "began to offend him," and he stopped helping with chores—unless Babamukuru was there to watch or help. Tambu doesn't like it when Babamukuru helps, as he looks less dignified, and she also hates having to kill a chicken for his dinner.
Tambu's suspicion that Babamukuru is also worried about Nhamo's development helps her to believe that Babamukuru is an entirely good person who still clings to traditional ideals despite his education. However, she then complicates this by not liking it when Babamukuru helps in the fields—something that would also indicate his acknowledgement that his family still relies on traditional labor to survive, not intellectual labor like he does. This begins to get at the crux of Tambu's issue of not being able to think critically or in a nuanced way.
Themes
The Limits of Education Theme Icon
Colonialism Theme Icon
Obedience vs. Independence Theme Icon
Related Quotes
In the evening, Mainini goes to her vegetable garden and Tambu returns to the homestead. She expects to find Nhamo, but he's not there. Her younger sisters, Netsai and Rambanai, are playing a game. Tambu isn't worried that Nhamo isn't home; the bus is often late. She reasons that he probably won't come home tonight at all, as that would mean having to carry his own luggage (which is usually little more than a small bag or two) rather than send Netsai to fetch it from the terminal. One bag usually contains tea for Mainini from Maiguru, but Nhamo keeps it for himself.
The fact that Nhamo saves tea meant for his mother for himself only reinforces how selfish he is, while Mainini's unwillingness or inability to reprimand him for not sharing suggests that gender dynamics underpins this situation. Because Nhamo is male, he can get away with this sort of thing, while Mainini doesn't even have power as a parent (let alone as a woman) to make him be kind.
Themes
Men vs. Women Theme Icon
Obedience vs. Independence Theme Icon
Tambu knows that Nhamo is just exerting his power when he makes Netsai fetch his luggage. She hates it, especially when Nhamo refuses to watch Rambanai and makes Netsai take the baby with her—which then means that Tambu has to help as well. Tambu is too big for Nhamo to bully, but Nhamo beats Netsai if Tambu tries to stop her from fetching the luggage. This isn't all that's nasty about Nhamo; Tambu still thinks their home was healthier when he wasn't there.
Tambu's assessment confirms that Nhamo abuses his power as a man in the family. The fact that she hates him for this suggests that Tambu feels these kinds of injustices deeply, implying that she's an idealistic person who believes she shouldn't be trapped by the kind of sexism that Nhamo espouses.
Themes
Men vs. Women Theme Icon
Obedience vs. Independence Theme Icon
Without a chicken to kill, Tambu turns to preparing the evening meal of sadza and vegetables. Netsai brings Tambu out of her reverie by asking what's wrong. Tambu doesn't want to say that she was thinking of how much she dislikes Nhamo, so she says that it'll be good when he arrives. She gathers the items she needs for cooking and discovers that Netsai already fetched water and washed the cooking pots.
Despite recognizing the injustice of Nhamo's bullying, Tambu still doesn't feel comfortable vocalizing it. Such censorship of her thoughts and feelings suggests that she's still trapped by the sexist system and will be punished for pushing back.
Themes
Men vs. Women Theme Icon
Naïvely, Tambu thinks that when Nhamo gets home, she'll make him catch the chicken, and she'll pluck and cook it. She believes this is naïve because Nhamo has no interest in being fair. Tambu tells the reader that Nhamo didn't mean to be obnoxious; in reality, he was just behaving in the way that was expected of him, and concerns of his female family members aren't important. This is why, when Nhamo dies, Tambu is two grades behind where she should've been. As a young teen, she felt these injustices deeply, which is how she came to dislike Nhamo and her family.
Remember that the novel is narrated by a much older Tambu looking back on her younger self. Insights like this show that Tambu has grown up and developed critical thinking skills, even if she does see that her younger self was righteous in her indignation. When she notes that she came to dislike Nhamo and her family because of these injustices, it indicates that she was a child obsessed with fairness.
Themes
Men vs. Women Theme Icon
Obedience vs. Independence Theme Icon
Related Quotes