Nervous Conditions


Tsitsi Dangarembga

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Nervous Conditions can help.

Nervous Conditions Summary

The narrator, a woman named Tambu, tells the reader that she wasn't sorry when her brother Nhamo died. She'd like to explain how she came to feel that way and tell the stories of her aunt Lucia, her mother, Mainini, her aunt Maiguru, and her cousin, Nyasha.

Tambu begins to dislike Nhamo long before he dies in 1968. Her highly educated uncle, Babamukuru, insisted that Nhamo begin school early. Babamukuru went to England in 1960 to study with his wife, Maiguru, and two children, Nyasha and Chido. While he was gone, Tambu's family was unable to send Tambu after her first year of school. Jeremiah insisted that Tambu didn't need to go to school, while Mainini counseled Tambu to learn to carry the weight of womanhood and make sacrifices. Instead, Tambu asked for corn to grow so she could raise her own school fees. When the corn was ripe, the cobs began to disappear. At Sunday school, Tambu discovered that Nhamo was the one stealing them and attacked him. A teacher, Mr. Matimba, broke up the fight, listened to Tambu's story, and offered to help her sell her corn in Umtali. By telling a white woman that Tambu is an orphan, Mr. Matimba is able to raise ten pounds for Tambu's education. Jeremiah is furious, but Mr. Matimba points out that Tambu will be able to support the family with a job if she's educated. She attends school for the next two years.

When Babamukuru and his family return from England, Tambu discovers what Mainini meant by "the weight of womanhood": she's not allowed to go to the airport to greet her family, and Nhamo monopolizes Nyasha and Chido. Tambu also learns that her cousins no longer remember Shona, which makes her feel alone. During the party, Babamukuru decides to take Nhamo to his mission school with him. Nhamo makes sure to tell Tambu that she doesn't get to go because she's female.

Over the next several years, Nhamo "forgets" Shona and does what he can to get out of coming to the homestead. He looks down on his family's poverty and antagonizes Tambu every chance he gets. At the end of term in 1968, Nhamo doesn't come home on the bus as planned. Babamukuru and Maiguru arrive by car late in the evening with news that Nhamo died of mumps. After the funeral, Babamukuru decides to take Tambu to the mission. Though Tambu is excited to discover a clean, well-fed, and academic version of herself at the mission, she also believes that, unlike Nhamo, she'll never look down on life on the homestead. When Babamukuru turns his car up the driveway, Tambu is shocked: the house is huge, and there's a special small house for cars. She feels unworthy and as though Babamukuru is richer than she ever imagined. Two huge guard dogs bark at Tambu, scaring her, though the house girl Anna assures Tambu she's safe. Tambu enters the house through the kitchen. It's clean and to Tambu looks extravagant, though the older narrator points out that there are things that betray that Babamukuru and Maiguru are on a budget. Surprisingly, Nyasha greets Tambu warmly.

Anna shows Tambu to the living room, which is extremely glamorous. Tambu understands how Nhamo came to feel so superior, as the glamour is dangerous and, in her mind, Babamukuru is a god. Maiguru arrives, greets Tambu casually, and brushes off Tambu's attempts to greet her formally. They have tea, and Tambu is shocked by the amount of cookies and the hot tea. Nyasha is rude and brushes off Maiguru's requests to greet Tambu formally, which shocks Tambu. Maiguru laughs it off and says her children are too Anglicized. She then shows Tambu to Nyasha's room, which the girls will share. Nyasha is reading Lady Chatterley's Lover, which Maiguru takes offense to, but she shows Tambu her things and then leaves the girls.

Once the girls begin talking, Nyasha admits that at the party after her return from England, she didn't talk to Tambu because she was afraid. She laments that she and Chido are cultural hybrids, which their parents hate. At dinner later, the table is anxiety-inducing for Tambu; it's covered with interesting dishes, and she's afraid she won't be full. Babamukuru arrives late, doesn't want to speak, and is offended that there's no gravy. While Nyasha is making gravy, Babamukuru takes Lady Chatterley's Lover. Nyasha believes Maiguru took it. The dinner is embarrassing for Tambu, especially when Maiguru gives Tambu a spoon and gives her sadza. After dinner, Tambu speaks with Babamukuru in the living room. He tells her how much he's giving up to put her through school and tells her about her responsibility to raise up the family. Back in the bedroom, Tambu doesn't put on pajamas and tries to hide the fact that she doesn't know how to turn the light off.

The next morning, Tambu enjoys her bath and struggles through breakfast. School is fortunately easy for her. Nobody likes Nyasha, but everyone loves Tambu. Soon, Tambu begins to menstruate and though she initially refuses, Nyasha convinces her to use tampons. She also discovers that Maiguru has a master's degree, but that Maiguru doesn't have control of her paychecks. Tambu feels sorry for Maiguru, but can't believe her situation is too bad since she's married to Babamukuru.

Nyasha takes her first public exams right before Christmas during Tambu's first year at the mission. She's very anxious about them and studies constantly. After the exams, the school throws a Christmas party. Nyasha, Tambu, and Chido have fun at the dance, and Nyasha's date follows them home. At home, Chido and Tambu get tired of waiting for Nyasha and head to the house without her. Babamukuru realizes they've left Nyasha alone. When she finally comes in, the two fight furiously: Babamukuru accuses Nyasha of being a whore and beats her. After the fight, Tambu sits with Nyasha outside, shaken since she now knows that Babamukuru will victimize women just like Nhamo victimized Tambu for being female when they were children.

A week later, Tambu and Babamukuru's family travel to the homestead for Christmas. Their car is laden with provisions, including half of an ox. Maiguru is already upset that she's going to be in charge of all the cooking as the most senior wife. At the homestead, Netsai and Rambanai greet their guests. Babamukuru is shocked to discover that Lucia and Takesure are on the property: Lucia is Mainini's wild younger sister and is pregnant with Takesure's baby. Takesure already has two wives he's paying off, but he doesn't want to work. Babamukuru told them both to leave a while ago.

Tambu carries food inside and then goes to the bedroom to see Mainini, who is also pregnant and is unwell. Babamukuru and Maiguru follow. Nyasha is predictably rude. Surprisingly, Tete Gladys and Uncle Thomas come as well with their spouses and children. Tete Gladys doesn't have to help with chores, as she's patriarchal, so Maiguru, Nyasha, Tambu, and the serving girls do all the work. Maiguru does all the cooking and struggles to ration the meat, which soon turns green. She cooks special rice on her Dover stove for the patriarchal family members.

After the new year, Babamukuru calls a family meeting to deal with the issue of Lucia and Takesure. The excluded women fight amongst themselves and decide to eavesdrop. They hear Takesure accuse Lucia of witchcraft, at which point Lucia enters the room, grabs Takesure by the ears, and threatens to leave with Mainini. Jeremiah suggests they hire a medium to cleanse the family of its evils, but Babamukuru says the true problem is that Jeremiah and Mainini aren't married and are living in sin. He wants to throw them a wedding. Though Tambu's relatives laugh about the wedding, she panics when she thinks about it. She believes a wedding would make a joke of her parents, but she also believes she can't be angry with Babamukuru. After Tambu returns to the mission three weeks later, things return to normal. Mainini gives birth to a boy in March, and, while she's at the mission hospital, Lucia takes the opportunity to ask Babamukuru to find her a job. After a week, he follows through. Tambu is in awe, but Nyasha insists that people like Babamukuru have to help people like Lucia.

As the wedding approaches, Tambu continues to agonize. Her bridesmaid's dress fits perfectly, but she knows she doesn't want to go. On the day of the wedding, Tambu has an out-of-body experience and refuses to attend. After, Babamukuru gives her fifteen lashes and makes her perform Anna's chores for two weeks. Lucia visits and takes offense to this, and later, Maiguru tells Babamukuru that she's not happy catering to his family. She leaves the next morning. She's gone for a week until Chido calls, tells Nyasha where Maiguru is, and Babamukuru goes to fetch her.

Late in the term, Catholic nuns arrive. They administer a test that the students later discover was an entrance exam to the Catholic school. Because Tambu has been reading Nyasha's books and talking with Nyasha about different ideas, she has the skills to pass and earns a scholarship. Nyasha discourages Tambu from going on the grounds that the nuns would assimilate Tambu into their culture. Babamukuru agrees with Nyasha, but Maiguru doesn't: she stands up to her husband and insists that Tambu go. Over Christmas, Babamukuru discusses the Catholic school with Jeremiah and decides that Tambu should go. Tambu is thrilled, but Mainini is afraid that Tambu will die. Mainini becomes ill with worry and only recovers after Lucia spends a few days visiting.

Tambu takes the bus back to the mission and is excited to see Nyasha, but Nyasha isn't home. Tambu finds her studying in a classroom. At dinner, Babamukuru forces Nyasha to eat all her food but after, Tambu hears her throwing it up. Tambu is still very excited to go to the Catholic school. Nyasha accompanies her and Babamukuru to the school. Tambu is one of six black students, which is more than usual. She immerses herself in her studies and though she receives letters from Nyasha, some of which are concerning, she doesn't write back. Tambu doesn't see Nyasha again until August, at which point Nyasha is a skeleton. She vomits after every meal and one night, she faints in her plate. Late that night, Nyasha experiences a mental break and screams that "they" have done this to her. Babamukuru takes her to a psychiatrist the next day. The psychiatrist insists that Africans don't suffer like this, but another psychiatrist checks Nyasha into a clinic. Tambu spends a few weeks at home, where Mainini insists that the "Englishness" is going to kill them all. Regardless, Tambu returns to school and doesn't start to question things until much later, at which point she writes this story.