Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

by Curswell Tshihwela

Nervous Conditions is a novel by Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga, first published in the United Kingdom in 1988. It was the first book published by a black woman from Zimbabwe in English. The semi-autobiographical novel focuses on the story of a Shona family in post-colonial Rhodesia during the 1960s. Nervous Conditions is the first of a proposed trilogy, with The Book of Not as the second novel in the series. The novel illustrates the dynamic themes of race, colonialism, and gender during the post-colonial conditions of present-day Zimbabwe.
Tambu is the main character of the novel. The novel opens up with the news that Tambu’s older brother, Nhamo, had just died. Tambu is not upset about this because Nhamo studied at a missionary school away from home with his uncle Babamukuru and his family. The only thing Tambu desires is to attend school, but her family is very poor and do not have enough money to pay for her school fees. Tambu’s uncle, Babamukuru, and his family came to visit the homestead. Because of Babamakuru’s success, he is worshiped whenever he comes to visit. During the visit, Babamukuru suggests that Tambu should take Nhamo’s place and attend the missionary school by his house. Upon arriving, she soon becomes close to her cousin Nyasha and completely focuses on her studies. During term break, everyone returns to visit the family back in the homestead.
Tambu does not want to go back as she is much more comfortable living with Babamukuru. Towards the end of the term, there is an exam administered at Tambu’s school. This exam is to test the students and offer them an opportunity to study at a well-known missionary school. Tambu excels on the exam and is offered a scholarship to attend this well-known school. In the new school, Tambu is introduced to many cultural changes; however, she remains resistant to the changes. As always she is fully focused on her studies. Consequently, she remains cautious of her daily situations and nervous about the conditions that surround her.

  • 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 calls 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 patriarchal 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.

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