Nervous Conditions

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Nervous Conditions
Second edition, 2004
Author Tsitsi Dangarembga
Country Zimbabwe
Language English
Genre Bildungsroman
Publisher The Women's Press
Publication date
Pages 204
ISBN 0-7043-4100-X
OCLC 21118465
LC Class PR9390.9.D36 N47 1988
Followed by The Book of Not

Nervous Conditions is a novel by Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga, first published in the United Kingdom in 1988 by the Women's Press. The semi-autobiographical novel focuses on the story of a Rhodesian family in post-colonial Rhodesia during the 1960s. Nervous Conditions is the first of a proposed trilogy, with The Book of Not published in 2006 as the second novel in the series. The novel attempts to illustrate the dynamic themes of race, class, gender, and cultural change during the post-colonial conditions of present-day Zimbabwe. The title is taken from the introduction by Jean-Paul Sartre to Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth.

Plot summary[edit]

Tambu is the main character of the novel. She is a young bright kid that is eager to go to school. 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 his homestead with his uncle Babamukuru and his family. The only thing Tambu desires is to attend school, but her family is very poor and does 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, Babamukuru is worshipped 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. Tambu is extremely excited to be going away to study at the missionary school. Upon arriving, she soon becomes close to her cousin Nyasha and completely focuses in her studies. During her stay with Babamukuru, Tambu is exposed to a different lifestyle. She often questions Nyasha’s behavior. On one occasion, Nyasha and Babamukuru get into a serious argument after a school dance. The argument soon develops into a fight, where Nyasha punches Babamukuru and Babamukuru strikes her back. Tambu is completely shocked by these events. After the fight, Nyasha becomes distant and focuses on her studies and exams. 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. Babamukuru's wife, Maiguru also does not look forward going back, because there she is expected to do all the cooking and cleaning for all the members of the extended family. Upon arriving, family drama arises everywhere. Babamukuru concludes that the reason his family has so many problems is because Tambu’s parents are not legally married. He decides that they must marry as soon as possible. Tambu is punished by Babamukuru because she disagrees with the idea of her parents marrying and does not attend the wedding. Soon after, Maiguru decides to leave Babamukuru after an argument over how she is being treated. However, she later returns to live with him.

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. Babamukuru is hesitant to let her go, but he then realizes that this is a great opportunity and allows her to attend. Since Tambu is leaving, Nyasha gets upset with her because she does not want her to leave. In the new school Tambu is introduced to many cultural changes; however, she remains resilient to the changes. As always she is fully focused on her studies. When Tambu returns home to Babamukuru, she discovers that Nyasha has changed. Nyasha is extremely thin due to the fact that she is suffering from a serious eating disorder. Babamukuru finally decides to take Nyasha to see a psychiatrist, which allows her to slowly recover. Maiguru is also very disappointed that Chido has decided to have a white girlfriend. Because of the unfortunate events that surround Tambu’s family, Tambu fears that she may become affected by them just like Nyasha. Consequently, Tambu remains cautious of her daily situations and nervous of the conditions that surround her.

History and culture[edit]

Nervous Conditions takes place during postcolonialism in the 1960s for many countries in Africa, including the novel's setting, Rhodesia (presently Zimbabwe). Rhodesia became independent in 1964 after 41 years of British colonial rule. However, Rhodesia retained British influences for many years afterward. In the story, the English had built a mission school for the natives African children to study, suggesting that this was during a time when race relations were improving among the Whites and Blacks. A problem of becoming "white washed" (natives thinking and acting like the English instead of representing their own culture) developed in the book as a result of the English mission and continued influence on Rhodesia. This was evident in characters such as Nyasha, Nhamo, and Babamukuru throughout the book. The English influence and school mission in the book were foreshadowing what would come in the near future. In 1965, the government and two nationalist African organizations started a civil war in the country, which resulted in the British regaining control of the country after the long war. This reign would not last however, since Britain would grant the country complete independence.

New president Robert Mugabe instituted a policy of "Africanization", in which all of the remaining English influences would be extinguished from the country. This includes all remaining traces of English rule, English laws, and style of government. Mugabe changed the name of the country to Zimbabwe in 1980 as well, in effort to completely rid the country of its past and any chance that the English would have continued influence on the country.

In the duration of the book, there were many cultural issues which effected the Rhodesians in a negative way. The continued English influence made it hard for Blacks then to maintain their African identity and culture, evident in Nyasha, Babamukuru, Nhamo, and even Tambu at times.

Another problem in Rhodesia was the brain drain resulting from Rhodesians seeking educational and work opportunities abroad. Tsitsi Dangarembga provided examples of this phenomenon in the text through Tambu's brother and uncle. This was not unique to Rhodesia however, since many of the countries in Africa experience this even today. This creates a problem for the African countries since many of the educated people who are able to build and improve their countries are leaving. Mugabe attempted to stem the brain drain by eradicating British schools as part of his "Africanization" policies.

Another cultural significance which was represented in the book were the gender relations.This is also evident in the beginning of the book when Tambu claims to be a better student than her brother ever was, but that he was chosen to get the "better" English schooling simply because he was a man and she was a girl.


  • 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. Unlike many other characters in the book, she respects the societal roles in place regardless of her desire not to be held back by her gender. Despite the drastic changes in her life, Tambu manages to stay mostly resilient throughout the novel.
  • Babamukuru: Tambu's uncle and Nyasha's father. Babamukuru is well educated and is the dean of the mission school. He feels that it is his responsibility to help the rest of his extended family because they are not as fortunate as him. This causes him to be very authoritative in character. These actions stem from his subservience to anyone that offered him assistance in getting his education. He is often seen as an uninterested father, and shows his disapproval of his daughter's actions. He also keeps out of any intimate relationships by being preoccupied with work all the time. Throughout the novel, he proves to be a very complex character, and it is nearly impossible to tell the true intentions of his seemingly kind and generous actions.
  • Maiguru: Babamukuru's wife and Tambu's aunt. Maiguru is a well educated woman who can provide for herself by working at the mission. Her time in England has led her to become jealous of the life she could have potentially lived had she stayed in England. At one point she leaves her husband because she is tired of being viewed as a second class citizen, but she returns soon afterwards because she realizes it is for the best to stay in her passive role.
  • Nyasha: Babamukuru and Maiguru's daughter. While she is subservient to her father, it is not by choice, but rather she realizes that she has nowhere else to go. She makes no attempt to be social with any girls at the mission. 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.
  • 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. He dates a white girlfriend to the dislike of all his family members.
  • 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: Ma'Shingayi'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.
  • Ma'Shingayi: Tambu's mother. During the beginning of the novel when Nhamo was sent off to school, Mainini had no issues with the extra work that she had to do when Nhamo was gone. After his death however, when Tambu goes to the mission, she becomes very resentful of Babamukuru for taking another one of her children to his school. During Tambu's trips home, Mainini makes no attempt to hide her displeasure with Babamukuru's actions.
  • Netsai: Tambu's sister. Netsai is a very kind person who helps out around the house not only because she is required to, but because she actually desires to help her family.
  • 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.
  • Takesure: Babamukuru and Jeremiah's cousin. Takesure is quite apathetic as a father throughout the novel and he overuses the societal power given to him because he is a man. He is involved with numerous women regardless of his financial inability to care for any of them. After Nhamo dies, he is brought to the homestead to help Jeremiah.

Major themes[edit]


Gender is the overarching theme that progresses the novel. Babamukuru educated Nyasha only so his image of an educated man would reflect on his family. This is also why he allowed Maiguru to get her Master’s degree after they were already married. This is why it was especially important for Nhamo to get an education, and without his death, Tambu likely wouldn’t have been given the education she received.


  1. Before Nhamo died, Tambu was trying to earn an education through her maize. Despite her high marks, her father laughed off her desires for an education, “My father was greatly tickled by this... ’Just enough for the fees! Can you see her there?’” (17). Jeremiah does not recognize Tambu’s idea as valid or even commend her desire to earn the fees on her own. This comes from the blatantly sexist thinking that a girl cannot possibly have entrepreneur characteristics or have a future which uses an education.
  2. Tambu was often in awe of Nyasha’s knowledge, desire to learn, the opinions she had because of her education, and natural smarts, but people like Babamukuru couldn’t appreciate the gift she had. “I was impressed by her mental agility, but Babamukuru was irritated by it”(102). Parents are supposed to be proud of their children, especially if they are excelling in school. They also encourage children to think outside of the box, but Nyasha’s education was only seen by Babamukuru as fuel for Nyasha’s feminist ways which undermined his authority.
  3. While Maiguru and Tambu are conversing about her Master’s Degree and its benefits, Maiguru explains her role in her marriage to Babamukuru, “Your uncle wouldn’t be able to do half the things he does if I didn’t work as well! ...Where do you think I would get the car from? ...Do you think I can afford to buy one?”(103-104). These two questions are very important because Maiguru just emphasized how integral of a part she plays in Babamukuru’s success by earning her own money, yet she can’t afford to buy a car. This displays what her typical African marriage is like. They appear to be an equal partnership because they both have jobs, but in actuality Maiguru has sacrificed a lot for her family. She hasn’t truly been able to use her Master’s degree, not in the way an unmarried Maiguru would have, and the money she earns goes straight into Babamukuru’s pocket. God forbid Maiguru actually spent her own money. Babamukuru probably believed she would use it frivolously. In actuality, it would be for transportation, a freedom she deserves to have but does not. Tambu recognizes the pain Maiguru went through and continues to go though in order to be the house wife Babamukuru wants and expects. “I felt sorry for Maiguru because she could not use the money she earned for her own purposes and had been prevented by marriage from doing the things she wanted to do” (103). This realization surely affects Tambu’s decision to get an education and fuels her goal to not allow marriage and traditional gender roles to get in the way of her future.
  4. After Nyasha, Chido, and Tambu come back from a school dance Babamukuru is upset by their late arrival and chastises Nyasha for speaking to a boy outside and alone. “You children are up to no good...out so late at night! ...”No decent girl would stay out alone, with a boy, at that time of the night”(114-115). During a long break, Chido was allowed to stay with a friend who had a sister, yet Babamukuru yells and eventually hits Nyasha for only talking to a boy where her father could see. This shows clear gender discrimination from Babamukuru.

Additional related quotes:

  • “Babamukuru condemning Nyasha to whoredom, making her a victim of her femaleness, just as I had felt victimised at home in the days when Nhamo went to school and I grew my maize. The victimisation, I saw, was universal.... Men took it with them everywhere”(118).
  • “If there had been sons earlier, they would have helped the old man on the land. The family would have been better off than they are now. Besides...a man can’t be sure about daughters!”(127).
  • “Well Babamukuru... maybe when you marry a woman, she is obliged to obey you. But some of us aren’t married, so we don’t know how to do it. That is why I have been able to tell you frankly what is in my heart. It is better that way so that tomorrow I don’t go behind your back and say the first thing that comes into my head.”(174)

Race and Colonialism:

Racism and colonialism go hand in hand in the novel. Rhodesia's society was not only colonized, but double colonized as well. Although Dangarembga likely knew that readers would have certain racial stereotypes, she puts a scene in the beginning where a white woman makes the judgement that Tambu must be selling food because she’s being forced to. Race also comes up with Babamukuru’s character. In his efforts to be as “white” as possible, several instances in the book display Babamakuru trying to sculpt his family more modern and Western. His attempts, however, proved to have failed. One example is in his marriage to Maiguru. This novel took place in the 1960s when the second wave of Feminism was already going on in America. The gender inequality in his marriage represented the marriage and gender roles that were in Africa. Comparing Jeremiah and Ma’Shingayi, and Maiguru and Babamukuru, their marriages have very similar dynamics. Dangarembga also explores what happens to youth who are put in a Western environment. She alludes to it with Nhamo’s character dying, but Nyasha is the best representation of that exploration. In her struggle with an eating disorder, we see the conflict between tradition and progress alongside colonialism. Comparing Tambu and Nyasha, the conclusion can be made that Tambu had enough time in Africa to ground her values and establish a clear goal in which she needed an education. Nyasha was young enough when she left Zimbabwe, causing her to forget how to speak Shona and thus appear to be more Western than African. As noted by Janice Hill, “Dangarembga's novel illustrates how the acquisition of education and the adoption of Western ways can have painful consequences for modern African women.” This is especially possible because Babamukuru was self-loathing and trying to force some Western ways upon her, while also telling her she couldn’t be Western. Examples of this are when she was not allowed to read a Western book, or whenever Babamukuru belittled her accomplishments and opinions because she was female.


  1. While Tambu tries to earn the fees for her education, a white woman, Doris, immediately makes an assumption based on her skin color, “‘I’d be shocking myself if I walked by and didn’t say anything.... Is she your little girl?' Without waiting for an answer she gave him a piece of her mind. ‘Child labour. Slavery! That’s what it is’” (28-29). If Tambu had been a white child, Doris probably would have thought it was for school or her parents were trying to teach her the value of money. Although she tries to stand up for Tambu, it’s unfounded that she would be there for a different reason than a white child.
  2. Tambu explains the changes in her brother after being at the mission, “Nhamo came home at the end of his first year...insignificant matters” (52-53). Although some of these changes, like Nhamo’s inability to speak Shona, were fabricated on his part to appear Western, he had started to change, but was doing so by dropping his African identity.
  3. After asking to go to a different school, Babamukuru contemplates Tambu’s request by talking about Nyasha. “I have observed from my own daughter’s behaviour that it is not a good thing for a young girl to associate too much these white people, to have too much freedom. I have seen that girls who do that do not develop into decent women”(183). Although Babamukuru didn’t know about Nyasha’s eating disorder at this point, he was correct in saying that Western society affected Nyasha. Perhaps, it affected her in a positive way because it helped her form her feminist opinions. Despite comments in the beginning of the book about the way Tambu’s African body looked, Nyasha’s eating disorder appeared to stem from her excessive studying and desire to do well in school. This desire began from Babamukuru’s overbearing expectation to succeed in learning. Additionally, what Babamukuru is judging Nyasha for has to do with his personal discrimination against women, not Western’s society’s pressures on Nyasha.


Nervous Conditions has mostly received positive reviews, making it a prominent African-literature novel. The African Book Club recommends Nervous Conditions, claiming Dangarembga’s work to be, “a thought-provoking novel that packs a huge number of complicated ideas into a simple and engaging story.” Nervous Conditions was awarded the Commonwealth Writers' Prize in 1989, and has since been translated into a number of languages. It has been praised both within and outside of Africa as a prominent contribution and advocate of African feminism and post-colonialism. Within the diverse tradition of African and Black women’s writing, it is Nervous Conditions that best represents the extent to which emancipation and justice remains a constant possibility. The novel has been described as an “absorbing page-turner” by The Bloomsbury Review, “another example of a bold new national literature” by the African Times and “a unique and valuable book” by Booklist. Finally, Pauline Uwakweh describes how Nervous Conditions emphasizes that “[Racial and colonial problems are explored] as parallel themes to patriarchal dominance because both are doubtless inter-related forms of dominance over a subordinate social group. Dangarembga has, indeed, demonstrated a keen knowledge of the problems of her society in particular, and Africa in general. Her vision as a writer stresses that awareness and courage are the blueprint to exploding its contradictions”. Overall, Nervous Conditions is recognized as a major literary contribution to African feminism and postcolonial literature.