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Nervous Conditions

Tsitsi Dangarembga

Important Quotations Explained

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Key Facts

1. I was not sorry when my brother died.

The novel begins with this shocking confession from Tambu. Tambu has had a murky, often ambivalent relationship with her brother, Nhamo. He represents everything she is denied and the principal failing of the social structure and family hierarchy into which she has been born. Simply because he is a male and the eldest, he is the sole repository of the family’s hopes and ambitions. Tambu, regardless of her intelligence, talents, and abilities, must be satisfied with a secondary role, an understudy whose sole job it is to support and assist Nhamo as he makes his way in the world. With his sudden and unexpected death, Tambu’s life takes a dramatic turn for the better. She is offered his place at the mission school, and because of his death, she is able to write the story she is beginning in the novel’s opening paragraphs.

2. And these days it is worse, with the poverty of blackness on one side and the weight of womanhood on the other. Aiwa! What will help you, my child, is to learn to carry your burdens with strength.

These words are spoken by Ma’Shingayi, Tambu’s mother, in Chapter 2. They underscore the harsh reality faced by many Africans, particularly African women. Ma’Shingayi is arguing that being black and female is a double burden and that the two obstacles are too considerable to surmount. What sets her apart from Tambu, however, is how she qualifies this statement. Rather than exhort her daughter to be strong and rally against the prevailing conditions that conspire to keep her down, Tambu’s mother encourages her to passively accept the forces she feels are too powerful for her to control. This passage shows the differences not only between the two women but between the older, more traditional beliefs and the new attitudes emerging in a more contemporary Africa.

The passage also reveals the conflicting thoughts and attitudes of many of the novel’s female characters. While Ma’Shingayi presents herself as the model of humble acquiescence, she rails against the laziness of men and grows increasingly jealous of her brother- and sister-in-law, whose educations have afforded them greater economic mobility and a more comfortable lifestyle. Ma’Shingayi is a prime example of how reality and ideology, or theory and practice, grow increasingly conflicted in the novel.

3. “What it is,” she sighed, “to have to choose between self and security.”

Maiguru speaks these words in Chapter 5, after Tambu has questioned her about her past, her education, and what happens to the money she earns at the mission. Maiguru’s words succinctly summarize the sacrifices she has made in order to raise a family and subscribe to a more traditional notion of a woman’s role in African society. Maiguru goes on to tell Tambu of the possibilities she witnessed while living in England, glimpses of the things she could have become had she been free of restrictive gender roles and the expectation that she would play the part of the subservient provider. She feels there is no recognition or appreciation of the compromises she has made and, similar to Tambu’s mother, stoically bears her burdens in silence.

Maiguru’s sacrifices, of putting her husband and her family before her own needs and ambitions, are viewed by Nyasha as a costly compromise to her mother’s dignity and honor. Tambu remains undecided and does not take sides in this debate, as she understands her own compromised and precarious position in her uncle’s household. Later in the year, when Nyasha and her father have a violent argument, Tambu realizes firsthand her need to choose security over self and remains noncommittal. She stifles and censors any opinion she may have on the issue, hiding comfortably instead in the role of a “grateful, poor, female relative.”

4. It’s bad enough . . . when a country gets colonized, but when the people do as well! That’s the end, really, that’s the end.

Nyasha makes this pronouncement in Chapter 7 as part of her ongoing role in which she challenges and shapes Tambu’s perceptions and modes of thought. Slowly, Tambu has become seduced by her exposure to the colonialist-influenced “new ways.” Despite the fact that Tambu is opposed to the humiliation her parents will suffer by having to endure a Christian wedding ceremony, she agrees with Babamukuru’s insistence that the ritual, and not the traditional cleansing rites, be performed. Nyasha quickly dismisses Babamukuru’s position, warning Tambu of the dangers inherent in assuming that Christian ways are necessarily progressive ways.

Nyasha’s words gesture to another preoccupation in Dangarembga’s work. Rhodesia has been placed under British control, and the life of the nation has been clearly altered by this foreign influence. Without the opportunities colonialism has created for them, Babamukuru and his family, as well as Tambu, would not be in their positions of privilege and power. At the same time, the novel is narrated through the lens of African lives and the inner workings and struggles of one extended family. The African and the colonial cannot coexist without eventually influencing, even colliding, with each other. Slowly, the effects of colonialism has trickled down, infecting Tambu and Nyasha’s family. Nyasha’s observations foreshadow the nervous breakdown she will soon suffer as she feels colonialism infiltrating not only her nation and people but her own identity as well.

5. Quietly, unobtrusively and extremely fitfully, something in my mind began to assert itself, to question things and refuse to be brainwashed, bringing me to this time when I can set down this story. It was a long and painful process for me, that process of expansion.

Tambu closes her account, in Chapter 10, with these words. She has actively sought advancement, winning a scholarship to the convent school, but she begins to question what it has cost her sense of self and her ailing mother, heartsick at the thought of another of her children being altered by their desire for a Western education. Her school and the nuns who run it are no longer the sun on her horizon, as she puts it. Her use of the word brainwashed is telling, denoting a radical shift in her thinking. In this passage, Tambu seems to be speaking for Nyasha, who is also depressed and ailing, saying the words that Nyasha, in her compromised state, can no longer say for herself. Tambu exhorts herself to no longer be passively influenced by the people and institutions around her. She is firm in her resolve to question.

This evolution of perception and thought, which could be considered an epiphany, allows Tambu to write her own story. She is freed of the need to be dutiful and grateful and can become her own person and seize control of her own voice and destiny. Her education has been more than learning the rudiments of reading, writing, and mathematics—it has helped her refine her perceptions and recognize and embrace her personal liberty. This expansion and certitude have finally grounded her and helped her resolve the often contradictory forces that had buffeted and unsettled Tambu throughout her life.

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