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Nervous Conditions

Tsitsi Dangarembga

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Character List

Tambu, the narrator, is unmoved by the death of her brother, Nhamo. The afternoon he is expected home at the end of his term at the mission school, he does not arrive. He dislikes taking the bus and then walking the rest of the way through the countryside to the family’s homestead. Tambu is relieved at his absence, as she does not have to kill and prepare a chicken to celebrate his return.

Tambu then reflects on the events leading up to her brother’s death. Despite the family’s poverty, Tambu’s parents were able to raise the fees to send Nhamo to school. There was not enough money to send Tambu as well, so she decided to grow and sell vegetables and raise the money herself. When she discovered that her brother was stealing food from her garden patch, she attempted to beat him up while the two were attending Sunday school. Tambu’s teacher, Mr. Matimba, took her to Umtali, a local urban center, to sell green ears of corn. A white woman, Doris, and her husband pitied Tambu and gave Mr. Matimba ten pounds sterling to pay for her education.

The extended family gathered to celebrate the return of Babamukuru, his wife, Maiguru, and their two children, Chido and Nyasha, back from studying abroad in England. Chido and Nyasha, Tambu’s cousins, had lost the ability to speak their native tongue, Shona. Maiguru did not want them participating in the dancing and other festive activities. At the end of the meal, Tambu was ordered to bring a bowl of water to each member of the extended family so they could wash their hands. Babamukuru’s three siblings praised his success. He proposed educating a member of each family, focusing especially on the neediest branch, Tambu’s clan. They chose Nhamo to go to the mission school, but after his sudden death, Tambu is selected to replace him.

Tambu, returning her focus to the present, is excited and awed by her new life in her aunt and uncle’s house on the mission school grounds. Maiguru warmly welcomes Tambu into her new home. She serves Tambu tea and pastries and gives her an entirely new wardrobe, all in preparation for her first day of school. The coldness and emotional distance that once existed between Nyasha and Tambu quickly disappear. Tambu becomes absorbed in her studies. She soon learns the rhythms of the household, witnessing Nyasha and Babamukuru’s frequent fights. She also learns that Maiguru is highly educated.

To mark the end of the term, Nyasha, Tambu, and the children of white missionaries attend a dance. Tambu reluctantly joins the festivities. At the end of the evening, Nyasha resists coming inside, still trying to master a new dance one of the boys is teaching her. When the young people finally enter the house, a violent argument erupts between Babamukuru and Nyasha, in which Babamukuru accuses Nyasha of lewd behavior. Nyasha strikes her father, who vows to kill her for performing the taboo act of assaulting her own parent. Nyasha grows more detached in the following weeks, and Tambu tries to help assuage her guilt.

During the school vacation, Tambu and her relatives head back to the homestead. Maiguru laments the fact that, as senior wife, she is expected to cook and clean for the extended family the entire time. Babamukuru is upset to find Lucia, Tambu’s mother’s sister, and Takesure, a relative of Tambu’s father, still living at the homestead. To make matters worse, Lucia is pregnant with Takesure’s child. A family meeting is held to decide what course of action should be taken. Ultimately the couple is allowed to remain, as Babamukuru shifts his focus to another moral issue that rankles him: his own brother’s unsanctified domestic status. Babamukuru declares that Jeremiah and Ma’Shingayi must be married in a formal Christian ceremony as soon as possible.

Tambu’s mother comes to the mission hospital and gives birth to a son. Lucia soon follows and asks Babamukuru to find her a job, which he does. She cooks at the school and begins taking classes. Preparations are being made for the impending nuptials. When it comes time to leave, Tambu, who is vehemently opposed to her parents’ wedding, feigns illness. When Babamukuru tells her to be ready in thirty minutes, she refuses to attend. When he returns from the wedding, he punishes her by lashing her and forcing her to perform the maid’s duties for two weeks. Maiguru argues with Babamukuru over the lack of respect that she gets and the fact that her economic contribution to the family is not recognized. She leaves the next day and stays with her son, Chido.

While the girls are preparing for final exams, nuns arrive at the mission and administer a test. Tambu is offered a scholarship to study at the esteemed mission school. At first, Babamukuru is opposed to her accepting the offer, but he eventually relents. Home for the holiday, Tambu finds her mother ill. Lucia arrives and nurses her sister back to health. When Tambu returns to the mission and prepares to leave for the convent school, she cannot find Nyasha anywhere. When she finally finds Nyasha, Nyasha is cold toward her, upset that her best friend will soon be leaving and she will be left alone with her unsympathetic father.

Tambu leaves for the convent school, where she shares a crowded room with other African girls. Busy with her studies, she soon falls out of touch with Nyasha. Tambu returns to the mission to find Nyasha changed, frightfully thin and suffering from a severe eating disorder. One night, Nyasha has what appears to be a psychotic episode. Nyasha sees a psychiatrist and slowly regains her health. Tambu fears she is succumbing to the negative, colonial influence that made Nyasha mentally ill. Her other cousin, Chido, has a white girlfriend, much to Maiguru’s chagrin. Tambu declares her intention to begin questioning her world and the influences that it exerts on her.

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