Nervous Conditions: Tsitsi Dangarembga
Main thread: The effects and harm that foreign interference and sexism have on a single African family, particularly the women
This is not a grand scale epic; instead it is a simple story about a family dealing with some very real issues. The focus is on the small group of women who struggle to be heard and to succeed in a world that often aggressively seeks to silence and control them. Although these women are to some degree successful in their struggle, their victories are not huge. They do not openly challenge the status quo (patriarchy), they do not topple repressive systems (Colonialism), or alter prevailing behaviors and ways of thinking. Instead, their victories lie in the strength they muster to navigate a world that is unsympathetic to their concerns, and their success is rooted in their unflinching desire to succeed where others have always failed.

Plot Overview (for those who have not read the book)

· The story begins with Tambu declaring that she is not moved by her brother’s death – later it proves to be her opportunity to go to school
· She decides to grow mielies to sell for school fees. Her brother steals some, but she manages to save enough to sell at the market
· A white woman, Doris, and her husband pity Tambu and give Mr. Matimba (her teacher) ten pounds sterling to pay for her education
· The extended family gather 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, have lost the ability to speak their native tongue, Shona
· Maiguru does not want them participating in the dancing and other festive activities
· At the end of the meal, Tambu is ordered to bring a bowl of water to each member of the extended family so they can wash their hands
· Babamukuru’s three siblings praise his success. He explains that he will pay to educate a member of each family, focusing especially on the neediest branch, Tambu’s clan. He choses Nhamo to attend the mission school, but after his sudden death, Tambu is selected to replace him
· Tambu 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
· During the school vacation, Tambu and her relatives visit the homestead. Maiguru complains about the fact that, as senior wife, she is still 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. When it comes time to leave for the wedding, Tambu, who is totally opposed to the event, 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 recieves and the fact that her economic contribution to the family is not recognised. 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 (anorexia)
· One night, Nyasha has what appears to be a psychotic episode. Nyasha sees a psychiatrist and slowly regains her health
· Tambu fears she is also succumbing to the negative, colonial influence that made Nyasha mentally ill
· Her other cousin, Chido, has a white girlfriend, much to Maiguru’s irritation
· Tambu declares her intention to begin questioning her world and the influences that it exerts on her

Characters:
Tambudzai or Tambu: the narrator and one of the main characters of the novel.
Mainini (“Mother” in Shona) refers to Tambu’s mother, and she is cited as one of the four women Tambu loved and whose story the novel is intended to tell.
Jeremiah is the Christianised name of Tambu’s father; he is Babamukuru’s brother.
Nhamo: Tambu’s older brother who dies early in the novel
Netsai and Rambanai are Tambu’s sisters; later a brother Dambudzai is also born.
Babamukuru: the head of the Siguake family and Tambu’s uncle; after completing his education in England from 1960-1965, Babamurkuru returned to Rhodesia to assume the position of headmaster of the primary level of the mission school at Umtali
Maiguru is Babamukuru’s educated wife, also one of the four women Tambu loved and whose story the novel is intended to tell. Maiguru also teaches at the Umtali mission school; she is mother to Chido (son) and Nyasha.
Nyasha is a second major character in the novel, another one of the four women Tambu loved and whose story the novel is intended to tell. Nyasha is Babamukuru and Maiguru’s daughter, Tambu’s beloved cousin and close friend. She is called “Anglicised” because she has spent her early years of education in England with her parents, speaks British English, and has adopted English ways.
Chido is Nyasha’s brother and Tambu’s male cousin. He attends the elite and costly multiracial government school in Salisbury with his white friends, Mr. Baker’s sons.
Anna is Babamukuru and Maiguru’s serving woman
Lucia is the younger sister of Tambu’s mother Mainini, who comes to the homestead to help with the work when her sister is ailing.
Takesure is a distant male cousin of Babamukuru; he comes to live at the Sigauke homestead ostensibly to help Jeremiah with the work.
Mr. Baker is one of the “strange” whites at the Umtali mission; his children are Nyaradzo (daughter), a good friend and agemate of Nyasha’s; Andrew and Brian, Mr. Baker’s sons, are good friends and school fellows of Chido.
Babamunini Thomas is brother to Babamukuru and Jeremiah, a male patriarch of the Sigauke clan.
Mainini Patience is Babamunini Thomas’ wife.
Tete Gladys is sister to Babamukuru, Jeremiah, and Babamunini Thomas, she is a female patriarch of the Sigauke clan.
to Consider
Ch. 1 (pp. 1-12), Ch. 2 (pp. 13-34), and Ch. 3 (pp. 35-57)
1. The narrator Tambudzai, or Tambu, opens the novel by stating flatly, “I was not sorry when my brother died.” She later brings us back to opening moment of the novel again in chapter 3, when Nhamo is late returning from school as expected. Why isn’t Tambudzai sorry that her brother Nhamo has died? Trace the deterioration of Tambu’s relationship with Nhamo.
2. What are the burdens of womanhood, according to Tambu’s mother? Describe Tambu’s relationship with her father Jeremiah.
3. Why is Tambu’s grandmother’s “fairy tale” story of the family significant?
4. How do Tambu and the rest of the family react to Babamukuru, Maiguru, Nyasha, and Chido, all newly returned from England, at the clan gathering of chapter 3?
5. Why has Babamukuru determined that Nhamo, rather than Tambu, should live with him at the Umtali mission and continue his education at the mission school? Why does Babamukuru decide Tambu should go to the mission school after Nhamo dies?
6. How does Tambu’s mother Mainini react to her son’s death? On what or whom does she blame his death?
Ch. 4 (58-76) and Ch. 5 (pp. 77-102)
7. Describe Tambu’s responses and feelings when she first comes to live at the mission and go to the mission school.
8. Compare the characters of Tambu and Nyasha as they are revealed to us once the girls begin to share a room at the mission house. Describe the nature and trace the development of their friendship. Why is Tambu both attracted to and disapproving of her cousin? How do their attitudes toward Babamukuru and Maiguru differ?
9. Describe the characters and relationship of Babamukuru and Maiguru at home at the mission. Describe their relationships to their children Chido and Nyasha. Consider Tambu’s first formal interview with Babamukuru in the living room the evening of her arrival: what does it reveal about Tambu’s relationship with Babamukuru, the head of the Sigauke family?
10. Why does Tambu feel she has undergone a “reincarnation” (p. 92) at the mission? What are her successes in this new life?
11. Why is Tambu so surprised to learn that Maiguru has earned a master’s degree?
Ch. 6 (pp. 103-119)
12. Describe the categories of white people that Tambu observes at the mission.
13. Why do all the black African children want to go to the multiracial government schools, like the one where Chido attends? How did Chido come to attend that school?
14. Why is Nyasha so “nervous” about passing her Form 2 examinations? Why does she say she’d almost like to fail to see how her father would respond?
15. Trace the significant moments of the scene at the Beit Hall Christmas Party and its aftermath. Why do Nyasha and her father fight?
16. Why does Tambu say, “I was having to revise my thinking” (p. 116)?
17. Why does Nyasha seem to be “burning herself out” (p. 116)? Why does Nyasha want to resist getting “‘comfortable and used to the way things are’”(p. 117)? How has her early life in England shaped the way she is now? Interpret Tambu’s characterisation of Nyasha’s conflict as “self versus surrender and the content of sin” (p. 118). What do you see as the inner conflicts for Nyasha and Tambu? How does Tambu’s thinking differ from Nyasha’s at this point?
18. In what way has Tambu saved Nyasha’s life (p. 119)? Why does Tambu admire her cousin?
Ch. 7 (pp. 120-148)
19. What reasons do you think Chido, Nyasha, Tambu, and Maiguru might have for not wanting to go to the homestead for Christmas holidays in December 1969? What are Tambu’s reactions to her return home?
20. Describe the characters and situations of Lucia and Takesure. Why is Babamukuru unhappy to see them at the homestead? What do we learn of the past history of Lucia and her sister?
21. Consider the formal scene of greetings in Mainini’s room. What is revealed by Mainini’s interactions with Nyasha, Tambudzai, Babamukuru, and Maiguru? How does Lucia behave and why?
22. The rest of the Sigauke “patriarchy” comes to the homestead for the Christmas holiday, though for Tambu it is no “holiday,” she says (p. 133): why? What do the sleeping arrangements reveal about the family hierarchy? What does the women’s work consist of?
23. Trace the important events of the parallel scenes of the dare of the family patriarchy, and the females in the kitchen. Why are all but Tete Gladys excluded from the dare? Why is mainini (Tambu’s mother) offended by Maiguru’s detachment and why is she so bitter about Maiguru? Interpret Tambu’s analysis of the women’s situation on p. 138. Interpret Nyasha’s later judgment that both Mainini and Maiguru were showing their “suffering” p. 142).
24. What does Lucia do when she interrupts the Sigauke patriarchy’s dare? The case being discussed is initially identified by Babamukuru as Takesure’s, but Lucia and Jeremiah are drawn into the matter as parts of the family problem to be solved. What various solutions are offered to the “problem” by Tete Gladys, Takesure, Jeremiah? Why does Babamukuru object to his brother Jeremiah’s solution, and what solution does Babamukuru propose instead? Why does Babamukuru prevail?
25. How does Nyasha react to Tambu’s story of the outcome of the dare (pp. 147-148)? What does Tete Galdys conclude about the problem and the solutions (p. 148)?
Ch. 8 (pp. 149-175)
26. Why does Tambu object to her uncle’s plan that her parents have a church wedding? What are the sources of conflict for Tambu such that this business of the wedding become a “complex problem” (p. 151) for her? How does Tambu see herself in comparison to her cousin Nyasha? How does Babamukuru see the two girls?
27. Why does Tambu think the men have underestimated Lucia? What does Lucia do after the family dare? Why does Mainini have trouble making up her mind (p. 153)? Why does Lucia come to the mission with her sister and what is the outcome? How do Nyasha and Tambu differ in their appraisal of Babamukuru helping Lucia to find a job?
28. Why does her parents’ impending wedding become a “bed of confusion” (p. 165) for Tambu? What does she do the on the day of the wedding? What is Babamukuru’s reaction? What has impelled Tambu to defy her uncle on this matter of the wedding? What is her punishment?
29. Why does Maiguru fight with and then leave Babamukuru for 5 days? How does Nyasah view her mother’s leaving? Why is Nyasha disappointed when she learned where her mother has gone, and how does she react when her mother returns home with her father?
Ch. 9 (pp. 176-190)
30. Why do the nuns come to the mission school? Why is Tambu offered a place and a scholarship at the exclusive Sacred Heart convent school? Why does Nyasha think Tambu should not go? What is the process of “assimilation” she describes on p. 179? Why is Babamukuru also reluctant to let her go? How does Maiguru manage to influence her husband’s decision to let Tambu go to the convent school?
31. During the Christmas vacation in December 1970, Maiguru refuses to go and stay at the homestead: why? Why does Babamukuru decide to let Tambu go to the convent school? What is Tambu’s mother’s reaction to the news? What role does Lucia play in helping Tambu take another step toward what she calls her “freedom”?
32. How does Tambu respond to others’ constant refrain that she not “forget” (p. 188)? What might Tambu be in danger of forgetting and why? Why does Tambu think she cannot “forget”?
33. Describe the state of Nyasha’s relationship with her father at the point when Tambu leaves for the convent school.
Ch. 10 (pp. 191-204)
34. How does Tambu respond to Sacred Heart when she first arrives? How does she view “my new life” (p. 191)? Why isn’t she missing Nyasha during her first term?
35. Describe Nyasha’s letters to Tambu while she is away at school, especially the “serious letter” (p. 196). Tambu sees little of Nyasha during her first term break, but in what state does she find Nyasha at the August holiday? Examine Nyasha’s break down (pp. 200-202): what do you think causes it? How does Tambu’s mother account for Nyasha’s break down and many of the other family problems she relates to “Englishness” (pp. 202-203)? What “suspicion” enters Tambu’s mind on p. 203?
36. Tambu tells us “seeds do grow” p. 203: what does she mean? Why does she no longer accept Sacred Heart as the “sunrise on my horizon”? Interpret the narrator’s closing statements, pp. 203-204. Where do you suppose Tambudzai is now and what might she be doing, at the time when she “set down this story”? What do you imagine that “long and painful process” of “expansion” over many years has meant to Tambudzai?
37. Identify what you interpret to be major theme(s) of Nervous Conditions. Does this title seem appropriate to you? Why or why not?

Quotations to look at:
“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.” (Chp.2)
“How can I describe the sensations that swamped me when (he) started his car, with me beside him on the day I left my home? It was relief, but more than that. It was more than excitement and anticipation. What I experienced that day was a short cut, a rerouting of everything I had ever defined as me into fast lanes that would speedily lead to my destination. My horizons were saturated with me, my leaving, my going. There was no room for what I left behind.” (p. 58)

“What it is,” she sighed, “to have to choose between self and security.”(Chp.5)


“It’s bad enough . . . when a country gets colonised, but when the people do as well! That’s the end, really, that’s the end.” (Chp.7)


“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.” (Chp.10)