Last Updated September 5, 2023.
A rare account of life in British Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) by a black woman writer, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions (1988) is widely regarded as a contemporary classic. Inspired by the writer’s own childhood and adolescence, Nervous Conditions is set in the 1960s and 1970s. Through the lens of relationships between women—especially that of the narrator and protagonist, Tambu, and her cousin Nyasha—as well as the stifling patriarchal bonds between women and the men in their lives, the novel examines issues of race, gender, poverty, and colonialism. Though men play significant roles in the novel, its real heroes are the implacable women who rebel against patriarchy. Dangarembga presents each woman character in careful gestalt, from Tambuzdai’s ambition to Nyasha’s will and self-destruction to Lucia’s sexual liberation. The novel’s title refers to how the conflict between societal norms and the individual self can mold—and sometimes crack—women’s psyches.
I was not sorry when my brother died.
Thus begins Tambu’s account, as memorable an opening line as any. Tambu is a young woman looking back on her childhood, in which the death of her brother, Nhamo, is an important milestone. Tambu’s acknowledgement that she feels no grief at Nhamo’s death illustrates a complex family dynamic and foreshadows the novel’s later explorations of her discomfort with the patriarchal bias of society.
Nhamo, the only son among Tambu’s siblings, has always shirked housework, exercising his male privilege. Further, their family’s poverty and the laws of patriarchy dictate that only one child can be further educated at the village school: naturally, in their family’s case, the son. Tambu’s weak-willed father, Jeremiah, tells her that it is futile to educate a girl:
Can you cook books and feed them to your husband? Stay at home with your mother. Learn to cook and clean. Grow vegetables.
Undeterred, Tambu offers to pay for her education herself by selling maize at the local market. Tambu is not only resourceful but also sensitive to class imbalances. When Jeremiah’s college-educated brother, Babamukuru, returns from England with his wife, Maiguru, and their children, Nyasha and Chido, Tambu feels overwhelmed by the “Englishness” of her cousins. Worse, Babamukuru’s decision to educate Nhamo at the mission school in Umtali, where Babamukuru is the headmaster, intensifies Tambu’s jealousy and dislike for her brother. Already arrogant, Nhamo is now bound to view his life back in the village as insufficient, as gleaned from his statement to Tambu on the eve of his departure:
I shall have a jersey in winter, and probably a blazer too. I shall stop using my hands to eat. I will use a knife and fork.
The jersey, blazer, knife, and fork symbolize civilization and act as symbolic weapons that have the potential to pare down the culture of Tambu’s family. Nhamo’s stay at Umtali is short-lived, however; in 1968, three years after he moves, the boy passes away from a sudden illness. Tambu’s mother, Mainini, is driven mad by grief. It is a “white” disease her son contracted, and she blames Babamukuru’s whitewashing of her son for his death:
And you too, Babamukuru! Pthu! I spit at you! You and your education have killed my son!
Distraught as Mainini may be, Nhamo’s death has opened up a window of opportunity for his sister. Babamukuru decides Tambu is to be given the chance which was cruelly snatched from Nhamo. Tambu is overjoyed; this means not only that she has a chance for further studies but also that she is the “emancipating” one, the Babamukuru for her immediate family. Tambu’s complex feelings highlight a key theme of the novel: a colonial education...
(This entire section contains 1569 words.)
may be the way out of poverty, but it comes at the cost of rejecting one’s roots.
Tambu moves to Umtali to live with Babamukuru’s family, and her relationship with Nyasha takes center stage in the novel. At first, Tambu considers Nyasha disrespectful of her parents and too westernized. Unconsciously co-opting the patriarchal male gaze, Tambu judges Nyasha for her glamorous appearance and her smoking habit. Nevertheless, a friendship begins to develop between the cousins. Tambu is remarkably perceptive about Nyasha’s secret—her “nervous condition”—which is only revealed to the reader at the novel’s end. Tambu notes that her cousin has a private, serious side that usually remains concealed under a frivolous facade. Like Tambu, Nyasha is deeply intelligent and stays buried in books.
Over time, Tambu discovers that Babamukuru’s seemingly perfect house is not in order; the patriarch struggles to control his willful daughter. Frequent fights between father and daughter at the dinner table often cause Nyasha to leave her food unfinished. Nyasha begins to associate mealtimes with dread, which lays the foundation for an unhealthy relationship with food.
As the friendship between Tambu and Nyasha grows, Tambu’s perception of Babamukuru changes. Before she came to stay with him, Tambu viewed Babamukuru as a savior. As his controlling, cruel streak toward Nyasha and even Maiguru surfaces, however, Tambu begins to question her uncle’s heroism. These tensions become particularly clear in two separate incidents. In one, Babamukuru ruthlessly beats up Naysha after the three children return from a “raving” party. Nyasha, who arrives home later than Tambu and Chido, rouses her father’s suspicions that she is acting like a “whore.” In a tense scene, Babamukuru beats a defiant Nyasha.
Babamukuru . . . gather[ed] himself within himself so that his whole weight was behind the blow he dealt Nysha’s face.
Tambu observes that the scene is all too familiar.
The victimization, I saw, was universal. It didn’t depend on poverty, on lack of education or on tradition. . . . Men took it everywhere with them. Even heroes like Babamukuru did it . . . all the conflicts came back to this question of femaleness. Femaleness as opposed and inferior to maleness.
The second incident occurs when Babamukuru decides that Tambu’s parents must have a Christian wedding to “purify” Jeremiah of the charge that he has impregnated Mainini’s sister Lucia. Though everyone knows the baby is actually that of Takesure, a cousin, Jeremiah has slept with the beautiful Lucia as well. Jeremiah is keen to marry her, but Babamukuru, an evangelist, cannot permit bigamy in his family and thus decrees a Christian wedding.
Meanwhile, Lucia, one of the “four” irrepressible women Tambu loves most, asks Mainini to leave the stifling, patriarchal homestead and walk out with her. Tambu’s mother dithers, and Lucia leaves alone, seeking a job in Umtali.
Tambu refuses to attend her parents’ wedding, which she considers a sham; for this, Babamukuru punishes her harshly with fifteen lashes to her legs. Repelled by Babamukuru’s draconian manner, Maiguru leaves him. Both Nyasha and Tambu are awed and excited by Maiguru’s decision, hoping she is able to gain financial independence soon. Nyasha bitterly notes, though, that Maiguru has only gone to her brother’s, the house of “another man.” Sure enough, Maiguru returns in five days, though Tambu observes that Maiguru no longer uses as many terms of endearment, such as “Daddy-D,” with Babamukuru.
In the last three chapters, the “nervous conditions” of the novel’s title are fully explained. Tambu wins a scholarship for higher studies at a convent school and is now set to move even further away than Umtali. Her mother, nursing Tambu’s newborn brother, is beset with separation anxiety:
Tell me, my daughter, what will I, your mother, say to you when you come home a stranger full of white ways and ideas? It will be English, English all the time.
The separation, of course, is not just one of distance: it opens between states of being, between speaking Shona and speaking English, between whiteness and blackness. Nyasha is also distraught at the idea of her cousin leaving. Nyasha’s eating disorder, to which the text has only alluded thus far, becomes evident when she confesses to Tambu that she makes herself vomit after eating:
I did it myself. With my toothbrush.
Unable to bear her father’s controlling nature, Nyasha suffers terribly. Tambu notes in distress that her cousin looks thinner every time Tambu returns to Umtali from the convent school, the weight seeming to drop from Nyasha “almost hourly.” In the last chapter, Nyasha exhibits “kamikaze behavior,” breaking mirrors and clay pots in a nervous fit. She then declares the identity crisis that has led her to this point in one of the most important passages of the novel:
Their history. Fucking liars. Their bloody lies. . . . They’ve trapped us. They’ve trapped us.
“They” refers to both men and colonizers. Nyasha, who is deemed too black in England and too white in Rhodesia, feels split under pressure. When her parents finally take her to a psychiatrist, the doctor downplays her disorder, saying that “Africans” cannot be ill in the way her parents have described. Though Nyasha finally finds a “human” white doctor who admits her to a rehab clinic, her fate is uncertain at the book’s end. However, Tambu’s resolve to heed Mainini’s words and not lose herself in “Englishness” has become stronger:
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.