Nervous Conditions Book summary

Tsitsi Dangarembga



“Nervous Conditions,” by Tsitsi Dangarembga, and first published in 1988, is the fictional story of the formative years of Tambudzai (generally referred to as “Tambu”), a native African girl growing up in a rural part of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Written in first-person perspective, as an adult reflecting upon her upbringing, the story focuses on the inner turmoil that Tambu struggles with during her childhood, as she recognizes disparities and unfairness due to racism and sexism, among other things.  


Plot Summary

The story opens with, “I was not sorry when my brother died.”   

The protagonist, Tambu, as she is known, experiences a life of abject poverty. As a child, she toils in the fields, performing difficult tasks at a very young age, as this is simply the way of life for the Shona people. Hard work is not to be questioned. As she develops into a young adult, however, she yearns for more than a life of poverty, difficulty, and subservience. She resents the patriarchal construct of the culture, which seems to be designed to prevent a female from pursuing the opportunities afforded males. She fears and resents the influence of white culture, as well, yet is drawn to it with a conflicting desire to receive education, even at the risk of unintended assimilation.   

While Tambu’s father is well known for his laziness and resultant financial failure, her uncle, Babamukuru, is quite the opposite. He finds the motivation and the means to leave Africa for a time in order to study in England. While doing so, his family--- wife, daughter, and son--- accompanies him. We learn later on in the book that to Tambu’s great surprise, her aunt Naiguru also earns a degree at the university.  

After five years abroad, Babamukuru and his family triumphantly return to Africa, now proudly able to claim university degrees, and prepared to reap the benefits. From the moment of the glorious return, Babamukuru achieves God-like status within his family, as he is the only male member of the family to have earned a degree. Babamukuru is promoted to headmaster of a Christian mission, where he is granted the benefits of a generous salary, a house with indoor plumbing, and not just one, but two automobiles. Once established, he agrees to host and sponsor Tambu’s older brother, Nhamo, as a student at the mission. As the only surviving male produced by Tambu’s parents, he is the natural choice to receive the education.  

Over the course of the next few months, Tambu notices troubling behavior from her brother, Nhamo, as his assimilation to the culture at the mission naturally results in the disintegration of his own roots. Nhamo rejects the native tongue in favor of using more English. He gloats frequently about how much more worthy of a person he is becoming, and how he no longer deserves this life of squalor afforded by the home he grew up in. All of this breeds deep resentment in Tambu, who wishes for the opportunity to become educated, but is resigned to the knowledge that the odds of this dream ever coming true are infinitesimally small.   

Tambu presents her educational goals to her parents. Her father scoffs at the idea, and scolds her for expecting him to pay for this folly. Tambu has come prepared for the argument, and replies that she will pay for own education, which her father mocks as silly. However, Tambu’s mother understands that Tambu is not easily dissuaded, so she suggests that Tambu be given the opportunity to try. She tells her husband that Tambu’s predicted failure will be the most effective way to teach Tambu that this dream of hers is impossible. This reasoning is enough for Tambu’s father to agree that if she pays the tuition, she may attend school.  

Tambu ambitiously works, growing extra crops on an unused plot on the family’s property, in the hope of selling the produce to tourists. Her plan is to eventually save up enough money to pay for formal education. She encounters some difficulties, including Nhamo’s theft of some of her crops, but eventually has enough to sell. In a stroke of good fortune, on her first attempt to sell at a tourist area, a wealthy white woman is outraged at the sight of a child working, and, believing she is witnessing the tragedy of child slavery, simply hands over a sum of money great enough to cover Tambu’s school expenses for many years to come.  

One day, Babamukuru arrives, bearing the terrible news that Nhamo had suddenly fallen ill while at the mission, and has died.  

After the mourning period has passed, Tambu realizes that her position is now assured as the child chosen to receive an education. Not only has she found the means to finance her education, but now, as the eldest sibling to two sisters, she is no longer outranked by a male sibling. She fully embraces the opportunity to pursue a better life through education.  

Tambu enrolls at the mission where her Babamukuru is the headmaster, and she lives in his home. Babamukuru’s daughter, Nyasha, is Tambu’s age, and while they’ve known each other for many years, only become close now, as they share a bedroom. A deep friendship develops, although there are still misgivings, doubts, and some lack of trust on Tambu’s part, as she feels that her cousin has sacrificed too much of her own culture and traditions in favor of, “Englishness.” 

Both girls are dedicated students, but Nyasha soon begins to exhibit the signs of teenage rebellion. Her interest in boys has increased, and she resents her father’s rules. While she remains dedicated to her studies, she is distracted by dancing, dress, and other English influences. This distraction is disturbing for Tambu to see, and she remains wary of her cousin, and becomes even more aware of the possibility of English influence upon herself.  

On a long Christmas break, the entire family returns to the village. Tambu does not want to go, as she has grown fond of the comforts of living at the mission. However, being ordered to do so, she returns to her parents’ home, only to find it even more wretched than she had remembered. She is disgusted by the filth and the disrepair of the house, and is not impressed with her father’s continued laziness.  

During this family reunion, unrest and bickering overshadow the stay. Relatives have personal complaints about others, and animosity flows freely. However, the resolution of conflict appears to be decided by the patriarchy, as males are to be obeyed. The men will sometimes accept information or even advice from female members of the family, but all final decisions and judgements are those of the men. Observing this sexist system only strengthens Tambu’s resolve to become educated and successful, in order to empower herself, and thus empower other women in her family and community.  

Tambu returns to the mission boarding school, and feels less and less motivation to return to her home. At the same time, she struggles with her desire to maintain her heritage, without losing it to the ways of the whites. She is disturbed by the behavior of Nyasha, as her cousin becomes more and more rebellious. Nyasha wears seemingly inappropriate clothes, speaks disrespectfully to her father, and smokes cigarettes. Towards the later chapters, she even develops an eating disorder in an effort to remain thin, a shallow value instilled in her by the white culture she has grown to embrace.

A few months after returning to school, she is accepted into a more sophisticated, more Westernized school, run by the Catholic Church. Her apprehension over the dangers of assimilation is eclipsed by her personal desire to succeed, and to overcome the constraints that a male, and white, dominated society have placed upon her. She knows that she must gain the education, in order to overcome, yet she remains ever wary of the dangers that threaten to rob her of her culture. Thus, her nervous condition is maintained, as she tries to walk the fine line between preserving her heritage, and boldly seeking freedoms.  


Throughout the book, we see the effects of gender-based inequalities gnawing at Tambu’s sense of fairness. She struggles to respect her culture, and fiercely believes in preserving it, but feels that the unfairness of male dominance is no longer acceptable. She is certain that she does not want to fall under this oppression for herself, but she is wary and unsure of how to resolve this contradiction.  

As the book progresses, we see colonialism taking its toll upon Tambu, as she sees the resulting loss of her heritage. She is torn between wanting a first-class education, and wanting to maintain her cultural beliefs. She struggles with the contradictory desires, and remains uncertain in how to approach them. She sees the acceptance of Western ways as a path to education and success, but she does not trust the people who have introduced this invasive culture to her land and her people.  

She witnesses the struggles of the women around her, as they deal with the conflicting cultures. She sees her mother living in a permanently destitute life of poverty, unable to do anything to become more comfortable. Her father is a lazy and aimless man, one with little motivation or energy, and yet her mother must remain submissive to him. Tambu sees her own cousin, once a happy child, devolve into a rebellious teenager with Western habits and values that do not align with Shona culture. Nyasha falls deeper and deeper into this state, as the two different cultures pull her in different directions, and as she defies her father’s authority. Eventually, she develops an eating disorder that almost takes her life. Tambu wonders how this conflict might damage her own self.  

Tambu witnesses all of these “nervous conditions,” and is herself, nervous. She vows to remain strong, and not to succumb to the culture that is a danger to her heritage… yet she also remains steadfast in her belief that the only way to escape poverty and to find happiness is through the education offered by the whites… the same whites who threaten her heritage, and whose history of humanitarianism has not always been benevolent.. She longs for the freedoms afforded by education and money, and yearns to bring her family into a better way of life. Without this, and its codependent assimilation, she will be condemned to a life of subservience to males, subservience to whites, and subservience to classes deemed better than her own.  

Other dichotomies that she deals with are how to resolve obedience with independence. This is a universally understood conflict that young people around the world are known to experience, and Tambu is no different. She sees her cousin, Nyasha, take her struggle for independence too far, resulting in negative consequences. Tambu wishes to find freedom, but not at that cost… nor does she wish to simply be unquestioningly obedient to her culture, to the “new” culture, or to all things deemed “societal norms.”  

Tambu struggles with further inner conflicts as she witnesses Babamukuru exhibit signs of imperfection before her. While she had previously viewed him as a near-perfect human, once she is granted access to the family home, she sees that this is not so. His kindness is often interrupted by boats of anger and rage, sometimes resulting in violence. Her belief that his values were progressive, and thus likely to support the feminist movement, are altered as she sees that while he fails to remain bound by many traditional beliefs, he still clings to the belief that males are superior to females. He insists upon obedience and subservience from his daughter and his wife, leading Tambu to a conflict over whether he deserves the respect and admiration previously afforded him.  

This change in perception regarding Babamukuru further fuels her inner conflict over obedience vs. independence. She realizes that obedience to an imperfect person--- or society, or tradition--- may not be the correct path to follow. It is determining when to follow, and when to deviate, that leads her to question everything, including her own long-held beliefs.   

Tambu deals with concern over memories. She watched disapprovingly as her brother seemed to lose all sense of his heritage, customs, and values as he became educated at the mission school. While she wishes to advance her own education, she still believes that to lose touch with her own culture and past would be a tragedy to be avoided… possibly at all cost.  

By the end of the book, her resolve grows stronger, yet her solutions are not yet clear. The pathway that she must take is not absolute, as the contradictions curse her with uncertainty. Her growing strength, as a young woman, is evidenced as she bases her decisions on more and more of her observations. She witnesses the effects on many others around her, and has seen examples of what to strive for, and of what to avoid. Unfortunately, no person she knows has taken a correct path, and she is thus determined to carve out a unique path for herself, one that will grant her the success and the freedom afforded by higher education, while not forcing her to lose her heritage. She experiences a “nervous condition” upon understanding that she alone must choose the correct balance of tradition vs. progression, submission vs.  assertiveness, and expectations from others vs. her own independence. While she does not yet have a clear picture of the path that she must take, she knows that success is the goal that she plans to pursue.  

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    Tsitsi Dangarembga
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 The Women's Press