Nervous Conditions

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Nervous Conditions




Nervous Conditions, a novel by Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga, was first published in 1988, and is currently available in a 2004 edition. Set over a period of about ten years, from the 1960s to the early 1970s, Nervous Conditions takes place in Zimbabwe before the country had attained official independence from Britain and while it was still known as Southern Rhodesia or simply Rhodesia. The novel is semiautobiographical; the author draws on her own experience of growing up in Rhodesia during that period. Nervous Conditions centers around the experience of several female characters as they either challenge, or come to terms with, the traditional patriarchal structure of their society. The young narrator, Tambu, must show great determination as she overcomes all the obstacles to her progress in life. She also has to learn how to understand, largely through the difficult experiences of her cousin Nyasha, the negative effects that British colonialism has had on her society.

One of the few novels written by a black Zimbabwean about this transitional time in Zimbabwe's history, Nervous Conditions gives valuable insight into the traditional life of the country's native Shona-speaking people. The novel is an important contribution to postcolonial literature, a term that refers to works by authors from countries formerly colonized by European governments.


Tsitsi Dangarembga was born in 1959 in Mukoto, in the African country then known as Southern Rhodesia, and now known as Zimbabwe. At the time, Rhodesia was a British colony. At the age of two, Dangarembga moved with her family to Britain, where she remained until she was six years old, after which she returned to Rhodesia and attended a missionary school in the city of Umtali, which is now called Mutare.

In the 1970s, Dangarembga returned to Britain, attending Cambridge University, where she studied medicine. However, Dangarembga became homesick in England and returned to her home country in 1980, the year in which Zimbabwe finally attained its independence from Britain. Dangarembga continued her education, studying psychology at the University of Zimbabwe and becoming active in the student drama club. She found she had a talent for writing plays, and a number of her plays were produced at the university. These included The Lost of the Soil (1983), which she also directed. Dangarembga then became involved in a theater group called Zambuko. In 1987, Dangarembga's play She No Longer Weeps was published in Harare.

Dangarembga had also developed an interest in writing prose fiction. In 1985, her short story "The Letter" was published in Whispering Land: An Anthology of Stories by African Women. Her major success followed three years later with the publication of her semi-autobiographical novel, Nervous Conditions, which was the first novel to be published in English by a black woman from Zimbabwe. It was published in England in 1988 and in the United States in 1989. In 1989, the novel won the African section of the Commonwealth Writers Prize.

Following this success, Dangarembga pursued an interest in film, studying film direction in Berlin at the Deutsche Film und Fernseh Akademie. Also during this period, Dangarembga made a documentary for German television. Then she made a film called Everyone's Child (1996), about the fate of four siblings after their parents die of AIDS. The film was another landmark in the cultural history of Zimbabwe, since it was the first feature film directed by a black woman in that country. Everyone's Child was shown at many film festivals around the world.

In 2006, Dangarembga published The Book of Not, a sequel to Nervous Conditions. As of 2008, Dangarembga lived in Harare, Zimbabwe.


Chapter 1

Nervous Conditions is set in the African country then known as Rhodesia in the early 1960s. The narrator and protagonist is a young black woman named Tambu, who looks back on her experiences as a child and adolescent. She begins by mentioning that she was not sorry when her elder brother Nhamo died in 1968, when she was thirteen. Since 1965, he had been attending a Protestant Christian mission school some twenty miles from the family's village. His English-educated uncle, Babamukuru, is the headmaster of the school and wanted Nhamo to attend it so he could have a good education and then raise his family up from poverty. But after Nhamo began attending the mission school, he did not like coming home, and he was reluctant to take on chores such as helping in the fields or with the livestock or firewood. The only times he would willingly help were when his uncle came to visit.

Tambu relates how she did not get along with her brother, who used to try to get his sisters, including the younger one, Netsai, to do errands for him. He felt he had more power and authority than they did. Tambu preferred life when he was not around but she felt guilty about her dislike of him. What she really disliked was the fact that her brother's education had received priority over her own. This was the norm in her family; the concerns of the males were considered more important than those of the females.

Chapter 2

Tambu tells of how the family is so poor soon after she starts school at the age of seven that they cannot afford the school fees. Her mother manages to scrape some money together by selling eggs and vegetables, but this is only enough to continue Nhamo's schooling. Disappointed, Tambu had to remain at home. Her father told her she should not mind since, as a girl, all she needed to know was how to cook and clean. Tambu protests, and refuses to give up her goal of going to school. She grows her own maize, hoping to sell it to raise money for school fees, but when the crop is ripe, her brother steals it. Furious, Tambu fights Nhamo during the games that take place after Sunday School. They are separated by the teacher, Mr. Matimba, who rebukes them both but then listens patiently to Tambu's story and offers to help her. Two days later, Mr. Matimba drives her to the city of Umtali in the school truck, where he helps her to sell her maize cobs on the street. An old white lady named Doris gives her ten pounds toward her school fees. Mr. Matimba suggests that she give the money to the headmaster of the school for safekeeping. Tambu's father is annoyed by this and claims that the money is his, since Tambu is his daughter.

Tambu goes back to school the following year and for the next two years she comes top in her class. During her second year, the big event in the family is the return of Tambu's uncle, Babamukuru, from studying in England.

Chapter 3

The extended family celebrates the return of Babamukuru, his wife Maiguru, daughter Nyasha and son Chido. Babamukuru is treated like returning royalty, but Tambu is upset because she is not allowed to go to the airport to greet her uncle because she is a girl. There is a big family meal, which Tambu helps to prepare, followed by dancing and singing. Tambu is disturbed by the fact that her cousins speak English most of the time and seem to have forgotten their native Shona.

A family discussion led by Babamukuru results in a decision to transfer Nhamo to the mission school so he can have the best education possible and later be able to provide for the family. Nhamo is thrilled by the news and regards himself as very important. Tambu is jealous, and they quarrel. As a result, Tambu no longer speaks to her brother. Instead, she tries to befriend her cousin Nyasha, who has changed as a result of her stay in England. Nyasha, however, is rather uncommunicative.

In November 1968, Nhamo is due to return home for a visit. But instead, Babamukuru returns with the news that Nhamo was taken ill and died within a few days, possibly of mumps. Babamukuru decides that Tambu should be given an opportunity to attend the mission school in Nhamo's place.

Chapter 4

Tambu is excited as her uncle drives her to the mission school. She is expecting to be transformed into a new person and is looking forward to living in greater comfort, since she will be in her uncle's house. She is very impressed by the grandeur of the white house, especially the large, elegant living room. Everything is such a contrast to the modest home she grew up in. Tambu's aunt, Maiguru, is gracious to her, offering her anything she might want in the way of food or drink. Nyasha is excited to see her cousin, which surprises Tambu. But Tambu also thinks that Nyasha speaks disrespectfully to her mother, and disapproves of her for it. The English-educated Nyasha appears glamorous to Tambu in a way she finds disturbing.

Chapter 5

Tambu shares a room with Nyasha, and they become friends. Tambu becomes fond of Nyasha, even though she does have her disagreements with her cousin. The first night of Tambu's stay, the family has supper together. Nyasha shows that she is unwilling to act submissively toward her parents, and she is dismayed because they have confiscated a novel she was reading because they thought it was unsuitable. She abruptly leaves the dinner table and returns to her room. Tambu is shocked to discover that Nyasha also smokes cigarettes.

Later that evening, Babamukuru gives a fatherly talk to Tambu. He tells her she is fortunate to have this opportunity to continue her education, and that it is not only for herself but also for her family, who would in the future be able to depend on her.

The next day, Tambu attends the mission school for the first time. She is fourteen years old. She excels at the school. She reads widely and is very diligent. The teachers like her, as do the students, who elect her as class monitor at the beginning of the third term. She continues to get to know Nyasha, who fascinates her, Anna the housegirl, who bores her, and her aunt Maiguru. Tambu is surprised to find out that Maiguru has a master's degree, and is disturbed that her aunt has sacrificed an independent career in order to support and look after her husband and family.

Chapter 6

Tambu discovers that she likes the white missionaries at the school, especially the young ones. She makes friends with Nyaradzo, a white girl who is the daughter of a missionary. Meanwhile, Chido, her other cousin, wins a scholarship to a multiracial private school in Salisbury, the capital city, and Nyasha excels at her exams. On the last night of the semester before she returns with her family for the Christmas vacation, Tambu, Chido, and Nyasha attend a dance at the mission. Tambu normally prefers going to debates and films, but to her surprise she enjoys the boisterous atmosphere of the dance. When they return home, Babamukuru is angry with Nyasha who has stayed out later than the others and for a while was alone outside with a boy. The two of them engage in a bitter argument, and Babamukuru, after accusing Nyasha of behaving like a whore, hits her twice across the face, knocking her to the floor. He hits her again and she fights back. He spits at her and disowns her as his daughter for challenging his authority. Nyasha walks out of the room. Within the next few days, Babamukuru gives his daughter a formal punishment of fourteen lashes, while her mother looks on. Tambu is sympathetic to the conflict Nyasha is experiencing, while Nyasha insists that her father has no right to treat her the way he does. Tambu admires her resilience.

Chapter 7

Tambu, her uncle, aunt, and Nyasha return home for two weeks at Christmas 1969. Tambu is shocked at how run-down the home in which she grew up now seems, since she has gotten used to living at the mission. At home, she is surprised to find her Aunt Lucia (her mother's sister), who has a reputation for loose morals, and Uncle Takesure, a distant cousin of Babamukuru's who is the father of Lucia's as-yet-wife unborn child, even though he already has a wife. Babamukuru despises them both and has ordered them to leave, but they have not responded to his request. Another aunt and uncle, Gladys and Thomas, are also present at the family reunion. It is crowded, with twenty-four people in all. Eight people sleep in the kitchen; some of the boys sleep in the back of a truck. Tambu and Nyasha work hard at all the domestic chores that are necessary, as does Maiguru.

During the vacation, Babamukuru and the other male members of the family demand to know of Takesure why he has not gone back to his own home. Takesure says that he would have done, but Lucia refused to go. Not admitted to the conference, Lucia is angry, fearing that her reputation is being slandered and she is being blamed for the situation. Maiguru refuses to offer an opinion, saying it is none of her concern, since Takesure and Lucia are not her relatives. This response angers Tambu's mother, who insults Maiguru after she has left the room and also lambastes her sister Lucia, accusing her of sleeping with her husband.

Lucia then overhears Takesure defaming her at the family conference, saying that she is a witch who wants to get Jeremiah, Tambu's father, to marry her. Furious, Lucia enters the house, drags Takesure to his feet, and has her say. She says that Jeremiah tried to seduce her and that she is going to leave the house, but she will take her sister, Tambu's mother, with her. Then Lucia walks out. As the family conference continues, there is some discussion about the general misfortunes of the family. Jeremiah wants to hold a cleansing ceremony involving the sacrifice of an ox, but Babamukuru declares that their troubles are due to the fact that Jeremiah has never been married in a church before God. He is therefore living in sin, and this must be remedied.

Chapter 8

The guests depart after the Christmas vacation. Lucia and Takesure remain for the time being. Lucia is ready to leave but says that she is waiting for her sister to decide whether she will come with her. Life returns to the normal routine and in a little while Tambu returns to the mission for the start of the new semester. In March, Tambu's mother has a baby boy in the mission hospital. Lucia says she wants to find a job so she can be more useful, and Babamukuru arranges for her to work as a cook at the girls' hostel. Lucia is elated. Tambu is very impressed by how her uncle manages his responsibilities to his family, but Nyasha thinks that women should not have to depend on men to help them out. In the last week of September, the church wedding of Tambu's parents takes place. Tambu, however, regards the wedding as ridiculous and refuses to attend. Babamukuru is furious at her for being disobedient. The day after the wedding he calls her into the sitting-room, tells her he is disappointed in her, and gives her fifteen lashes, one for each of her fifteen years. She is also made to take over the duties of Anna, the housemaid, for two weeks. Babamukuru's wife, Maiguru, rebels against her husband's domineering manner and leaves the home, going to stay with her brother. But after five days, she returns home.

Chapter 9

Some Catholic nuns come to the mission. They are recruiting two of the brightest students for scholarships to their rather elite, multiracial convent school, the Young Ladies College of the Sacred Heart. The girls sit an entrance examination, and Tambu excels and wins a scholarship to attend the school. She is excited because she knows that the convent offers a superior education. At first, however, Babamukuru refuses to allow her to go to the convent. He thinks her future is well provided for as things stand. But Maiguru wants her to attend the convent. Babamukuru eventually changes his mind and gives his permission so that Tambu can receive the finest education in the country. Tambu is overjoyed, but her mother is disappointed that her daughter will be going even farther away. Also, some of Tambu's friends at the mission act coolly toward her, resenting her success. Nyasha, however, says that she will miss Tambu. Nyasha continues to have conflicts with her father, and she develops an eating disorder.

Chapter 10

Babamukuru drives an excited Tambu to the convent for the start of her first term. Nyasha promises to visit, but she does not. However, she does write long letters, complaining that she feels like an outsider at her school. She also explains that she has not visited because Babamukuru will not permit it. Tambu does not see Nyasha again for several months, but when she does return on vacation she is shocked at how thin her cousin has become. Nyasha eats little, and after supper at night she goes to the bathroom and induces vomiting. One night she explodes in anger, tearing her books and breaking mirrors. Her parents take her to a psychiatrist, and Nyasha is put in a clinic for several weeks. Slowly, her condition improves. Tambu's mother blames all the trouble on the young people becoming too influenced by English ways, and she warns Tambu to be careful. Tambu takes the warning seriously and decides to no longer accept everything she is taught at the convent without questioning it.



Anna is the housemaid for Babamukuru and Maiguru.


Babamukuru is Tambu's uncle, he is married to Maiguru, and is head of the entire Sigauke clan. From an early age, Babamukuru was a hard worker and was also ambitious. He attended the Christian mission school and then received a government scholarship to study in South Africa. After that he won another scholarship, this time to study in England, where he attained a master's degree. He spent five years in England, from 1960 to 1965, with his wife and two children, Chido and Nyasha. When the story begins, Babamukuru is in a responsible position as headmaster of the mission school and is also Academic Director of the Church's Manicaland Region. He has a strong sense of duty and sees it as his responsibility to help ensure the prosperity of every branch of the Sigauke family. He also plays a leading role in mediating family disputes. A much-admired man, Babamukuru "inspired confidence and obedience. He carried with him an aura from which emanated wisdom and foresight." However, because he takes on a lot of responsibility he is often weighed down by it, becoming irritable and difficult to deal with. He is also a disciplinarian with an authoritarian attitude, especially toward his female dependents. He is used to be being obeyed and does not permit any argument. When Nyasha shows she is willing to stand up to him, he loses his temper and strikes her across the face and has to be restrained from hitting her again. He is disappointed that she does not behave exactly as he expects her to, and his relations with his daughter remain strained. Babamukuru gets along better with Tambu because she is more willing to accord him the respect he thinks he deserves as the head of the family, although he inflicts corporal punishment on her after she refuses to attend the wedding of her parents.


Chido is Tambu's cousin, the son of Babamukuru and Maiguru. Thanks to the intervention of a white benefactor, Mr. Baker, Chido wins a scholarship to a high-quality multiracial boarding school in Salisbury, where he makes friends with two white boys. After starting at the boarding school, he likes to spend his time with his friends rather than going back home for the holidays. Tambu describes Chido as "big, athletic and handsome," and he is confident with girls. He likes to tease Tambu and she enjoys it.

Aunt Gladys

Aunt Gladys, also referred to in Shona as Tete Gladys, is Tambu's aunt, her father's older sister. She is a large, formidable woman.


Jeremiah is Tambu's father. He is an amiable, agreeable but weak man who does not have the education or the ambition to lift his family out of poverty. He always defers to his brother Babamukuru, who has a much stronger personality. Jeremiah also likes to ingratiate himself with Babamukuru, who helped Jeremiah out financially, sending him money for his children's school fees. Although he is not a successful man, Jeremiah does possess a certain cunning. He is good at begging and getting other people to lend him money. He also has very traditional attitudes about the way things should be organized. He thinks that girls should stay at home and cook and clean rather than get an education, an attitude that irks Tambu.


Lucia is Tambu's aunt, her mother's sister. She is several years younger than Mainini, and is known for her beauty. Tambu describes her as a "wild woman." She is bold and physically strong. When she was young, she acquired a reputation for being promiscuous and was even called a witch by the villagers. After Mainini lost Nhamo and became pregnant, the still-unmarried Lucia was sent by her parents to help look after her. Lucia soon became pregnant by Takesure, and she also may have had sexual relations with Jeremiah. Eventually Lucia, who has more ambition than her passive sister, is given a job by Babamukuru as a cook at a girls' hostel, and she also enrolls in school. She has never been to school before and is proud of herself for achieving this goal. So Lucia manages to attain a measure of independence, which greatly pleases her.

Mainini Ma'Shingayi

Mainini, which means "mother" in Shona, is Tambu's mother. Her given name, which her husband sometimes uses, is Ma'Shingayi. Her family of origin was extremely poor, but she has not fared much better with Jeremiah, and her nineteen-year-old-marriage is not a happy one for her. For the most part, however, she is resigned to her fate and the restricted life of poverty she leads, and she counsels the young Tambu to accept her lot as a woman. Occasionally Mainini, who becomes pregnant with her third child, gives expression to her frustrations. She resents the fact that Maiguru is rich and educated and that, as a result, people pay more attention to her. Mainini even blames Maiguru for the death of her son Nhamo, saying that it happened because Nhamo was taken away from her and sent to the mission. Mainini fears she is losing Tambu for the same reason and thinks that Tambu now scorns her for her poverty.


Maiguru is Babamukuru's wife. She is an intelligent, educated woman, having earned a master's degree when she and her husband both studied in England. She works as a teacher at the mission school but has not pursued an independent career as fully as her qualifications would permit her to do. Maiguru always defers to her husband; she rarely offers an opinion of her own, since she places family harmony above self-assertion. Toward the end of the novel, however, she starts to chafe at the restrictions of her life and tells her husband she is not happy. She says she is tired of being a housekeeper for his relatives when they come to stay and tired also "of being nothing in a home I am working myself sick to support." This is one of the few occasions when she speaks up for herself. When her husband shows no interest in listening, Maiguru decides to walk out on him. She leaves the home for five days, staying with her brother, and when she returns she seems happier after her brief show of partial independence.

Mr. Matimba

Mr. Matimba is a teacher at the local elementary school. He helps Tambu by taking her to Umtali to sell her maize.


Netsai is Tambu's younger sister.


Nhamo is Tambu's older brother by one year. He excels at primary school even though he is one of the youngest students, coming top of the class two years running. He attends the mission school for three years, beginning in 1965. Nhamo is ambitious and intelligent, but he and Tambu do not get along well. She thinks he is puffed up with his own importance. He gets his sisters to run errands for him and, on one occasion, he beats Netsai with a stick. Tambu does not like him because of the ideas he acquires when he goes to the mission. In her eyes, Nhamo thinks he is superior simply because he is a boy; he deserves to have an education but his sister does not. After he steals her maize, Nhamo and Tambu have a vicious physical fight, and they continue to grow apart. Eventually, Tambu does not even speak to him because of what she regards as his elitist attitudes. Nhamo dies in 1968 after a brief illness, possibly mumps. Tambu does not mourn his death.


Nyasha is Tambu's cousin, the daughter of Babamukuru and Maiguru. She spends five of her early years in England with her parents, attending an English school. When she comes back to Rhodesia, she speaks more English than Shona, which Tambu finds disturbing. Nyasha remains thoroughly influenced by the sophisticated ways she picked up abroad. When she and Tambu become roommates at the mission school, Tambu admires Nyasha because she is unconventional and "glamorous in an irreverent way," but she is also wary of her because of Nyasha's more radical and rebellious nature. Nyasha, for example, reads books that her parents consider unsuitable, and she secretly smokes cigarettes; she definitely has a mind of her own, wants to act independently, and refuses to accept traditional gender roles. She sees no reason why women should always play a subservient role to men. Like Tambu, Nyasha is an excellent student and reads voraciously, anxious to inform herself about history and current affairs so she can develop her own opinions. "Everything about her spoke of alternatives and possibilities" is what Tambu says of her cousin.

Nyasha soon comes into conflict with her father because she talks back to him; she does not accept his absolute authority over her life, an attitude that infuriates him and results in a beating for her. Eventually Nyasha becomes so full of emotional conflicts connected with her need for independence from her authoritarian father that she develops an eating disorder. She eats very little and becomes weak and thin. When she forces herself to eat, she immediately goes to the bathroom and vomits the food up. Obstinate and rather idealistic, Nyasha refuses to compromise her views. She always wants to fight back and try to get her father to see things from her point of view rather than meekly accepting his.

Mainini Patience

Mainini Patience is Tambu's aunt, married for eight years to Babamunini Thomas. She still has some independence of thought, and she sides with Mainini in the family dispute about what to do with Lucia.


Rambanai is Tambu's youngest sister.

Uncle Takesure

Uncle Takesure is a distant cousin of Babamukuru's. He has two wives but it seems that he is happy with neither of them, since he jumps at the chance to leave them and help work on the land at Jeremiah's homestead. Shortly after he arrives, he makes Lucia pregnant. Babamukuru orders him to leave but he does not go. Takesure is an amiable scoundrel, dominated by the more aggressive Lucia.


Tambu, or Tambudzai, is the narrator of the story. She is the daughter of Mainini and Jeremiah, and is the sister of Nhamo. Tambu is a sensitive, highly intelligent girl who early in her life finds that being a girl deprives her of some of the privileges that are automatically enjoyed by boys. She resents the fact that, in her family, her education is less of a priority than that of her brother. But Tambu shows great enterprise and determination in growing her maize crop in order to sell it to raise money for her school fees. At an early age she decides not to let the limited expectations others have of her to affect her ability to forge the life she wants for herself. After her brother's death, Tambu is given the opportunity to attend the mission school, an opportunity that she makes the best of. A diligent and conscientious student, she eventually wins one of only two scholarships available to an elite multiracial convent, where she continues her education.

Tambu's nature is to be dutiful and respectful. She respects the authority of Babamukuru, her uncle, and is grateful to him for giving her educational opportunities. She regards him "as nearly divine as any human being could hope to be." In this she differs from Nyasha, who continually questions his authority and the traditional ways of doing things. Tambu's preference in life is for order, for things to be settled, and Nyasha's unconventional ways disturb her. However, Nyasha has a marked influence on Tambu.

Eventually Tambu learns not to take everything she is taught at face value but to evaluate it for herself. She describes this as "a long and painful process." Part of her growth comes when she plucks up the courage to defy her uncle and refuse to go to her parents' wedding, which she regards as a ridiculous spectacle. She begins to realize that the reverence with which she regards her uncle "stunted the growth of [her] faculty of criticism." By the end of the novel, therefore, she is well on the way to becoming a mature young woman, one who has had the courage and the perseverance to grow beyond the limited role that was prescribed for her in the poor rural family in which she grew up.

Babamunini Thomas

Babamunini Thomas is one of Tambu's uncles, the younger brother of Babamukuru and Jeremiah, married to Patience. He is trained as a teacher and, as a result, his family is well provided for.


Destructive Effects of Colonialism

Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was known during the time the story takes place, was a British colony. It was ruled by Rhodesian whites who traced their ancestries to England, and white Christian missionaries set up schools to provide a Western, Anglicized education for African children.

Although the novel does not centrally confront the issue of racism, it does contain many allusions to the destructive effects of colonialism on traditional African life. Tambu hears about the precolonial days from her grandmother, who refers to the whites as "wizards well versed in treachery and black magic," who forced the prosperous Africans, including Tambu's great-grandfather, off their land and into less fertile areas. Some of the Africans found themselves in virtual slavery, working on the farms of the whites. Others went south to work in the gold mines.

The whites do set up their mission schools to educate the Africans they rule over, but they have a paternalistic attitude toward their pupils. As Tambu comes to learn, "whites were indulgent toward promising young black boys in those days, provided that the promise was a peaceful promise, a grateful promise to accept whatever was handed out to them and not expect more." In other words, whites are helpful to blacks only on the condition that the blacks accept the status quo and do not threaten the whites' position of superiority.


  • Write an essay in which you analyze the way white people are portrayed in the novel. Are they hostile to blacks or sympathetic to them? Do they regard blacks as their equals? Have they brought anything of value to the country or is their presence entirely harmful?
  • Tambu comes of age during the period of Rhodesia's Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI). Research what this period was like in the history of the nation. Why was UDI declared? What course did the subsequent civil war take? How did the white minority government plan to hold on to power? What led to its eventual defeat? Make a class presentation based around a timeline of events ranging from 1965 to 1980.
  • Research the eating disorders of bulimia and anorexia, both of which afflict Nyasha. What causes eating disorders? Who suffers from them? What is the cure for them? Present your findings to the class.
  • Imagine that you are Tambu. Write a letter to Netsai, your younger sister, advising her about how to approach her life as a woman and how to deal with difficulties along the way. Based on your knowledge of the novel, is Netsai likely to have the same opportunities as Tambu? What pitfalls do you think Tambu would advise Netsai to avoid?

One problematic aspect of education by the missionaries is that it teaches the Africans to speak English rather than their native tongue, which in that region of the continent is Shona. This encourages the Africans to forget their origins and the traditional ways of their culture. This is the case with Nhamo, to the extent that his mother thinks someone at the mission has bewitched him. In the case of Nyasha, because she spent five of her early years in England, she has learned little of her own cultural tradition and is in effect alienated from her own people. This is why she is unpopular at the mission school, where the girls taunt her for thinking "she is white." Even her own mother thinks that Nyasha picked up "disrespectful ways in England" and no longer knows how to behave toward her relatives. Nyasha is herself aware of the situation and refers to herself and her brother, Chido, as cultural "hybrids." The divisions brought by the intrusion of foreign ways is well illustrated in the incident when Babamukuru enters the room as his family sit down to dinner. Babamukuru's wife greets him in Shona, Nyasha greets him in English, and Tambu greets him in a mixture of the two languages. At the end of the novel, Tambu's mother complains that the more time the African children spend in the Anglicized educational system, the more they are lost to their true selves, and this is a cause of deep distress to her.

Challenging Traditional Gender Roles

Tambu states clearly in the opening paragraph of the novel that her story is principally about herself and the other females in her life, and how they were either emancipated from the restrictions imposed by traditional gender roles or continue to be trapped by them. She and Lucia escaped, she says, while her mother and Maiguru did not. Nyasha rebelled, and because her rebellion has made her seriously ill, her ultimate fate hangs in the balance.

Of all the women, it is Mainini, Tambu's mother, who seems to fare the worst. Condemned to a life of poverty with a man she has no respect for, she is unable to influence the course of her life. No one listens to her because she is a woman. To give one example of many: when she complains that she does not want her son to be speaking English all the time, her husband tries to reassure her that he needs to receive an education. Mainini does not argue with him and says nothing more about it, but she remains unhappy and resentful about the way her wishes are always ignored.

Maiguru has the advantage of having had an education, and she lives a comfortable life in material terms, but she does not use all her talents and qualifications because she must first serve her husband. She rarely speaks up for herself, and even when she makes a belated bid for freedom by leaving home, she has nowhere to go and no means of supporting herself. She can only

show once more her dependence on men by staying for a few days with her brother.

The outspoken Lucia is less intimidated by the patriarchal structure of traditional society than the other women. She has not been enslaved by marriage and has never learned to be deferential to men. In a society where only men make the important decisions, she defies the rules by storming into a family conference that had been discussing her relationship with Takesure without even inviting her in to defend herself. By the end of the novel, Lucia has won some independence for herself and has started to go to school, but it is independence of a limited kind since she secured her job as a cook at the hostel only through the intervention of Babamukuru, the family patriarch.


First-Person Point of View

The story is told entirely from Tambu's point of view, in the first person. This means that nothing can be related that she does not either participate in directly or hear about from someone else. Also, information about all the other characters is filtered through her consciousness. Readers only know what Tambu knows about the other characters and therefore readers only see them through her eyes. What this means is that given Tambu's interest in gender issues, the male characters, especially Nhamo and Babamukuru, tend to get presented in an unflattering light. Babamukuru, for example, for all his accomplishments and sense of duty, comes across as a domestic tyrant. Given the author's decision about how the story is to be narrated, the reader cannot be given direct insight into Babamukuru's own thoughts, which might have made him a more sympathetic character. In contrast, the female characters, such as Tambu's mother, Lucia, Nyasha, and Maiguru, are presented with greater understanding of their plight. Had the story been told by an omniscient narrator in the third person, or by one of the male characters, the effect on the reader might have been quite different.


One of the themes of the novel is the loss of the native language Shona in favor of English, the language of the colonizers, and this theme is also reflected in the book's style. The English influence can be found of course in the fact that the novel itself is written in English, with British English spellings of words such as "apologise" (instead of the American "apologize"), and "mum" for the American "mom." The smattering of Shona words that occur throughout the text convey the fact that the language is disappearing. These words include "pada" and "nhodo," both referring to games played by the children, and "dare," a family conference. However, the fact that the characters, even the most Anglicized of them, refer to one another in forms of address rooted in Shona terms shows the survival of tradition in spite of colonialism. For example, "mukoma" refers to an older sibling of the same gender, which is why Jeremiah uses it to refer to Babamukuru. "Baba" is a term of respect used of a man who is also a father, and "Sisi," as Netsai refers to Tambu, is the Shona term for sister. "Tete" is Shona for aunt.


Rhodesia in the 1960s

Although the novel does not emphasize it, during the 1960s and 1970s, Rhodesia was in a long political crisis that set the stage for a civil war that only ended with independence in 1980. Southern Rhodesia, as the country was officially known, was a British colony that had been self-governing since 1923. Whites composed approximately 5 percent of the population but had all the political power. Blacks were not permitted to vote. However, as Britain gradually granted its African colonies independence, the pressure for establishing majority black rule grew. Britain insisted that no independence would be granted without majority rule. This led the white government of Rhodesia to make what was known as a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in November 1965. In the novel, only Nyasha takes any interest in UDI, wanting to know "why UDI was declared and what it meant."

Neither Britain nor any other nation in the world formally recognized Rhodesian independence. Britain regarded the UDI as an act of treason, dismissed the Rhodesian government, and imposed economic sanctions. The United Nations also imposed sanctions. Rhodesia received limited support from South Africa, at that time also ruled by a white minority government. In 1970, Rhodesia, which had until then claimed to be loyal to the British Crown, declared itself a republic.

In the early 1970s, the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) based in Mozambique and led by Robert Mugabe, and the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU), based in Zambia and led by Joshua Nkomo, began a guerrilla war aimed at overthrowing the white minority regime. During the 1970s, the position of the Rhodesian government became progressively weaker, and in 1979, negotiations took place in London to end the war. In 1980, the country became the independent Republic of Zimbabwe, with Mugabe installed as president.

Postcolonial Literature

Nervous Conditions is an example of what is called postcolonial literature, meaning literature written by authors from mostly African and Asian nations that were former colonies of the European powers, such as Britain, France, Belgium, and Portugal. Such works often foreground the indigenous culture of the nation that was devalued, and sometimes almost obliterated, by the colonizers. Often the characters in postcolonial literature must deal with their sense of possessing a dual identity, having absorbed much of the colonial culture at the expense of their own. Nyasha in Nervous Conditions would be an example of this. Postcolonial literature, according to Peter Barry in Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory, goes through three stages, beginning with the adoption of European models of literature and writing within that tradition. The second stage is when the writer "aims to adapt the European form to African subject matter, thus assuming partial rights of intervention in the genre." The final stage is when the postcolonial writer uses forms and genres native to his or her own culture, without feeling the need to defer to European standards. Nervous Conditions would belong in the first and second categories, since it is written largely in the form of a traditional coming-of-age story in Western literature, but the setting is entirely African and some importance is attached to traditional African culture.


  • 1960s: Rhodesia declares unilateral independence from Britain in 1965 and tries to preserve white minority rule.

    1980s: The newly independent Republic of Zimbabwe establishes black majority rule for the first time, under the leadership of President Robert Mugabe. Although Mugabe promises that change will be gradual and minority rights respected, about two-thirds of the white population leaves the country during the 1980s.

    Today: Economic mismanagement by the government, including a land redistribution program that began in 2000, has impoverished the country. According to the CIA World Factbook, the inflation rate was 585 percent in 2005, and nearly 1,000 percent in 2006. The number of whites in the country has fallen to less than 1 percent of the population.

  • 1960s: Because Rhodesia is ruled by a white-minority government, blacks are mostly excluded from government schools. Christian mission schools take up the challenge of educating black children, but are only able to admit a fraction of the children who are in need of an education.

    1980s: After Zimbabwe wins its independence, many of the Christian mission schools are taken over by the government.

    Today: Because of the continuing economic crisis in Zimbabwe, many of the church schools that the government took over following independence have been returned to the churches. Christian schools, the majority of them run by the Roman Catholic Church, account for one-third of the schools in the nation.

  • 1960s: In Rhodesia, African women are restricted in their rights, not only by the government, but also by the traditional patriarchal structure of African society. Women do not enjoy equal opportunities in either education or employment.

    1980s: Following independence, the government of Zimbabwe officially advocates more rights for women, creating the Ministry of Community and Cooperative Development and Women's Affairs in 1981. This agency works toward eliminating discrimination against women.

    Today: Zimbabwe is in a continuing economic crisis and the government represses human rights. According to a report by Amnesty International in 2007, women's groups are at the forefront of the movement to defend human rights, but many women who peacefully protest government policies are arrested and detained.


Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions attracted considerable favorable attention from reviewers when it was first published in 1988. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly calls it a "skillful" beginning to Dangarembga's writing career and notes that Tambu shows "an uncanny and often critical self-awareness" as she challenges the role she is expected to adopt as a woman. The reviewer concludes that the novel is "a resonant, eloquent tribute to" her family. Charlotte H. Bruner, writing in World Literature Today, gives another positive response to the

novel, which "provides a fresh and original treatment of themes common to some earlier African novels." Commenting on the characters of Tambu and Nyasha, Bruner writes that "with considerable humor and insight, [Dangarembga] makes their crises of self-fulfillment in today's Zimbabwean world the focus of her novel." The reviewer's conclusion is that Dangarembga's "excellent style and power of characterization make the book outstanding."

For P. Alden, writing in Choice, the novel is "an important addition to the female bildungsroman." ("Bildungsroman" is a German term referring to a novel that shows the protagonist growing from childhood to maturity.) In Alden's view, Dangarembga "combines complex analysis of ideological pressures with insight into the formation of adolescent personality." The novel also possesses some "finely comic scenes, as when the family patriarchy attempts to sit in judgment on Tambu's rebellious and pregnant aunt Lucia."


  • Dangarembga's The Book of Not: A Sequel to Nervous Conditions (2006) continues Tambu's story as she lives at the convent boarding school and further encounters the problems in Rhodesia created by colonialism.
  • Zimbabwe: The Rise to Nationhood (2006), by economist Jacob W. Chikuhwa, is a comprehensive history of Zimbabwe that goes from prehistory to the present. The book presents detailed analysis of the Unilateral Declaration of Independence in the 1960s, the guerrilla war that followed, and the emergence of the modern republic of Zimbabwe in the 1980s. The book includes maps, illustrations, a glossary, and an index.
  • Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is set in the late 1960s during the three-year civil war in Nigeria caused by the desire of the Igbo people in eastern Nigeria to secede and form the independent nation of Biafra. The epic story is told partly through the eyes of a thirteen-year-old boy who is conscripted into the Biafran army, and is partly told by his twin sisters.
  • Changes: A Love Story (1993), by Ghanian-born writer Ama Ata Aidoo, takes a sometimes-satirical look at the attempt of two contemporary African women, Esi and Opokuya, to balance their feminist aspirations for successful careers with their obligations to their husbands and families, who are less than sympathetic to their ambitions. This is an African novel with a theme that will be easy for Western readers to understand.


Bryan Aubrey

Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English. In this essay, he discusses Nervous Conditions as a coming-of-age story, a critique of colonialism, and a protest against patriarchal society.

Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions is at once a coming-of-age story, a critique of colonialism, and a protest against a traditional patriarchal society that predates colonization. The book's most important theme is the development of Tambu, the story's adolescent narrator. Tambu is a semi-autobiographical figure who reflects Dangarembga's own experience of growing up in Southern Rhodesia in the 1960s and early 1970s. The Anglicization and alienation of Tambu's cousin Nyasha is also an important theme in the novel.

As the first novel written in English by a black woman from Zimbabwe, Nervous Conditions gives a fascinating picture of traditional rural and familial life in that country during the last decade or so of white minority rule. Tambu grows up in poverty, in a house without running water or electricity. She relates how the children would wash themselves in coldwater in an enamel basin or in the nearby river; light at night was provided by candles and home-made paraffin lamps. In their homestead, the trappings of modern life, even down to knives and forks, were absent. People would eat using their fingers. Tambu also got used to hard physical work at an early age, rising at dawn with the rest of the family to work in the fields.

However, Tambu's upbringing was not an unhappy one, since the extended family structure of the Sigauke clan is a strong one, and the description of the family gathering when Babamukuru returns from England in 1965, when Tambu is still only ten years old, gives valuable insight into the rituals and traditions of this Shona-speaking African family. As Tambu carries the water dish for people to wash their hands, she has to make sure that she knows everyone's status in the family hierarchy, because she must first give the bowl to those who are highest in seniority and then move down to those with progressively lower status. At first she makes a mistake, kneeling before her uncle Babamukuru, who is the most educated of the family and its de facto leader. But seniority is ascribed by age, so she should first have gone to her grandfather Isaiah, the oldest member of the family, and then to all her male relatives in order, before doing the same with her female relatives, beginning with her grandmothers and then her aunts. The family relationships are complicated and Tambu gets confused: "This uncle was that uncle's tezvara by virtue of his marriage to that one's sister, but also his brother because their mothers were sisters." ("Tezvara" is a Shona word that means father-in-law.)

Only later, after Tambu starts to attend the mission school and lives at Babamukuru's house, does she become ashamed of the humble family home that she returns to visit during vacations. By this time, as all adolescents do, she has begun to develop a more mature understanding of how the world works, and she perceives the main obstacle to her happiness and success to be the firm structures of the patriarchy that prevent female advancement. This is not an entirely new thing for her to realize, since at a very early age she was counseled by her mother to learn to accept the burdens that she would inevitably carry as a woman. For Tambu's mother, being a woman involved making sacrifices for the family; her daughter should not even think of getting an education. And being black, according to her mother, would ensure her poverty. But Tambu is determined not to let such obstacles hold her back. It is interesting that, even though she can have had no knowledge of the second wave of the feminist movement that was at that time (the mid- to late 1960s) beginning to have a large impact on Western culture, she nonetheless conceived the same goals that Western feminists were calling for: that she should be allowed to live the life she wants for herself, in accordance with her talents, abilities, and inclinations, rather than have a life prescribed for her by what may well have been centuries of tradition—certainly it was not introduced by the white colonizers—in which the male will dominated female lives.

Tambu, it must be said, is one of the fortunate ones. Although she had admirable determination, intelligence, and common sense, as well as an ability to analyze her own experiences, she must have been one of only a few African girls from a poor rural background in Rhodesia who were able to overcome the many obstacles to their progress, including, in Tambu's case, the indifference of her mother and father to her education. There is also an irony attached to Tambu's educational career because she is in fact helped along her way by patriarchal influence—that of her English-educated uncle, Babamukuru, who, despite his authoritarian ways does not seem to have any prejudices about education for women. Later, through her outstanding scholastic achievements, Tambu is admitted to a white-run convent with high educational standards. Thus she is eventually helped out by the very structures—patriarchal, colonial—that have otherwise failed to acknowledge women's rights and ambitions outside the home, and have also in a sense divided the black Africans in Rhodesia from themselves by ensuring that many of them develop a dual cultural identity.

If Tambu has a relatively smooth path of advancement in life, largely because of her deferential attitude toward her uncle, who is her benefactor, the same cannot be said of the spirited Nyasha, her cousin. It is Nyasha who has the daring to challenge the patriarchal structure of Rhodesian society directly in the family, where the patriarchal influence begins and manifests itself most forcefully. The scene in which father and daughter become so enraged with each other that they come to blows, with Babamukuru losing all control and having to be restrained after his own daughter punches him in the eye, is the most dramatic in the entire novel. Nyasha differs from Tambu partly in the fierceness of her temperament, which makes her less willing to compromise, and partly in the fact that, unlike Tambu, she spent five of her most formative years in England.

The Anglicization of Nyasha, as well as that of her brother, Chido, raises the important issue of colonialism. Rhodesia at the time of the novel was a self-governing colony of Britain, but those who ruled it were the white minority who possessed strong cultural and kinship ties to England. Colonialism, as practiced by the European powers in some cases up to the second half of the twentieth century, had negative consequences for the colonized population. One of the first books to bring attention to this, and which effectively began the practice of postcolonial literary criticism, was The Wretched of the Earth, by Frantz Fanon, published in 1961, which took as its subject the French colonization of Africa. The title of Nervous Conditions is taken from this book, and Dangarembga uses a passage from it as an epigraph for her own novel. Fanon urged colonized people to recover a sense of their own cultural history and identity, which is usually obliterated by the colonizers who, in effect, teach that the history of the colonized country began with their arrival. All civilization and progress is presented as the result of what the colonizers have brought. It is interesting in this respect that Rhodesia was named after the British businessman and politician Cecil Rhodes, who in the late nineteenth century acquired the territory (including modern-day Zambia) for the British Crown. The naming of the territory after a white businessman who was interested in exploiting its material resources might well be seen as an arrogant assertion of colonial power and an invalidation of the true nature and history of the country, which pre-dates the coming of the British by thousands of years.

The problem for Nyasha is that she is so Anglicized—by the time she spent in England, and by the British-designed education she has received at the Christian mission school—that she has no knowledge of her own cultural traditions. She is trying to find a way for herself, fighting against the authoritarian rule of her father, but with no firm moorings, no path laid out for her in life. She does not fit in with the other girls at the mission school. As she writes to Tambu: "They do not like my language, my English, because it is authentic and my Shona, because it is not!" This shows the irony of her position. Her native language, Shona, now seems inauthentic to her, and the language of the colonizer, English, has become her natural way of communicating. Tellingly, in the same letter, Nyasha informs Tambu that she is beginning a diet, and when Tambu next sees her she is looking thin. The desirability of slimness in a woman is a largely Western ideal, so it is significant that Nyasha adopts it as her goal. The illness she develops is anorexia, which again is something that afflicts Western women and must have been very uncommon in Rhodesia, especially for black Rhodesians in the early 1970s. But Nyasha also shows sufficient historical awareness to understand what has happened to her and her country, and to be angry about it. In a rage she tears up one of her history textbooks, calling it "their history…. Their bloody lies," and adding: "They've trapped us. But I won't be trapped." She succinctly describes her own situation when she tells her father: "I'm not one of them but I'm not one of you." There, in a nutshell, is the postcolonial conflict: people of the colonized nation become divided against themselves, fully belonging to neither culture, but, at least in Nyasha's case, determined to forge their own path.

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on Nervous Conditions, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.

Carolyn Martin Shaw

In the following excerpt, Shaw compares the feminist threads in Nervous Conditions to those in Dangarembga's play She No Longer Weeps.

… In the case of the novel, though the female characters learn from each other, each woman is expected to act in accord with her own sense of integrity, to honor her own belief and conscience, and to speak up, if not for her own ends, then because her sense of self demands it. I suggest that this representation of feminist consciousness in Nervous Conditions could be seen as a paean to Audre Lorde, who in her essay "The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action," famously said, "Your silence will not protect you" (41). In Nervous Conditions, women and girls fail to contain themselves; they speak out. But speaking out in and of itself is not a surefire solution to the problem of sexism. Lorde never suggested that it was, but rather that using language to define oneself, to act with integrity, and to recognize the power within oneself are all crucial to women engaged in life-threatening battles. Dangarembga does not parrot this slogan, but examines and interrogates it. Speaking out does not automatically bring victory, as is made apparent through Tambu's disassociative state and Nyasha's anorexia-bulimia. With these acts, Dangarembga probes the limits of Lorde's dictum. While speaking up may confirm agency by its very intonement, Dangarembga's use of Lorde reveals both the vulnerabilities of speaking up as well as its power. Silence will not protect you; but speaking, in and of itself, does not redress gender inequality. Yet despite persistent obstacles, Dangarembga's protagonists work with personal integrity toward "the transformation of silence into language and action."

Two other important elements of 1980s feminism were best articulated by Audre Lorde: "the master's tools can never dismantle the master's house"—replacing men with women without changing patriarchal structures is not liberating—and "the erotic as power"—the celebration of feelings, of the erotic, as a means of liberation for women and society (Lorde 110-13; 53-59). The narrator of Nervous Conditions understands that the master's tool are double-edged, but Mainini, Tambu[']s beleaguered mother, feels this most deeply as she blames "the Englishness" for killing her son and taking her daughter away from her. By remembering her grandmother and the women and girls whose story she tells in the novel, Tambu, as the adult narrator of the novel, argues against Lorde's maxim, "the master's tools can never dismantle the master's house." Like her grandmother, Tambu believes that she can and should harness the master's power, in this instance, education in English. She can continue her education in Mission schools and not be destroyed by "the Englishness." Rather she sees writing the novel itself as a part of her own (and by implication) other women's liberation.

Without falling into a hackneyed dichotomy of male is to mind as female is to feeling, Lorde exhorts women to see "living as a situation to be experienced and interacted with, we learn more and more to cherish our feelings, and to respect those hidden sources of our power from where true knowledge and, therefore, lasting action comes" (37). The narrator's memory of the luxuriousness of Tambu's dance movements, her celebration of her aunt Lucia's sexual appetite, and representation of Nyasha's desire for bodily pleasure all suggest a well-spring of erotic power that can fuel social change.

She No Longer Weeps, written before the novel, helps the reader to appreciate the undercurrents of Nervous Conditios. The following passage from the play, Martha to her mother, is a clear example of the powers of the erotic:

I don't want to feel ashamed of myself because my mind is free—it's the celebration rather than marriage that becomes the important thing. I like to feel my life in every cell of my body-pleasure and pain, pleasure and pain, pleasure and pain … I like to shudder with pleasure, and sob with desire … (SNLW 31; ellipsis added).

Martha in She No Longer Weeps and Nyasha in Nervous Conditions both show desire for bodily pleasure, but the ontogeny of this desire is not developed in either work. The desire is strong and seemingly socially productive, given its associations with the other progressive causes each young woman embraces. Their feminism is not a liberal feminism that would establish equality of access and opportunity, but it includes recognition of women as out-spoken, pro-active, and lusty. She No Longer Weeps differs from Nervous Conditions in that the play begins with a feminist protagonist. Though the convention-shattering opening line of Nervous Conditions suggests a woman-centered consciousness, the work of the novel is to show how that consciousness was developed. From early on in the play, Martha's stakes in feminism are clear and her explicit goals are quite congruent with those that I am using Audre Lorde to represent. Martha wants women to define themselves outside of their relations to men; she wants to capture the power of the erotic for the new Zimbabwe; she wants to make the personal political; and she wants women to have control over their own bodies, their labor, and their children.

Naming male power "patriarchy" and recognizing its roots as widespread in society and culture were major achievements of the second wave of feminism in the 1970s and 1980s. In this regard, Dangarembga's use of the term "the patriarchy" in Nervous Conditions is a sign of her engagement with Western feminism. She employs this term to describe the men and women responsible for making decisions for the Sigauke clan. Is there a Shona word that she could have used? Not to put too fine a point on an old debate in language and culture, but to what extent is this group's salience marked in the culture by a distinctive linguistic term? I put this question to a linguist at the University of Zimbabwe in the African Languages and Literature Department, who answered in two parts. First, on the inclusion of women in the patriarchy, he noted that women in positions of authority over the speaker, especially father's sisters, can be addressed as baba, the Shona term for father. Secondly, there is no distinctive term for "the patriarchy," but he gave a Shona sentence that summarizes patriarchal practices, which he translated as follows: Customs that give anyone perceived as being in one[']s father's or husband's line respect or higher status (Mashiri, personal communication). More generally, Masasire (43) indicates that such a group might be called Vana Vanyamunhu, children of one man. In Nervous Conditions, this one man would be the narrator's grandfather, whom we know of only through the grandmother's stories.

Father's sisters (paternal aunts) by all accounts then are in "the patriarchy." My experience in Zimbabwe, in the 1980s and two decades later, corroborates Dangarembga's impression of the place of power of father's sisters, who are typically called by an honorific that distinguishes them from mother's sisters. And true to the portrayal in Nervous Conditions, I noted that a brother's wife is often an underappreciated handmaiden to her husband's sisters. Dangarembga's use of the term "the patriarchy" picks up on the one familial position in which women have the most power in Shona society and underscores that it comes by virtue of patrilineal descent. Representing this patrilineal group as male and female shows the subtlety of Dangarembga's knowledge of her own culture, while using "the patriarchy" to nominate it signals the influence of Western feminism.

Also embedded in Nervous Conditions, and more explicitly in She No Longer Weeps, is a call for social recognition of the value of women's labor, whether in the farms and homes of the rural areas or the schools, offices, and homes in the townships. A socialist feminist approach to women and production holds that if women had power and authority over their labor, both production and reproduction, then they would have commensurate power and position in their societies. Several critics have noted Dangarembga's portrayal of women's work in her novel (Andrade 28; Creamer 352-53, and Wixson 223): women find value in the labor itself, whether turning out a family feast or working as a teacher, but that labor is not esteemed by the men in the family. Moreover, working women's wages are often controlled by men. Turning from productive labor to reproductive labor, Dangarembga seems to hold that if women had ultimate power and authority over their children, patriarchy would diminish, if not dissolve. Calling on women to do just that, in She No Longer Weeps,Martha says,

So we women must be strong and give the men nothing. They should not even be allowed to see the children otherwise they will in their simplemindedness be happy because they can have the pleasure without the responsibility. It is up to us women. We must take sole responsibility for everything we produce. (SNLW 49)

Dangarembga's choice of the term "produce" is deliberate. Part of her process of being "conscientized" during the early postcolonial period was to study the rhetoric of socialism: "with all this rhetoric going on about socialism: I didn't know much but at least I could listen to the rhetoric and read all the correct texts to make my own decision as to what I thought about these people who were giving out these phrases and this jargon" (Veit-Wild 105). The above passage from the play echoes 1980s' debates in Zimbabwe, which had hollowly declared itself a socialist state, with little change in the relations of production in the country. During the first five years of independence, Zimbabwean intellectuals promulgated scientific socialism, but no socialism took root. The constitution negotiated at independence maintained much of the colonial economy, including ownership of land and industry. The socialist agenda was left to be reached through under-funded cooperatives and re-settlement schemes. The redistribution of resources from the colonial rulers to the masses could not (and would not later) take place …

Source: Carolyn Martin Shaw, "‘You Had a Daughter, but I Am Becoming a Woman’: Sexuality, Feminism and Postcoloniality in Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions and She No Longer Weeps," in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 38, No. 4, Winter 2007, 18 pp.

Kwame Anthony Appiah

In the following foreword to Nervous Conditions, Appiah argues that, unlike most African novels,this story is not specifically addressed to a Western reader. Instead, the novel is written in such a way as to make it universally accessible.

‘I was not sorry when my brother died.’

What an arresting first sentence! As readers (whether or not we come from Zimbabwe, the setting of this novel) we respond to these words in the light of the knowledge that the speaker, like the author, is a woman. Isn't there something especially shocking—something inhuman, unnatural—in a sister's coldness in the face of a brothers'[sic] death? Reactions such as these are plainly anticipated, for the book continues:

Nor am I apologising for my callousness, as you may define it, my lack of feeling. For it is not that at all. I feel many things these days, much more than I was able to feel in the days when I was young and my brother died, and there are reasons for this more than the mere consequence of age. Therefore I shall not apologise but begin by recalling the facts as I remember them that led up to my brother's death, the events that put me in a position to write this account.

This is a first-person narrative, addressing the reader in the second person. And since, of course, the narrator knows nothing of you and me, it is natural to ask: Who is it that ‘may define’ our protagonists as callous? To whom, in other words, does our protagonist decline to apologize?

Well, to answer that question I must say a little more about our protagonist and her story. She is Tambudzai—Tambu for short—and we learn swiftly that her uncle is headmaster of the mission school in Umtali, to which he has taken her brother for his education. There her brother learns to despise the village, just as he had learned in the village to despise his sisters.

Understanding that her brother's education is a way out and up, and knowing that her uncle's wife, Maiguru, has completed an education abroad, Tambu begins to ask her father why she, too, cannot be educated. He replies, ‘Can you cook books and feed them to your husband?’ And Tambu goes to complain to her mother:

‘Baba says I do not need to be educated,’ I told her scornfully. ‘He says I must learn to be a good wife. Look at Maiguru,’ I continued, unaware how viciously. ‘She is a better wife than you.’

My mother was too old to be disturbed by my childish nonsense. She tried to diffuse some of it by telling me many things, by explaining how my father was right because even Maiguru knew how to cook and clean and grow vegetables. ‘This business of womanhood is a heavy burden,’ she said. ‘How could it not be? Aren't we the ones who bear children? When it is like that you can't just decide today I want to do this, tomorrow I want to do that, the next day I want to be educated! When there are sacrifices to be made, you are the one who has to make them. And these things are not easy; you have to start learning them early, from a very early age. The earlier the better so that it is easy later on. Easy! As if it is ever easy. 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.’

But Tambu is not persuaded, preferring to ask for seed to grow maize to sell at the market, so that she can pay the fees that her father will not pay.

This struggle for learning is transformed when her brother is carried away by disease. Because she has no other brothers, education into a Western modernity is suddenly available to Tambu, the oldest girl. The situation is very clearly set up: the brother's death is the condition of the sister's emancipation. From now on we watch as Tambu, grateful to her Western education for her transformation from a peasant girl to an educated ‘sophisticate,’ struggles to integrate the moral order of her village upbringing with a constantly growing sense of the injustice of her position as a woman. This developing awareness is driven not only by her own experience but by the lives of the women around her: her mother, fatalistic and self-giving; her uncle's wife, an educated woman frustrated by her husband's inability to respect her opinions; her mother's sister, an adult who follows her own way, negotiating between Tambu's father and her lover.

And through this process of discovery, Tambu is guided by her cousin, Nyasha, whose experiences in England (where both her parents acquired their post-graduate degrees) have forever alienated her vision: Nyasha rejects the absoluteness of her father's claims to authority and believes that her educated mother is wasting herself as the helpmate of her domineering father. Yet Nyasha's resistance has a price: In her search for bodily perfection (conceived of in a most un-Shona way in terms of an ideal of thinness) she becomes first bulimic and then anorexic, ending up in the hands of a white psychiatrist in Salisbury.

Tambu's mother, Mainini, has a diagnosis:

‘It's the Englishness,’ she said. ‘It'll kill them all if they aren't careful …’

The anxiety that her mother may be right worries Tambu for a few days. True, she has triumphed again, receiving one of the two places in the highly competitive (and largely white) convent school of the Sacred Heart, where she is being trained by nuns. And she enjoys its challenges, and is looking forward to returning. But she has nights of bad dreams about her dead brother and about Nyasha and Nyasha's brother, who have both ‘succumbed’ to Englishness. Finally, however, she ‘banishes’ the suspicion that the Englishness she is acquiring at the convent will place her, too, in a nervous condition.

There is a common critical view that the modern African novel is implicitly addressed to a Western reader. Here, according to that familiar response, is what we might call a ‘safari moment’: a Zimbabwe constructed for the moral and literary tourist. The story I have sketched seems too easy for us to enter into; shouldn't the life of a Shona village girl be harder for us to make sense of? And doesn't its accessibility undermine its claim to speak authentically in a Zimbabwean voice?

To approach an answer let us start with the fact that Tsitsi Dangarembga's novel lacks the telltale marks of an author addressing an Other from Elsewhere. The Shona vocabulary, including the titles assumed by various members of the family, the food, and the greetings are not presented with an explanatory gloss. Indeed, the author goes to considerable lengths to make it plain that Tambu, far from addressing a Western Other, is not even particularly at ease with that Other. ‘Another thing that was different about the mission was that there were many white people there.’ So begins Chapter Six. And later on the same page:

Today there are fewer white people on the mission. They are called expatriates, not missionaries, and can be seen living in unpainted brick houses. But they are deified in the same way as the missionaries were because they are white so that their coming is still an honour. I am told that whether you are called an expatriate or a missionary depends on how and by whom you were recruited. Although the distinction was told to me by a reliable source, it does not stick in my mind since I have not observed it myself in my dealings with these people.

These are not the words of a character talking to an Other; indeed, though Dangarembga's irony here presupposes a reader who knows, unlike Tambu, how to use the words ‘expatriate’ and ‘missionary’—and thus draws attention to the possibility that it will be read by a foreign reader—this is a passage that is not exactly friendly to that reader.

As important as these signs in Tambu's language of her distance from a reader from ‘outside,’ is the fact that the central moral issue of the book—the question of how the postcolonial Western-educated woman and her sisters, daughters, mothers, and aunts, peasants or workers, wage earners or wives, shall together find ways to create meaningful lives, escaping the burdens of their oppression as women, but also as black people, as peasants, and as workers—does not directly concern Euro-American readers, whether women or men, because this question is so richly embedded in a context those readers do not know. Dangarembga's novel assumes that these concerns, which arise from that specific situation, are shared in an immediate and concrete way between the protagonist and her silent and invisible hearer, the ‘you’ to whom Tambu speaks.

Nevertheless, while not specifically addressed to a Western readership, the problems of racial and gender equity the text raises are not in any way unfamiliar to us. Our narrator never suggests that her readers, whoever they may be, should judge her life by standards different from their own: despite the distancing of her first paragraph—‘Nor am I apologizing for my callousness, as you may define it’—she does not presuppose that she lives in a separate moral sphere. She challenges us to hear the story that leads up to her brother's death because she believes that once we have heard it, we—whoever we are—will not find her callous or unfeeling.

Tsitsi Dangarembga writes with the confidence that the story she has to tell will make sense to readers from many places, with many preoccupations, and that she can tell it without betraying the authenticity of Tambu's voice. Tambu has not been shaped to make her accessible to any specific audience, whether inside Zimbabwe or outside. She is fully imagined: a character who reveals her concerns as she tells her story, with all the details specific to its time and place. Because that world is made real in the language of the novel, it does not matter if you know nothing at all of Zimbabwe's cultures, politics, and history. Everything you need waits for you in Tambu's narration.

Each novel is a message in a bottle cast into the great ocean of literature from somewhere else (even if it was written and published last week in your home town); and what makes the novel available to its readers is not shared values or beliefs or experiences but the human capacity to conjure new worlds in the imagination. A fully realized novel provides readers with everything they need for their imaginations to go to work. It is because the world Tsitsi Dangarembga opens up in this novel is so fully realized, so compelling, that Tambu has found so many friends in so many places around the planet.

Source: Kwame Anthony Appiah, "Foreword," in Nervous Conditions, Seal Press, 2004, pp. iii-viii.

Supriya Nair

In the following excerpt, Nair shows how Tambu uses her colonial education to raise her social status and achieve her personal goals.

… It is, of course, possible to read Tambu's desire for colonial education as a correlative desire for bourgeois status and colonial capital. But the tendency to conflate easily bourgeois feminism and colonial education simplifies the options of women in the so-called Third World. In a discussion of the "inauthentic native," Rey Chow critiques intellectuals who are disturbed by people from the Third World choosing the impurity of capitalism over the revolutionary potential of Marxism (27). The latter apparently have no business to be making this choice, particularly if, as in the case of China, the state officially sanctions Communism over capitalism. Within the privileged confines of the United States academy, it seems easy for us to disapprove of non-Marxist natives while we enjoy the benefits of a capitalistic world, even as we claim radical unease in our positions. The Third World can then be romanticized as the "true" revolutionary space that still holds out the promise of Marxism while we live, as best as we can, in the contaminated States. Since these categories have been drawn up as absolute binaries, all choice has subsequently been reduced to an either/or one.

Rather than lamenting Tambu's "selling out" to the forces of bourgeois capital, I would historicize her decision and underline it as a determined choice to transform the homestead while at the same time being aware of her limited options. "If you were clever, you slipped through any loophole you could find. I for one was going to take any opportunity that came my way. I was quite sure about that; I was very determined … I would go," she resolves. In her case, one assumes that Ngugi's broken line of harmony from peasant background to formal colonial school will be a fissure that she desires, not just because she is a peasant but because she is a black female adolescent in former Rhodesia, and views this identity without romanticization. What follows is a brief survey of the homestead that Tambu views ambivalently, with both attachment and detachment. Smoky kitchens that cause watery eyes and bronchitis; wood fires that either burn furiously or indifferently, leaving carbon monoxide suspended in the air; trips to the river, Nyamarira, quite a distance from her home, carrying water-drums which press into her spine; a lavatory that stinks and that infects the food through the passing flies. Our narrator relentlessly catalogs life during festival, joyous occasions when the extended family gathers: "Twenty-four stomachs to fill three times a day. Twenty-four bodies for which water had to be fetched from Nyamarira daily. Twenty-four people's laundry to wash as often as possible" (the lack of technological tools to ease these laborious chores goes without saying) … and all this woman's work.

Given these living conditions, Tambu is able to resist attempts to keep her from continuing her education because she sees education as one way, however impure and treacherous, of altering her vulnerable status. Her uncle's reluctance to let his niece join a white school is morally inspired. While the colonial school offered material benefits, it was also a dangerous site for a growing girl who would lose her sense of place in the traditional family structure, a lack of mooring that would apparently lead to the woman's looseness or immorality. Tambu's cousin, the rebellious Nyasha, suggests that Tambu refrain from convent education on intellectual and political terms. Here the contamination is a cultural one as Nyasha argues that entry into the locus of colonial civic control will make a puppet out of her cousin. Tambu's mother's protest, expressed by a complete withdrawal from domestic functions as she proceeds to mourn the impending loss of her daughter to white people, marks the threat to the domestic work structure, since she will lose not just a daughter but a companion and helper. Ironically, it is the core of women around Tambu who influence her decision and help her identify what she finally regards as the main threat—not education but the patriarchy itself.

The arguments against education, particularly colonial education, were often played out through binaries of tradition versus modernity, national pride versus cultural imperialism, and where women generally stood in this divide is obvious. The supposed clash with modernity would involve the perils of colonial education: a change in the old ways, a threat to traditional symbols of power, a passive student being worked over by the Western world, confusion and vacillation, exile and alienation, and so on. These were the problems raised when considering the negative aspects of a cultural transformation that some people recognized as much more than an imposed one, and one that grew out of the demands of the changing indigenous cultures. To use these arguments against women, as they often have been, would serve to keep them in their place, which, within the colonial patriarchy, was usually subservient.

Although Dangarembga's text is set in the revolutionary period of militant struggle against a white supremacist government, there is little reference to the rising insurgency. Nationalist histories of independence movements reduce the struggle to a Manichean one, the natives against the colonial settlers. But unrest in the colonies has been a result of dissatisfaction not just with colonial rule, though that was certainly significant. Local grievances were also a contributing factor. As Norma Kriger argues, "unmarried peasant children challenged their elders, women battled their husbands, subject clans sometimes tried to usurp power from ruling clans, and the least advantaged attacked the better-off" (8). In such cases, the various agencies of the colonial state were often strategic elements manipulated in the internal struggles of groups that forged alliances where they could. This is not to suggest that peasant resistance to colonial inequalities was only incidental or oblique, but that the struggle was a multi-faceted one.

In the already rigid inequalities perpetuated by the colonial government, rural women had fewer jobs and were paid less. Health and educational issues were grossly ignored. Kriger reports that in 1967 "nearly 80 percent of Africans never finished more than five years of schooling." Most of those who did go and remained in school were males (62). Given such deep unequal development structures, the issue of a native elite isolated from the masses in the case of Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) was a practically non-existent one.

The gender inequalities of the Shona in the period of the sixties were just as discriminatory. In a system of legal and social structures that favored men, the women were expected to serve their husbands and their families. Tambu's decision to leave for the mission school will have to be read in this context. It is not just the colonial school that she fears will weaken her. Observing the almost divine power that her uncle holds over the women in the family, she confesses: "My vagueness and my reverence for my uncle, what he was, what he had achieved, what he represented and therefore what he wanted, had stunted the growth and faculty of criticism, sapped the energy that in childhood I had used to define my own position." Her emphasis is on returning to a critical position, rather than blindly following the path set for her.

Tambu is also a witness to the struggle between her cousin, Nyasha, and her uncle, in which Nyasha is subsumed both by the burden of colonial history and by her father's unyielding sovereignty. It is interesting that in a larger context of severe malnutrition, Nyasha suffers from anorexia nervosa and bulimia, disorders generally associated with white, middle class women. Nyasha's use, or misuse of food, as the case may be, does come from having enough to throw up, but her illness cannot easily be dismissed as culturally inappropriate. Her struggle against the forces that dictate her life is performed orally, exaggerating and sometimes distorting the daily rituals of domestic interaction as expressive metaphors. Every instance of bulimic purging comes after a verbal argument with her father, who forces her to eat in order to assert his control. Nyasha's violent purging in the privacy of the bathroom is also indicative of the indigestibility of patriarchal order and discipline, which she nevertheless internalizes in her anorexic condition, the exercise of her will reduced to disciplining and punishing her body. But her violent rending of colonial textbooks by tearing into them with her teeth, calling them "bloody lies," is also emblematic of the ideological diet of colonial history that literally sickens her. Her internal and physical disruptions signal severe psychological trauma—a trauma that goes entirely unrecognized until several hysterical ravings, violence against her father (she punches him back), and a skeletal body are finally taken seriously. The available psychiatric help is unable to cure her, however, recommending instead the usual remedies prescribed for emotionally unhealthy women. She is sick but she catches the infection from the alienating structures that are themselves too sick to prescribe a cure.

Even as Nyasha manifests the ills of colonialism, her gendered identity is also constantly in torment. Seeking the respect of her father and desiring a more respectable position for her mother than she sees possible, Nyasha at the same time hates her parents and herself for all their inadequacies. Her sharp insights into their collective devaluation and her discursive eloquence come at a high cost, typical of the melancholic condition. Consumed as she is by her loss, she fills the emptiness within her and then vomits it up in the privacy of the bathroom, unable to position herself productively outside the closeted domestic space.

Tambu, I think, serves as a foil, as an optimism of the will to Nyasha's pessimism of the intellect. She is constantly guarding against the possibility of alienation, articulating her decisions by means of her narrative, willing herself to think critically. At one point, tired of all the injunctions to remember her past, her culture, her identity in the amnesia-provoking atmosphere of the mission school, she wonders, "If I forgot them, my cousin, my mother, my friends, I might as well forget myself. And that, of course, could not happen. So why was everybody so particular to urge me to remember?" Her act of narrating the story is a conscious attempt to inscribe her memory, an undramatic yet meaningful assertion of agency and struggle:

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 … the story I have told here is my own story, the story of four women whom I loved, and our men …

Unlike Nyasha, who is largely disgusted with the status of the women in the family, Tambu senses their strength in their particular methods of resistance and learns from each one while forming her own distinct identity. But what makes the narrative even possible is, according to the novel's conclusion, Tambu's growing critical consciousness of both the forces that eventually destroy her cousin. While she continues her education, she stops revering her uncle and romanticizing the colonial school.

If Nyasha's story stereotypically presents the destruction of the colonial/exiled student, the response Tambu's "own story" makes to Ngugi's text is that the colonial student need not necessarily be a passive receptacle, reified by the experience of colonial education. Indeed, Ngugi's own work with Gikuyu peasants counters cultural anxieties about mass hypnosis. His contribution as an organic intellectual, or as Fanon's intellectual who engages in a dialogic and dynamic relationship with other peasant intellectuals, is itself a mediated critique of the anxiety recorded in Decolonising the Mind. As Tambu demonstrates, while melancholia is often an unavoidable condition of postcolonial intellectual history, it is not inevitably, tragically self-defeating.

Source: Supriya Nair, "Melancholic Women: The Intellectual Hysteric(s) in Nervous Conditions," in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 26, No. 2, Summer 1995, 10 pp.


Alden, P., Review of Nervous Conditions, in Choice, Vol. 27, No. 3, November 1989, p. 492.

Barry, Peter, Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory, Manchester University Press, 1995, p. 195.

Bruner, Charlotte H., Review of Nervous Conditions, in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No, 2, Spring 1990, pp. 353-54.

Dangarembga, Tsitsi, Nervous Conditions, Seal Press, 2004.

Fanon, Frantz, The Wretched of the Earth, translated by Richard Philcox, Grove Press, 2005.

Review of Nervous Conditions, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 235, No. 5, February 3, 1989, p. 102.

"Zimbabwe," in CIA: The World Fact Book, (accessed November 25, 2007.)


Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literature, 2nd edition, Routledge, 2002.

First published in 1989, this is one of the most important books of postcolonial criticism. The authors examine the historical forces that determine how language is used in postcolonial texts, and how such texts form a devastating critique of Eurocentric ideas about the universality of Western literature.

Hill, Janice E., "Purging a Plate Full of Colonial History: The ‘Nervous Conditions’ of Silent Girls," in College Literature, Vol. 22, No. 1, February 1995, pp. 78-90.

In this analysis of Nervous Conditions, Hill shows how the alienation of Shona women from their cultural traditions results in real or feigned sickness, which is used as the only means of rebellion available to them.

Memmi, Albert, The Colonizer and the Colonized, expanded edition, Beacon Press, 1991.

This book was first published in English in 1965 and has become a classic exploration of the effects of colonialism, not only on subject populations but also on the colonizers themselves.

Said, Edward W., Culture and Imperialism, Knopf, 1994.

Said demonstrates how Western literature has been a powerful force in establishing Western dominance over other cultures. In this light, he examines Western literature from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as well as contemporary mass media.