Nervous Conditions | Study Guide

Tsitsi Dangarembga

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Nervous Conditions | Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

Fourteen-year-old Tambu opens the novel with the arresting line, "I was not sorry when my brother died." Tambu recollects the events surrounding Nhamo's death. He had been expected home from school at the end of the term—the school where their uncle, Babamukuru, was headmaster. Since going to the fancy boarding school, Nhamo had become conceited. He especially hated having to ride the public bus home and wished his uncle would drive him home in the automobile. Tambu describes the beautiful walk from the bus station to the village, wondering how Nhamo could despise it. Babamukuru often forced Nhamo to take the bus out of concern that he was becoming too proud.

It had been Babamukuru's idea for Nhamo to attend the boarding school, hoping it would boost the family's earning potential because Nhamo had been performing well at the local school. Tambu and Nhamo's father, Jeremiah, had been delighted at the prospect, saying, "If I had your brains ... I would have been a teacher by now. Or maybe even a doctor!" When Nhamo stopped coming home during school holidays, the family was sad but told themselves he was concentrating on his studies. He was forced to return home once a year, in April, to help harvest the maize. While he did the work—especially when Babamukuru was watching—he rarely spoke, and it became clear to Tambu that "all this poverty began to offend him." Regardless of whether Nhamo felt willing to work the fields, the crops still needed to be harvested, which often meant Tambu, along with her little sisters and their mother, worked long hours in the field.

On the November evening when the family expected Nhamo to return home from school, Tambu came home from the fields expecting her younger sister, Netsai, to have already gone to fetch Nhamo's luggage because he hated to carry it home himself. In preparation for Nhamo's return, Tambu had decided to start helping her mother prepare a feast because Mother had been working the fields all day. At the end of her narration, Tambu admits to the reader that while Nhamo's behavior was nasty, it was expected: "the needs and sensibilities of the women in my family were not considered a priority."

Analysis

Chapter 1 summarizes many of the events that will be described in greater detail in the following chapters. It also broadly introduces many of the novel's main themes, although they are not yet fully understood. Tambu narrates the novel as an adult looking back on her life, occasionally inserting adult commentary on the lessons learned since first experiencing the events described. It is important to note that this adult version of Tambu has been privately educated in British schools, so her commentary reflects a dual culture: her native Shona culture and her adopted British culture. This duality creates unique opportunities for Tambu but at a cost. To embrace British culture, Tambu must abandon the Shona culture, essentially allowing herself to be culturally colonized. Adult Tambu does not explore this theme in relation to herself, but hints at how Nhamo changed while at the mission school. Upon returning home, the poverty of his childhood "embarrassed" Nhamo, and he would have preferred to stay at school than return home. As a child, Tambu cannot imagine a life in which she would want to disown her culture, and she criticizes Nhamo for the change. For example, she describes at length the glorious walk to the watering hole where her family washes. The adult version of Tambu looks back at that description and notes, "This is how I remember it in my earliest memories, but it did not stay like that." After being exposed to the same "white" culture, Tambu will surprise herself by resenting the poverty into which she was born, although the child version of herself doesn't know that yet.

Tambu's relationship with Nhamo reveals the strong patriarchy that dominates the Shona culture. In Tambu's upbringing, males are viewed as superior beings and are treated as such. The patriarchy is so ingrained in Shona tradition that acting otherwise would have been unusual. For example, had Nhamo cared about his sister's dreams or treated her with respect, she likely wouldn't have known how to respond. She learns early that "the needs and sensibilities of the women in [her] family were not considered a priority, or even legitimate." Because Nhamo dies, and because Tambu narrates the novel from her own perspective, the reader gets little insight into Nhamo's character. However, Nhamo clearly acts as a bully. Perhaps because he came from so little, Nhamo is eager to assert power over those socially below him (females). The luggage Nhamo brought home from school was never too cumbersome for him to carry; he simply preferred being waited on by his sisters, whom he viewed as beneath him. It's unsurprising that, under these circumstances, Tambu should not feel sorry when Nhamo dies, but the line also offers insight into her adult character. As an educated woman, adult Tambu has emancipated herself from the patriarchy of Shona culture that would require her to mourn her bully's death. In reality, Nhamo's death opened the door for Tambu to pursue an education that would have otherwise been impossible. Tambu feels grateful for Nhamo's death and refuses to subjugate herself to guilt.

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