Nervous Conditions | Study Guide

Tsitsi Dangarembga

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Nervous Conditions | Chapter 10 | Summary

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Summary

Just as she felt when moving to the mission school, Tambu feels overwhelmed with excitement as she drives toward the convent school on her first day, although she thinks about Nyasha, believing the day marked "the end of our closeness and to that extent, our friendship." The grounds immediately impress the family and are far fancier than any school Tambu ever dreamed of attending. Looking around, however, Tambu's heart fills with disappointment as she sees they are the only black people in the crowd, save for the porters that carry the rest of the students' bags. One of the nuns welcomes Tambu to the school and shows her to her room, which has been stuffed with six beds for all the African students to share. In contrast, the white students sleep four to a room and each have their own wardrobe, but as the nun explains, "We have more Africans here than usual this year."

Time passes, and once again Tambu excels at school. In the library, she needn't think about her gender or race. She studies hard and loses touch with Nyasha, although Nyasha continues sending letters. In one letter, Nyasha claims to be coping poorly with Tambu's absence, claiming to feel more isolated than ever at school and home. Despite hearing this, Nyasha's appearance shocks Tambu when she returns home at the end of the term. Nyasha is completely emaciated, so thin she weaves when she walks. Her father continues forcing her to eat at mealtimes, which Nyasha immediately vomits into the toilet.

One evening, Nyasha suffers what appears to be an emotional breakdown after spending the last few days studying obsessively. Nyasha rampages against her parents and the school, saying, "They've done it to me ... Why did they do it ... to me and to you and to [Babamukuru]." She carries on, smashing clay pots and scraping the shards across her skin. She gnashes her schoolbooks in her teeth, rocking and screaming, "They've taken us away ... I won't grovel, I won't die." Babamukuru and Maiguru grab Nyasha, throw her in the car, and drive quickly to a psychiatrist. Eventually, Nyasha is admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where she slowly recovers. While visiting the homestead, Mother suggests to Tambu that Nyasha had a breakdown after being exposed to "so much Englishness." This assessment disturbs Tambu greatly, and she vows to question the way white culture has been brainwashing her, and to use her strength to stand up to it.

Analysis

The emotional breakdowns of two women in her life—her mother and her cousin—shape Tambu's worldview. After her mother's depressive episode in Chapter 9, Tambu decides the weight of womanhood (remaining subservient to her lazy husband; losing many children) has crushed her mother. This helps inform her motivation to earn the scholarship to Sacred Heart and ensure she can lift her family out of poverty. She also wants to ensure she never has to grovel at a man's feet, which is why she feels annoyed every time Babamukuru suggests she should settle with marrying a nice guy. When she moves to Sacred Heart, Tambu truly believes education—particularly education at a white school—will save her from the same fate.

Nyasha's breakdown complicates things for Tambu. Although she knew Nyasha struggled, she never understood the depths of Nyasha's despair, always believing that as an educated, wealthy, and privileged young woman, she would succeed. If Mother's breakdown represents the effects of patriarchy, Nyasha's breakdown represents the effects of colonialism. She shouts, "I won't grovel, I won't die," seeming to recognize how British colonial power demands that she erase her personality and conform to their views of a "good African," just as Babamukuru tries to control her into becoming a "good daughter." Nyasha tears the history books with her teeth, calling it "their history," which rewrites culture and deprives Africans of themselves: "Do you see what they've done? They've taken us away." Seeing Nyasha's breakdown gives Tambu a new perspective on Mother's diagnosis that "Englishness" is to blame. Believing she has defeated the destructive forces of marriage and the patriarchy, Tambu sees other forces to overthrow before being truly free. This realization sets the stage for the next novel in the Tambu trilogy.

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