Nervous Conditions | Study Guide

Tsitsi Dangarembga

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Nervous Conditions | Chapter 2 | Summary

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Summary

The government decides, "African children [are] sufficiently developed cognitively" to understand numbers and letters, so Nhamo begins attending local school at age six. Most parents, however, can't afford the tuition fees, so their children continue working the fields. Babamukuru has recently accepted a position at a mission school in England, which he accepts despite not wanting to leave his aging mother. The family discusses if Babamukuru's children should stay in the village or risk losing their culture while abroad. Because Babamukuru makes all the family's financial decisions, trades, and purchases, the extended family will lose their patriarchal head during his five-year position. Babamukuru will also have less money to send home, which means less money for school fees. Nevertheless, Tambu's family scrambles to raise money to keep Nhamo in school. Mother raises money by selling boiled eggs at the bus stop to tourists, and Babamukuru sends home what he can. Eventually, the family has no choice but to pull Tambu from school due to lack of money. Devastated, Tambu begs her parents to reconsider, but her father snaps, "Can you cook books and feed them to your husband?" Tambu's mother responds more sympathetically but has the same message: "When there are sacrifices to be made, [women have] to make them." Despite her parents' wishes, Tambu desperately craves an education, recognizing, even at her young age, that it offers her only chance of escape from village life. She decides to raise tuition fees on her own by growing maize on her own small lot and selling the cobs to tourists. Outraged at Tambu's disrespect, her father forbids it, but Tambu's mother persuades him, saying, "Let her see for herself that some things cannot be done."

Tambu works tirelessly on her plot, waking early to tend to her fields before returning home at sunrise to perform household chores, then working with the rest of her family in the afternoon. While she works, her grandmother tells stories of their family history, generations back, in which all white men were wizards. By February, Tambu's maize plants have flourished. Her family sees her pride and tries to knock her back to reality. Her mother prepares her for discouragement by criticizing her: "Do you think you are so different, so much better than the rest of us?" Nhamo cruelly teases her by suggesting her hard work will be for naught: "Why do you bother ... You are a girl." Soon after, Tambu discovers that Nhamo has been stealing the mealies (small corn cobs) from her maize plants and giving them to friends at Sunday school. In a rage, Tambu attacks. A teacher, Mr. Matimba, breaks up the fight, and upon learning why Tambu had been growing maize in the first place, offers to take her to town to sell the rest of her mealies to white tourists. Again, Father feels disrespected by Mr. Matimba's interest in private family matters, but Mother insists Tambu must be allowed to fail so she won't hold it against them forever.

Mr. Matimba drives Tambu into town in his automobile, which breeds jealousy in the rest of the schoolchildren. Tambu has never ridden in a car before and asks many questions, proving she is an inquisitive student. When they arrive at the main terminus, Tambu tries to sell her mealies but tourists react indignantly. One white woman, Doris, demands to know why Mr. Matimba would allow such a young child to work the streets. Mr. Matimba tells her a sad sob story, casting Tambu as the youngest orphan in a family of 12 who needs money for school fees. Doris hands Mr. Matimba 10 pounds for Tambu's education, more money than Tambu's family had ever dreamed, which covers her fees for the next few years. When she returns home, Father demands the money be handed over to him, but Mr. Matimba insists the money belongs to Tambu to do with as she pleases.

Two years later, Babamukuru returns home from England. The family prepares a grand celebration to welcome him as a prince. Father and Nhamo plan an elaborate journey to meet Babamukuru at the airport, which Tambu wishes she could join.

Analysis

As patriarch of the family, Babamukuru makes financial decisions for the entire extended family. He makes enough money to support everyone on the homestead—three branches of the family—who would struggle to survive without him. Babamukuru offers a chance for the family to rise on the social ladder and support themselves independently. As a financial success, Babamukuru is treated like a prince on the homestead, which is why Father and Nhamo invest so much energy preparing for his return. The descriptions of Babamukuru's success provide insight into Rhodesia's social relations during the 1960s. Having grown up on the same homestead as Tambu, Babamukuru determinedly endeared himself to white Christian missionaries by working hard in their fields. They rewarded him with a scholarship to their school, where he also excelled.

Interestingly, Babamukuru had no interest in leaving his family for five years to undergo further training in England, particularly because his aging mother was ill, but to decline the missionaries offer would have been social suicide. Although Babamukuru earned his spot at the school and excelled because of his intelligence, "the missionaries would have been annoyed by his ingratitude" had he declined their training. Although Babamukuru's successes are his own, society demands he remain grateful and indebted to the white men who offered him the opportunity. Had he not, "they would have taken under their wings another promising young African in his place." Babamukuru's position reflects the message of grandmother's "romantic" story of Babamukuru being taken under the missionaries' wings: "endure and obey, for there is no other way."

With Babamukuru's move to England, Tambu's parents are forced to provide for their children for the first time. Notably, Mother concocts a plan to sell eggs at the bus stop to raise money, thus allowing Nhamo to stay in school, yet Father gets the credit. Many of the details in Chapter 2 highlight gender expectations and the powerful patriarchy that forces women into subservient roles. Interestingly, in a poor village like Tambu's, food has a higher value than education. When Tambu begs to also attend school, her father chides, "Can you cook books and feed them to your husband?" Father has no interest in investing in education because once Tambu marries, her money will benefit her husband's family. At least now, if she learns to grow vegetables and cook, she can provide food for her parents and siblings. Mother's response to Tambu's request echoes her husband's, yet she wants Tambu to learn the depressing truth of gender expectations the hard way, by having her spirit crushed. She convinces Father to let Tambu grow mealies and sell them in town, not because she thinks Tambu will succeed but because she wants Tambu to learn that her future will be full of disappointment: "You have to start learning them [lessons] early ... The earlier the better." Tambu subverts her mother's lesson, using this impending suffering to further motivate her escape. She compares herself to Maiguru, Babamukuru's wife, who must still suffer as a woman, but does so regally because she has an education. Tambu never doubts that she will be crippled by the burdens of womanhood, but believes education will at least make that suffering endurable.

Finally, this chapter gives insight into race relations in Rhodesia during the segregated 1960s, in which the novel is set. In the opening lines, Tambu notes that Nhamo attended school once the government declared that "African children were sufficiently developed cognitively" to understand reading and writing. This one sentence encompasses what white people thought of black Africans. Viewed as "lesser beings," black Africans were treated as second-class citizens, yet white people enjoyed their role as benefactors or "white heroes"—the missionaries with Babamukuru, for example, or Doris with Tambu—because doing so perpetuated their feeling of superiority. Later in the novel, it is suggested that white benefactors act generously to assuage their guilt over oppressing black culture.

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