Nervous Conditions | Study Guide

Tsitsi Dangarembga

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Chapter 3

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 3 of Tsitsi Dangarembga's novel Nervous Conditions.

Nervous Conditions | Chapter 3 | Summary



Babamukuru arrives home with his wife Maiguru and their children, Chido and Nyasha, in a motorcade of cars. The whole village comes out to welcome him. They chant, dance, sing, and play music in vibrant tradition, with dozens of people clamoring to touch and welcome him. Father seems more delighted than anyone, shouting, "If you want to see an educated man, look at my brother, big brother to us all!" Tambu's aunt, Gladys, falls to her knees in praise, "He has returned. Our prince has returned!" Tambu gazes at her cousin Nyasha's Western clothes with disapproval, and feels angry that Nhamo seems determined to engage the cousins in conversation. Unfortunately, Nhamo's English skills are rudimentary and, to Tambu's shock, the cousins have forgotten their native language.

Watching the arrival, Tambu feels overwhelmed with frustration, which she tries to channel into preparatory work in the kitchen. Her family compliments her cooking skills, and she enjoys helping prepare the meal, but she can't shake the feeling that she deserves better. She, too, wants an education and warm welcome upon returning home. At the feast, Tambu carries the water to wash her relatives' hands, but she gets confused about the hierarchical order in which each person should wash. Her aunts dish out the food following the hierarchy, leaving no meat for the women and children who must eat in the kitchen. After the feast, music and dancing continues. Nyasha watches the dancing longingly but doesn't join in. Meanwhile, Babamukuru speaks to the men in his family, including Father, about how they can contribute to the family's social rise. Father suggests all his children could get an education, which Babamukuru shoots down as a pipe dream. Babamukuru decides Nhamo should join him at the mission school for further education. The entire family regards this suggestion as supremely generous.

Nhamo wastes no time bullying Tambu over being selected. Tambu tries to fight back, to convince Nhamo that he isn't as special as he claims, but her arguments fail. To cope, Tambu stops speaking to Nhamo entirely. The silence bothers Mother, pregnant again after having lost four babies. Rumors have been swirling around the village that someone—likely Mother's sister, Lucia—has cursed her so Father will take in another child-bearing wife. Nhamo leaves for mission school with Babamukuru. Tambu uses his absence to try to befriend her cousin Nyasha, but Nyasha isn't interested. She ignores Tambu and refuses to even try to speak their native language, which she forgot while at boarding school. Similarly, when Nhamo returns home after the first school term, he make-believes he has lost the ability to speak Shona (unless he really needs to speak to someone, in which case the native language miraculously returns to him).

This uppity, phony Nhamo is exactly who Tambu expects to see return home in November 1968, but after a long day of waiting, they see only Babamukuru's car approaching. Immediately, Mother and Father sense bad news. Before Babamukuru can even open his mouth, Mother wails and beats him on the chest, blaming Babamukuru for bewitching her son and killing him. Babamukuru confirms Nhamo's death, saying he contracted mumps and died in the hospital. They had tried to get word back to the village, but the message obviously hadn't arrived. Mother and Father mourn bitterly, but Babamukuru already makes plans for Tambu to join him at the mission to take over Nhamo's education. Mother fights ferociously, swearing she will never let another child march off to die, but no one listens to her. In quiet excitement, Tambu prepares to leave.


Babamukuru's return from England gives the reader great insight into Shona traditions, as well as the strength of the patriarchy. When Babamukuru arrives home, cultural tradition dictates that he be welcomed with a feast. In his particular case, the entire extended family returns jubilantly for the event, not only because their brother has been gone for five years but also because their financial benefactor returns. Women fall to their knees in joy, calling him "a prince." Father, joyous to have a steady stream of money again, heralds his brother's education, saying, "If you want to see an educated man, look at my brother, big brother to us all!" Babamukuru greets his family in order of the patriarchy, starting with "grandfathers, uncles, and brothers" before moving on to paternal aunts and younger men. "Lesser women" and children, like Tambu, are forced to observe Babamukuru from a distance because the Shona culture prevents them from approaching or touching him. They follow the same hierarchy before the meal when Tambu brings a basin of water for each family member to wash, leaving the dirty water for single women and children. Initially, Tambu excitedly watches the arrival party, but gradually grows frustrated. She would have loved to greet Babamukuru and his family, but as a girl she must wait from them to acknowledge her, which in the fuss, never happens. This, coupled with the abrupt end to her education, leaves Tambu feeling unsettled: "I did not want my life to be predicted by such improper relations." Already, Tambu resolves not to be a victim of the rules of patriarchy. She needs only a little education to realize the type of life she deserves—one in which she is visible.

This chapter provides the first clear image of culture clash. Although Tambu had been close to her cousins before they moved to England, she barely recognizes them upon their return. Dressed in inappropriate Western clothes, Tambu immediately judges their lack of modesty, suggesting Nyasha might be "loose" now that she wears short dresses. Although a flippant comment likely made out of jealousy, Tambu's assessment of her cousin's morality underscores the strict gender expectations in Shona culture, particularly for young girls who are expected to remain chaste until their wedding day. Nyasha's short dress suggests a dismissal of traditional behavioral codes, codes that still affect Tambu's behavior—such as when she stops dancing in the way she likes because "there were bad implications in the way [she] enjoyed the rhythm." Very quickly, it becomes clear that the cousins don't remember cultural dances, and more shockingly, have forgotten their native language. Western culture has completely taken over, erasing their native identities. Clearly the children no longer fit into Shona culture, and later it will be revealed that as Africans, they failed to fit into British culture.

Throughout the chapter, references are made to witches and witchcraft. All white people are referred to as wizards. Those who do good, like offering Babamukuru an education, are considered "good wizards," while those who exploit the land and its people are "bad wizards." To uneducated people like Mother and Father, witchcraft and magic are the only explanations as to why good or bad things happen in people's lives. Babamukuru was selected for education because he fell into the good graces of "good wizards," while Nhamo loses his Shona language, Mother thinks, because someone was bewitching her son. When Nhamo dies at the end of the chapter, Mother shouts that Babamukuru "bewitched him and now he is dead." In the traditional world, gods, wizards, and magic are to blame for one's fate, while in the Western world, individuals like Babamukuru can change their fate through hard work and determination.

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