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Nervous Conditions | Study Guide

Tsitsi Dangarembga

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Chapter 5

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 5 of Tsitsi Dangarembga's novel Nervous Conditions.

Nervous Conditions | Chapter 5 | Summary



Alone, Tambu and Nyasha share stories of how their families have been since they last saw each other and discuss the awkwardness they felt when Nyasha visited the homestead. Their conversation progresses clumsily because Nyasha can't speak Shona and Tambu's English is rudimentary. Overwhelmed by the "heady" intimacy of their conversation, Tambu criticizes Nyasha for disrespecting her mother, to which Nyasha replies, "She doesn't want to be respected." Anna enters the room and kneels by Nyasha to announce dinner, which further annoys Nyasha. While Tambu washes for dinner, Nyasha continues reading her scandalous novel, which Maiguru plucks from Nyasha's hands and hides in a dresser drawer before Babamukuru joins them. Anna has already set the food on the table and Maiguru serves the girls while they wait. When Babamukuru arrives, he appears annoyed that the meal started without him. Maiguru fusses and chips around him, calling him "Daddy Pie" and "Daddy Dear," while heaping food onto his plate. Distressed to learn about Nyasha's choice of reading material, he takes the book while Nyasha is in the kitchen.

Although the food looks "interesting," Tambu finds herself completely unable to swallow anything. The flavors and textures are simply too foreign—and her nerves too high—to enjoy the meal. She also struggles to use a knife and fork after a lifetime of eating with her hands. Without missing a beat, Maiguru casually asks Anna to prepare sadza, a traditional cornmeal, so Tambu won't go to bed hungry. Trying to make light of her Tambu's embarrassment, Nyasha says she doesn't mind going to bed hungry as long as she has a good book. Looking around, she notices her book has gone missing and accuses her parents of taking it. They argue about whether Nyasha's attitude is disrespectful, and Nyasha sulks off to bed. Babamukuru mutters, "Something is wrong with her, something very wrong." After dinner, Babamukuru gives Tambu a lecture about how lucky she is to be at the mission and how she must work hard not to squander her opportunity to educate herself and become a respectable wife one day. That night, Tambu has a nightmare in which Nhamo catches her smoking a cigarette and chastises her for abandoning her husband and children. In the morning, Tambu calms her anxious nerves by having her first-ever bath.

Time passes, and once again Tambu finds herself excelling at school. She reads voraciously, anything she can get her hands on, while Nyasha prefers to read nonfiction histories about human atrocities. Tambu quickly realizes how few friends Nyasha has at school, but it doesn't seem to bother Nyasha. She and Tambu become inseparable, as close as sisters. Tambu gets her first period, and her mother sends old napkins from the homestead, which she expects Tambu to use and wash each month. When she hears this, Nyasha laughs and teaches Tambu how to use tampons instead. As much as Tambu enjoys her new life on the mission, she finds herself surrounded by puzzles. Since she moved in, Anna has become much more distant, and Tambu wonders why Maiguru spends so much energy fussing needlessly over her family. When Tambu learns Maiguru earned a Master's degree while in England, she is shocked. Maiguru explains that back on the homestead, everyone assumed she went to England simply to support Babamukuru, because that was the expected way. She admits that while she makes good money, she never sees any of it: "What it is ... to have to choose between self and security," she says.


Although eager to abandon her old life and embrace her new identity, some aspects of Tambu's background simply cannot be ignored. She feels humiliated, for example, when she doesn't understand how a light switch works, or why she would need pajamas. She despises her ignorance, and her jealousy toward Nyasha (who seems to take these luxuries for granted) manifests itself in a snippy attitude she later regrets. Once Nyasha and Tambu are able to see through their created identities and reconnect simply as cousins, their friendship becomes stronger than ever. Looking back, adult Tambu marks the initial conversation she had with Nyasha in the bedroom as the start of their inseparable friendship, going so far as to compare her teenage relationship with Nyasha to a love affair: "[it was] the first time that I grew to be fond of someone of whom I did not wholeheartedly approve." Although Tambu feels deep love for her cousin, she doesn't understand until much later how Nyasha could feel unsatisfied in her existence. She has been given every advantage, yet she refuses to conform to cultural and familial expectations.

Continuing the theme of duality, Nyasha thrived at her English boarding school, earning high marks and becoming an independent thinker, but now that she has returned to Rhodesia, her parents seem embarrassed that she became what they had hoped she would. "They are too Anglicised," Maiguru noted in the previous chapter, as if adapting and thriving in the British culture was a bad thing. Having lived so long away from the strict rules of African patriarchy, Nyasha genuinely doesn't understand why interactions with her father are suddenly deemed disrespectful, why she suddenly cannot read interesting novels, or why she must suddenly follow seemingly strange rules that dictate when she eats and how much. With such strong forces (gender roles, patriarchy, and parental expectations) controlling so much of her behavior, Nyasha's duality turns in on itself, manifesting in the "nervous condition" of an eating disorder, also hinted at in this chapter.

Tambu's new identity comes with unexpected changes. For example, Anna, whom she used to joke and laugh with on the homestead, now treats her distantly and formally. Because they are financially supporting her, Babamukuru and Maiguru refer to Tambu as their daughter, and she refers to them as her parents. She begins to understand how Nhamo became spoiled living on the mission, although she doesn't allow herself to feel guilt over his death. She recognizes that if he were still alive, she would still be a "plucky piccannin" working in the fields. Still, Tambu begins to realize that the life of an educated woman might not be as flawless as she imagined. Although Maiguru is highly educated, she respects the patriarchy by handing over her wages to Babamukuru each week and defers to his judgment. Her depressing statement that a woman must choose between "self and security" highlights the core problem for educated women at the time: it's impossible to have everything.

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