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Nervous Conditions | Study Guide

Tsitsi Dangarembga

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Chapter 9

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 9 of Tsitsi Dangarembga's novel Nervous Conditions.

Nervous Conditions | Chapter 9 | Summary



As the school year comes to a close, nuns visit the school to administer a general knowledge test. They run an exclusive boarding school called Sacred Heart and are offering scholarships to the top two performing students at the mission school. All the students desperately want to win the scholarship, except Nyasha, who claims these schools only function to force African children to forget their native cultures. Despite Nyasha's sour attitude, Tambu ecstatically rushes home to announce that she has won one of the scholarships. She sees the convent school as an unparalleled opportunity to advance her social position. Her mother, she realizes, fell victim to many burdens—particularly being a woman, black, uneducated, and poor. Tambu believes the convent school will be "a chance to lighten those burdens by entering a world where burdens were light." When he hears the news, Babamukuru immediately shuts her down, saying they would never be able to afford sending her there now that she has a younger brother whom he must support. "As you know," Babamukuru says, "he is the only boy in your family, so he must be provided for."

Babamukuru expects Tambu to finish at the mission and find a respectable boy to marry. Maiguru speaks up and suggests that Tambu should be allowed to choose her own future. Assuming she should continue her education or should simply get married is prejudiced. At the Christmas holiday, Babamukuru agrees to speak with Father about the best choice for Tambu's future.

Christmas at the homestead is different this year. Maiguru refuses to spend two weeks catering to Babamukuru's family, so Tambu's parents must buy and prepare all the food themselves. None of the extended family joins them, so the holiday passes quietly, which is good because the family had little food to offer. On New Year's Eve, the men discuss Tambu's educational future. Babamukuru suggests that further education by white people will erode her culture, yet she will receive a first-class education. In the end, they decide Tambu may accept the scholarship. Mother does not take the news well, demanding to know why Babamukuru insists on "fattening [her] children only to take them away, like cattle are fattened for slaughter." Her health rapidly declines, threatening baby Dambudzo's health as well. Lucia rushes home from the mission to revive her sister. She drags Mother to the river and forces her to wash, while Dambudzo is perched precariously on the rocks. Lucia knows Dambudzo will fall in, and she demands that Mother save him, warning that if she does nothing, she "will truly go mad, because this time [she] will be guilty." When Dambudzo falls, Mother snaps back to life and rescues him.

When Tambu returns to the mission in January, her friends surprise her by treating her rudely after learning she will be attending convent school the next year. Nyasha also takes the news poorly, treating Tambu coolly as she packs her things and prepares to move. On the night before Tambu leaves, Maiguru cooks a feast. Nyasha claims not to be hungry but Babamukuru forces her to eat. She shovels the food into her mouth and then rushes to the bathroom to vomit it up.


Although Nervous Conditions is set in colonized Rhodesia, the effects of colonialism are very rarely discussed, although the theme becomes more prevalent in the novel's closing chapters. The exclusive convent school where Tambu has been accepted was built to educate the children of white colonizers like the Bakers. To appear philanthropic and progressive, these schools offered scholarships to promising African children with the belief that integrated education would help raise African communities to a "respectable" level. The caveat to this generosity is that the selected students must show particular characteristics, like the determination and respect Babamukuru showed missionaries as a child, to ensure they never challenge white students for superiority and always remain grateful to their white benefactors for the opportunity. So, while Nyasha might have been a strong enough student to thrive at a school like Sacred Heart, she never would have been considered for the scholarship given her outspokenness and penchant for challenging authority. Meek, obedient Tambu is the perfect choice, however. Also, having experienced British school once before, Nyasha points out the requirement of assimilation by erasing her "savage" native culture. "So they made a little space into which you [will be] assimilated," Nyasha criticizes. "That was what was intended for the precocious few who might prove a nuisance if left to themselves."

Maiguru—now "emancipated" from the strict behavioral code of her marriage—further challenges Babamukuru and the patriarchy by defending Tambu's decision to choose her educational future. She suggests Babamukuru's old-fashioned beliefs about women and education are not only dated but also prejudiced. Nevertheless, the patriarchal heads (Babamukuru and Father) still decide Tambu's future rather than letting her choose her own. So, while the decision to attend coincide with Tambu's desire, she remains enslaved by the patriarchy through their refusal to let her make the decision on her own.

Finally, the reader sees two more characters' "nervous conditions" that emerge under the stress of control. Mother's depression spirals dangerously after learning that Tambu will be attending boarding school. She knows she has no say in the matter, and after having lost many children, fears Tambu will fall victim to the "Englishness" she believes killed Nhamo and threatens Nyasha. At the same time, Nyasha begins binging and purging as her need for control manifests itself as an eating disorder. While colonization and patriarchy seem like unrelated themes, they are both about control: one country controlling another, and men controlling women. As black women, characters like Mother, Maiguru, Tambu, and Nyasha have the most to overcome in their journeys toward freedom.

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