Nervous Conditions

Nervous Conditions Summary and Analysis of Chapter 3


As Chapter 3 begins, Tambu is awaiting the arrival of her uncle, Babamukuru, although she is resentful that she is not allowed to accompany her father and his sister, Gladys, to the airport. Jeremiah has been long awaiting his elder brother's return, especially because he has to beg to stay afloat and is counting on Babamukuru's wealth to lift their family out of poverty. Jeremiah exclaims, "Truly our prince has returned today! Full of knowledge. Knowledge that will benefit us all!" Babamukuru accepts all this praise graciously. Tambu is suspicious of her cousins, Nyasha and Chido, because of their English manners, language, and style of dress. She thinks they seem like snobs.

Tambu becomes irritable - she feels distant from the reunion because she was not allowed to accompany her father to the airport. She tries to remember what her relationship with her cousins used to be like before they left for England, and she remembers loving them. However, in order to calm her resentment, Tambu retreats to the kitchen and busies herself with making a stew for dinner. This revives her confidence, and her female relatives are impressed with her acumen and work ethic.

Tambu is given the task of carrying the water dish so that each family member can wash his or her hands before eating. She explains that there is a specific order that she has to follow. The men wash their hands first, beginning with the oldest and most senior, and the youngest wash last. This is because the water is cleanest at the beginning. Tambu, however, gets confused and makes many mistakes interpreting the hierarchy of power. She also resents her brother and cousins for eating with the men while the rest of the women and children are relegated to the kitchen.

After dinner, the women gather in the yard to dance. Tambu invites her cousins to dance, but soon realizes that they don't understand the Shona language anymore, which makes her sad. Meanwhile, the men have a meeting indoors concerning the finances of the family. Babamukuru has received the news that the family has been struggling, and offers the solution of educating at least one member in each family unit. He is most worried about Jeremiah;s branch of the family, and insists that Nhamo come to live with him at the mission school so he can be more committed to his studies. Nhamo immediately goes to find Tambu in the vegetable garden and brags to her about his new fortune. This pushes Tambu's jealousy over the edge the siblings start to fight. Tambu hurls a rock at her brother, and he runs away.

However, Tambu is relieved when Babamukuru comes to bring Nhamo back to the mission school, since she no longer has to focus on giving him the silent treatment. She also tries to develop a friendship with Nyasha whenever her cousin comes to visit, but Nyasha does not speak Shona and Tambu does not speak English, so communication is a constant struggle. Tambu describes Nyasha as "silent and watchful... with an intensity that made me uncomfortable."

After his first year away, Nhamo changes perceptibly. His physical presence becomes more anglicized, and he also claims to have forgotten how to speak Shona. This gives him an excuse to not communicate with his family, whom he looks down upon. Jeremiah finds Nhamo's arrogance and refusal to communicate impressive, since it means his son is dedicated to his studies, but Ma'Shingayi is distressed because she thinks someone has bewitched her son into forgetting his native language.

The narrative jumps ahead to 1968, returning to the afternoon when Nhamo does not arrive home from school on time. In fact, Nhamo never arrives home at all. Instead, Babamukuru comes to report that Nhamo has died of a mysterious illness in a hospital in town. Maiguru comforts Nhamo's mother and Jeremiah cries, but Tambu is not sorry Nhamo has died. Babamukuru suggests taking Tambu to school in Nhamo's place, but Ma'Shingayi objects because she doesn't want to lose another child. However, the men eventually decide that Tambu shall leave for the mission school. While Tambu is elated, her mother becomes thoroughly depressed and cannot eat or work.


In Tambu's village, education leads to riches, and is therefore a mark of success. Babamukuru, who has raised himself out of poverty and attended school in England, is akin to royalty. Jeremiah, Tambu's father, begs for money in order to properly herald his brother's return. As a solution to his extended family's financial woes, Babamukuru suggests education. In this way, education is a form of empowerment against the colonial system. Instead of simply providing financial support to his family, Babamukuru wants to make sure that they become self-sufficient in the way that he has, which is why he offers to educate Nhamo at the mission.

While the character of Babamukuru is inspirational, he is still aware of the limitations of reality. On one hand, he has not "cringed under the weight of his poverty. Boldly, Babamukuru [has] defied it." Tambu respects the way her uncle has broken "the evil wizard's spell" through hard work and education. However, he does not rest on his laurels. He also wants to educate members of his family, because he believes this to be "his duty". Education has given Babamukuru confidence, so unlike Baba and Nhamo, he does not need to bully anybody. He merely wants to help his family rise to the same level that he has, although he is quick to warn them, "we cannot afford to dream". His generosity, though, is also the source of his power over the whole family.

Tambu is disapproving of her cousins because of their new English affectations and customs. She comments that Chido is dressed well, but Nyasha is wearing a tiny little dress that Tambu finds inappropriate: "I could not condone her lack of decorum. I would not give my approval. I turned away." Nhamo, meanwhile, tries to speak to his cousins in broken English, which makes Tambu "thoroughly disgusted". Their time in England has made Nyasha and Chido quite literally forget their roots - they can no longer speak Shona. As a result, Tambu is unable to communicate with her cousins. They don't want to dance with her, either. Tambu sees her cousins, whom she was so excited to welcome home, as strangers. She is utterly disappointed. In this way, Nyasha and Chido's exposure to life abroad has created a barrier between the cousins, and it seems as though they now look down on Tambu's family and the Shona culture, which is foreign to them.

Meanwhile, Tambu continues to get frustrated about the limitations of her gender. She describes certain rituals that show how this inequality is actually engrained in the Shona culture. Before the welcome dinner, Tambu must offer a water dish to her relatives so that they can wash their hands. Since the water is cleanest at the beginning, the elder men go first. The women go after the youngest man has washed his hands. Additionally, the women must eat in the kitchen, after they have finished preparing and serving food to the men. The women eat what is left over after the men have taken what they want.

Later, Nhamo gloats to his sister that he is to receive an education at the mission school while she must stay at the family farm. He points out the obvious to quash her dreams, chiding, "Why are you jealous anyway? Did you ever hear of a girl being taken away to school?" Looking back, Tambu concludes that her brother was "sincere in his bigotry. But in those days I took a rosy view of male nature". As an adolescent, Tambu is headstrong and idealistic, not yet aware of the struggles that lie ahead. Tambu feels excitement, not fear or sadness, after Nhamo's death - because it means that Tambu will be attending school in his place. While her mother cries, thinking that an illness will claim her daughter as well, Jeremiah is initially frustrated because once Tambu is married, her wealth will follow her to her husband's house. However, he goes along with Babamukuru's plan so that Tambu can bring home as much as she can to their family before she gets married. Again, this is an indication of the gender divide inherent in the Shona culture.