The narrator, Tambudzai, Tambu for short, begins her story with the statement, "I was not sorry when my brother died." This section begins to lay the context for this event, which happened in 1968. Tambu introduces her elder brother, Nhamo, as arrogant - he is too proud to walk home from school, although Tambu finds endless inspiration in her daily journey. This contrast is representative of the siblings' distinctive perspectives. Tambu recalls that in 1965, her father, Jeremiah, decided that Nhamo would go to the mission school and live with Babamukuru, Tambu's foreign-schooled uncle. She remembers how her father had always been grateful for his brother's generosity - Babamukuru pursued higher education, which resulted in his financial success. However, after Nhamo lives with his uncle for a few years, he becomes embarrassed by his own family's poverty, avoiding any labor whenever he returns to the homestead.
Nhamo was able to start school at the age of seven. Meanwhile, Babamukuru lived in England with his wife, Maiguru, and their children, Nyasha and Chido, for five years. While Babamukuru was away, Tambu's family struggled and her mother, Ma'Shingayi, was forced to sell boiled eggs to passengers at the bus terminus. Tambu was also eager to attend school, and did not understand why her parents were only concerned with raising enough money to pay Nhamo's fees. When she complained to her mother that her father did not prioritize her education, her mother answered, "This business of womanhood is a heavy burden."
Tambu remembers her recently deceased grandmother, with whom she used to work in the garden. Tambu's grandmother often shared her generational values with Tambu, who interprets, "life could be lived with a modicum of dignity in any circumstances if you worked hard enough and obeyed the rules." Tambu's grandmother told her about how their family's land was taken from them by "wizards well-versed in treachery and black magic," and how her grandfather had escaped from slavery. Tambu, inspired by her grandmother's anecdotes, decides to cultivate a small plot of land and grow cobs of maize, called mealies, to sell in order to raise money for school fees. However, one day, Tambu discovers that Nhamo has been stealing her mealies and giving them away to children at Sunday school. She loses all respect for her brother that day, charging at him and attempting to kill him. Mr. Matimba, the Sunday school teacher, has to break up the siblings' fight.
Mr. Matimba advises Tambu to sell her mealies to Whites, whom he believes will pay up to sixpence apiece. Despite protests from Jeremiah, Mr. Matimba drives Tambu to town in his truck to sell the maize. First, they approach an older white couple. The woman scolds Mr. Matimba for putting a little girl to work selling mealies. Her husband, meanwhile, reproaches his wife, saying, "It's none of our business". They do not buy any mealies, but Mr. Matimba lies and tells the couple that Tambu is an orphan trying to raise money for school fees, so the white woman gives him a wad of money. This interaction is demonstrative of the racial tension in Rhodesia in the mid-1960s.
Following Mr. Matimba's advice, Tambu gives the money to the school headmaster to keep safe, so that she can use it to pay her school fees for the next few years. Predictably, Jeremiah protests and attempts to get the money for himself, but the headmaster refuses and Tambu is able to continue her education. Jeremiah expects Tambu to conduct herself like the other women in her family, focusing on keeping a household instead of her academic pursuits. When Babamukuru and his family return from England, Nhamo and his father take the trip to meet them at the airport while Tambu and Ma' Shingayi scramble to find the provisions for the large, celebratory feast.
In the first chapter of Nervous Conditions, Dangarembga introduces the theme of education as an avenue for social mobility through the relationship between Tambu and her older brother, Nhamo. Tambu associates education with financial success, based on the achievements of her uncle, Babamukuru. Although Babamukuru seems to have remained humble and helps with the physical labor on the homestead whenever he comes to visit, education affects Nhamo differently; he resents his meager roots. Ma'Shingayi is uneducated herself but still understands the importance of it, especially for men, so she boils eggs and sells them to passengers at the bus terminus in order to keep her son in school.
Dangarembga explores the theme of gender inequality when Tambu shares her thoughts while waiting for her brother to return home on the bus. Nhamo always refuses to carry his own luggage, but expects the women in his family to serve him, even beating his younger sister if she does not comply. His demeanor is generally "unpleasant", but his expectations and actions reflect the patriarchal Shona society in which he was raised. As Tambu says, "the needs and sensibilities of the women in my family were not considered a priority, or even legitimate." As Nhamo tells his sister, she will never be able to go to school - "It's the same everywhere. because you are a girl."
Dangaremba subtly touches on the theme of racial inequality in the beginning of Chapter 2, when Tambu informs her reader that seven is "the age at which the Government had declared that African children were sufficiently developed cognitively to be able to understand the abstractions of numbers and letters." The tone of her language is resentful, because she understands that the colonial government has unfairly low expectations for African children. Tambu is weighed down, as her mother puts it, both by "the poverty of blackness on one side and the weight of womanhood on the other."
When Mr. Matimba takes Tambu into town for the purpose of selling the maize she has grown on her garden plot, they end up begging for a handout instead. Their interaction with an elderly white couple, Doris and George, demonstrates the inequality they face as "kaffers." Black people who gather to watch Doris hand Mr. Matimba a wad of money are of mixed opinions: some think that blacks should not accept handouts, since "what is good is not given," as one black onlooker puts it, but others claim that whites "could afford to be, in fact ought to be, generous." The couple won't buy maize from Tambu because they think she is being exploited, but rather, they give her a handout because they pity her. This is a representation of how colonial powers kept African populations dependent for centuries. Rather than educating and empowering Africans through business and trade, they kept them reliant on aid.
Additionally, Dangarembga explores the generational gap between Tambu and Nyasha and the older generation. Tambu's mother and grandmother do not complain about the hard labor they must endure. Tambu describes her grandmother as "an inexorable cultivator of land, sower of seeds and reaper of rich harvests until, literally until, her very last moment." Her grandmother would give Tambu "history lessons" while they work in the fields together, with this message: "endure and obey, for there is no other way." In this way, Tambu's grandmother gives her a different kind of education than what Nhamo is receiving in his prestigious missionary school. Tambu learns about her family's mythology and cultural beliefs.
Tambu's grandmother also tells her about the source of Babamukuru's prosperity. He became successful because his mother sent him to the mission school. Eventually he earned a government scholarship to South Africa because he worked so hard. Tambu's grandmother praises her son, saying, "he was diligent, he was industrious, he was respectful." Tambu absorbs those lessons and starts planting maize on the plot of land that used to be her grandmother's - with the hopes of selling enough to pay her school fees. While Tambu's grandmother's generation would never dream of doing such a thing, Tambu does not see the gender divide as a barrier in the same way her mother does. Instead, she interprets her grandmother's stories to mean that she, too, can do what she sets her mind to. Tambu realizes the difference between herself and the older generation - she notices that her mother "admired my tenacity but also felt sorry for me because of it. She began to prepare me for disappointment long before I would have been forced to face up to it".