Nervous Conditions

Nervous Conditions Summary and Analysis of Chapters 4 - 5


On the ride to the mission with Babamukuru, Tambu thinks about leaving her old self behind. She fully expects herself to become a "clean, well-groomed, genteel self". When they arrive at the mission, she is overwhelmed by the opulence of the house and grounds. She remembers Nhamo telling her, "not even the Whites themselves could afford it!" She points out that Babamukuru is the only African living in a white house, which is a source of pride for the family. At first, Tambu believes that the garage is Babamukuru's house, and is somewhat perturbed at its simplicity - but then is astonished to find out that this is a place to house "cars, not people!" She suddenly feels ashamed of her meager upbringing and thinks her family must be very poor for Babamukuru to be helping them so much. She feels out of place, but is greeted warmly by Anna, the maid. Nyasha is also happy to see her cousin. She is baking a cake for Chido, who will leave for boarding school the next day.

Tambu waits for Maiguru to come down from her bedroom. She observes the living room, impressed by how clean it is and all the nice things in it. She starts to understand her brother's transformation after living in such opulence, but makes a promise to herself that she will not go the same way. Maiguru soon comes downstairs and Anna serves them tea and snacks. Tambu has never had so many different choices of food. She is also surprised by the way Nyasha speaks to her mother. When Maiguru scolds Nyasha for reading a book by D.H. Lawrence that is inappropriate for her, Nyasha talks back and defends herself. Even Maiguru says her children are "too Anglicised". Tambu learns that she is to share a bedroom with her cousin, which makes her both excited and nervous.

At first, Tambu is uncomfortable, standing in silence in Nyasha's room. However, they soon burst out laughing together and Tambu discovers that Nyasha is cross with her mother, not her cousin. However, Nyasha had noticed the way that Tambu sneered at her after they returned from England, and felt hurt. All the while, Tambu had thought her cousins believed they were too good for their old lives. Reaching a new understanding, the cousins become fast friends. Tambu feels comfortable enough to confront Nyasha about her treatment of her mother, but Nyasha brushes her off, saying that Maiguru doesn't "want to be respected". Anna comes and kneels down to tell the that dinner is ready. Nyasha is clearly distressed by this habit and yells at Anna to stand up, but Anna doesn't listen.

Tambu joins the family for her first dinner at the mission and is thoroughly embarrassed by her lack of knowledge about table manners. As is custom, Maiguru serves Babamukuru and waits until he has finished eating to serve herself and the girls. Nyasha, however, decides to start eating before her father is done. Later, after declining seconds, Nyasha gets in a fight with her mother about the D.H. Lawrence book, which Maiguru has confiscated. Nyasha storms out of the dining room. At night, in their bedroom, Nyasha asks Tambu to join her for a cigarette, and Tambu is appalled. Anna asks Tambu to come to the living room, where Babamukuru lectures her about how lucky she is to have this opportunity for education. Tambu hopes to be like her uncle one day, "straight as an arrow... steely, and true."

The next morning, Tambu once again notes how Nyasha is particularly concerned about being fat, eating very little for breakfast. Then, Tambu and Nyasha head off for school, where Tambu realizes that Nyasha's classmates do not like her, despite the fact that she is the headmaster's daughter. They think she tries to be "white" and spread rumors that she is promiscuous. Tambu, however, remains uninterested in socializing or anything else that might compromise her new life. When Tambu gets her first menstrual period, she is embarrassed by the dirty rags her mother has given her to use. Instead, she learns from Nyasha how to use a tampon. Unlike Tambu, Nyasha is not ashamed.

Tambu quickly becomes fluent in English and does well in school. She also notices how obstinate Nyasha can be and how ungrateful she seems toward her parents, despite the fact that she has every comfort she could possibly want. One day after church, the headmaster of Tambu's school, Mr. Satombo, praises Nyasha and Tambu to Babamukuru. Nyasha is rude to Mr. Satombo, while Tambu feels proud. In this conversation, Tambu learns that Maiguru has a Master's Degree.

When Tambu asks her aunt about her degree, she snorts and becomes serious, saying, "No one even thinks about the things I gave up." She was educated alongside her husband, but no one in Tambu's village ever talks about Maiguru's education because she is a woman. Tambu feels sad that Maiguru's own ambition has been curtailed by her duties to her husband and children. However, she decides not to tell Nyasha about the conversation with Maiguru, since Nyasha is often annoyed by references to her mother.


Tambu is excited to leave behind her life of poverty and move to the mission. She is aware that her appearance marks her as a peasant: "my tight faded frock... broad-toed feet that had grown thick-skinned through daily contact with the ground in all weathers... corrugated black callouses on my knees, the scales on my skin that were due to lack of oil, the short, dull tufts of malnourished hair." She is ready to leave this version of herself, and her poor identity, behind. She does not seem to show remorse for leaving her weeping mother and frustrated father, but rather, is blinded by this singular opportunity.

However, once Tambu realizes just how different her new life is, she feels a pang of empathy for her late brother, understanding how he became so spoiled. The experience of adjusting to life in the mission is humbling for Tambu. She is humiliated when she does not know how to operate the light switch in her cousin's bedroom or how to use proper silverware. She realizes that it might be more difficult than she had thought to discard her old self. Tambu struggles with her identity and what it means to be educated. She is shocked by Nyasha, who does not seem to appreciate all the comforts of her life: "From what I had seen of my cousin, I was intrigued and fascinated with one part of my mind, the adventurous, explorative part. But this was a very small part. Most of me sought order. Most of me was concrete and categorical." Tambu wants to be more like Babamukuru than his boundary - pushing daughter.

Dangarembga foreshadows Nyasha's nervous condition that will come to light in later chapters: anorexia. When Tambu first sees the size of her uncle's dining room table, she comments, "no one who ate from such a table could fail to grow fat and healthy". For Tambu, roundness means wealth and strength. Meanwhile, her cousin is concerned about putting on too much weight, a symptom of the excesses that surround her. During dinner, Nyasha quarrels with her parents and storms off to her room without eating. Her father tells her to come back and eat her food, but she insists that she is full, refusing to eat. This is in part to bother her mother, who has spent a long time cooking and preparing the meal, but also in part because she is starving herself thin.

Tambu's association of menstruation with dirtiness results from the disdain for her own gender that she has grown up with. The absence of dirt in Maiguru's living room makes Tambu view menstruation as filthy: "I knew that the fact of menstruation was a shamefully unclean secret that should not be allowed to contaminate immaculate male ears by indiscreet reference to this type of dirt in their presence." This characterization of menstruation as inherently dirty and offensive reveals a deep misogyny that exists in the Shona culture. In contrast, Nyasha uses tampons without shame and shows Tambu how to do the same.

Maiguru and Babamukuru are suspended between the two worlds of the village and the mission. Maiguru says of her children, "They're too Anglicised... they picked up all these disrespectful ways in England, and it's taking them time to learn how to behave at home again." She keeps to the traditional way of serving her husband first and making sure he has had a satisfying meal before eating. However, at the end of Chapter 5, Maiguru shows some resentment that her education took a backseat to her familial obligations. Babamukuru also thinks that Nyasha is out of control. Nyasha's attitude toward her parents is at odds with Tambu's own respect for her aunt and uncle. It seems that Nyasha's rebellion stems from the fact that she, too, is confused between her English identity and her Shona roots - but does not yet have a mature way to deal with it, like her parents do.