Prose Study: Nervous Conditions

by Tsitsi Dangarembga

Untitled; sketch by Samuel Rodriguez, 2013


Tambu, an adolescent living in colonial Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe) of the ’60s, seizes the opportunity to leave her rural community to study at the missionary school run by her wealthy, British-educated uncle. Like many heroes, Tambu, in addition to excelling at her studies, slowly reaches some painful conclusions – about her family, her role as a woman, and the inherent evils of colonization. 

Tambu often thinks of her mother, “who suffered from being female and poor and uneducated and black so stoically.” Yet, she and her cousin, Nyasha, move increasingly farther away from their cultural heritage. At a funeral in her native village, Tambu admires the mourning of the women, “shrill, sharp, shiny, needles of sound piercing cleanly and deeply to let the anguish in, not out.” In many ways, this novel becomes Tambu’s own cry – a resonant, eloquent tribute to the women in her life, and to their losses.

Fiction Book Review, Publishers Weekly

IB Learner Profile: Balanced

“We understand the importance of balancing different aspects of our lives – intellectual, physical, and emotional – to achieve well-being for ourselves and others. We recognize our interdependence with other people and with the world in which we live.”

IB Learner Profile

In this novel, Tambu finds herself caught between conflicting forces: progress and tradition; between her admiration for her uncle Babamukuru and her gradual realisation that he is a flawed man; between her own ambition and her duty to her family. She will face many challenges, and be forced to confront her prejudices about different people. You might like to consider how balanced Tambu is in the face of all the things she has to come to terms with, and ask yourself how you might act in her place.

Lang and Lit Concept: Identity

The concept of identity is central our lives and to the study of the English A: Langauge and Literature course. In the study of the course, students will encounter many characters and voices in the works and texts they study. Hopefully, exposure to a variety of perspectives ranged across time and space will both confirm and challenge the views of students.

IB Language and Literature Guide

When selecting literature works to teach on an IB course, teachers have to consider works of different genres, by different authors, written in different times and places. At least one work must be written in another language. Nervous Conditions was Tsitsi Dangarembga’s first novel, and also the first to be written in English by a black woman from Zimbabwe. It was named as one of the top 100 books that have changed the world. When asking yourself why you might want to read this book, remind yourself of one of the aims of the course: “hopefully, exposure to a variety of perspectives… will both confirm and challenge the views of students.”

Areas of Exploration: Time and Space

  • To what extent do texts offer insight into another culture?
  • How do we approach texts from different times and cultures to our own?

Chapters 1 and 2

Tambu’s brother complains about the trip to and from missionary school, but she loves the walk. Children were seldom restricted and were allowed to swim in the pools. Men have a specific place for bathing and women bathe in a place ideal for washing clothes. Tambu doesn’t want to become a woman who’ll have to do laundry rather than play in the “interesting” pools.

Tambu’s brother, Nhamo, excels at school. By 1968, everyone except Tambu’s father begins to worry about Nhamo, who has refused to return home during the brief breaks, staying to study. On the November day Nhamo was expected home, Tambu arrives from her work in the fields to discover that Nhamo has not yet come. Netsai, her sister, has carried water from the river earlier. Netsai is a “good worker,” and Tambu is touched by her sister’s concern for the family.

The year Tambu is to have started school, there was a poor harvest and no money left over for school fees. Nhamo has excelled at school up to this point and he cries when he’s told that he can’t attend. Tambu’s mother extends her garden and sells the extra produce, scraping up enough money to put Nhamo back in school but not enough for Tambu to return. She is a good student and is sad, but her father tells her she’s better off staying at home and learning things a wife should know – how to cook, clean and tend a garden. Tambu’s mother tells Tambu that the skill most needed for a woman is the ability to carry her burdens. Tambu wants to be like Maiguru – well educated, living in a fine mansion and has a driver – and knows that an education is the way to achieve that goal.

Activities and Resources

Learner Portfolio


Chapter 3

When Babamukuru arrives in a cavalcade of motorcars, Tambu’s father tells of the return of the “prince” with his educational degrees. Maiguru enters behind her husband and Tambu notes that Maiguru’s wearing a dress that looks very much like one Babamukuru gave Ma’Shingayi for Christmas just before leaving for his studies. Tambu prepares the meal, and she is praised by the women, making her feel a little better and greatly boosting her confidence.

The young people gather for dancing. Tambu invites Nyasha to join, but the girl has trouble understanding the language. Having spoken nothing but English for the past years Nyasha has all but forgotten the Shona language, which offends Tambu. Later, Tambu’s father, Jeremiah, joins Babamukuru and his other siblings as they discuss the future for the family. Babamukuru says that the key to a prosperous family is that one child from every branch must be educated.

The following day, Jeremiah tells Nhamo of the plan, who immediately goes to the garden where Tambu is working to be certain that she knows of his good fortune – that he was chosen because he is smart, and that she would never rise to that level. Tambu erupts into an angry tirade, telling Nhamo that he will always be part of this family, whether he wants to be or not. She might have been able to be happy for Nhamo’s opportunity except that he had made it clear that he believed she was being passed over because she is a girl.

Tambu has related these stories to fully describe the situation in her family on that day in November of 1968, when they are waiting for Nhamo to return home from school. Nhamo had complained of pain in his neck and had been taken to a clinic where he was tentatively diagnosed with mumps and died two days later.

Babamukuru tells Jeremiah that “the girl” must now take Nhamo’s place, getting an education so she can help her family until the time comes for marriage. Ma’Shingayi objects, but Tambu’s father insists that she be educated. Tambu wins and notes that Babamukuru’s decision to oversee her education has vindicated her.


Learner Portfolio


Chapter 4

Tambu is taken to her uncle, Baramukuru’s house. When she sees the house and realizes the extent of her uncle’s wealth, she falls into a pit of self-pity, believing that she herself has nothing to do with the fact that she’s being offered this opportunity.

Tambu knows she must develop some strategy to avoid being distracted from her life by her grand surroundings and decides that she’ll simply have to ignore her surroundings and begins immediately by being as unimpressed as possible. Nhamo had been so enamored with the life that he had never wanted to return to the homestead. Tambu likens her uncle to God and the home to Heaven.The lack of dirt is proof of this theory; she is in danger of becoming an angel or a saint. The occasional presence of red dust is a way to remind herself that this is not Heaven after all.

Tambu will be sharing a room with Nyasha. Tambu knows that there’s something “intangible” about her cousin but she can’t decide if it’s “intangibly bad” or “intangibly good.” Either way, she knows that Nyasha will be a distraction when all Tambu wants to do is to settle down with her studies.


Learner Portfolio

In this chapter Tambu prepares for school. She is very concerned with staying focused when surrounded by so many new distractions. Write a one-two page journal entry from Tambu’s point of view, showing what she might be thinking about. Ideas you might explore in your piece include: 

  • What worries her and what she will do about it;
  • How she might compare with Nhamo;
  • How people in her family might be reacting about her going to school; 
  • How she compares school to other aspects of her life. 

Chapter 5

Tambu and Nyasha begin to communicate. Nyasha says that her parents are angry that she and Chido have adopted Anglicized ways, and it might have been much better if the two children had been sent home to live rather than living those years in England. She says that returning home was a shock for them and they’d truly forgotten that England wasn’t their home.

Tambu awkwardly learns how to use the bathroom before dinner. She’s concerned that they are eating so early, thinking she’ll be hungry again before bedtime. Tambu says that the meal is embarrassing and that it looks like a “small angry child” ate at her place. She has trouble with the knife and fork and drops much of her food. Maiguru sees her distress and calls for Anna to bring some sadza, a traditional dish that is a staple for Tambu’s family. Maiguru says that getting accustomed to the food in England was horrible, and she wants Tambu to eat whatever will fill her stomach and makes her happy.

Afterwards, Tambu remains in the bedroom reading until Anna says that she’s wanted in the living room. Tambu recognizes this as the moment she’ll be formally welcomed to her uncle’s home and separated from her own. Babamukuru begins a long speech, but Tambu barely listens to most of it. As the eldest son, father, husband and headmaster, Babamukuru has authority. On those occasions when he wasn’t in power – when he was a student in the mission school, for example – the reward for the time of submission was an increase in power. He tells her to be grateful for the opportunity, to study diligently, and reminds her that the reason for her education was so that she could provide for her family as he had done for so many years. Tambu returns to her room, pledging to be as straight and diligent as her uncle.


Learner Portfolio

After witnessing Nyasha’s irreverence toward traditional African customs, Tambu decides that her cousin is “beyond redemption.” Write one-two pages in your learner portfolio from Nyasha’s point of view, showing what she might be thinking about. Ideas you might explore in your piece include: 

  • What traditions and customs are causing Nyasha difficulty in this chapter;
  • How she compares herself with Tambu;
  • Her thoughts about her father’s reactions; 
  • How she feels about her place in the wider community at this point.

Chapter 6

Nyasha is facing exams that will determine whether she is allowed to advance in school, or if she will be “screened out” of the school system. Her father could use his influence as headmaster to find a place for her even if she failed the test, but this would go against his claims of morality and honor. She emerges with the highest aggregate score in the school. Maiguru worries, but Babamukuru is pleased that she is willing to apply herself. Nyasha says it’s the first time she’s done something that matters.

Chido arrives home for vacation and the three dress for a school-sponsored Christmas dance. Babamukuru doesn’t recognize Nyasha and insists that she change, but Maiguru says that she purchased the dress as a reward for the good grades. Chido and Tambu tease Nyasha, saying that it’s because she looked so pretty that Babamukuru objected. Tambu says she doesn’t like parties but finds that she has a good time. Nyasha hangs behind, learning a dance step from Andy. When Babamukuru realizes that Nyasha is alone with a boy, he goes out to find her. He yells at Nyasha for hanging around outside with a boy at this hour and the argument escalates, with Nyasha not backing down and her father attacking her, calling her a whore, and threatening to kill her. He orders her out of the house as Chido and Maiguru restrain him.

Nyasha and Babamukuru are stony to each other in the coming days. Nyasha withdraws and Tambu begins to worry. Babamukuru administers her punishment, fourteen lashes and an hour-long sermon. Nyasha tells Tambu that she understands that she is to be obedient to her father, but that she feels she’ll lose something of herself if she caves in. Tambu talks about the reason she is two years behind in school, of the raising of the maize and her own father’s reactions. Nyasha says that she understands this sort of treatment is common, but that she still can’t just give in. One night, Tambu crawls into bed with her cousin and they cuddle together as they go to sleep. That seems to be the beginning of the healing for Nyasha, but Tambu worries about her uncle, who hasn’t the luxury of tears to wash away some of his pain.


Learner Portfolio


Chapter 7

Tambu, Nyasha and her parents go “home” on December 23. As they arrive at the homestead, she realizes that there’s no reason anyone would want to go there other than to visit family. Upon arrival, they find that Tambu’s mother is lying down and that her father has gone to town with a man named Takesure. Takesure is a relative of Babamukuru, who came to stay with Jeremiah, ostensibly to help out. He has been having sex with Ma’Shingayi’s sister, Lucia.

Tambu finds that the latrine is filthy. Nyasha helps clean the latrine, though Tambu says she would have been too embarrassed to have asked for help. They never manage to make it as clean as it should have been, and the two girls revert to using the bathroom in the bushes. Tambu’s mother, pregnant and claiming illness, greets everyone first from her place on a reed mat in the bedroom. Nyasha first earns Tambu’s silent censure for taking a seat on a chair instead of on the floor, but then Nyasha participates in a formal greeting, which surprises Babamukuru into a quick smile of praise.

Tambu’s aunt arrives with her family and an uncle with his family soon after, making a total of twenty-four people at the house. One night, the family takes up the issue of what to do about Takesure and Lucia. Babamukuru, Thomas, Tete Gladys, Jeremiah and the accused, Takesure, convene in the living room, and note the amount of problems in their family, from lack of manners, to unwed pregnant daughters, abusive sons, and lack of money. Jeremiah says all these things point to an evil presence and suggests that they bring in a “good medium,” have beer and a sacrificial ox, and call the clan together for a cleansing ritual. Babamukuru is appalled. He does agree that there is evil among them but believes it’s punishment for some wrongdoing. His mother had suggested to him before her death that Jeremiah and Ma’Shingayi, having never had a formal wedding, were therefore living in sin. Babamukuru says he’s gathered enough money for a small wedding to rectify the situation.


Learner Portfolio


Chapter 8

The relatives leave, with Babamukuru, Maiguru and Nyasha being the last to go. Tambu stays to help as her mother is ill. Tambu works hard during her stay. When Babamukuru returns to pick up Tambu, he notes the repairs Tambu did and compliments Jeremiah on a job well done. Jeremiah accepts the praise, elaborating on how difficult the work was.

Ma’Shingayi delivers a healthy baby boy and Lucia arrives that same day. Lucia asks Babamukuru to help her find a job. He soon finds her a job as a cook at the girl’s hotel on the mission grounds. Maiguru, Ma’Shingayi and Lucia fall to their knees, expressing their gratitude. Tambu would also have knelt, but Nyasha kicks her under the table and says, “Don’t you dare,” though Tambu still tells her uncle of her gratitude. Ma’Shingayi goes home a few days later. Lucia begins her job and starts taking classes as well. She is immediately proud of her accomplishments. Tambu feels that Babamukuru’s actions prove he is an honorable person, but to Nyasha, people in her father’s position have a responsibility to do whatever they can for the less fortunate. Nyasha says there’s nothing wrong with being thankful but that there’s no need to turn Babamukuru into a hero.

The wedding preparations begin. Tambu allows herself to be fitted for a peach bridesmaid dress and admits that she looks beautiful in the dress, hose, and matching sandals but continues to feel that the wedding is a sham and makes a mockery of her parents. In some ways it makes her feel as if her very existence is threatened. The morning of the wedding, Tambu can’t bring herself to get out of bed. When Babamukuru orders her up she refuses, even with the understanding that disobeying Babamukuru means she’ll no longer be able to live at his house.

Babamukuru doesn’t send Tambu away but does punish her. He gives her fifteen lashes because she is fifteen years old, then gives Anna two weeks off with Tambu taking over her chores. Still attending school, there is simply more to do than she can keep up with and after only a couple of days the man hired to do outside work, Sylvester, pitches in. At the end of the first week, Nyasha ignores Tambu’s objections and helps with the laundry, which has accumulated for the entire week. While they are working, Lucia arrives, learns of the punishment, and then speaks to Babamukuru. She asks if he took time to find out why Tambu didn’t want to attend the wedding, if Ma’Shingayi wanted Tambu there, or if she even wanted the wedding. After she leaves Maiguru says that Lucia is right, the punishment is too severe.


Learner Portfolio

Tambu’s thoughts are becoming increasingly complicated throughout chapter 8. Write a one-two page journal entry in which you explore her thoughts and feelings about: 

  • Nyasha
  • Her relationship with Babamakuru
  • The upcoming wedding
  • Being part of the school 

Chapters 9 and 10

Just before the Grade Seven examinations, a group of nuns visit the mission school. The students are subjected to a “general knowledge” test and each student is interviewed individually. The nuns are recruiting; that two girls will be offered a chance to study at a school called Sacred Heart. Tambu is selected for one of only two scholarships offered. Nyasha says that the nuns will change her and urges Tambu not to go. Babamukuru tells her that he won’t allow it, fearing the negative effect of too much time with whites and the cost of her terms there. He then asks Maiguru if she has anything to add and to his surprise she speaks out. She says that Tambu has a scholarship so there’s no real expense and that Tambu has been raised well, that she will be a good woman no matter to what she is exposed.

Jeremiah and Babamukuru discuss the matter, and Jeremiah agrees. Tambu’s mother becomes disconsolate over the continual separation from her children. She refuses to rise most days, sits in the sunshine and only rouses herself to feed the youngest son, Dambudzo. Lucia comes and puts Dambudzo on a rock in the middle of the river and tells Ma’Shingayi that the child will drown if she doesn’t rouse herself to go to him. Ma’Shingayi comes back to herself, taking on her duties again, and freeing Tambu to leave for Sacred Heart.

Tambu was at first able to assure herself that she was stronger than Nyasha but that “seeds grow,” and that she was never again able to fully accept Sacred Heart. The journey brought her to the place where she is now, the place where she can begin to tell her story of the four women she loved and the men who were part of their lives, and that the story itself will stretch over another volume.


Towards Assessment: Higher Level Essay

Students submit an essay on one non-literary text or a collection of non-literary texts by one same author, or a literary text or work studied during the course. (20 marks)

The essay must be 1,200-1,500 words in length.††

The end of the novel marks the halfway point of Tambu’s story – you can read the sequel, This Mournable Body, to find out what happens next – and she has certainly come a long way from the naive girl we met at the start of the story. It appears the scales have dropped from her eyes and she is able to judge others more clearly thanks to her life experiences. If you would like to write your HL Essay on this text, you could write about the way Tambu defines herself in relation to others, and in relation to her culture. You could focus on the way she relates to Nyasha; how she breaks free of Babamakuru; the way her feelings towards her parents and home develop; the importance school plays in her life; or some combination of all of these. This would address the Language and Literature concept of Identity:

  • The concept of identity is central our lives and to the study of the English A: Langauge and Literature course. In the study of the course, students will encounter many characters and voices in the works and texts they study. Hopefully, exposure to a variety of perspectives ranged across time and space will both confirm and challenge the views of students. Students are also likely to consider the role of authorship in writing – how does the identity of a writer influence their works and texts? – and they will consider how their own identity as readers shapes their understanding of works and texts.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s