Nervous Conditions


Nervous Conditions, written by Tsitsi Dangarembga in 1989, is a semi-autobiographical coming of age story about a young woman in modern Africa. The story takes place in Rhodesia in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The story centers around Tambu and Nyasha, female cousins who, until their early teens, lead very different lives.

Tambu was raised on her family's farm in Umtali where she was responsible for household chores, gardening, and caring for her younger siblings. Tambu's dreams of getting an education are only fulfilled when her brother dies and she becomes next in line for school since she has no other brothers. She is allowed to stay with her aunt and uncle while she attends school at the mission. While there, Tambu shares a room with her cousin, Nyasha and the girls teach each other many lessons.

Nyasha spent most of her formative years in England while her mother and father were getting their education. When she comes back to Africa she realizes the vast differences between European culture and African culture--especially where women are concerned. She experiences inner turmoil as she tries to come to terms with being a woman in Africa. As we see Nyasha's struggles through the eyes of Tambu, we begin to understand the continuing devastation countries are experiencing as a result of colonization by another culture.

About the Author

Tsitsi Dangarembga was born in Rhodesia, now called Zimbabwe in 1959. She lived in England from age two through age six. She then returned to Rhodesia and finished her schooling in a missionary school there. She returned to England to pursue a degree in medicine at Cambridge University but homesickness soon drove her back to Africa. She continued her education in Africa studying first psychology and eventually film production and direction. Nervous Conditions is Dangarembga's first novel. She has also written a play entitled She No Longer Weeps.


The Duality of Oppression: African Women Fighting for Voice

Women in Africa must not only liberate themselves from the influences of colonial rule--they are also fighting the effects of patriarchal traditions in the history of their culture. Tsitsi Dangarembga's portrayal of five women in her novel Nervous Conditions is a striking reminder that African women are under a double yoke when it comes to making their voices heard. Pauline Ada Uwakweh, in her essay, "Debunking Patriarchy: The Liberational Quality of Voicing in Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions," proposes three categories of women characters in the novel: " the 'escaped' females, the 'entrapped' females, and the rebellious females" (Uwakweh). Uwakweh presents Tambu and Lucia as escaped females, Tambu's mother and Aunt Maiguru as entrapped females, and Nyasha as the rebellious female although there has been some discussion of whether Lucia is truly "escaped" because she is still dependent on Babamukuru's money to gain her independence.

Tambu's mother is one of the entrapped females. She is bound both by the laws of her culture and the social stratification of colonialism. Because of her gender she will never be seen as more than a possession of the men in her family even though it is through the fruits of her labor that her son is able to go to school and food it put on the table. Because of her poverty, she will never reach an equal status with whites or the educated Africans. In addition, she is consumed with the fear of the fatal attraction of Englishness which, in her eyes, is devouring her family one by one.

Maiguru, although educated, is as entrapped as Tambu's mother. Her education only serves to make her more resentful of her entrapment. Maiguru is still subjected to the demands of her husband and the men of her community. She knows and understands the "European way" but years of ingrained culture and patriarchy force her to keep silent and obedient. Maiguru's education is viewed as an oddity. The people of her village assume she was simply taking care of her husband and her family while they lived in England.

Nyasha is the rebellious female. She has had the benefit of a British education and knows first hand what kind of lives women in Europe lead. She is ever aware of the differences in the way Shona women are treated compared with the treatment of British women. Unlike her mother, Nyasha has no memories of traditions and customs to silence her voice. Instead she finds herself caught between two worlds. Her schoolmates shun her for her white mannerisms and she has no Shona mannerisms to fall back on. Nyasha is truly a woman without a home, and as she struggles to make a place for herself in society, she finds that the effort just may kill her.

Lucia can be seen as either escaped or entrapped. She is escaped because she doesn't care what people think. She is set on gaining an education and bettering herself and will use any means available to achieve those goals. She is entrapped, however, because she still relies on the men in the family, primarily Babamukuru, to fund her education.

Tambu is the promise of the escaped female. She views the cultural differences in social status and gender equality from a vantage point. She has experienced secondhand through her female relatives the effects of patriarchal rule on women's self-worth and the effects of cultural conflict when Africans allow colonial ideals to displace their African roots. Tambu comes close to forgetting her culture but her mother's caution always returns to remind her and ground her in the reality of her ethnic heritage.

Dangarembga chooses to portray these five women in this way because she is one of them. She is an African woman trying to find her voice in a male dominated world. Considering the double yoke of the effects of patriarchy and colonization that African women must overcome, it is little wonder that more and more African women writers are creating characters like those in Nervous Conditions.

The Effects of Gender on Education in The Joys of Motherhood and Nervous Conditions

"Can you cook books and feed them to your husband? Stay at home with your mother. Learn to cook and clean. Grow vegetables" (from Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga).

In contemporary America it is often difficult for us to comprehend the acceptance of status relative to gender, yet, in both of these books we are hit in the face with the reality of gender "discrimination" in the African education system. (I put discrimination in quotation because I am viewing this from an ethnocentric background which believes in equality regardless of race, religion, gender, etc.)

In The Joys of Motherhood, Nnu Ego and her husband, Nnaife, give up everything so that their eldest son, Oshia, can have the benefit of an education. The leftover money, if there had been any, would go to educate their second son, Adim. There was never any thought given to educating their daughters. Daughters were looked at as an investment. Hopefully, they would marry well and bring in a good bride price (which would most likely go towards their brothers' education). Nnu Ego assumes that her sons will come home to live and will care for her as she ages. "Nnu Ego realized that part of the pride of motherhood was to look a little unfashionable and be able to drawl with joy: "I can't afford another outfit, because I am nursing him, so you see I can't go anywhere to sell anything." One usually received the answer, "Never mind, he will grow soon and clothe you and farm for you, so that your old age will be sweet"" (Emecheta 80).

Nervous Conditions, although it takes place in an entirely different area of the African continent, reflects the same values of gender education. Nhamo, the only male heir, was selected by the elders of his family to receive an education. He was then expected to get a good job and provide for his family. When Nhamo dies, the family eventually decides that it will be acceptable for Tambu, the eldest daughter, to receive an education since there were no more male sons. Tambu is also expected to provide for her family after she graduates and there is quite a bit of discussion among her family members about the worthlessness of her education since she would eventually only be helping out her husband's family and not her own.

Both of these books seem to reflect the experiences women have had all over the world as they fought for their independence and equality. We have a difficult time accepting that these beliefs are still being practiced in some areas of the world. Adeola James goes so far as to suggest that "the real reason for the tragic disruption of society depicted in Things Fall Apart [by Chinua Achebe] is because the female principle is neglected whilst the male principle, with its strong-headedness and inflexibility, is promoted above all else" (James 42).

In her interview with James, Buchi Emecheta responds to James' assertion: "I discussed that idea in my latest book, The Rape of Shavi, which is about the rape of a culture. At the end of that rape we find it is women who bring things together. Whereas, if they had allowed women to take part all along, maybe the rape would not have taken place" (James 42).

Through their writing both of these authors attempt to bring to light the unfairness that still exists between genders regarding education in Africa. Although both writers were able to eventually receive an education, they realize that many of their African sisters do not and will not have the same opportunities unless someone speaks up for them--at least until they learn to speak for themselves.



Why Dangarembga Chose Anorexia

There has been a lot of discussion over Dangarembga's choice of Anorexia as Nyasha's disease. Anorexia is usually not associated with African women and that is precisely why it was chosen. Most African cultures encourage their women to have rounded curves. Weight is often seen as an indicator of wealth. Some cultures even had a traditional "fattening-room" where adolescent girls were sent to be groomed into "robust marriageable maidens" (Uwakweh). Nyasha, on the other hand, had spent her formative years in Europe where the fashion industry and media promote thinness as a virtue. What disease could better portray the anxiety that Nyasha was experiencing? Used as a metaphor, the cultural ideals of the colonizers were virtually killing the colonized.

The Importance of Hygiene

When Tambu's brother, Nhamo, comes home to visit, he brings his toothbrush which he "brandishe[s] as a weapon of civilization" (Bhana). Cleanliness and hygiene are symbols of progress in the beginning of the book. Another instance is when Tambu doesn't want to wash her menstrual rags in the toilet because she doesn't want to dirty it. By the end of the story, however, these instruments of civilization become instruments of destruction. The toothbrush becomes the tool that Nyasha uses to make herself vomit, and she "was grotesquely unhealthy from the vital juices she flushed down the toilet" (Dangarembga 199). Dangarembga's use of two highly sterilized and valued, yet common commodities of the European lifestyle as the instruments of Nyasha's destruction shows the reader how pervasive and subversive the elements of colonization are in the lives of the colonized.

Two African Novels

Jessica Powers, a Master's degree student studying African History at the University of New York, has written an essay for Suite comparing Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions and Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood entitled "Two African Novels."

Recurring Themes in Stories about Colonization

The following theme pages may further develop your understanding of post colonial literature as it relates to Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions.


The question of assimilation is omnipresent in post colonial literature. How has being colonized affected the colonized? The colonizer? When is someone "assimilated" into a new culture? How do they influence the culture they are assimilated into?


The audience an author has in mind for a written work inevitably influences the way in which the author writes it. Here we will start to look at how authors' intentions can be discussed in relation to the audience they address.

Literary Influences

Books fit into the evolution and progression of a preexisting body of literature. Where do they fit? How have they been influenced by previous literature? How do they influence literature to come?


Many authors utilize written material to influence social and political currents. Here we will begin to look at different means of social change authors write about, and how they are differently portrayed.

Literary Style or Historical Fact

Here we will begin to examine how authors--James, Equiano, and Zinn in particular--combine techniques of historical documentation with literary styles, and the effect this has on the interpretation and impacts of their works.


***All Africa is a website that is continually updated with stories from over 80 African news agencies. You can search the site by region, by country, or by subject matter. There is a site dedicated to African books and a site for women and gender issues.

***Zimbabwe Page through the African Studies Library at Columbia University has many researched links to enhance your understanding of Zimbabwe past and present.

**Another page about Zimbabwe is presented by the University of Pennsylvania. This site includes a map of Zimbabwe.



Teaching African Literature


The book, Long Drums and Canons: Teaching and Researching African Literature by Bernth Lindfors, is a good resource for any teacher who wants to incorporate African Literature into the curriculum. ISBN 0865434379.

Another excellent book is African Novels in the Classroom edited by Margaret Jean Hay. ISBN 1555878784.


Africa is My Home: Atlantis Productions. This film follows the life of an African girl who is born at the time of Nigerian independence and grows to maturity while Nigeria confronts the issues and conflicts of a developing nation.

Born Into Two Cultures: BBC. R.K. Narayan and Chinua Achebe read excerpts from their works and discuss their experiences as writers--what it means to be born into one culture and language yet to write in the English language. They gives special insights into the problem of operating in two distinct cultures.

In Search of Myself: United Nations, Narrated by Alistair Cooke. Discusses the art and life of Nigeria; includes dancing and folk opera sequences, from works by Nigerian musicians and authors.

With These Hands: How Women Feed Africa: A documentary presenting the stories of three women from three African countries: Burkina Faso, Kenya and Zimbabwe. Each woman tells in her own words of the struggle to feed her family.

Discussion Questions For Nervous Conditions

  1. Why does Dangarembga choose Anorexia, a disease very rarely found in African women, as the way for Nyasha to exert her rebellion?
  2. Why did Lucia, who seemed so self-centered throughout the book, spend time and patience caring for her sister when she was ill? What lesson, if any, does Dangarembga want us to learn from her acts of kindness.
  3. What would Tambu's fate have been if she had another brother? Would she have received her education? If so, at what cost?

Lesson Plans

McDougal Littell has a site dedicated to providing teaching resources for many different literature texts including Nervous Conditions. They give a summary of the text, some activities to use as theme openers, some crosscurricular activities, and some ideas for research assignments.

Relevant Information

Learn more about missionary activity in South Africa during the 19th century by clicking on the above picture of a missionary complex in Zuurbraak, Western Cape.


Teaching Links

Central Oregon Community College's Humanities 211 class has an extensive site dedicated to Tsitsi Dangarembga and Nervous Conditions. The site contains excerpts from interviews with the author; links to information about Zimbabwe, Southeast Africa, and the Shona culture; a study guide that explains the characters, family relationships, and places mentioned in the book; several chapter by chapter reading and study questions; links to scholarly articles available on-line; and a list of additional sources.



Dangarembga, Tsitsi. Nervous Conditions. Seattle: Seal Press, 1988.

Emecheta, Buchi. The Joys of Motherhood. New York: Braziller, 1979.

Uwakweh, Pauline Ada. "Debunking Patriarchy: The Liberational Quality of Voicing in Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions." Research in African Literatures 26:1 (Spring 1995): 75-84.

Colonial & Postcolonial Literary Dialogues

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Last Updated: June, 2001