History: Semi-autobiographical, it is set in the post-colonial Rhodesia of the 1960s. The title is taken from the introduction by Jean-Paul Sartre to Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth.
Plot: The story is told by and from the perspective of Tambudzai, a young Shona girl living in a small village in Rhodesia. Tambu was raised on her family's farm in Umtali where she was responsible for household chores, gardening, and caring for her younger siblings. ,Her education begins begins with the death of her brother, Nhamo.
Nhamo is sent to live with his uncle (Babamukuru), a strict disciplinarian, and aunt (Maiguru), so that he may be educated by a mission school in the local city and later provide his family with economic support. He falls ill, however, with a severe case of the mumps, and dies suddenly, leaving his parents without a son to support them in their impending dotage. 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. Tambudzai, is also keen to be educated, so much so that she works on her own mealie crop in a bid to pay her school fees. An elderly white lady takes pity on her and parts with ten pounds, so Tambu is able to return to the school that her father cannot and will not pay for.
The narrative's opening sentence is famously chilling. "I was not sorry," declares Tambu, "when my brother died." Her reasons, many and varied, but mostly to do with her brother's arrogance, interference — at one point, he steals her maize —, chauvinism and teasing, are expounded over the next three chapters, culminating in a cold description of his death.
Tambu's uncle argues for her to go to the mission school after the death of her brother, for there are no other sons available.
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.
The novel then shifts to Tambu's observations of the conflicts between her cousin, Nyasha, who was raised primarily in England and has no foundation of Zimbabwean culture, and her uncle, who is steeped in such tradition. Nyasha and her father spar with increasing frequency over her behaviour and the way that she talks to him. Nyasha eventually develops an eating disorder, which is tied strongly to her struggle to deal with the conflict between English and Shona society.
Review: Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions highlights the struggle that individuals face in defining their personal identities within a multinational, multi-ethnic environment which emphasises hybridity. In Dangarembga's autobiographically-styled novel, the adult Tambu reflects back on her adolescence during Zimbabwe's changing political climate during the 1960s and 1970s.
As the novel illustrates, an individual's changes are often directly related to social and national changes.
Opening Line: "I was not sorry when my brother died."
Closing Line: “It was a process whose events stretched over many years and would fill another volume, but the story I have told here, is my own story, the story of four women whom I loved, and our men, this story is how it all began.”
Quotes: "In those days I felt the injustice of my situation every time I thought about it, which I could not help but do often since the children were always talking about their age. Thinking about it, feeling the injustice of it, this is how I came to dislike my brother, and not only my brother but my father, my mother - in fact everybody."