Tambu and Nyasha both grapple with the traditional gender roles in Shona society. As a child, Tambu feels resentment towards her brother, Nhamo, when Babamukuru offers to pay for his schooling. From an early age, Tambu realizes that "the needs and sensibilities of the women in my family were not considered a priority, or even legitimate." Tambu is, in her words, "not sorry" when Nhamo dies because it means that she will be able to attend a colonial school in his place. When Tambu moves to the mission, however, she feels conflicted between her duty to Babamurku and her burgeoning independence. Meanwhile, Nyasha, who has been educated in England, does not hold back. All of the women in Nervous Conditions try to rebel against the male patriarchy with various levels of success - but nevertheless, understand that there is a battle to be fought.
Both Nyasha and her brother, Chido, have spent their childhood in England and therefore, have developed many Western values. Tambu's mother thinks that Nyasha's bulimia and subsequent mental breakdown are a result of her exposure to Western culture, or "Englishness" and is afraid of the same thing happening to her daughter. This "Englishness" initially drives a wedge between Tambu and Nyasha. Nyasha and Chido cannot speak Shona, and Tambu cannot speak English - nor does she approve of Nyasha's revealing clothing. When Tambu moves to the mission, she has a much easier time obeying Babamukuru than Nyasha, and is often appalled at Nyasha's insolence. However, while looking back and telling her story, Tambu is able to recognize the way the colonial education system created a culture of subjugation - where Africans learned to believe that they were inferior, and then aspired to live by Christian values.
A central issue of the novel is how the children can negotiate a colonial education while still holding onto their Shona identity. As a result of growing up in England, Nyasha has taken on certain Western values, leading her classmates to shun her because "she thinks she is white". She clashes with her parents for the same reason, even though they took her to England and enrolled her in a missionary school. The dichotomy of Nyasha's identity leads her to become internally divided and drives a wedge between her and her parents. Tambu, who has not had much interaction with white people before coming to the mission, is surprised that she actually likes some of them. However, looking back on that time, she describes the white missionaries with an air of sarcasm: "We treated them like minor deities. With the self-satisfied dignity that came naturally to white people in those days, they accepted this improving disguise." All of the racial tension in the novel stems from Tambu and Nyasha's generation - questioning their society as they move towards discovering a postcolonial identity.
At the beginning of Nervous Conditions, Tambu sees education as a pathway to financial success, based on the example set by Babamukuru. She describes her uncle's offer to pay for Nhamo's education as "oceanic," since it would "lift our branch of the family out of the squalor in which we were living." Babamukuru believes that education is the route to alleviate dependency. Meanwhile, his own wife, Maiguru, has a masters' degree that she has never used. Tambu is desperate to be educated, as it will be her ticket out of poverty. When she arrives at the convent school, though, it becomes clear that her colonial education will continue to subjugate her because she is an African. To the white children, education is a right, and the Africans are taught to see it as a privilege. Looking back, Tambu recognizes that this system enforces a colonial power structure but at the time, it seemed a great opportunity and certainly does allow her to build a life outside of her family's poverty.
After he begins his education at the mission, Nhamo begins to feel embarrassed by the poverty of his immediate family. Meanwhile, the family members all respect Babamukuru, who has not "cringed under the weight of his poverty. Tambu and Nhamo are both eager to get out of their family home and settle into the comfortable life at the mission. However, this creates an uncomfortable distance. Nhamo pretends that he no longer speaks Shona, because he associates the language with poverty, while English shows that he is educated and therefore, better than his sisters. He forces his sisters to carry his bags and lashes them when they don't obey. While Tambu believes that she will never change the way her brother did, she is startled by the squalor of her childhood home after a year away. Ma'Shingayi is acutely aware of her child's newfound superiority and accuses Tambu of being judgmental. Looking back, Tambu has realized that she was conditioned by colonialism to deify the white missionaries and their educational system.
The title of Dangarembga's novel alludes to the effect colonization has on the minds of her characters. Tambu is anxious about what it means to be educated, and after leaving for the mission, she is pulled between her Shona roots and her colonial schooling. Tambu's nervous condition manifests itself when she refuses to attend her parents' wedding. She feels anger towards Babamukuru for categorizing her parents as sinners, and she is simultaneously embarrassed as well. However, she cannot express her frustration out loud because she is so grateful to Babamukuru. Meanwhile, Nyasha's nervous condition is more obvious : she develops severe anorexia. Nyasha has not been raised in the Shona culture like Tambu has, so all she knows is the English way. Returning to Rhodesia makes Nyasha feel like an outsider, alone and adrift. Her condition worsens after Tambu, her closest confidante, leaves for convent school. Meanwhile, Ma'Shingayi suffers from depression. She believes that "Englishness" is the root of what killed her son and took her daughter away from her, and she could not stop it.
All of the men in Nervous Conditions are raised in a patriarchic society and do not take kindly to being challenged. Nhamo tortures his sister, saying "Why are you jealous anyway? Did you ever hear of a girl being taken away to school?" Looking back, Tambu realizes that her brother was "sincere in his bigotry. But in those days I took a rosy view of male nature," so she assumed he was just saying hurtful things to bother her when in reality it was not Nhamo, but society, that was determined to hold her back. Tambu really starts to question patriarchy when she moves in with Babamukuru. He is the bridge between the patriarchy of the Shona society and the colonial society. Tambu is torn between her reverence for Babamukuru and her growing frustration with his inflexibility. Because he is her benefactor, she cannot show him disrespect, and yet - she becomes increasingly disillusioned by his conservative values (which are deeply tied to Christianity).
Nervous Conditions Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Nervous Conditions is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
The title, Nervous Conditions, comes from a statement Dangarembga uses as the prologue to her novel, 'The condition of native is a nervous condition' - taken from the [Jean-Paul Sartre's] introduction to Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth...