Tambu was born a girl and thus faces a fundamental disadvantage, since traditional African social practice dictates that the oldest male child is deemed the future head of the family. All of the family’s resources are poured into developing his abilities and preparing him to lead and provide for his clan. When Nhamo dies, the tragedy is all the more profound since no boy exists to take his place. Tambu steps into the role of future provider, yet she is saddled with the prejudices and limitations that shackled most African girls of her generation. Her fight for an education and a better life is compounded by her gender. Gender inequality and sexual discrimination form the backdrop of all of the female characters’ lives. In the novel, inequality is as infectious as disease, a crippling attitude that kills ambition, crushes women’s spirits, and discourages them from supporting and rallying future generations and other female relatives.
The essential action of the novel involves Tambu’s experiences in a Western-style educational setting, and the mission school both provides and represents privileged opportunity and enlightenment. Despite Ma’Shingayi’s strong objections, Tambu knows the only hope she has of lifting her family out of poverty lies in education. However, the mission school poses threats, as well: Western institutions and systems of thought may cruelly and irreversibly alter native Africans who are subjected to them. Nyasha, who has seen firsthand the effect of being immersed in a foreign culture, grows suspicious of an unquestioning acceptance of colonialism’s benefits. She fears that the dominating culture may eventually stifle, limit, or eliminate the long-established native culture of Rhodesia—in other words, she fears that colonialism may force assimilation. The characters’ lives are already entrenched in a national identity that reflects a synthesis of African and colonialist elements. The characters’ struggle to confront and integrate the various social and political influences that shape their lives forms the backbone and central conflict of Nervous Conditions.
Underpinning Nervous Conditions are conflicts between those characters who endorse traditional ways and those who look to Western or so-called “modern” answers to problems they face. Dangarembga remains noncommittal in her portrayal of the divergent belief systems of Babamukuru and his brother Jeremiah, and she shows both men behaving rather irrationally. Jeremiah foolishly endorses a shaman’s ritual cleansing of the homestead, while Babamukuru’s belief in a Christian ceremony seems to be rooted in his rigid and unyielding confidence that he is always right. As Tambu becomes more fixed and established in her life at the mission school, she begins to embrace attitudes and beliefs different from those of her parents and her traditional upbringing. Nyasha, ever the voice of reasonable dissent, warns Tambu that a wholesale acceptance of supposedly progressive ideas represents a dangerous departure and too radical of a break with the past.
Physical spaces are at the heart of the tensions Tambu faces between life at the mission and the world of the homestead. At first, Tambu is isolated, relegated to toiling in the fields and tending to her brother’s whims during his infrequent visits. When she attends the local school, she must walk a long way to her daily lessons, but she undertakes the journey willingly in order to receive an education. When the family cannot pay her school fees, Mr. Matimba takes Tambu to the first city she has ever seen, where she sells green corn. Tambu’s increased awareness and knowledge of the world coincides with her growing physical distance from the homestead. The mission school is an important location in the novel, a bastion of possibility that becomes the centerpiece of Tambu’s world and the source of many of the changes she undergoes. At the end of Nervous Conditions, Tambu’s life has taken her even farther away from the homestead, to the convent school where she is without family or friends and must rely solely on herself.
Emancipation is a term that appears again and again in Nervous Conditions. Usually, the term is associated with being released from slavery or with a country finally freeing itself from the colonial power that once controlled it. These concepts figure into the broader scope of the novel, as Rhodesia’s citizens struggle to amass and assert their identity as a people while still under British control. When the term emancipation is applied to Tambu and the women in her extended family, it takes on newer and richer associations. Tambu sees her life as a gradual process of being freed of the limitations that have previously beset her. When she first leaves for the mission school, she sees the move as a temporary emancipation. Her growing knowledge and evolving perceptions are a form of emancipation from her old ways of thinking. By the end of the novel, emancipation becomes more than simply a release from poverty or restriction. Emancipation is equated with freedom and an assertion of personal liberty.
Dual perspectives and multiple interpretations appear throughout Nervous Conditions. When Babamukuru finds Lucia a job cooking at the mission, Tambu is in awe of her uncle’s power and generosity, viewing it as a selfless act of kindness. Nyasha, however, believes there is nothing heroic in her father’s gesture and that in assisting his sister-in-law he is merely fulfilling his duty as the head of the family. In addition to often wildly differing interpretations of behavior, characters share an unstable and conflicting sense of self. For Tambu, her two worlds, the homestead and the mission, are often opposed, forcing her to divide her loyalties and complicating her sense of who she is. When she wishes to avoid attending her parents’ wedding, however, these dual selves offer her safety, protection, and an escape from the rigors of reality. As her uncle chides her, Tambu imagines another version of herself watching the scene safely from the foot of the bed.
Tambu’s garden plot represents both tradition and escape from that tradition. On one hand, it is a direct link to her heritage, and the rich tradition has guided her people, representing the essential ability to live off the land. It is a direct connection to the legacy she inherits and the wisdom and skills that are passed down from generation to generation, and Tambu fondly remembers helping her grandmother work the garden. At the same time, the garden represents Tambu’s means of escape, since she hopes to pay her school fees and further her education by growing and selling vegetables. In this sense, the garden represents the hopes of the future and a break with the past. With a new form of wisdom acquired at the mission school and the power and skills that come with it, Tambu will never have to toil and labor again. Her mother, however, must water the valuable and fertile garden patch despite being exhausted from a long day of work.
For Tambu, the mission stands as a bright and shining beacon, the repository of all of her hopes and ambitions. It represents a portal to a new world and a turning away from the enslaving poverty that has marked Tambu’s past. The mission is an escape and an oasis, a whitewashed world where refinement and sophistication are the rule. It is also an exciting retreat for Tambu, where she is exposed to new ideas and new modes of thinking. The mission sets Tambu on the path to becoming the strong, articulate adult she is destined to become.
In the family’s lengthy holiday celebration, the ox represents the opulence and status Babamukuru and his family have achieved. Meat, a rare commodity, is an infrequent treat for most families, and Tambu’s parents and the rest of the extended clan willingly partake of the ox. At the same time, they secretly resent such an ostentatious display of wealth, since the ox is a symbol of the great gulf that exists between the educated branch of the family and those who have been left behind to struggle. Maiguru closely regulates the consumption of the ox and parcels out the meat over the several days of the family’s gathering. Eventually the meat starts to go bad, and the other women chide Maiguru for her poor judgment and overly strict control of its distribution. At that point, the ox suggests Maiguru’s shortcomings and how, in the eyes of the others, her education and comfortable life have made her an ineffective provider.