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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
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.