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.