Tambu spends the entire novel on a journey to receiving her education. She believes education to be the best way to rise out of poverty and create stability for her family. Initially, Tambu wants an education to ensure she will marry a wealthy man like Babamukuru who will help support her impoverished family. As time goes on, however, Tambu realizes she wants an education to learn more about the world and her place within it. She won't be content to simply be a rich man's wife, like Maiguru. She wants more. Unfortunately, Tambu faces strict gender expectations from a patriarchal system, and must cope with living in a segregated and colonized country that prevents her from fully embracing her future. At the end of the novel, Tambu learns to respect her Shona heritage and to accept that the "white" way isn't always the best.
Nyasha struggles to figure out where she belongs. Nyasha moves back to Rhodesia from England as a teenager, having been estranged from cultural traditions and having forgotten her native language. After attending school in England during her formative years, Nyasha embraces Western ideals such as gender equality and the value of individual expression, two beliefs that sharply contrast with her traditional upbringing. Nyasha's Western beliefs and behaviors cause conflict with her father who, now that they're back home, wants to raise a respectable Shona woman. Meanwhile, Nyasha remains isolated from Shona friends because, as they say, she "thinks she's white." As a perpetual outsider, Nyasha channels her energy into her studies and later, her dieting, which evolves into a devastating eating disorder.
As the breadwinner, Babamukuru is treated like a god. After proving his determination as a child working in missionary fields, he is selected to attend school where he excels, and is eventually sent to England for training to run the mission school himself. As the patriarch, Babamukuru often comes across as cold and emotionless, particularly with the women in his life (Maiguru, Nyasha, and Tambu). Babamukuru recognizes how his success keeps his entire family afloat, which puts an unbearable amount of pressure on his shoulders. He suffers from his nerves and lashes out, particularly at Nyasha, when he thinks bad behavior threatens the sacrifices he has made.
At the beginning of the novel, Tambu thinks Maiguru lives a pampered life as Babamukuru's wife. As the novel progresses, however, Tambu learns that Maiguru is well educated, holds a Master's degree in psychology, but has no access to the money she makes. Everything is handed over to Babamukuru's discretion. Although educated and working, Maiguru is still expected to fill traditional female roles, such as cooking, cleaning, and catering to Babamukuru's extended family, which she finds exhausting. After a fight with Babamukuru about Tambu's punishment, Maiguru has finally had enough and leaves him. When she returns, Babamukuru treats her with a new level of respect and equality, realizing what life would be like without her.
Mother is a victim under patriarchal rule. She belonged "first to her father and then to her husband," and has never made her own decision about anything, so when the situation finally presents itself, she doesn't know how to proceed. Mother also suffers for being married to a lazy, alcoholic husband, and for having lost multiple children during childbirth. Feeling powerless, Mother suffers from chronic, severe depression, made worse after Nhamo's death and Tambu's departure for convent school—more things she feels she has no control over.