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Nervous Conditions | Study Guide

Tsitsi Dangarembga

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the symbols in Tsitsi Dangarembga's novel Nervous Conditions.

Nervous Conditions | Symbols


Nyasha's Eating Disorder

At the end of the novel, Nyasha's eating disorder—which had been hinted at throughout the novel—reaches fever pitch. Without Tambu around, Nyasha feels increasingly isolated and unable to fight against the patriarchy. With her father's constant demands, as well as cultural expectations she cannot meet, the only things Nyasha can control are her studies and her body. Nyasha's eating disorder symbolizes the insidiousness of colonization, in which one culture slowly takes over and controls another. Babamukuru's control eats away at Nyasha's spirit, threatening to erase her individualism completely. At the end of the novel, Mother claims Nyasha's condition results from the "Englishness" she was exposed to, suggesting that on a larger scale, English colonialism eats away at African culture and threatens to erase it. This is best demonstrated by children like Nhamo who "forget" their native language after being at the British mission school, and are ashamed of their Shona culture upon returning to the homestead. By refusing the food her father provides and vomiting up food he orders her to eat, Nyasha rejects patriarchal power, both physical and symbolic, that threatens to destroy her spirit.

Tambu's Garden

When her family cannot afford to send her to school, Tambu decides to grow corn on her own plot, in the hopes of selling the cobs to tourists and making enough money to pay her own tuition. The garden symbolizes Tambu's independence. Using traditional methods she learned growing up on the homestead, Tambu works tirelessly to nurture her crop; thus, nurturing her independence at the same time. The garden work creates an interesting juxtaposition because with the education Tambu hopes to gain, she will likely never have to caretake a garden again. The corn she intends to raise will pay her tuition fees, ensuring she no longer depends on Babamukuru's generosity to secure her educational future—a generosity that favors males above females. Because the Shona culture frowns on female independence, it makes symbolic sense that Nhamo should attempt to destroy Tambu's independence by attempting to destroy her crops.

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