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Nervous Conditions | Study Guide

Tsitsi Dangarembga

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

Nervous Conditions | Themes



The cultural belief that males are superior to females creates a strong force for the women in Nervous Conditions to overcome. The power of patriarchy exerts itself in a variety of ways, such as favoring Nhamo to attend school over Tambu, and Babamukuru having the final say in all family related matters, regardless of whom they concern. The reader sees how strongly patriarchy affects Tambu's life, primarily through her education. The family passes her over for formal education when they have only enough money to send one child, Nhamo. When she makes it to mission school, Tambu must follow Babamukuru's strict rules about gender expectations or risk being thrown out. When she is accepted to the convent school, she must convince her father and uncle to let her go.

Throughout the novel, Tambu manages to navigate the patriarchy without much struggle, but other female characters aren't as lucky. Mother, for example, lives in impoverished squalor, working long hours in the fields every day. As an uneducated woman, Mother has no other options than to accept the life her lazy husband provides. Growing up in this environment, Tambu feels determined to get an education, like Maiguru. But even Maiguru suffers under the patriarchy, handing over her earnings, slaving for her husband's extended family, and receiving no respect or say in family matters.

The character who feels the brunt of patriarchy strongest, however, is Nyasha, who was raised in England and experienced life with gender equality. Returning to Rhodesia, Nyasha doesn't respect her father in the same way Tambu does, which leads to constant conflict. Nyasha recognizes the value of her individual mind, which she determines to use regardless of social protocol.


Nervous Conditions is set in Rhodesia under British colonial rule in the 1960s. Although the presence of British forces is never directly referenced, the contrast between British and native (Shona) culture is sharply felt. Tambu views her impoverished life on the homestead as dirty, backward, and oppressive. She pities her mother for having been forced to eke out an existence when women like Maiguru have so much. However, Tambu's attitude as a child—before she starts attending school—is different, as she describes the beauty of her homestead and the joyful gatherings when her family is together.

One aspect of colonialism, particularly African colonialism, was the idea that British culture was more refined than native culture, so missionaries set up schools to educate native children on the "proper" ways to live, leaving behind the "savagery" of their villages. The reader sees this in the way the missionaries educated an industrious young Babamukuru, training him to eventually run the mission, whether he wanted to or not. For native people like Babamukuru, once they have been deemed "special" by the colonizing power, they are no longer free to choose their own path, lest they appear ungrateful for the white generosity. This can be seen when Babamukuru would prefer not to move to England for five years but does so anyway. The white government holds all the power over black education. The colonial government decides whether black children are "sufficiently developed cognitively" to understand reading and writing, and the nuns force all the black students at convent school to share one small room. Another negative aspect of colonialism is the way it replaces native culture with its own, as seen in the way Tambu's views of homestead life change as she progresses in her education, and the struggles Nyasha feels to fit in with her Shona family after having been raised in England, separated from her native traditions.


The children who have been raised in two cultures struggle to fit in either place, creating two identities in constant conflict with each other. Nyasha's conflict between her Shona identity and British identity were likely strongest in England, which the reader doesn't see. To survive in England, Nyasha buries her Shona traditions, eventually forgetting them altogether. She adopts Western views and ideals, which strongly shape her personality. Returning to Rhodesia, Nyasha's new identity no longer fits. Ostracized at school and a constant source of disappointment to her father, Nyasha's struggle turns inward as she fights to control her weight. Similarly, Chido loses his Shona identity, but it doesn't cause his parents as much distress because he is male.

When she moves to the mission, Tambu also experiences a divide. She literally creates a new identity for herself when climbing into Babamukuru's car, "leaving behind" the old version of herself and expecting to meet the new version at the mission. The two selves battle strongly against each other when Babamukuru calls for Tambu's parents to have a church wedding. On the day of the service, Tambu has an out-of-body experience in which her Shona self refuses to get out of bed and her "mission" self stands idly by, watching Babamukuru's rage. Mother suggests Nyasha's breakdown is a result of her English identity, which causes Tambu to reflect on her own duality. She realizes that her Shona identity is being brainwashed and erased, which she vows never to let happen.

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