Nervous Conditions is concerned with women who live in a traditional African society in Zimbabwe (former Rhodesia), who struggle to find their place in the patriarchal system and who search for their independence. Each female protagonist in the novel finds her own way of dealing with her situation; however, this essay focuses on two characters-Tambu and Nyasha whose response to the male power is very different. While Tambu escapes from the environment of inequality in order to seek her liberation, Nyasha chooses to resist the patriarchy but her rebellion against her father ends up tragically as she suffers from the nervous conditions.
The theme of female struggle against male dominancy is presented throughout the novel and the narrator, Tambu, categorizes the women right at the beginning: “[...] my story is not after all about death, but about my escape and Lucia’s; about my mother’s and Maiguru's entrapment; and about Nyasha’s rebellion ( Nyasha, far-minded and isolated, my uncle’s daughter, whose rebellion may not in the end have been successful” (1). The two cousins, Tambu and Nyasha, are almost the same age but they have been raised in very different environments. While Nyasha was getting her primary education in England effortlessly, Tambu fought against her father, brother and the whole system in order to study at school. The experiences they have from childhood have shaped their characters so even when they become best friends at the mission they choose to react to the patriarchal society in different ways and they never approve of each other’s decisions.
Tambu has been raised in Africa and so the African tradition is rooted deeply inside her. She respects her father and brother in a way she was taught but she never understands the patriarchal hierarchy in the family. At the age of eight she starts to be aware of her marginal status and she asks her brother, Nhamo, why she cannot go to school. The answer she gets is clear but not satisfiable: “It’s the same everywhere. Because you are a girl” (21). From this moment she becomes determined to change her position and she starts doing it by making her own money for the primary education from the maize she grows in her garden. “Symbolically, it is also an attempt to define herself in a male world” (Uwakweh n. pag). In Tambu’s life this is the first and major step towards her escape as by making money from the maize she can break free from the environment of inequality by going to school and also prove to her parents that she can pay for her education when they are not able to. When Tambu makes the effort to change her status it is Nhamo who tries to destroy her dreams and their father does not support her either. After getting an opportunity to be the only educated man in the family, Nhamo easily falls into his gender role of a patriarch and he uses his position to cause Tambu pain. According to Moyana, Nhamo stands for patriarchy and sexism in this novel because he not only destroys Tambu’s effort to get to school by ruining her garden but he also bullies both sisters around when making them carry his luggage and therefore, he practices sexism and male chauvinism on both (28). Tambu successfully resists the oppression from her brother when she ignores him; however, as a child of eight she does not understand the gender roles and the unjust treatment. Their father provides no encouragement for Tambu either but quite the opposite as he says: “Can you cook books and feed them to your husband?” (15). He defines Tambu’s future role of a wife and mother and does not let her wish for anything more than is her gender role. The actions and comments from the men in Tambu’s family make her question things and ideas of the society. Thus, when her brother dies she is not sorry as she cannot wait for her opportunity to go to school at the mission and escape from the place of oppression. Even though, Tambu succeeds in getting her education by moving to her uncle’s house...
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