Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Tambu is the narrator and protagonist of Nervous Conditions and the oldest daughter of Ma’Shingayi (called Mainini) and Jeremiah. Tambu is an intelligent and hardworking girl whose early feminist sensibility shapes her psyche. Tambu begins her account with the startling admission that she does not feel sorry when her brother Nhamo dies, revealing her honesty as well as the complex relationship she had with her patriarchal brother.
Troubled by the way girlhood robs her of options, Tambu develops a sense of resourcefulness, as when she sells corn to fund her schooling in the village. Although she has an uneasy relationship with her father, Tambu is shown to be respectful toward her elders on the whole. Knowing that hard work and education are her routes out of a circumscribed life and poverty at the homestead, Tambu tries to present an idealized front before Babmukuru, her father’s older brother and the most educated person in the Sigauke clan. After Nhamo passes away, Tambu is chosen by Babamukuru to study in Umtali, much to her delight. Tambu immediately begins to distance herself from her village and her mother, whom she views as an anxious victim.
However, as the novel unfolds, Tambu’s perspective becomes more nuanced. She begins to question her own compliance in what she describes as a “long and painful process.” She realizes that Babamukuru, too, has feet of clay and that education does not equal a liberal sensibility. Through her deep friendship with her troubled cousin Nysha and her evolving relationships with her mother and aunts, Tambu begins to understand that women’s emancipation is as much about sticking to one’s sisters and roots as it is about seeking a Western education.
The older brother of Tambu’s father, Jeremiah, and the patriarch of the Sigauke clan, Babamukuru is a conscientious man who considers it his duty to emancipate his rural family from a life of poverty. Ambitious and diligent like Tambu, Babamukuru himself studied at the Umtali mission school and won a scholarship for further studies in South Africa, after which he went to England to earn his master’s degree. When the novel opens, Babamukuru has just returned from England with his wife, Maiguru, and their two children, Nysha and Chido, to take up a position as the headmaster of the mission school.
Babamukuru’s arrival at the homestead is nothing short of a royal reception, highlighting the tremendous respect he enjoys in his clan. However, his decision to further educate Nhamo rather than Tambu reveals his innate gender bias. Although Tambu initially idolizes Babamukuru, she begins to see the flaws in his character once she comes to live with him after Nhamo’s death.
The most problematic aspect of Babamukuru’s nature is his treatment of his daughter, Nyasha. In one incident, he repeatedly strikes her, calling her a “whore” because she stayed out late after a party. Tambu notes,
How dreadfully familiar that scene had been, with Babamukuru condemning Nyasha to whoredom, making her a victim of her femaleness . . .
Babamukuru is by no means a wholly negative figure, however; he displays great generosity toward his family, always arriving at the homestead carrying gifts ranging from detergent to the side of an ox. In fact, as Nyasha observes, Babamukuru himself is a victim of colonization, “trapped” by the need to be a perfect, “civilized” African.
"What it is,” she sighed, “to have to choose between self and security.”
This statement by Maiguru encapsulates her character. The educated wife of Babamukuru, Maiguru has to maintain the ideal of a supportive Christian “helpmeet.” Yet Maiguru is also an intelligent...
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woman with a master’s degree in philosophy, bristling under a domineering husband and a deeply patriarchal society. Thus, Maiguru quells her individuality with conformity.
Tambu describes Maiguru as a “kind” woman bent upon keeping the family peace and maintaining a truce between her authoritative husband and headstrong daughter. However, at one point in the book, she flares up against Babamukuru, declaring that she is not “happy” with him and is tired of running his home. Although she walks out on him for only five days, she returns with some of her agency restored. Maiguru signifies a very important reality: that education alone is not the key to women’s emancipation. Ultimately, a feminist sensibility is more important.
Babamukuru and Maiguru’s daughter and Tambu’s beloved cousin, Nyasha represents two important aspects of the experience of African women: the self as torn between pretense and desire, and whiteness and blackness. Educated in England, Nyasha is at sea in Rhodesia, where Tambu observes her being bullied at school:
“She thinks she is white," they used to sneer, and that was as bad as a curse.
Apart from her identity crisis, Nyasha also faces a father who challenges her fierce individualism. Babamukuru constantly asks Nyasha to “behave” like the daughter of a headmaster and a devout Christian. He frequently calls her a “whore” and, on one occasion, even beats her. Nyasha develops an eating disorder in response to all the stresses in her life, admitting to Tambu she uses a toothbrush to make herself throw up her dinner.
With Tambu leaving Umtali for convent school, Nyasha’s wasting away becomes even more evident, signifying the loss of her cool, collected self. In the novel’s last chapter, Nyasha has a nervous breakdown and is finally admitted to a psychiatric hospital, but not before delivering one of the book’s most important speeches, in which she extends compassion even for her father, viewing him as a victim of colonialism.
Do you see what they’ve done? They’ve taken us away. . . . All of us . . . They’ve deprived you of you, him of him, ourselves of each other.
“They” refers to the forces of imperialism that have kept the colonized from being their whole, healthy selves.
Mainini (mother in Shona), named Ma’Shingayi, is initially described as a rural woman with little agency. Hailing from an extremely poor family, she is married to Jeremiah, with whom she has four children at the beginning of the novel. However, despite her abject poverty, Mainini displays sparks of individualism: she lets her daughter Tambu sell maize to fund her schooling and openly resists the civilizing influence of Babamukuru and Maiguru. After losing her son, Nhamo, she develops extreme anxiety about Tambu being sent away to study in Umtali. Though Tambu initially rejects her mother’s cautionary note against “English” education, she comes around to seeing merit in Mainini’s assertion that one must hold on to one’s roots.
Jeremiah, Tambu’s father, is a passive man with little ambition. Comically echoing his older brother’s contradictory statements, Jeremiah defers to Babamukuru on virtually all matters. He tries to exert what little power he enjoys in the world over his daughter Tambu, displaying narrow-minded notions about a girl’s role in society.
Lucia is Mainini’s beautiful, single, sexually liberated, and fiercely protective sister. Though considered a witch because of her single status, Lucia is deeply compassionate. After Nhamo’s death she visits to look after the grieving Mainini; while there, she sleeps with Jeremiah and becomes pregnant with Takesure’s child. Unapologetic about her sexuality, Lucia stands by her desires and urges Mainini to walk out of Jeremiah’s patriarchal household. After Mainini dithers, Lucia leaves the homestead and eventually finds employment as a cook at the mission school. She gives birth to a boy and pursues an education, gaining some independence. Lucia, a role model for Tambu, is significant because she achieves emancipation even despite her poverty and initial lack of education.
A year older than Tambu, his sister, Nhamo dies at the age of fourteen. However, his significance is long-lived. Bright and hardworking like his sister, Nhamo enjoys the fruits of male privilege denied to Tambu. He is sent to Umtali for further studies and immediately adopts the colonizer’s attitude, looking down upon the homestead. Rather than side with his sisters, he makes them do all his work and throws his patriarchal privilege in Tambu’s face. Significantly, his death paves the path to a better future for Tambu, who plainly admits that her brother’s death is a “relief.”
Tambu’s teacher at the local elementary school, Mr. Matimba drives her to the local market to sell maize.
Anna is the housekeeper at Babamukuru and Maiguru’s house.
Twice-married philanderer Takesure is Jeremiah’s distant cousin. Takesure impregnates Lucia but denies her publicly. However, much to his embarrassment, Lucia takes him to task at a family meeting, twisting his ears and defending her own character.
Chido is Babamukuru and Maiguru’s son and Nysha’s brother, a charming yet passive young man who submits to his father’s authority.