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Last Updated on November 15, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1513

Gender, Womanhood, and Selfhood

One of the central motifs of Nervous Conditions is widespread gender bias against women. At the novel’s onset, Tambuzdai, the narrator, notes that life in their Rhodesian homestead is very different for boys and girls. While a girl’s existence is circumscribed by work between home, river, and field, a boy is freer to play. When Tambu’s parents fall upon hard times, they can keep only one child in school; naturally, they choose their only son, Nhamo. Questioning her father’s decision, Tambu receives the answer that her education is pointless in any case, since she can’t “cook a book to feed her husband.”

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When Tambu’s uncle Babamukuru decides to fund the education of one of his brother’s children, he, too, chooses Nhamo. Meanwhile, Tambu’s mother and all her married aunts are stuck in lives that seem stifling. Tambu notes with dismay that as a girl grows up, the sphere of her activity only shrinks. Women are not allowed to bathe freely in the river or run wild in the fields.

This systemic limitation of women’s opportunities cuts across class and education. Though Tambu’s aunt Maiguru has a master’s degree in philosophy, she is subservient to Babamukuru, waiting on him and addressing him by cloying pet names such as “Daddy sweet” and “Daddy-D.” While Tambu tries to right the gender imbalance through a mixture of hard work and compliant chastity, girls and women who wear their sexuality on their sleeves ruffle the status quo in an unprecedented way. Nyasha, Babamukuru’s daughter, is one such girl. Her short skirts and Western ways invite even other women’s censure, and her habit of smoking and love for books such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover further symbolize her irrepressible, disturbing sexuality—which her father desperately tries to suppress.

One night, when Nyasha returns home late from a party, Babamukuru beats her and calls her a “whore.” Startled by the ugly scene, Tambu has the epiphany that the presence of wealth and education does not mitigate men’s problems with “femaleness.” Babamukuru, whom she once idolized, is revealed to be as petty a man as the village hand who whips his wife.

Tambu’s realization is essential to the formation of her sisterhood with Nyasha, Maiguru, Mainini, and Lucia. Tambu begins to understand that solidarity with other women is essential to the development of her selfhood. In this respect, she has the example of Lucia, her mother’s single and independent-minded sister. Beautiful and irrepressible, Lucia is widely regarded as a witch because of her barrenness. When Nhamo dies from an illness, Tambu’s father’s relatives are quick to blame Lucia’s “evil eye.” Lucia is criticized for being an “immodest woman”—yet her singlehood is not a blight, but a choice. Not only does Lucia always stand by her sister, she also values her independence, as she notes to Babamukuru:

maybe when you marry a woman, she is obliged to obey you. But some of us aren’t married, so we don’t know how to do it.

Though Lucia is uneducated, she seems far more liberated than the educated Maiguru. She also defends Maiguru in a way that Maiguru cannot protect her daughter. Thus, Tambu begins to see that womanhood is strengthened as much by solidarity and the acknowledgement of sexuality as it is by Western education. Tambu begins to heed her mother’s cautionary note against considering colonial education a panacea, and she instead decides to question whiteness and find her authentic self without abandoning her roots.

The Complex Legacy of a Colonial Education

The emancipating effects of education are a much-discussed trope in the text. Nevertheless, Tambu’s developing sensibility and agency, as well as the fates of Nyasha and Babamukuru, examine the psychic cost exacted...

(The entire section contains 1513 words.)

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