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 at the mission, she does not get better treatment from men as Babamukuru controls her and defines her social status, which has not change. He is her guardian at the mission and because he provides for the whole family he demands to be even more respected than Tambu’s father did. As Tambu is the narrator of the novel one reads her thoughts and senses how important Babamukuru is for her. She knows she is depended on him and she would do anything not to lose her right to be educated.
However, in his house she loses her rebellious spirit that once went to the city to sell the maize and she only follows his commands without complaining. Under his supervision her social status does not change as she is still growing up to be a good wife “because there is nothing that pleases parents more than to see their own children settled in their own families” (89) as Babamukuru says. So even the education is getting her ready for the marriage. Although she leaves the poverty of her village where she is redestined to cook and take care of the house in order to become a good wife, she only escapes to a higher level of the same social stratification where in addition she also gets the education that prepares her for her marriage role. The education is for Tambu more important than anything else as she sees in it the only way of changing her status, and therefore she is being so obedient. However, she stands up to Babamukuru one time when she disagrees with the wedding organized for her parents as she refuses to attend.
When she does that Babamukuru considers her very disobedient and she is immediately regarded as a bad daughter. After this event one sees that Tambu, as a young girl, has no other choice than to abide by Babamukuru’s rules. She was seeking escape from the patriarchal environment in homestead but she found the same principle being employed at the mission. Therefore, once the possibility to go to the nun’s colonial school comes, Tambu is committed to this opportunity. “I for one was going to take any opportunity that came my way. I was quite sure about that […] I would go. If Babamukuru would let me” (182).
The convent represents another possibility to escape from the patriarchy of Tambu’s new home. Supriya Nair, declares that Babamukuru does not want her go because even though it means better future for Tambu it is also a dangerous site for a growing girl who would not only lose her place in a traditional family structure but also no men’s supervision could lead to woman’s looseness or immorality (135). Nevertheless, in the end she leaves the mission and finally finds her liberation at the convent where she can be herself, study and where she does not have to run anywhere anymore.
In contrast, Nyasha, being raised in England, is modern untroubled and used to speak her mind. These character features make her rebel against the patriarchy in African society and especially against her father. She left Africa with her parents when she was little so she received most of her early education in England. She spent there the most important part of her life, childhood, so the values of western society are instilled in her when her family moves back to Zimbabwe. Nyasha and her brother, Chido, do not remember the language, Shona, the customs and they do not fit into the African world any more.
Tambu feels their alienation and misses her cousin: “I missed the bold, ebullient companion I had had who had gone to England but not returned from there” (52). England has changed Nyasha and she can no longer live in Africa without having a conflict with her family. She is not used to be a follower, a person who does whatever her father says and therefore she cannot adjust. In England she learnt how to express herself fully and she applies this approach in her African home as well. She does not perceive the men as more important or more respectful and for that reason she is having constant conflicts with her father.
Nyasha’s problems come from the fact that her parents expect her to conform to the traditional African environment right away. Moyana comments, it appears that the education that her parents have acquired is extremely alienating. Their traditional culture is conservative, sexist, patriarchal — regarding women as second class citizens and therefore as people who should work at home, tending their husbands and children with no opinion of their own to be vocally expressed. (32) Nyasha cannot live in an environment where women are constantly oppressed and expected to follow men’s rule. She is not used to this concept.
In comparison to her mother, Maiguru, who does her best to adapt to the environment, Nyasha chooses to rebel against the patriarchy and male dominancy which are common in Africa. She represents the mixture of Western and African culture and therefore she does not know how to be obedient to her father as she is used to judge right and wrong by herself. Applying western customs she has problems at school with being included among the classmates. According to her father she does everything wrong as “her dresses are too short; she can not sit properly; she does not speak with the modesty and decorum; she reads D.
H. Lawrence; she asks inappropriate questions; she dances with abandon, and she ?irts with boys” (Shaw 11). She is willing to undergo the punishment for doing these things just to show her father that she will not abide by the rules of patriarchy. Naysha’s perception of female independency clashes with Babamakuru’s vision of traditional femininity. Naysha is being often blamed for spending time with boys when in fact she studies at school until late hours. The events between Nyasha and Babamakuru culminate when she stays out late with a boy after a school dance.
It is against the traditions that Babamakuru honors and therefore he gets very angry and accuses Nyasha of being a whore (114). She cannot simply take it so the argument explodes at the physical level. Her rebellion against all the accusations, assumptions and commands that he has ever given her come to a climax with this incident when Nyasha strikes back at her father. It is an improper action that Nyasha chooses to show no respect for her father’s patriarchal rule in the family. Moreover, at the end Naysha faces a dreadful conclusion, as her rebellion against her father is unsuccessful and she suffers from anorexia.
Even though, at first Nyasha uses her refusal to eat food as a weapon to challenge the authority of her father, it later becomes a means by which Nyasha weakens herself. Nyasha’s voice in the story becomes gradually weaker when Tambu leaves the mission. At the time Tambu reads Nyasha’s letter (200) about the constant struggle with her situation at home and at school, Nyasha is already suffering also physically from anorexia. According to Uwakweh, the disease is a symbol of male dominancy that wins over the rebellion of a young girl (n. pag).
Nyasha ends up tragically as she cannot fit in the African society. Instead of adapting and finding strength in the Shona community she chooses to fight her patriarchal father and rebel against the society which does not respect women as equal to men. However, in the end she punishes herself instead of anyone else and her fight against male dominancy fails. To conclude, Tambu and Nyasha represent the opposites as one is a follower of Babamakuru’s dominancy and the other rebels against his rule. African tradition (therefore obedience) is instilled in Tambu as much as the Western culture is rooted in Nyasha.
The struggle against the patriarchy ends up differently for both as Nyasha punishes herself instead of her dominant father and as a result, she suffers from nervous condition. Nyasha does not survive the male dominancy and cannot become fully a part of the African society again while Tambu enjoys her escape and liberation at the convent school.
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