Though Tambu sees education as an undeniably good thing, given that she believes she'll be able to use it to lift herself and her family out of poverty, the Rhodesian education system's roots in colonialism and racism present a number of challenges for Tambu and even more for Tambu's cousin Nyasha, who spent five years of her childhood in England. Though Tambu mostly refuses to consider any deeper questions about colonialism, through Nyasha and Nhamo, Nervous Conditions paints a picture of a colonial system that's damaging and dangerous, but still attractive in important ways for individuals who wish to abandon traditional ways of doing things in favor of a white and Western definition of success.
It's important to keep in mind that even though Tambu isn't necessarily willing or able to make the connection, the school system she wishes to be a part of is a fundamental part of the colonial system in Rhodesia. During the mid-late 1960s when the novel takes place, Rhodesia was in the process of becoming independent from the United Kingdom and struggling to do so: the UK stated that colonies needed to transition to a black majority rule before being granted independence, something that the small percentage of white Englishmen in Rhodesia were unwilling to let happen. The schools were a major help to the settlers in this regard, as they offered them a platform from which to help "non-threatening" black natives become more "white" in terms of education and mannerisms, import Western ideals to take the place of traditional customs and beliefs, and maintain the political and social systems that kept them in power.
This shows up in a variety of ways throughout the novel, first in regards to Nhamo. Tambu notices that after only a few years of education, Nhamo "forgets" Shona, their native language (though he inexplicably remembers if the mood strikes him), and begins to look down on life on the homestead. However, because Tambu and Nhamo's family sees education—and by extension, inclusion in upper-class, professional society that's white and Christian—as the only way out of poverty, Nhamo's behavior is seen as sad and annoying by his parents, not tragic and insulting. Tambu, on the other hand, feels that Nhamo's transformation turns him into a complete stranger. However, she also recognizes that his life as a student is more valuable than hers. This leads her, after Nhamo's death, to say, "I was not sorry that he had died, but I was sorry for him because, according to his standards, his life had been thoroughly worth living." This confession recognizes that while she found his snobbishness insulting, she only found it so because she wasn't also part of the "better," white educational system.
Later, when Tambu moves in with Babamukuru and Maiguru, Tambu discovers that forgetting Shona is only the tip of the iceberg. Nyasha admits to Tambu that at the party the family threw upon their return, she didn't ignore Tambu in favor of Nhamo because she didn't want to be friends: after five years in England, Nyasha was no longer fluent in Shona or in traditional customs. This becomes a major sticking point for Babamukuru throughout the rest of the novel, as he and Maiguru are consistently tried by Nyasha's cultural "hybridization" brought on by her time in England. Nyasha wants to wear short skirts and makeup, dance with boys, and behave disrespectfully to her parents—all things that her parents attribute to her upbringing in England. Her fluency in Western culture also brings her into contact with literature and political theory regarding current events, including the growing movement for women's rights and against apartheid in South Africa, which make her an even more dangerous individual in her parents' eyes. Finally, the pressure to conform to one correct way of being culminates in being hospitalized for an eating disorder—an illness that the first white psychiatrist Nyasha sees insists isn't something that afflicts Africans. With this, Nyasha's illness comes to embody the paradox of existing as a black person in the colonial system, as Nyasha is essentially damned by her parents for not being African enough, and ignored by the white establishment when it seems she's become too white.
Tambu continues to experience a great deal of angst about the relationship between the colonial system she's immersed in at school with the local beliefs and traditions her parents still practice at home. This angst begins to manifest in scary and dangerous ways when the family begins experiencing misfortunes in all branches of the family. Babamukuru brushes off Jeremiah's suggestion that they hire a medium, and instead insists that the issue is that Jeremiah and Mainini aren't married in the Christian sense, and are therefore living in sin and causing God to punish the entire family for it. Babamukuru's suggested fix, a wedding, doesn't sit well with Tambu, as it makes her question her own participation in the mission school and her desire to become educated and wealthy, like Babamukuru. It first suggests to her that her entire existence isn't correct, given that if Babamukuru is right, she was born out of wedlock. She fears this only because she spends so much time on religions education at the mission school and takes their teachings very seriously. Then, she also suspects that the wedding is less about righting a cosmic wrong and more about an opportunity for Babamukuru to show off his wealth and prestige by funding an elaborate party that would, in Tambu's eyes, strip her parents of their dignity and turn them into powerless performers. In other words, Tambu sees the wedding as an insidious arm of colonialism that seeks to vilify the traditional ways of life that Tambu grew up with—which is exactly what she vowed she'd never do when she took Nhamo's place at the mission school.
Tambu's refusal to attend her parents' wedding can be read as one way in which she refuses to conform to Western and Christian ideals espoused by the mission, though it's only in brief moments in her narration that she's able to allude to this. Her teenage inability to recognize the colonial system as one that wishes to divorce her from her blackness and her roots, the narrator suggests, is awful, but not something she should be condemned for. Rather, the older Tambu suggests that the reader should be sympathetic towards her younger counterpart and recognize that for all colonialism's horrors, it offered her the only opportunities she saw to raise herself out of poverty, and that, at the time, those opportunities seemed too good to pass up.
Colonialism Quotes in Nervous Conditions
My father thought I should not mind. "Is that anything to worry about? Ha-a-a, it's nothing," he reassured me, with his usual ability to jump whichever way was easiest. "Can you cook books and feed them to your husband? Stay at home with your mother. Learn to cook and clean. Grow vegetables."
"When there are sacrifices to be made, you are the one who has to make them. And these things are not easy […] As if it is ever easy. And these days it is worse, with the poverty of blackness on one side and the weight of womanhood on the other."
He thought I was emulating my brother, that the things I read would fill my mind with impractical ideas, making me quite useless for the real tasks of feminine living. It was a difficult time for him because Mr. Matimba had shown him that in terms of cash my education was an investment, but then in terms of cattle so was my conformity.
Today I am content that this little paragraph of history as written by Nyasha makes a good story, as likely if not more so than the chapters those very same missionaries were dishing out to us in those mission schools.
Its phrases told me something I did not want to know, that my Babamukuru was not the person I had thought he was. He was wealthier than I had thought possible. He was educated beyond books. And he had done it alone. He had pushed up from under the weight of the white man with no strong relative to help him. How had he done it? Having done it, what had he become? […] I felt forever separated from my uncle.
This lack of brilliance was due, I discovered years later when television came to the mission, to the use of scouring powders which, though they sterilized 99 percent of a household, were harsh and scratched fine surfaces. When I found this out, I realized that Maiguru […] must have known about the dulling effects of these scourers […] By that time I knew something about budgets as well, notably their inelasticity. It dawned on me then that Maiguru's dull sink was not a consequence of slovenliness, as the advertisers would have had us believe, but a necessity.
"Maybe that would have been best. For them at least, because now they're stuck with hybrids for children. And they don't like it. They don't like it at all. It offends them. They think we do it on purpose, so it offends them."
"I thought you went to look after Babamukuru," I said. "That's all people ever say."
Maiguru snorted. "And what do you expect? Why should a woman go all that way and put up with all those problems if not to look after her husband?"
Nor surprisingly, since Whites were indulgent towards promising young black boys in those days, provided that the promise was a peaceful promise, a grateful promise to accept whatever was handed out to them and not to expect more, Chido was offered a place at the school and a scholarship to go with it.
The victimization, I saw, was universal. It didn't depend on poverty, on lack of education or on tradition […] Men took it everywhere with them. Even heroes like Babamukuru did it.
"Because she's rich and comes here and flashes her money around, so you listen to her as though you want to eat the words that come out of her mouth […] I am poor and ignorant, that's me, but I have a mouth and it will keep on talking, it won't keep quiet."
I simply was not ready to accept that Babamukuru was a historical artifact; or that advantage and disadvantage were predetermined, so that Lucia could not really hope to achieve much as a result of Babamukru's generosity; and that the benefit would only really be a long-term one if people like Babamukuru kept on fulfilling their social obligation; and people like Lucia would pull themselves together.
How could I possibly forget my brother and the mealies, my mother and the latrine and the wedding? These were all evidence of the burdens my mother had succumbed to. Going to the convent was a chance to lighten those burdens by entering a world where the burdens were light.