When Tambu is first pulled out of school, something that shakes her to the core, the reasons both of her parents give her for why this is acceptable have to do with the fact that Tambu is female. By paying close attention to Tambu's thoughts and observations as she goes on to fight for her education and specifically, as she observes the lives of other women around her, the novel presents a wide range of ways for womanhood to look—though even with so much difference in education, marital status, or westernization, Tambu recognizes that all of the women in her family are still treated as inferior to the men around them.
When Tambu is first pulled out of school and complains to Jeremiah and Mainini about it, they both say much the same thing: Tambu's job in life, as a woman, is to get married, have babies, and care for her future family. As a child, Tambu finds this ridiculous since she has the example of Maiguru to look up to. In her assessment, Babamukuru is the one who looks after Maiguru in a big, luxurious house, and she isn't trapped by poverty or her husband. She is, as far as Tambu is concerned, free of the constraints that society puts on women like Mainini. Though Tambu remains mostly unwilling to reevaluate her initial assessment, the observations about Maiguru's life that Tambu is able to make after coming to live with Maiguru and Babamukuru paint a very different picture of what Maiguru's life is actually like. Despite being a highly educated working woman, Maiguru doesn't have control over her paychecks or agency in how to parent her children. Though her home is, by Tambu's standards, lavish, the adult Tambu who narrates the novel is able to point out things that betray the fact that Maiguru and Babamukuru live on a tight budget and cannot actually afford everything. Maiguru also defers to her husband for every decision—something that indicates strongly that despite Maiguru's seemingly luxurious life, she's just as powerless as the other women around her when it comes to dealings with men.
This powerlessness is most apparent during holiday gatherings when the four branches of Babamukuru's family—his family, Jeremiah's family, his sister Gladys's family, and brother Thomas's family—all convene at Jeremiah's homestead, and it becomes even more pronounced when Tambu's maternal aunt Lucia comes to stay to help with Mainini's pregnancy. As the oldest brother, Babamukuru assumes the role of the family patriarch. As his wife, Maiguru is in charge of planning meals, providing food, and cooking for two-dozen extended family members. Maiguru conceptualizes this task not as an honor, but a burden put upon her. Though she does eventually put her foot down and refuse to attend Christmas festivities at the homestead, being shouldered with this responsibility in the first place suggests that her status as an educated woman doesn't mean she's not expected to serve her husband's family. On the other hand, because Gladys is part of the patriarchal line, she's a respected figure at these gatherings and when Babamukuru calls a family meeting, she's the only woman invited to participate—even though the reason for the meeting has nothing to do with her.
The subject of the meeting is Lucia, Maini's younger sister who is unmarried, in her mid-thirties, and pregnant with Takesure's baby, who is a distant cousin of Babamukuru's who was sent to Jeremiah's homestead to help Jeremiah manage. When Lucia isn't invited to participate in this meeting, it indicates that the men don't value Lucia's take on events and don't believe she has any right to voice her opinions regarding how the situation should be resolved. Though Lucia does insert herself into the meeting and tell the truth—that both Takesure and Jeremiah have been sleeping with her, though Jeremiah waited until after she was pregnant to do so—the men still attempt to lob ludicrous accusations at her. Takesure attempts to accuse her of witchcraft, while Jeremiah tries to claim the baby as his and use this as reasoning to take Lucia as a second wife. Notably, while Babamukuru wasn't going to allow Jeremiah to marry Lucia, he was going to allow these accusations to stand if Lucia hadn't defended herself.
In Lucia's case and Maiguru's case, the only option that either woman feels they have is to run away from the male relatives who oppress them. Lucia threatens to take Mainini with her and leave the family altogether, while Maiguru actually does leave Babamukuru for five days after a particularly intense fight. Through Lucia's threat and Maiguru's action, both women do achieve some degree of freedom and autonomy: Babamukuru finds a job for Lucia as a cook at the mission, while Maiguru refuses to support Babamukuru's family members and advocates for Tambu to be allowed to attend the Catholic mission school.
While these instances offer some hope for the women of Tambu's family, the constant fights and occasional beatings that Nyasha suffers at the hands of Babamukuru for being improperly female suggest that those successes are isolated. For a variety of reasons including Nyasha's youth, her Western habits, and her unfeminine willingness to fight Babamukuru about how he treats her, the successes of other women in her family don't translate to her situation. Instead, Nyasha is forced to develop her own objectively unhealthy coping mechanisms—constant studying, anorexia, and bulimia—to deal with the stress and the pain of being female in a patriarchal society. Though the novel offers no fixes or remedies for the gender relationships that lead Nyasha to these habits and oppress Tambu's other family members, it instead offers Nyasha as a cautionary tale of what can happen when women's bids for empowerment aren't taken seriously. It's not just women's minds, babies, or food security at stake—their lives are in jeopardy.
Men vs. Women ThemeTracker
Men vs. Women Quotes in Nervous Conditions
Perhaps I am making it seem as though Nhamo simply decided to be obnoxious and turned out to be good at it, when in reality that was not the case; when in reality he was doing no more than behave, perhaps extremely, in the expected manner. The needs and sensibilities of the women in my family were not considered a priority, or even legitimate.
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.
Whereas before I had believed with childish confidence that burdens were only burdens in so far as you chose to bear them, now I began to see that the disappointing events surrounding Babamukuru's return were serious consequences of the same general laws that had almost brought my education to an abrupt, predictable end.
"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?"
I felt sorry for Maiguru because she could not use the money she earned for her own purposes and had been prevented by marriage from doing the things she wanted to do. But it was not so simple, because she had been married by my Babamukuru, which defined her situation as good.
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.
Although she had been brought up in abject poverty, she had not, like my mother, been married to it at fifteen. Her spirit, unfettered in this respect, had experimented with living and drawn its own conclusions. Consequently, she was a much bolder woman than my mother […].
But the women had been taught to recognize these reflections as self and it was frightening now to even begin to think that, the very facts which set them apart as a group, as women, as a certain kind of person, were only myths; frightening to acknowledge that generations of threat and assault and neglect had battered these myths into the extreme, dividing reality they faced, of the Maigurus or the Lucias.
"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."
Naturally I was angry with him for having devised this plot which made such a joke of my parents, my home and myself. And just as naturally I could not be angry with him since surely it was sinful to be angry with Babamukuru.
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.
My vagueness and my reverence for my uncle, what he was, what he had achieved, what he represented and therefore what he wanted, had stunted the growth of my faculty of criticism, sapped the energy that in childhood I had used to define my own position. It had happened insidiously, the many favorable comparisons with Nyasha doing a lot of the damage.
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.
"I don't know what people mean by a loose woman—sometimes she is someone who walks the streets, sometimes she is an educated woman, sometimes she is a successful man's daughter or she is simply beautiful. Loose or decent, I don't know."