Nervous Conditions is, in many ways, a coming of age story for Tambu: over the course of the novel, she transforms from a headstrong child into an obedient and, by many measures, successful teen. Despite the outward appearance of academic success, however, much of Tambu's process of coming of age happens as she grapples with the intersection of obedience and independence, specifically regarding her growing suspicions that her uncle Babamukuru isn't the kind and generous man he appeared to be when she was a child.
As a child, Tambu is extremely independent and takes issue with every injustice she sees before. When her parents run out of money to pay her school fees, she takes matters into her own hands by growing a plot of corn and selling it to raise the money herself. She thinks little of her parents, whom she sees as victims of poverty and a lack of education, and idolizes her uncle Babamukuru, whom she holds up as a god who took matters into his own hands to become educated and successful. Tambu's tenacity can be attributed to her deep sense of betrayal when faced with the injustices of being denied an education. Notably, her tenacity and independence diminish very quickly after she starts at the mission school and takes up residence with Babamukuru and Maiguru. This, in turn, traces back to Tambu's idolization of her uncle and her belief that the most effective way to thank him for his kindness is to be as obedient as possible. Tambu's sudden shift to obedience has to do with her belief that she's an unworthy or unexceptional recipient of her uncle's kindness. When she first learns that she'll be going to the mission school, she reasons that Babamukuru would have done the same thing for any other promising family member—which she then proves to herself by bringing up that she's only at school because Nhamo died.
Using Babamukuru as her example, Tambu comes up with a simple plan for the rest of her life: work hard, obtain as much education as possible, and then get a job that will allow her to pull her family out of poverty. As far as she's concerned, the only way to make this plan work is by continuing to impress Babamukuru, as he's the one who holds the keys to her future. This means that while Tambu does read Nyasha's questionably appropriate library (Nyasha is reading Lady Chatterley's Lover when Tambu arrives at the mission) and listens to Nyasha ask difficult, probing questions about race, gender, and the state of the world, Tambu declines to ask any of her own questions and instead, learns how to answer the questions posed to her. Nyasha, on the other hand, turns into a villain in Tambu's eyes. Because Nyasha is shockingly and inappropriately independent and willing to fight her father for her right to behave in that way, she becomes an easy scapegoat for the consequences of independent thought and progressive ideals.
Tambu's belief that Nyasha is out of hand and too independent doesn't stop her from recognizing that Babamukuru is harsh and at times violent towards his daughter. When Nyasha stays out a few minutes late to dance with a boy, Babamukuru beats her and calls her a whore, while Nyasha fights back the best she's able. This is one of many fights the two have as they clash over whether or not Nyasha can actually be so independent.
Over the course of the novel, Tambu learns a number of things that should lead her to question whether her uncle is actually as good and benevolent as she thought he was as a child. She learns that in addition to beating his daughter for her perceived promiscuity, Babamukuru controls Maiguru's paychecks, cares little for his family members' happiness or wellbeing, and looks down on members of his family like Jeremiah and Mainini. He sets impossibly high standards, and his callousness and desire for power push all his family members away, and, eventually, lead Nyasha to develop a dangerous eating disorder. Even though she recognizes these things as facts, Tambu refuses to consider that her uncle might not be a good man and a god. Her refusal to consider these possibilities—and indeed, many possibilities she encounters during her time at the mission—means that by the end of the novel, she is still very much an undeveloped child.
However, the adult Tambu who narrates the story offers some hope for her future in underhanded and, to the young Tambu, undetectable ways. Because Tambu read so many of Nyasha's books and listened to her theoretical musings, when Catholic nuns come to administer an admissions test to the Catholic mission school, Tambu finds that she's developed enough of a critical mind to pass the test and earn a full scholarship to the school. Though the Catholic school presents another environment in which Tambu will be rewarded for conformity, it also gets her out of her uncle's house and on her own for the first time. The fact that Tambu later goes on to narrate the novel and in doing so, make critical assessments of her teenage obedience suggests that while it didn't happen during the period of the novel, Tambu was able to develop the ability to think critically—and that her deference to her uncle during her time at the mission school did indeed pave the way for her development later in life.
Obedience vs. Independence ThemeTracker
Obedience vs. Independence Quotes in Nervous Conditions
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.
[…] the real situation was this: Babamukuru was God, therefore I had arrived in Heaven. I was in danger of becoming an angel […] and forgetting how ordinary humans existed—from minute to minute and from hand to mouth. The absence of dirt was proof of the other-worldly nature of my new home.
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.
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.
"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."