Nervous Conditions follows Tambu, a young Rhodesian girl, from the age of ten to sixteen. During this time, Tambu chafes as she watches her older brother, Nhamo, receive an education at their uncle Babamukuru's mission school while the equally bright Tambu is, save for a few years of education at the local school, denied the opportunity to learn. This changes when Nhamo dies suddenly of mumps in 1968, and the family makes the decision to send Tambu to the mission school in his place. Over the next two years, Tambu applies herself to her studies, as she knows it's the only way she'll be able to lift herself out of poverty. However, especially as Tambu observes her English-educated aunt Maiguru and learns about the sacrifices that Maiguru made, often because of her education, Tambu begins to see that education isn't a guaranteed key to her liberation. Rather, while education may offer a number of benefits and a way out of poverty, it's not enough to undo the sexism, the racism, or the traditional family structures that trap both Tambu and Maiguru.
Tambu has had examples of what education can do for a person around from a young age. Her uncle, Babamukuru, and his wife, Maiguru, received bachelor’s degrees in South Africa. This enabled Babamukuru to return to Rhodesia to act as the headmaster of the mission school, thereby affording him a level of financial security and prestige. Then, several years later, Babamukuru and Maiguru receive offers to pursue higher education in England, which makes Babamukuru nearly a god in the eyes of his family members. Because of Babamukuru's income, he's able to support Tambu's family financially by paying for Nhamo's school fees when he attends the local school and by feeding the many relatives who congregate at Tambu's family homestead most years for Christmas. Because of Tambu's immediate family's dire poverty, these actions seem almost magical—Babamukuru's visits are the only time that Tambu gets cake and meat, for instance. For this reason, as well as the simple fact that Tambu is good at school and loves to learn, she also wants to become educated—as far as she can tell, there are no downsides to education.
Tambu's thinking on this matter begins to change after Nhamo starts attending the mission school. Though he was always self-important, his access to education makes him feel even more so and helps him justify not helping his family with farm labor when he visits home. To make matters worse for Tambu, her family prioritizes Nhamo's access to education over her own. Her father, Jeremiah, insists outright that educating his daughter offers few or no benefits for him: while he accepts that Tambu's education may be able to support the family when she's a young and unmarried woman, he asks her rhetorically, "can you cook books and feed them to your husband?" This indicates that, as far as Jeremiah is concerned, being educated isn't an attractive quality in a marriageable woman. He also later indicates that his reasoning is even more selfish, as he refuses Tambu's request to go to school on the grounds that her education won't benefit him: after she marries, Tambu's husband will receive the benefits of Jeremiah's investment. Both Jeremiah's insistence that education for Tambu isn't necessary and Nhamo's abuse of the power he gains through education only make Tambu more intent on becoming educated herself. She tells herself that unlike Nhamo, she'll remain loyal to her birth family and not look down on them, while Jeremiah becomes a convenient villain for her to work against.
Over the course of Tambu's two years at the mission school and specifically, through her relationship to Maiguru, Tambu begins to understand that education isn't a fail-safe way for her to save her family from poverty or to become a god-like figure like Babamukuru. Tambu eventually learns that Maiguru didn't go to England with Babamukuru to take care of him, as her relatives say. Instead, Maiguru earned a master's degree in philosophy while she was there, which is why, in the present, she's able to teach at the mission school alongside her husband. Along with the social insult of Maiguru's education not being valued among family and friends, Tambu also discovers that Maiguru doesn't have control over the money she earns through teaching—Babamukuru uses her income to support the extended family, thereby depriving Maiguru of any power she might otherwise have to make decisions for herself or empower herself in other ways.
Though the young Tambu's strong sense of obedience keeps her from actually interrogating why it is that her highly educated aunt is in many ways a prisoner in her own home, Tambu the narrator—who is an adult with perspective and opinions, which she sometimes shares with the reader—makes it clear that education wasn't a force in her young life that was entirely good. Despite her noble intentions, Tambu is still appalled when she returns to the homestead and is reminded of her family's poverty and lack of education, just as Nhamo was. Similarly, the simple fact that Maiguru is female keeps her from effectively standing up for herself to her husband or her extended family, and she never obtains control of her paycheck. With this, the novel makes it clear that while education does provide upward mobility, that doesn't mean that it will be taken seriously, valued, or actually provide freedom and agency to women who receive it.
The Limits of Education ThemeTracker
The Limits of Education Quotes in Nervous Conditions
"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."
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.
"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.
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.
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.