Characters and Themes

Main Characters
Additional Characters
Central Themes


  • Tambu – The novel’s narrator and protagonist. She is kind and empathetic, but also ambitious and judgmental. While she is eager to escape her impoverished homestead and filial obligations, she also feels the pull of tradition. Tambu seeks to discover and define her womanhood at age 14 while she pursues an upper-class education.


  • Babamukuru – Tambu’s uncle. He is highly successful due to his position as headmaster at a missionary school. A patriarchal figure, he dominates his home and professional life with an unyielding fist. The money he sends to his poorer relatives is done out of duty and not love or compassion. When Tambu’s brother dies, he takes Tambu to be educated instead.


  • Nyasha – Tambu’s cousin. She is intense, volatile, observant, and intelligent. While she seems to enjoy her role as a social outcast, she is also noticeably lonely and troubled. She takes pleasure in provoking her father, openly defying his authoritarian rule over her.



  • Chido – Nyasha's brother. He is athletic, handsome, and academically inclined. Embarrassed by his African heritage, Chido tends to stay away from home, and he eventually gets a white girlfriend so he can embrace all things English.


  • Jeremiah – Tambu's father. He is lazy, foolish, and naive. Disengaged from his wife and children, he prefers to leave the work to his wife. Outwardly he fawns over his brother, but in private he scorns education or advancement. 


  • Lucia – Tambu's aunt and Ma'Shingayi's sister. She is rumored to be a witch because she is so strong-willed and sexually active. Like Tambu, Lucia is ambitious and seeks education and economic prosperity. 


  • Maigura – Nyasha’s mother. Although she prefers her family act more Western, she also fears they will lose all connection to their homeland. A doting wife and mother, she wants the best for her husband and children and takes the passive role in a marriage that society has outlined for her. Later she rebels against and leaves her husband but returns because she considers her duty to him binding.


  • Ma'Shingayi –She works hard and makes the best of what she has. Her son’s death takes a great emotional toll on her, turning her apathetic and angry. This spite is an obstacle to Tambu’s education that must ultimately be overcome.


  • Netsai Tambu's younger sister. She is sweet and subservient. Any help she offers to her family does not come from duty or obligation, but rather a truthful and deep love.


  • Nhamo Tambu’s brother. Introduced posthumously into the narrative, Nhamo has a large ego and enjoys his status as eldest brother. His arrogance leads to a superiority complex and a condescending attitude toward his family. He has no regard for his roots.


  • Takesure Jeremiah’s cousin. The two of them are very similar. Although he travels to the homestead to assist once Nhamo dies, he is lazy. In his ignorance and arrogance he abuses his male privilege, marrying many women, none of whom he can support financially or emotionally. Eventually he impregnates Lucia.



  • Gender Inequality – Patriarchal figures abound in this novel. Colonialism in itself is a breeding ground for misogyny and male supremacy because men control the government. Thus any traditional power women may have had in a native society perishes, leaving the men as supposedly more deserving of advancement and the women as only homemakers or baby-makers.
    • Babamukuru rules his home with an iron fist. He expects Nyasha to obey him unquestioningly. Tambu's education is dependent on her compliance with his rules and regulations. His wife lives in fear of him but remains to take care of her husband out of social duty.
    • Tambu's struggles to gain an education are exacerbated by sexual discrimination.


  • Colonialism – The novel is immersed in a constant exploration of culture, Anglicism, opportunity, and oppression. The intermixing of these occurs because of Rhodesia's volatile state as a territory on the brink of independence struck down by British rule.
    • Tambu only has the chance to attend a prestigious university in England because of education standards under colonial policy. However, the school teaches history sympathetic toward Westerners, and the missionary schools are detrimental to independent thoughts or native African narratives.
    • Many of the characters struggle with the fine line between between integration and assimilation, a line folding under various sociopolitical pressures that impact people differently based on gender, class, and race.


  • Movement – How can a person move forward? Is life always moving forward, and at what speed? Can a person move backwards or remain stuck? This is another series of questions faced by people attempting to adjust in a post-colonial society.
    • Babamukuru has moved upward through education and economics. However, his values have regressed; instead of caring for people or his family, he feels he is above them and takes a very elitist English approach to his homeland.
    • Tambu yearns to escape her village. Her life must move forward, as in toward University, if she is to remain happy.
    • The women in Tambu's village are stuck. They began in on a fixed path toward marriage and motherhood. Once that was complete, they were given no opportunities to advance, nor did they make many attempts to do so.





I was not sorry when my brother died. ― Nervous Conditions, pg. #1





We must look for useful solutions. We cannot afford to dream. ― Nervous Conditions, pg. #45





What it is to have to choose between self and security. ― Nervous Conditions, pg. #103





The little fool. Why does she always have to stand up to him? ― Nervous Conditions, pg. #115





It is bad enough when a country gets colonised, but when the people do as well! That's the end, really, that's the end. ― Nervous Conditions, pg. #150





Does it matter what I want? Since when has it mattered what I want? So why should it start mattering now? Do you think I wanted to be impregnated by that old dog? Do you think I wanted to travel all this way across this country of our forefathers only to live in dirt and poverty? Do you really think I wanted the child for whom I made the journey to die only five years after it left the womb? Or my son to be taken from me? So what difference does it make whether I have a wedding or whether I go? It is all the same.  ― Nervous Conditions, pg. #155





They've trapped us. They've trapped us. But I won't be trapped. I'm not a good girl. I won't be trapped. ― Nervous Conditions, pg. #205





I was young then and able to banish things, but seeds do grow. ― Nervous Conditions, pg. #208







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Jasmine Edwards ’19

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