Gender Inequality in “Nervous Conditions”

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“Nervous Conditions” (1988) is a novel written by author and filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga. The story was awarded as one of the top 100 books to change the world, as well as the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 1989. The story presents the struggle of being born as a girl in a traditional African family, where only the boys are given the opportunity of having an education. The novel is the first in an expected sequel of three novels, “Nervous Conditions” (1988) being the first, and “The Book of Not” (2006) being the second. The third and final novel is yet to be released.

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The story is set in Africa in the 1960s/1970s. In this excerpt, Tambu looks back at her adolescence as an eight-year-old girl. Tambu wakes up early as usual to do her portion of chores, before helping her mother with her work. To prepare Tambu for the disappointment of not being able to get out of the family’s poverty, her mother discourages her. Tambu’s big dream is to get educated and help herself, as well family out of poverty. Since they can only afford sending one child to school, they naturally send the eldest brother, Nhamo. Tambu is struggling to understand why she cannot go to school, as she is very motivated to get educated. Tambu misses the Sunday school that she had attended to the year she had gone to school and decides to head over in hope for some laughter and enjoyment. At Sunday school she finds out her brother has been stealing her mealies and given it to other students. She snaps and attacks her brother making a big scene.

As far as themes go, I have chosen equality (or in this story, inequality) and education. With equality, I am pointing towards gender inequality. Tambu was born in a traditional African family with the disadvantage of being a girl. The norm for the traditional African family is that the eldest male is supposed to grow up as the leader and to support and provide for his parents and family. This is inequal, as there are huge limitations that comes along with being born as a girl. Education is also an important part of the story. Tambu is able to see her road to financial success and out of poverty through education. Nhamo is though the only child that can go to school since he is a male.

The novel is composed chronological in past tense, with the protagonist, Tambu, looking back in time. This way of building up and telling the story makes it very different contra if the story was told without her looking back in time. It gives the narrator a much wider view, as the narrator can look back at what happened with knowledge of what is going to happen. The story’s turning point is when Nhamo says that Tambu will never go to school or make her dreams come true because she is a girl. Being told something as destructive as this of course has an impact on the rest of the story. The climax of the story is towards the end when Tambu finds out her brother has been stealing from her, and a fight between them erupts.

The most important symbol I found in the novel is Tambu’s garden. Through this garden she hopes to be able to grow and sell vegetables to afford her school fees. It symbolizes her heritage’s tradition ability to earn money and food of the nature, as she uses the nature to afford to go to school. It also makes it very clear why her brother would want to steal her mealies, since he wanted to be the one to earn the leader role, not her. By going to school, Tambu would become a threat to Nhamo and his dream to take over the family’s heritage.

“Nervous Conditions” is written from a first-person point of view, with Tambu being the narrator. The fact that the protagonist is the narrator does of course mean that the events that is happening in the story is filtered through her own thoughts, opinions, and-biases. The tone is also affected by the narrator not being fully objective as she describes the people out of her own, biased opinions about them. She is though not a hundred percent subjective, and she does indeed objectively describe simple events and observations.

The two most important characters in this excerpt in Tambu and Nhamo. Tambu is the protagonist. She is a smart, strong and inquisitive girl, who is looking for an education to escape from her family’s poverty. She is respectful over her family’s traditions, but she is also looking to break free from her limitation based on her gender. Nhamo is Tambu’s brother and the antagonist. He is very proud of being the eldest son, and takes advantage of it. He is spiteful over his sister, and spends a lot of energy to taunt her over the fact that she does not get the opportunity to go to school.

“Nervous Conditions” is essentially a story about the struggles of being born as a certain gender. The way the novel brings up themes such as equality and education is rather outstanding, and the characters reflects on how important it is to have dreams, and to follow them to the furthest extent. The novels reaction to gender inequality is also something every man and woman should experience, even 30 years after it was released. 

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Gender Inequality in "Nervous Conditions". (2022, Feb 03). Retrieved September 30, 2022 , from

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