The protagonist is Tambudzai, a girl whose life we learn of from the time she is about 5 and through her second year of high school. The tensions of the novel are two-fold. The first lies in Tambu's determination to defy tradition and go to school, as far and as long as she can, despite cultural values that limit formal education to boys. The second is the racism in Rhodesia. In response, some Africans sought the benefits (education, access to employment, even tap water) offered by the colonial powers to "good Africans" who played the game by the whites' rules, even cowering or cringing to appear less than they were. The protagonist LIKES those benefits but realizes the costs, psychologically and physically. She will learn, and love learning, but will never again be happy in the dung-floored, thatched roof homestead where she played happily as a child and survived on a diet mostly of sadza (cooked cornmeal), vegetables, and occasional milk.
Tambudzai's uncle--her father's oldest brother--clings to his traditional, highly respected role as head of the family, which imposes tremendous financial and time burdens. He also incorporates, and somewhat imposes, the new Christian faith that made possible his own education in South Africa and England. His two children, Chido and Nyasha, straddle the tightrope between "African" and "English" after living in England during their grammar-school years.
The societal and family tensions heighten as Nyasha, increasingly analyzes and criticizes the power of the white government and the missionaries. In this, she challenges her father, who is headmaster at a Protestant missionary school. This is a quadruple crime: child challenging elder; female challenging male; person who questions Christianity questioning Christian teaching; and someone who rejects the English system challenging someone who accepts it.
The opening epigraph reminds us"The condition of native is a nervous condition," citing Franz Fanon's study of the negative psychological effects of colonization in The Wretched of the Earth. Affirming the truth of this, two women important in Tambudzai's life succumb to "nervous conditions" that now have DSM-5 codes: depression and bulimia/anorexia, although a white psychiatrist consulted by her relatives asserts that Africans "did not suffer in the way we described" (p.201).
Tambu herself endures but we mourn the fate of the many in Zimbabwe who, since this book appeared in 1988, have continued to suffer. One site I consulted considered this book one of the top dozen novels of Africa. I found it fascinating but it ended too quickly. We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo appeared in May 2013 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. This new work might provide the antidote I seek after the abrupt ending of Nervous Conditions.