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Lives of Grandmothers: Author | Albertina | Rosalina | Valentina

Lives of Grandmothers


The gender-neutral term kokwana encompasses a wide range of relationships. According to Junod, the "proper essential meaning" of kokwana is "first the paternal grandfather and all the ancestors on the father's side" and secondarily "all my [i.e., a man's] mother's male relatives." 1 Among the women I knew in Magude, however, kokwana was used to refer to a much wider network of male and female kin, including the birth mothers of their birth parents, their maternal and paternal great-grandmothers, the sisters and co-wives of their birth grandmothers, and their mother's brother's wives (and the sisters of those wives). Yet both in casual conversation and in the more careful speech context of interviews, the label kokwana conveyed an additional layer of meaning, a quality of kinship that was not equally shared with all female elders who technically belonged to this category. In this sense, a woman could know dozens of older women as kokwana, but only one or two of them—not necessarily the mothers of her birth parents—would be as emotionally important to her as the Western translation grandmother suggests. These particular "grandmothers," whether centrally involved in a woman's upbringing or known only through stories told about them by other women, were critical to interviewees' narrated identities and tellings of the past, and memories of grandmothers' experiences were preserved in story as deliberately as were the tellers' own. In many ways, narrativized lives of grandmothers provided a crucial foundational model for both the practice of life-storytelling and a woman's own evolving sense of self. They served as a medium for teaching—and negotiating—the acceptable parameters of feminine experience in both the present and the past.

The stories included in this section, which straddle the late precolonial and early colonial periods (circa 1880s-1910s), are taken from a larger pool of narratives that Rosalina, Albertina, and Valentina told about the vakokwana most important to their lives and their life stories. Valentina's recollections of N'waXavela Mazive, the makwavo (sister—so called because the two women were the daughters of uterine brothers) of Valentina's father's birth mother, stress the older woman's respectful deference to traditional kinship laws, represented above all by her compliance with the orders of her elders to leave her marriage home and become foster mother for the orphaned children of her "sister's" daughter. As Valentina makes clear in the stories she tells about herself, her own commitment to such laws, redefined through Christian training, is largely responsible for the economic insecurity she has battled throughout her adult life; yet her sense of self-sacrifice, similarly modeled on N'waXavela, is also central to Valentina's conviction that she now deserves respectful treatment in her old age.

In much the same way, Albertina's stories of Fahlaza Dzumbeni highlight her maternal grandmother's integrity, dignity, and self-determination through a series of events we might interpret as oppressive, even humiliating: a premarital pregnancy with a young man in Facazisse's chiefly family, which her parents refused to legitimate by allowing Fahlaza to marry the father-to-be; capture by Chopi soldiers after her marriage to Maguxe Tivane; enslavement and "marriage" to a Chopi man, with whom she had three children; return to Maguxe's homestead after the intervention of her brothers, whose main concern seems to have been to protect the bridewealth they obtained from Maguxe rather than to recover their long-absent sister. Albertina's life as well appears from the outside to be a series of hardships and disappointments, yet like her grandmother she narrates these experiences with her own decisions and actions at the fore. Portraying the landscape of her past as a field crowded with a range of male actors whose selfish demands and abusive behavior she has had to evade at every turn, Albertina, like Fahlaza, stresses her struggles to save herself even as she tacitly acknowledges the role of more powerful individuals in helping her to alleviate her suffering at the hands of a harsh and exploitative world.

In this regard, the stories Rosalina tells of her maternal grandmother, Kondissa Khosa, strike a dramatically different tone. The privileged chief wife of an Nguni warrior, "queen" of an enormous homestead in which she commanded the labor of "more than thirty" co-wives as well as of countless young male slaves, Kondissa emerges in Rosalina's recollections as a singularly influential woman whose sense of authority, entitlement, and specialness her granddaughter has certainly inherited. On the other hand, Rosalina's oft-repeated narrative of her grandfather's struggle to keep his many wives sexually satisfied and of the women's competitive efforts to monopolize his sexual attention prefigure her own decision as a young woman, Christian-educated but with one foot firmly planted in tradition, that she would never share a husband, preferring the economic risks of single status to the dangerous jealousies of polygynous marriage.

Lives of Grandmothers: Author | Albertina | Rosalina | Valentina


Note 1: See Henri A. Junod, The Life of a South African Tribe (London: Macmillan, 1927), 1:219 ff., appendix 4. For another detailed and similarly androcentric explanation of Tsonga kinship, see A. A. Jaques, "Terms of Kinship and Corresponding Patterns of Behaviour among the Thonga," Bantu Studies 3 (1929): 327-48.  Back.


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