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Introduction: Author | Albertina | Rosalina | Valentina

Albertina Tiwana


Albertina TiwanaI first met Albertina Tiwana on a Sunday morning in June 1995, while Rosalina and I were filing out of the Antioka chapel together. A thin, slightly bent woman leaning on a walking stick as tall as she was, Albertina turned in line to greet Rosalina and then looked at me with a crinkly smile and said, "Good morning, mulungu."
audio Albertina Tiwana
Audio Interview
As we walked back to our huts, Rosalina explained to me that Albertina lived on the plot of land just across the footpath from the homestead of Rosalina's late mother and that, like her, Albertina had no biological children and was "all alone" in the world. Yet, Rosalina added, Albertina did enjoy one "lucky" advantage: One of the nephews she had raised helped her once in a while, most recently by rebuilding her hut when she wanted to return to Facazisse after the end of the war. Repeating emphatically that Albertina was a "good person" and her "only real friend" in Facazisse, Rosalina urged me to interview her, offering to act as go-between when I wanted to schedule an appointment.

When I accompanied Rosalina to her mother's burial place a few days later, we paid a visit to Albertina and, after a long conversation comparing the condition of the two women's fruit trees, I arranged an interview for the following day. That session, which I conducted with Ruti, lasted nearly three hours; we stopped talking only when Albertina said she needed to prepare the evening meal for herself and a very young girl who had been hanging around her cooking fire all afternoon. Somewhat to my surprise after what Rosalina had told me about Albertina's scarcity of relatives, this child—the granddaughter of Albertina's (half) sister (i.e., the daughter of a daughter of the second wife of the second husband of Albertina's mother)—was staying with Albertina so that she could help her "grandmother" in the fields while also lightening the responsibilities of her mother, a still-displaced, unemployed young woman living in the war-swollen town of Boane. 1

I spent more time interviewing Albertina than I spent interviewing any other woman in the district except Rosalina. For a variety of reasons, an amiable relationship quickly developed between Albertina, Ruti, and myself. Albertina was an avid storyteller with deep roots in the Facazisse area and many years of experience patching together sources of material, social, and spiritual support to compensate for her childlessness. Although her identity card put her birth (in Facazisse) in 1922, Albertina did not show us this document during our first meeting. Instead, when we asked her in what "time" she was born, Albertina protested heatedly that she "did not know years" and estimated her age in the following way:

A: In that time, this person who was governing, he was the first hosi [chief], he was Chuchuza. 2 In that time.
H: Was there anything else that happened in that time?
A: Mmm, fole ra murimi, they were doing that, when we were small. . . . Our mothers, they grabbed these fingers, this one [index] and this one [fourth]. Well, they pour a little fole [snuff], they go 'eee' [demonstrates pouring snuff into palm of hand, while two fingers are held, then inhaling through each nostril]. They pour snuff for us. They give it to another person. Eeh. They give it to another person, well, we were playing, we children. Yah. They, they were curing us, by themselves, they go 'eee.' . . . Mmm. They pour it, they dance that xipenda of theirs. We didn't dance, we were small. Mmm, they dance, those big [adult] ones. . . .
H: Was this a special kind of snuff? Where did it come from?
A: It was the same [as ordinary snuff]. He, that person who went around curing us, he's a n'anga [diviner] 3 from that other place. That's how it is. It's known by him, since they gave us the snuff, we didn't know. And they, our grandmothers, they didn't know. It was given to them, he didn't sell it. . . . [raises voice, remembering] It was taken by the chief. The same as that [chief], Facazisse. Yah. Kuhanyisa vutomi [To give life], over there. We don't know, because we were small. And those big ones, ah—those things were known by the chief, only.
H: Do you know who this person was, who gave out the snuff, or where he came from?
A: It's him, the owner of those things. Because the chiefs, they were taking those things that were giving life to his country. A very good life. So that they don't envy us. Mmm. I don't know the place, his country. He was going to all the countries! Mmm. Not only here, every country, he was going all over the place, doing those things . . . . It's they who know, the chiefs. Eeh. They know it . . . . Those people there, they were living well. That's all. But we were very small, we didn't know anything. 4

Scholars have based their analysis of the phenomenon Albertina describes here primarily on the written account of Swiss missionary Henri A. Junod, who referred to it as the "Mourimi movement." Junod dates the movement's spread from the famine-stricken Hlengwe lands along the Save River south to the outskirts of Lourenço Marques between 1913 and 1917, and he casts it as a revivalist pagan response to an agrarian subsistence crisis (murimi means "farmer" in Shangaan). 5 Albertina, who stressed that she was "very small" when fole ra murimi reached the Magude area (perhaps circa 1915), would therefore have been born around 1910. But in addition to dating her birth, Albertina's memory of this event is interesting in the ways it differs from Junod's telling and for what it reveals of her qualities as a life-storyteller. Instead of explaining fole ra murimi as a ritual response to an immediate environmental threat, Albertina stated that the Magude area was not suffering from drought or floods at the time. She portrayed the movement as driven by the desire of chiefs to make sure their own subjects were living as well as people in other places—a political strategy and preventive treatment, then, rather than a ritual cure.

Whether Albertina's account is "correct" in some absolute sense (in fact, her meteorological memory is not consistent with archival sources for the Magude area, which refer to drought-induced hunger in 1915 and flooding in 1917) 6 is less important, I would argue, than what it implies of women's rather cynical perception of chiefly power in the struggle to survive on the land. As mothers, farmers, and everyday guardians of social health, women played a central role in enacting the murimi movement: Fole was given to them, and they were responsible for ritually treating the fields. Yet according to Albertina, these same women, like the children, "didn't know anything" about the movement. In their competitive quest to retain control of their subjects in a precarious time, chiefs (a category in which Albertina also includes the Portuguese administrator) appropriated female authority over agricultural knowledge and made the women literally dance the xipenda for them. Just as important, Albertina's memory of fole ra murimi also illustrates the distinctively feminine historical epistemology underlying the stories she tells about her life. Insistently keeping narratives of past events within the bounds of her experiential vision, Albertina offered penetrating commentaries on social change by identifying her limits as a situated subject—by illuminating what she and other women could not know about events around them and why they could not know them. Unlike Rosalina, who took pride in her boundless knowledge, Albertina used lack of knowledge as a powerful truth claim in itself.

Albertina's father died while she was still being breast-fed. When her mother remarried, Albertina and her sister were taken in and raised by their maternal grandparents (first in nearby Machambuyane and then in Xihluku, across the Nkomati River), an event that had a significant impact on the course her life would take. Because of her grandmother's opposition to xilungu education, Albertina grew up in the shadow both of the Swiss Mission at Antioka and of the Catholic São Jerónimo Mission in Magude town and yet never set foot in a school. Instead, hovering on the fringes of the colonial economy, she spent her days farming alongside her grandmother and elder sister on some of the richest agricultural land in the district, until a wave of settler expropriations displaced them from their riverine fields. Albertina recalls being aware even as a girl of the advantages to be gained from careful involvement with commercial capitalism and of the need for her to work harder than anyone else so that she would not "suffer" when her grandmother died.As it turned out, these were lessons worth learning. Although Albertina married twice, she eventually left both husbands and returned to live first with her mother and then with her sisters, having decided that she "no longer wanted men." Albertina Tiwana Because she was never able to become pregnant, Albertina turned her maternal energies to raising children of her several siblings. In fact, Albertina's siblings, notably the circle of women she identifies as her sisters (daughters of her birth mother Machun'wasse Khosa and her mother's co-wife with Machun'wasse's second husband), have been her closest family throughout her adult life. While she does not describe herself as dependent on these women, it is clear from her stories that much in Albertina's past has been determined by her need for their social and economic support, especially since a series of farming accidents has left Albertina with chronic medical problems.

Yet Albertina's narratives reveal another critical network of female support—friends (singular, munghanu), like Rosalina, with whom she shares no consanguineal or affinal kinship but has fostered affective ties through agricultural and commercial cooperation, participation in various religious communities, and resolute neighborliness. This aspect of her history became more important than ever in her old age and seems to explain, at least in part, Albertina's unflagging enthusiasm for our visits. Quicker than were most women to claim Ruti and I as "daughters," she lost little time negotiating a mutual-aid arrangement with Ruti, offering her seeds in exchange for assistance with some of the heavier labor on Albertina's fields. Albertina was also the only person to refer to my post-interview gift of tea and sugar as a basela, the Shangaan term for the small "gift" traders throw in at the close of a sale—casting me explicitly as a successor to the valungu merchants on whose "help" she was dependent throughout the colonial years.

And yet, although in Facazisse our involvement with Albertina was public knowledge as much as my relationship with Rosalina was, Ruti and I never heard a murmur of disapproval about Albertina's behavior in relation to us. The only time I felt our association might be problematic was when Ruti and I, trying to understand the elaborate routes through which Albertina had acquired her several plots of land, stumbled one day into a furious quarrel between this well-liked xikoxana and a younger woman over the proper location of a field boundary they shared. Cited by Albertina's opponent as evidence that the older woman was summoning the dark forces of mulungu power against her, our presence on the disputed field that day was the only occasion on which I was ever aware of ill-feeling against Albertina in Facazisse. Even this episode was atypical, however, for popular opinion about this particular land conflict was solidly on Albertina's side, and the younger woman in this case was the target of much criticism for "stealing land from an old woman" (see chapter 6).

Introduction: Author | Albertina | Rosalina | Valentina


Note 1: Field notes 1 (22-23 December 1995), 98-99; Interview log 1 (24 June 1995), entry 014. Boane is the administrative capital of Boane district, located about 20 kilometers west of Maputo along the main road linking the Mozambican capital to the Swaziland border.  Back.

Note 2: Pedro de Mesquita Pimental, who was Administrator of Magude Circumscription until 1912.  Back.

Note 3: A n'anga (diviner) uses herbal medicines to heal physical and psychological ailments and tinhlolo (divining bones) to diagnose the social, physical, or emotional roots of health problems. The term n'anga is typically translated as "traditional healer" (in Portuguese, curandeiro) and is often used also to refer to a nyamusoro (spirit medium), whose spiritual and medical practices are quite distinct from those of tin'anga.  Back.

Note 4: Interview with Albertina Tiwana, 29 November 1995, Facazisse.  Back.

Note 5: According to Henri A. Junod, the "Mourimi movement" was a "revival of Thonga paganism" and was provoked by a severe famine in the lands inhabited by the Hlengwe in 1913-14. He describes two Hlengwe "messengers" traveling to what was then Rhodesia to consult the Mwari high god of the Shona; the messenger returned home with a pouch of "magic tobacco" and instructions for ritually distributing it in all areas afflicted by the crisis. When in 1915 torrential rains caused devastating floods in the Bilene area of the Limpopo Valley, local opinion there attributed the disaster to the anger of "Doumapansi" (believed to be the Shangaan term for either Mwari itself or a comparably powerful god who controlled agricultural productivity), and the murimi movement surfaced there as a ritual effort to appease him. By late 1916, according to Swiss missionaries, it had reached nearly as far south as Lourenço Marques, by which time Portuguese authorities were imprisoning men they caught dispensing murimi tobacco because they "suspected some hint of revolt in this strange movement," which seems to have lasted through the following year. Junod's description of the "rules" and "taboos" surrounding the distribution of fole ra murimi is more detailed than Albertina's and focuses on the male figure who brought the tobacco into the community and doled it out to women; whereas Albertina focuses on the women who in turn distributed the fole to children. The broad outlines, however, are very much the same, particularly in the emphasis on women's responsibility for treating their fields with the special tobacco. See Henri A. Junod, "Le mouvement de Mourimi: un reveil au sein de l'animisme Thonga," Journal de Psychologie 10 (1924): 865-82; Sherilynn Young, "Fertility and Famine: Women's Agricultural History in Southern Mozambique," in The Roots of Rural Poverty in Central and Southern Africa, ed. Robin Palmer and Neil Parsons (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), 76.  Back.

Note 6: Sherilynn Young summarizes this evidence in her valuable indexing of weather, crop, and food reports from southern Mozambique from 1850 to 1959 (Sherilynn Young, "Climate and Famine Data from Nineteenth-Century Southern Mozambique: Does the El Niño Southern Oscillation Model Help?" (annual meeting of the African Studies Association, Boston, Massachusetts, 3 December 1993).  Back.


Binding Memories: Women as Makers and Tellers of History in Magude, Mozambique