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Lives of Mothers: Author | Albertina | Rosalina | Valentina

Lives of Mothers


If narratives of grandmothers' lives serve as models for stories women tell about themselves, narratives of "mothers" (singular, mamana; colloquial, make) function in even more explicit ways as historical justification for women's actions. Strictly speaking, for a woman the category of mamana embraces not only birth mother but birth mother's sisters, birth mother's co-wives (and their sisters), wives of father's brothers, daughters of mother's brothers, and so on. It does not include father's sisters (singular, hahane), a position that in the kinship hierarchy commands much greater authority and respect than does mamana. 1 Here, however, the tragic story Valentina tells of her hahane, N'waMbokhoda Chauke, is presented as a "mother story" because in Valentina's memory this surrogate mother figure, who was given Valentina's infant sister to raise after the sudden death of their birth mother, is held responsible for the worst maternal crime of all: letting a baby die while in her custody.

Orphaned as a child, Valentina has passionate, sometimes angry convictions about what a proper mother is supposed to be, and her emphasis on N'waMbokhoda's selfishness—her aunt, Valentina claims, resented her baby sister, because she was preventing N'waMbokhoda from returning to Hlengwini after colonial conquest ended the fighting there—stands in marked contrast to both the personal sacrifices of Valentina's adoptive mother, N'waXavela, and Valentina's own (in her eyes) stoic suffering through the rebellious youth of her eldest daughter. This story also illustrates how the Christian discourses surrounding Valentina since childhood—when her guardian-uncle, Jakovo Chauke, was a muvangeli (evangelist) for the Swiss in Makuvulane—have suffused her understanding of traditional kin obligations. N'waMbokhoda fails as mother because she is a satana (devil) who cannot "know children" and whose "soul" contains the poison of vuloyi (witchcraft), which Valentina claims N'waMbokhoda inherited from her own equally nefarious mother.

Albertina and Rosalina recall their birth mothers, Machun'wasse Khosa and Anina Tivane, in a much more positive light, although there are tensions and open conflicts (even violence) in these stories as well. Both women were widowed at an early age, and most often the stories their daughters tell about them focus on their mothers' sexual or conjugal fortunes in the wake of this unhappy event. Machun'wasse, every bit Fahlaza's daughter, defies leviratic remarriage until the angry son-in-law who seeks to "inherit" her, and who works for the Portuguese district military commander, has her locked up in the Magude jail. Anina, as proud and imperious as her mother Kondissa, reluctantly follows the recommendation of her brother-in-law, one of the Swiss Mission's earliest ordained African ministers, that she enter another sexual relationship to rid her and her children of ndzhaka, the pollution that she carries from the death of her husband and that can be cleansed only through ritual intercourse.

Both episodes have a lasting significance for the daughters, in Albertina's case because her mother's subsequent remarriage to another "convict" leads to the transfer of Albertina and her sister to the care of their maternal grandmother, and in Rosalina's case because her mother's boldly independent behavior causes trouble for her mufundhisi brother-in-law, setting a narrative precedent for the antagonism that will mark Rosalina's relationship with her uncle Dane later on. In Rosalina's story of her maternal uncle's wife Tavasse Ubisse, the mortal consequences of sexual betrayal are set more starkly against social tensions generated by colonial rule. A woman who has an extramarital relationship with the Portuguese-appointed régulo (chief), cheating on a husband who has been crippled by witchcraft as a result of getting rich through trade with Europeans—this story can only lead to disaster, although Rosalina ends it on a moral high note, contrasting Tavasse's transgression with Anina's virtuous devotion to her "only true brother."

A more subtle but equally important feature of the stories of all three women, whether the events they describe are comic or tragic, is the prominence of "offstage" social spaces as the settings for pivotal encounters: the convicts' field where Machun'wasse meets the man who enables her to avoid marriage to her brother-in-law, the drinking parties where Anina ridicules the jealousies of co-wives, the footpaths where Anina wrestles her lover Musoni to the ground and Tavasse is caught sneaking off to the chief's homestead with an illicit pot of beer. Such details are significant in narratives that seem so centrally about women's efforts to subvert masculine authority within the context of colonial rule, and the effectiveness of these offstage strategies is perhaps best summed up in Dane Malungana's exasperated response to the aggrieved Musoni: "I can't tell my sister-in-law not to go . . . and play with other women!"

Lives of Mothers: Author | Albertina | Rosalina | Valentina


Note 1: Many interviewees spent a portion of their girlhood living in a hahane's household, considered a hahane a major role model, and/or maintained close ties with a hahane throughout their adult life.  Back.


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