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Lives of Girls: Author | Albertina | Rosalina | Valentina

Lives of Girls


In tales of grandmothers, women's narrated lives are cast principally in terms of their embeddedness in extensive networks of consanguineal and affinal kin: as mothers and daughters, aunts and nieces, sisters and sisters-in-law, wives and co-wives. In tales of mothers, women's relational landscapes are expanded to include a key category of nonrelatives identified by the possessive adjective kulorhi / kuloni / kulobye (my fellow / your fellow / his/her fellow). This relation is defined by shared social age (i.e., membership in the same ntangha [age group]) and residence or interaction in a common geographic place. In women's stories of their girlhood, bonds of female fellowship assume center stage. As the stories in this section illustrate, vuntombi (girlhood), which officially begins with the onset of puberty and lasts until a ntombi or nhwanyana (girl) becomes a nsati (wife), is a critical phase of a woman's remembered life, oriented above all to training and preparing her for marriage. When elderly women in Magude recalled this chapter of their pasts (1910s-40s), they stressed the enormous pressure on girls to modify their bodies to conform to male standards of sexual attractiveness, particularly through the elongation of their mitsingi (labia), to discipline their "hands" and "hearts" to labor at home and in the fields, and to learn the laws of proper womanly behavior, whether from their female elders or in xilungu churches and schools.

What girls made of these normative expectations—how they understood and acted on them, the meanings they committed to memory—is just as important to the unfolding of their life story as are the expectations themselves. Memories of "pulling mitsingi," for instance, highlight girls' diligence, secrecy, rivalry and the actual hand-to-hand combat they waged to establish a ranking of ntamu or matimba (strength) and xichavo (respect) among the "sisterhood" of fellow girls, a competitive but collaborative hierarchy such as they would need to manage the labor burdens of womanhood in later years. Yet the vocabulary of these exuberant stories, striking for its Zulu content and masculine (even military) overtones, suggests that girls' mitsingi battles were as much about challenging gender norms as about making girls into proper women—a vigorously physical demonstration that femininity was neither passive, subservient, nor weak and that womanhood was forged by women, not imposed on them by husbands' desires.

Essential to narrative constructions of girlhood in general, mitsingi "fighting stories" are important to women's life-storytelling in another way. More explicitly than any other, these stories serve as a foundational narrative for women's collective past, and establish a paradigmatic baseline for measuring social change during women's lifetime. As Valentina declares, "We understood each other through these things," "We lived by these things"—not simply the act of "pulling mitsingi" but the risima (value), respect, fellowship, and secret feminine knowledge surrounding the practice. It was the absence of precisely "these things" that elderly women were citing in 1995-96 to prove the deteriorated and "confused" (because not respectful) condition of that postwar moment. Indeed, without their mitsingi tales it is difficult to appreciate the rich historical commentary implicit in the other stories they tell.

I open this section with fighting stories, then, because other narratives of girlhood—stories of work, schooling, travel, trade, dancing, and courtship—all somehow stem from, and are shaped by, a gendered sense of self that is linked back in time to the ways of female ancestors and contemporaneously to a code of conduct among fellow girls that is first enacted when they "pull mitsingi" together in hidden corners of the khwatini or nhoveni (bush). When we start from mitsingi stories, it is easier to understand the interpretive frame through which women view their girlhood encounters with Christianity and colonial schooling, which are seen as a source of new laws of behavior that supplement rather than replace the rules taught by mothers and grandmothers. Memories of the serious yet essentially playful "fighting" of their youth also provide a poignant contrast for the stories women tell of their adult lives, when the heavy responsibilities of marriage and motherhood are made more painful by the violence—emotional and physical, private and public—accompanying male labor migrancy, colonial rule, and the warfare that preceded and followed Mozambique's independence.

Another paradigmatic lesson of the fighting stories, as relevant in girlhood as in old age, is that the intimate, embodied fellowship forged through girls' mitsingi battles teaches a notion of female kinship as something women must actively earn and create rather than a network of relatives handed to them at birth and automatically enlarged with marriage. Other kinds of girlhood stories dramatize the implications of this lesson more overtly, especially those in which Swiss missionaries, Banyan shopkeepers, Portuguese settlers and officials, or mulungu "husbands" and "in-laws" play a significant part. As in Valentina's memories of mission schooling, Albertina's tales of trade, and Rosalina's extraordinary story of her courtship by Agosto Capela and a parade of other mestiço and mulungu men, the narrative incorporation of nonindigenous actors into women's memories of everyday experience, including experience of the most private kind, stakes a bold female claim to agency in colonial society at the same time as it challenges the strict conventions of patrilineal kinship.

As always, it is dangerous for women to push these contests too far. Rosalina, for example, is not oblivious to the irony of her insistence that it is principally "long mitsingi" that enable a woman to hold onto a man of any "race." Defying her Christian uncle's wrath when he discovers her, along with his daughter and other nieces, indulging in this "heathen" pursuit is how Rosalina recalls liberating herself, with emotional fireworks and plenty of tears, from his oppressive control. But if it is her sexual attractiveness, forged in such self-consciously traditional terms, that brings Rosalina the attention of European men, it is also her sexual precociousness that ruptures her connection to many traditional sources of kin support and propels her into a life dominated by serial common-law unions, tensions with other women, and the unending pressures of economic solitude that impoverished her in the postwar years.

Lives of Girls: Author | Albertina | Rosalina | Valentina


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