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Introduction: Author | Albertina | Rosalina | Valentina

Valentina Chauke


Valentina ChaukeI met Valentina Chauke through Aida, who was a more consistent churchgoer than Ruti and who initially wanted to introduce me only to women with lifelong connections to the Swiss Mission church (women unlike Albertina, who joined the church late in life). When Aida took me to visit Valentina for the first time, in June 1995, at the homestead where she lived with her grandson and his family, the elderly woman's welcoming words were, "Why have you brought a mulungu to my home?"
audio Valentina Chauke
Audio Interview
Having known Valentina since childhood, Aida was used to her sparring sense of humor and laughed the comment (and my awkwardness) off, unfurling a mat so we could sit down and get the introductions underway. My discomfort at the beginning was augmented by what I saw of Valentina's physical condition, which I assumed would make her unable and/or unwilling to sit through interviews at all. She could no longer walk, moving around only as far as her arms would drag her across the sand; her hearing was poor; and she was emaciated and hoarse, subject to frequent fits of coughing and obviously uncomfortable when she had to speak at any length.

Yet while Valentina described herself as "about to die," when she heard Aida's explanation of my work—and learned that her two daughters, who lived close by, were going to be interviewed as well—she agreed quite readily that we could come back to talk with her again. When we returned a few days later, Valentina greeted us excitedly and told us that she had been "sitting happy" knowing that Aida and "her mulungu" would be coming to visit her soon. And at the end of what I described later in my interview log as "an unexpectedly wonderful interview," Valentina asked me, through Aida, if "everyone in my country lived this way, going around talking and visiting all the time, and she asked this somewhat wistfully, as though a life spent that way would be wonderful indeed." 1

In other words, the very circumstances that I thought would disable Valentina for interviewing made her appreciate our meetings all the more. Aida and I could not visit her often enough, in part because Valentina could do little else with her time than sit sadly alongside the machamba (cultivated field) of her grandson's wife or wait for her unruly band of great-grandchildren to return from school so that she could try to cajole them into listening to her stories. Other motives for Valentina's eagerness to talk with us included, as she said, a desire to see more of Aida, whose mother Valentina considered her "daughter" and who, she complained, was neglecting her own visiting obligations. Valentina appeared motivated as well by the conviction, increasingly apparent the better I knew her, that because she had led what she considered an exemplary life, in strict accordance with laws of respect learned from both the non-Christian woman who raised her and the Swiss Mission church, she had vast stores of experiential wisdom to pass on to us. The eldest of the women we interviewed, Valentina recalled that she was beginning to develop breasts at the time of the xiponyola (Spanish flu) epidemic that spread throughout southern Mozambique (and elsewhere in Africa) in 1918, putting her birth sometime between 1905 and 1908. 2

Born in Xisangwana (Nyongane) after her parents had arrived there as refugees from the war in Hlengwini, Valentina—then called Naveta ("for poverty")—was "left alone" as an infant when her mother died and her father returned home, putting her in the care of one of his maternal aunts. Valentina remembers this woman, N'waXavela Mazive, as both her "grandmother" and her "mother," and she speaks with gratitude above all for her strong support of Valentina's desire to participate in the mission school and church. The older woman's position here is ironic, given her own refusal to consider conversion. In fact, one of the most significant themes recurring throughout Valentina's life stories is the tension between her vigorous identification with Christianity and her equally emphatic deference to traditional laws as taught to her by her foster mother. Valentina's marriage to a young church man, for example, was negotiated by the male African teacher at the Makuvulane mission school; yet when her husband died a few years later, leaving her with only one daughter, Valentina, a young widow, entered a sexual relationship with a second man in order to fulfil the requirements of kucinga tindzhaka (to cleanse or purify oneself of the pollution of death through ritualized sexual intercourse) 3—a distinctly traditional practice that the Swiss sternly forbade and that Valentina ended rather harshly as soon as she had conceived a second child.

For a number of reasons, interviewing Valentina was a challenge, especially for Aida. The older woman chastised us for (or claimed not to hear) questions she considered inappropriate, and she devoted much of her limited voice to berating Aida and the generation of Aida's daughters for immersing themselves too deeply in xilungu ways. We spent roughly twenty (recorded) hours interviewing Valentina and still felt confused about many of the details of her life, above all the labyrinthine kinship connections by which she was linked to the other characters in her stories. This topic provided many opportunities for Valentina to point out the deficiencies in Aida's upbringing, since Aida was almost never able to follow Valentina's genealogical trails from beginning to end. However, Aida and I also developed a close relationship with Valentina's elder daughter, Talita (mother of the man in whose household Valentina was living), whose own life stories often shed light on her mother's murkier naratives.

Talita's willingness to talk with us seemed to stem from those elements of her experience that mirrored Valentina's: a turbulent sexual past not always consistent with her self-identification as Christian; a marriage that ended prematurely and left her in charge of her own, struggling household; and a proud, outspoken sense of personal independence. It was only by trying to understand their similarities as life-storytellers that I began to appreciate why Valentina's younger daughter, Marta, behaved so differently toward Aida and me and why after our first awkward interview it seemed best not to impose on her again. The offspring of a union Valentina preferred not to discuss, married to the man her older sister had been promised to and then spurned by for conceiving a child with someone else, one of a small group of church women whose dedication to Christianity was so strong they followed the European practice of adopting their husband's family name—Marta was the quiet, conventional member of an otherwise notoriously troublesome triad, studiedly upholding Christian virtue by throwing herself into work and disdaining time lost in idle talk about the past.

Introduction: Author | Albertina | Rosalina | Valentina


Note 1: Interview log 1 (27 June 1995), entry 018.  Back.

Note 2: Gerhard Liesegang, "Famines, Epidemics, Plagues, and Long Periods of Warfare: Their Effects in Mozambique 1700-1975," Paper presented at the Conference on Zimbabwean History: Progress and Development, Harare, 23-27 August 1982, 3.  Back.

Note 3: Ndzhaka is believed to bring illness and potentially death to inhabitants of the family and village of the deceased; if not properly taken care of, it also brings drought and other ecological misfortunes. Henri A. Junod describes a complex battery of rites for cleansing what he called "the frightful malediction accompanying death" (see Henri A. Junod, The Life of a South African Tribe [London: Macmillan, 1927], 1:152 ff). Belief in the destructive power of ndzhaka was still widespread in Magude in 1995-96, though it was denounced by some Christian congregations.  Back.


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