The tale of three women
Nomalanga woke up with a start. “Oh no! It’s daytime already!” she exclaimed wondering why the nights were suddenly so fleeting.
Although it was only 5am and rather early in the morning, under Noma’s current circumstances, it was very late. The sunlight was already filtering through the thin cotton curtain in the room she now shared with her beloved Chamunorwa. Even before she looked at the time on her Nokia mobile phone, the degree of lighting in the room was a bad sign for Noma, who was expected to rise at dawn, just as the last traces of darkness disappeared to make way for the new day.
Her mother-in-law, MaDube, would be disappointed. She had made it expressly clear that she would not tolerate laziness in her home. “A good muroora arises early, performes her household chores and makes sure everyone in her husband’s family is comfortable before leaving for work,” she often said, adding that she expected no less from her own daughter- in-law. So far Noma had dismally failed to meet MaDube’s expectations.
Noma knew this because MaDube often wondered aloud why her eldest son, affectionately called Chamu, had left all the hardworking girls in the neighbourhood to bring her this lazy one who spent too much time with her employers and returned home too tired to be of any use in the home. She could not understand why this young woman prioritised office work over keeping her son’s happiness. Surely she had invested in Chamu’s education so he could marry a good girl who would bear her lovely grandchildren, help her maintain the home and keep her company while Chamu eked a living to take care of all of them. MaDube had shared these thoughts with Chamu all his life, so she wondered where he had missed the point.
Thoughts of the verbal torture she’d endure for her manifold sins, including oversleeping, haunted Noma as she reluctantly pulled herself out of the rickety bed she now shared with Chamu, who was still caught up in dreamland and oblivious of her predicament. She loved the man but was not enjoying the pain of sharing him with his family.
She hastily threw a worn grey jersey over her pretty blue night dress and wrapped a brown chitenge cloth around her waist hoping her speed would compensate for waking up late. As she slid her feet into a pair of slippers, her thoughts trailed briefly to the circumstances that had brought her from her flat in the city of Harare, to the working class township in the satellite town of Chitungwiza. It was a month ago, when she discovered she was pregnant with Chamu’s child six months after they started dating. Noma hadn’t known much about him but loved him all the same and hoped they would soon walk down the isle together.
At 31, pressure to get married was mounting on Noma, whose siblings and friends had all married in their 20s. That the buxom beauty was no spring chicken was evidenced by the titles strangers called her by, supposedly out of respect. The young men at the taxi rank had long stopped calling her sister and now called her Ambuya, which meant mother-in-law, or mama, the anglicised version of which was mothers, even if they were too old to be her sons.
Given the circumstances and that prospects of finding a suitor were dwindling as rapidly as her years increased, Noma did not take much time to get to know Chamu. In fact, three months into the relationship she had stopped fussing about condom use and was secretly relieved when she missed her period for two consecutive months. The pregnancy test confirmed what she had hoped for.
Noma gladly heeded the advice of friends who suggested kutizira or eloping for lack of an equivalent word, in the absence of a marriage proposal from Chamu. Although Chamu said he was not ready for marriage when she broke the news to him, Noma insisted on helping him to take responsibility and speed up the process of marrying her.
Being from a strict family background, Noma was terrified of facing her parents with the news that she was pregnant out of wedlock. Such was unheard of in her family line. Having been a bridesmaid at her three sisters’ weddings, Noma knew no less was expected of her. She had also been taught to preserve herself and not let any man tamper with any part of her body. So, rather than face her father’s wrath, Noma discussed the matter with an elder cousin Ntombiyolwazi, who helped her to hatch a plan.
So it was, that one bright Saturday morning, Noma, accompanied by Ntombi, left the comfort of her one bedroom flat in Harare’s Avenues area, to facilitate the marriage process. Without prior warning to Chamu, who lived with his parents, Noma and Ntombi arrived at his home while he was at work, then introduced themselves and the matter at hand. MaDube happily welcomed them. The prospect of having a grandchild from her 35-year old son was over due and surely, no-one would make up such a story. So she gladly embraced Noma into her fold, taught her the household routine then snuggly settled into the supervisory role while Noma ran the home. Indecisive Chamu suddenly found himself a married man. Of course MaDube was all too happy to have the extra benefits of a daughter-in-law as she no longer needed the services of a paid maid.
In her haste to be Mrs, Noma had not foreseen some of the consequences that would ensue from kutizira. Within a month of moving in, she had been reduced to the house help under rather difficult living conditions. Her in-laws’ home was different from the one she grew up and or her flat in town. Noma realised she had taken a lot forgranted. During their fleeting romance, she conveniently ignored the fact that while Chamu spent most of his spare time at her flat, he never invited her to his place. She had assumed every house had a geyser and a house help, until she got to Chitungwiza. Now, she was the house help. Her daily chores involved getting up early in the morning to clean the house and warm some water on the stove for Chamu, his parents and his two brothers. Noma also had to ensure that everyone was well-fed and wore clean ironed clothes before going to work. Only after taking care of the family could she think of her own needs. In the evening, she was responsible not only for planning the meal, but she also had to cook and sometimes source the missing ingredients. Her income, which had been sufficient for one person, now had to cover a family. Her chores were particularly difficult on the days when there were power cuts, which occurred frequently because of the load shedding. On such days, she sometimes had to source firewood to heat up the bath water and prepare meals. During weekends, Noma did the laundry and ironing for the whole family. Since moving in with Chamu, Noma had been consistently late for work and was constantly tired as she struggled to balance the demands of her career and home. Her duties as a secretary at a small shoe manufacturer had become highly neglected while trying to please MaDube at home was also taking its toll on her.
Chamu turned out to be irresponsible and quite different from the person she thought she was getting to know. Living with his parents was a strategy to avoid taking responsibility for his life and he made it clear that he had no intention of moving out, so Noma was left to cover up for his failure to contribute towards their upkeep. Sometimes he would not come home at night and got angry when Noma asked where he had been. He often reminded her she had imposed herself on him and he was not obliged to account to her before unleashing a diatribe of abuses.
Noma longed for the days when she could wake up at 7am and still make it to work on time. She missed having fun with her friends on weekends. Now she was condemned to perpetual slavery in unappreciative MaDube’s house. She missed having fun with Chamu and longed for his tender side. How she wished to return home and forget this nasty episode. If only she could undo her action of kutizira and its consequences. Yet culture dictated that once she eloped, she was not to return home but stay with her husband while a cultural marriage was being arranged. The wheels of establishing her marriage were already in motion. The elders from both her family and Chamu’s were negotiating her bride price and compensation for damages to her body, despite his apparent reluctance to settle with her and her parents’ disapproval of the route she’d chosen.
Before eloping, her friends’ advice had sounded good. Indeed she had secured the marriage and would soon be called Mrs, albeit to a reluctant and potentially abusive husband. Noma wondered if she had made the right decision and if she would ever be happy again. This was not the marriage she had dreamt of. It was so far removed from the romantic relationship and happy home she’d always imagined. She missed the carefree days when life was fun. Her hopes of a happy marriage to Chamu and a wonderful family were fast fading into a rather long nightmare. These thoughts raced through her mind as she swept the house while waiting for Chamu’s bath water to boil.
“This house is no cleaner than when you started sweeping it!” MaDube’s sharp rebuke pierced her emotions and interrupted her thoughts. The harsh works quickly brought her back to her unpleasant reality. Glancing at her watch, she realised it was almost 7am and she hadn’t done much. Once again, she would be late for work. Her boss had already warned her against being late, particularly when the company was hosting important visitors like the Namibian trade minister.
Noma sighed. As she prepared for her remaining tasks and braced herself for a bad day ahead, she asked herself, “Is this really worth it?”
Maidei sat in the dimly lit room and pondered her fate. Although it was getting dark and she should have been preparing the evening meal, she did not bother to get up. She willed herself to move, but her limbs failed her. Maidei felt numb and wished to stay that way. At least she would not feel pain as long as her emotions were deadened.
She had spent most of the day sitting in the same position, oblivious of the world around her. A spider crawled over her left foot but she did not notice. Even her phobia for creepy crawlies had numbed.
“What have I done to deserve this?” she asked herself repeatedly. How could months of bliss, suddenly be shattered by a few hurtful words?
A cold little hand on her thigh startled her, jerking her back to reality. It was her three-year-old son Tatenda.
“Oh my baby, you’re feeling cold and I hadn’t even noticed,” she whispered, partly to herself, as she gathered him in her arms and got up to look for a jersey. Her bundle of joy, as she called him, had also been the start of her problems. At 26, Maidei had gotten pregnant with him, after a three year relationship with her boyfriend Kuda. Three years without a marriage proposal had made her impatient so she decided that getting pregnant would trigger him into action. Her strategy worked and as soon as she announced that she was expecting his child, Kuda quickly moved to formalise their union.
Being a well-bred man, Kuda quickly began the marriage process to ensure that his child would be born in wedlock. His family was happy about it but wondered why he was suddenly in a hurry to marry although no-one questioned his decision.
Maidei suddenly became the queen of his heart and she was on top of the world. Kuda, a successful entrepreneur, did everything in his power to make her happy. He bought a beautiful house in Harare’s leafy Borrowdale suburb, to ensure that by the time he settled the bride price his young wife would have a comfortable home. In line with their lifestyle he bought a new car for Maidei, a struggling doctor at a government hospital.
Kuda, who was also a philanderer, broke off all relationships so he could focus on Maidei, the woman who had given him the gift of fatherhood and enabled him to stand up and be counted among other men. Not only was he a highly educated and successful businessman, but now, he had a pretty wife with a respected profession and to cap it all, he would also be a father! What more could a man want? All this, at 28, no-one could call him a failure.
Kuda and Maidei’s life was like a dream and they were the envy of their circle of friends. He pampered her and made sure she had the best of everything while she did all she’d been taught to be a wonderful and loving wife. He took care of her parents while she endeared herself to his family by taking charge of their health through free services and pilfered medication. The handsome, successful couple epitomized everything that their peers sought in a marriage.
Eight months after Tatenda’s birth the bubble unexpectedly burst! Kuda stopped being the wonderful husband and started clamouring for his “freedom.” He frequently accused Maidei of deliberately getting pregnant to trap him into marriage. His taunts became more persistent, coupled with suggestions for a divorce. He often told her that this was not what he wanted and he felt like a prisoner in the home. He claimed he was a victim of his good upbringing because he had wanted to do the right thing for his son.
Kuda would swing from accusing her of trapping him, to being a loving husband, so she soon got used to it and learnt to brush aside his tantrums. For a while, his drinking got heavy and the verbal abuse also increased. She learnt to treat his accusations like the ranting of a drunken man. Much to her relief, he soon cleaned up his act, reduced the drinking and became calmer, yet the talk of trapping him with a child did not change.
Her thoughts wondered to the previous day’s events as she mechanically helped Tatenda into his jersey.
Although she had become accustomed to his accusations, yesterday had been different. He had come home sober and in good spirits. After dinner, he tucked Kuda into bed and read him a bedtime story. Then he called her to the study for a talk, where he gently crushed her world with his words.
He explained that she was a good woman and he appreciated her. He loved their child and would never substitute that gift for anything. However, he was not happy and to be honest, the marriage was not working. He felt trapped in the marriage because of the child and the situation was not healthy for both of them. He shared his future plans for his life, which clearly excluded her, and outlined how he would continue to look after her and his child. Kuda promised to do everything to ensure that they were comfortable, everything but live with them. The level of detail in his plans told Maidei that he had been thinking about this very carefully and for a long time. That was when it finally hit her that his ranting had always been serious.
“I know you think I owe you for breaking your virginity, but babe, its not working and we just have to let it go,” he’d told her, rendering invalid her last argument to make him stay.
Now she faced the prospect of living without him and raising her child alone. How would she explain this to those around her? Her parents who were proud of their son-in-law, her single friends at Church who aspired to have a marriage like hers, her young sisters who looked up to her, and her colleagues who thought her marriage was the epitome of perfection. She wondered how she would face the world as a single parent and divorced woman.
How she wished Kuda would change his mind. Surely, theirs was not the only marriage that had resulted from pregnancy? She knew many people who had lived together for the rest of their lives although she could not vouch for their happiness. She was willing to sacrifice her happiness to save the marriage, why could Kuda not do the same?
Would she ever be happy again, she wondered. These thoughts preoccupied her for the greater part of the day. They immobilised her as she sank deeper and deeper into a pit of dispair, wondering if the sun would ever shine again.
Tavonga stretched her hand under the covers, hoping to feel the warmth of a body next to her. Instead, she felt the coolness of the untouched sheet. A shiver ran down her spine and her heart sank. “Not again,” she whispered to herself in dismay.
She had stopped counting the lonely nights, but knew this had been going on for more than a month. Although she did not bother to check the time, she could tell that it was about 5am. She allowed herself to dwell on the unpalatable fact that her husband, Obed, was having an affair.
Although theirs was not a happy marriage, Obed had a conscience and had first tried to be discreet. Initially, he would come home at mid-night and claim he had to work late, then he started sleeping out and told her there was a sleep over after a managers’ party. Later, he stopped coming home for a couple of days at a time, claiming he had an assignment out of town. Eventually, he grew tired of lying and just stopped trying to explain where he had spent the night. Tavonga also stopped asking, hoping he would grow tired of the affair yet his new relationship waxed hotter. Besides, asking often unleashed a barrage of abuse about her presence in the house.
She hugged his pillow and thought back to the days when they first met two years ago. Obed, an engineer, had just moved to Harare from Gweru after completing his degree. At 23, he was charming and eligible. At that time, she was 19 and had just enrolled at college for a diploma in business studies. They met at an interdenominational youth camp and started talking. Their first date was to a Saturday afternoon movie – the title of which she could not remember as she had spent more time watching him and not the screen. Afterwards, they had drinks at his flat, which he shared with a former classmate.
For their second date, they went for another movie but this time at 5pm, after which he walked her to the bus terminus so she could get transport home. He had stayed with her, talking through the car window, until the vehicle started moving. Tavonga lived in Epworth, a peri-urban area on the outskirts of Harare, where communities practiced a convergence of modernity and traditional cultural practices.
Obed was about to get into bed on that fateful Saturday night, when he heard a knock on the door. As he walked towards the door he wondered if his flat mate George was expecting any visitors. Obed thought it rather queer for George to retire early when he knew he had invited visitors. Nonetheless, he opened the door and was surprised to find Tavonga outside with a suitcase.
“What happened? Why are you here so late? What’s in the suitcase? Is everything ok?” Obed asked a seemingly endless stream of questions as he let her in.
Tavonga was not sure which one to answer first. She nonetheless entered the flat. He offered her some tea and led her to the lounge where they settled and talked. She explained that she had gotten home late and her parents had rejected her, ordered her to pack her bags and told her to return to the person she was with. Since she had been with him and her parents were refusing to listen to her, she had no choice but to go to his flat.
Obed was not sure what to do and had woken George up to consult him. The two decided it was too late for Tavonga to go home and offered her accommodation for the night but made it clear that she could not live with them. That night, Obed had given up his bed for Tavonga and slept in the lounge.
The following day, Tavonga woke up early and prepared breakfast for Obed before getting ready for college. Although the two flat mates tried to encourage her to go back home, she would not barge. She knew her father would not take her back, particularly now that she had spent the night out.
The temporary arrangement soon became permanent and after three weeks of resisting the temptation, Obed moved from the couch to his bedroom which he began to share with Tavonga. Nature inevitably took its course and Obed deflowered Tavonga. Now, she definitely could not return home and settled into the role of being his wife although the cultural processes of formalising the union had not yet taken place.
Although the two were co-habiting, Obed’s friends were uncomfortable with the arrangement and tried to get him to formalise the marriage. However, Obed was reluctant, arguing that he had not proposed to her and had only dated her twice before she came on her own volition. He insisted that he was not ready to marry and Tavonga was being imposed on him.
Due to the pressures she found herself facing, Tavonga failed her final examinations at college and could not graduate. Consequently, she could not secure a job and so became a full-time housewife. Feeling uncertain about her future with Obed and desperate to secure her place in the home, Tavonga stopped taking contraception and soon fell pregnant in the hope that a child would cement their relationship.
However, by then whatever flame existed between them had been extinguished. Obed, who had been confused about what to do with her for the greater part of her stay, except during the night, still felt she should return home. He insisted that her parents had parceled her off to him after two dates to shed off the responsibility of caring for her. He arrogantly refused to meet them, let alone pay the bride price, arguing that they were trying to use her to escape their poverty.
And so it was that Tavonga became a dark secret that only George and their inner circle knew about in Obed’s life. He stopped inviting friends over to his place and even his parents back in Gweru knew nothing about his marriage.
Eventually, Obed stopped acknowledging her very presence in the house and so began his quest for another woman, which led to his affair. Even after Tavonga had given birth to their child, Chiratidzo, Obed did not change. He refused to acknowledge both mother and child, while continuing to live as a single man.
Unable to manage the tension and out of consideration, George moved out to give the newly founded family their space.
Still in bed, Tavonga hugged the pillow tighter wishing it could be transformed into Obed. It had grown warm from her temperature but that could not compensate for his absence. How she pined for him despite his cruelty.
She still harboured secret hopes that someday, the marriage would work out.
As she wondered what would happen next she heard the flat door open and froze. Her heart raced as she heard the distinct sound of his footsteps moving towards their bedroom.
“Perhaps he has come home to settle at last,” she thought in silent anticipation.
Tavonga checked the time. It was exactly 6am on a Tuesday morning and she hoped it was a day she would always remember as the morning when her husband returned to his senses.
She smiled shyly as Obed entered the room.
Without saying a word he walked straight to the wardrobe, pulled out his clothes and packed them into the exact suitcase that she had brought her clothes in when she came to live with him, then he stormed out.
The characters in these three accounts are fictitious but the experiences are drawn from the real life stories of different women in Zimbabwe over a period of less than five years. The practice of kutizira in its various forms needs to be examined in the modern day context. It has brought untold misery to many more women whose stories are untold and who remain faceless. This concept, which is still being practiced up to now, strips women of their dignity, exposes them to abuse and robs them of an opportunity to be happy.
By Matilda Moyo
25 April 2010