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Boeke | Books > Rubrieke | Columns > English > African Library

The African Library: The Purple Violet of Oshaantu


Annie Gagiano - 2009-03-05

This fairly short novel, the first published work by Andreas, appeared in 2001 as one of the "last batch" of the famed Heinemann African Writers Series. Plotwise, it tells of a sudden death, a funeral and its immediate aftermath. Around this stark-sounding outline the author weaves a dense evocation of the rural northern Namibian community within which these events occur. The narrative is also strongly and attractively coloured by the candid voice of an observant narrator and focaliser, Mee Ali. She does not suffer fools and hypocrites, even though she is entirely immersed in her culture and its age-old practices and courtesies. Mee Ali’s is an attractive personality; instinctively and even passionately empathetic and protective, particularly towards her best friend and neighbour Meme Kauna, who is trapped in a triply abusive marriage. Not only does her husband Shange flaunt his promiscuity and frequently and violently assault her, but his extended family members show Kauna no sympathy whatsoever.

It comes as a surprise to the reader to learn that it is in fact the mistreated Kauna to whom the title refers – she is delicately built and a gentle, particularly lovely woman. It is mainly from Ali (the narrator) that Kauna receives the appreciation, support, loyalty and love without which her life would have been unendurable. Not that Kauna has wilted under marital onslaughts – she has a strong sense of her own worth and for the most part copes with what life flings at her. Nor is Ali in any way saintly, since she is sometimes baffled or scandalised by her close friend’s conduct during the difficult time following Shange’s death and sometimes fails to understand her. Ali can be naïve and her naïveté is mirrored in that certain sections of the narrative seem still to be narrated by her, even though they describe some of Kauna’s experiences, occurring when the latter is away from her.

Ali’s friendly and forthright, somewhat unconventional, personality is innate to her, although one learns that her mother had dared to divorce her father – "dared", because both the local traditional (Ovambo) culture and the firmly embedded Christianity of the society frown upon this, although they cannot entirely forbid it. There is in many ways a charming quirkiness about Ali’s conduct, but she is, in other ways, also rather conservative and concerned with "proper" behaviour – altogether a freshly imagined, convincing character. Her personality is also shaped by the fact that she is in the unusual position (as the many mini-narratives in the text suggest) of having a charming, loving and utterly faithful husband. Time and again Ali’s marital situation provokes comments suggesting that she is “lucky” to have the kind of husband Michael (who works far away and is seldom home) is to her: fortunate in that he did not abandon her after impregnating her; in that a man of his “calibre” has deigned to marry her, a mere “uneducated” woman; and in that despite the "normality" of the practice, he does not ever beat her. Ali comments indignantly, “I am not lucky. I simply do not deserve to be treated like a filthy animal” (65).

But if Ali is considered to have the undeserved good fortune of a good marriage, the community assumes that the failure of Kauna’s marriage is her friend’s own fault: “they laughed at her and stigmatised her” (51). We learn also that Ali is uneducated because her father, even though well able to afford it, refused to pay for her education after her mother had divorced him – to spite her mother for leaving him, she suspects.

As the above details indicate, Andreas’s text is an astute delineation of a society in which exploitation and abuse of women has become normalised – partly by women themselves, for the novel is by no means an "anti-male" text or lacking in nuance in its delineation of gender matters. An issue central to the text is what one might term the practice of “wife-blame”, especially by a woman’s in-laws who here, as in so many African societies, exercise major control over her life, since her birth-family’s status and permitted role in her post-marriage life are severely restricted. “Wife-blame” in the virulent form of widespread suspicion and explicit accusation of spousal murder by a woman whose husband has died at a relatively young age, as well as punishment by property deprivation (to the point of utter impoverishment) under customary law, with little or no consideration of the widow’s and children’s subsequent welfare, are placed under the spotlight in this text.

Although these are the serious and urgent issues critically examined in the text, I do not wish to create a false impression that The Purple Violet of Oshaantu is a gloomy, preachy text, or merely a tract about female victimisation. The author evidently does wish to raise these matters and does not consider herself a traitor to her culture for doing so, but the two main characters are simply too lifelike and lively to be labelled crusaders, nor do they need books or outsiders to enable them to recognise either injustice or abuse. Their friendship develops because they are near neighbours and to an extent both slightly unusual personalities within their social context; it deepens through shared experiences and mutually articulated feelings and shared ideas. The relationship between Ali and Kauna is not unconvincingly trouble-free and seamless, either. They sometimes startle, disappoint or puzzle each other, Andreas’s portrayal of the relationship carrying the sure touch of a writer who has both deeply considered her characters and closely observed their social context.

An endearing moment occurs early in the text when the two young women (probably both in their thirties, each with a large brood of children) go to draw water at a communal well. As is required, every single person there must be individually greeted and both women do so – but unusually, Kauna omits a woman the two of them refer to as “the woman from the white house”. When Ali asks why her friend had left out this woman, the conversation proceeds as follows:

"Why should I greet somebody who sleeps with my husband? In fact I contemplated pushing her down the pit and covering it with a piece of rusted tin and then ordering all the women in the village not to fetch water there ever again."

"You?’

"Yes, me."

I laughed so loudly [says Ali] that the water from my bucket spilled all over my face and shoulders. Kauna laughed too. (27)

Evidently, Ali had not expected the normally gentle Kauna capable of such robust fierceness. Their mutual enjoyment of this moment of symbolic, amusingly imagined retaliation indicates two healthily normal personalities who can risk defying customary mores.

The novel opens, however, on a period of extreme strangeness (in Ali’s eyes) in her friend’s conduct; a time during which we see that Ali’s understanding of Kauna’s sufferings has its limits, however humane and loyal towards her friend she otherwise is. The text begins with a scene where Ali stands happily contemplating the lush cultivated landscape, but is slightly disturbed when a pious female neighbour whom she does not much like, walks by. We learn later that because this woman (Maita) is influential in the church, Ali had privately gone to see her to ask that she persuade the church elders and pastor to intervene in her friend’s abusive marriage – by either censoring Shange or suggesting a divorce. Not only does Maita (whose own marital situation is far from happy) refuse to do what she is asked, but she launches into the typical sermon about the female duty of subservience to and endurance of violence and disrespect from a husband. Moreover, she spreads word around the community that Ali is a scandalously meddlesome woman bent on undermining good marital morals, earning her serious community disapproval and an unusually sharp and embarrassing rebuke from her husband. Yet when the two of them see Shange roaring up in his car, arriving in broad daylight and at mid-morning at his family home after spending the night at the home (the “white house”) he had built for his lover, Ali cannot stop herself from bursting out with an indignant comment. Predictably, Maita explains away Shange’s humiliation and betrayal of his wife and walks off to church. Moments later, Ali hears Kauna’s distraught shouts. This time, however, she is not being assaulted by her husband. In fact, we learn that Shange walked in, sat down and collapsed – dead. Yet Kauna is not shouting hysterically because the death upsets her, but because she knows immediately that she is the one who will be accused of having caused it. In her attempts to calm Kauna and to persuade her to stop her demented-sounding demands that concerned neighbours take note of the fact that the dead man had not spent the night at his home and had not touched the food she had prepared for him, we begin to see that Ali has not grasped the full extent of Kauna’s vulnerability and panic.

This limitation of her sympathy arises, one senses, from her own considerably more secure marital and familial situation. Even though most of her in-laws had given her an extremely hard time immediately before and after her marriage, spreading vicious comments about her unsuitability as a wife for their son, brother and cousin, her husband had defied them all and defended their relationship. At the end of the text, Ali and her husband have the following conversation, with Ali’s words quoted first:

"… it seems that loyalty to one’s family must always come before loyalty to one’s in-laws."

"Yes," answered Michael. "I think that is in our tradition, but so much is changing now and we are not changing with it fast enough."

With reference to the break-up of the marriage of an old friend of his, Michael adds:

"But, remember, I told you that I’d learned something through all that whole saga … I promised myself that I would not allow any family member or friend to ruin my marriage. With God’s help, I will handle my marriage myself," he said.

You have never told me all this [Ali thinks], but deep down [she admits to herself, she] somehow knew that this was what made Michael different. (180)

So Ali fails to realise that to Kauna her husband’s death signifies not the shock of the loss of a spouse, but the frighteningly immediate possibility of being ousted from her home and community by vengeful, greedy in-laws who will use her husband’s death to demonise her and to validate their own seizure of almost all the family property.

Interestingly, it is little Kauna, Ali’s only daughter, whom her husband had named after her best friend, who shows a better grasp of the likelihood of what will eventually unfold. Having spent several days assisting her distraught friend, Ali returns to her own home, where her daughter anxiously asks her what will happen to her mbushe (her namesake, ie the adult Kauna), whom she adores. Little Kauna has already heard the rumour (at school) that Shange died because he was bewitched by his wife and that she will be “chase[d] from the homestead” (129). For all her true loyalty, Ali finds herself having to defend the pitiless gender bias that allocates the land which Kauna had assiduously cultivated and which Shange had never touched, solely to the deceased man’s family, Kauna’s in-laws. Ali here even resorts to the ancient, lame excuse that the injustice of the arrangement, so clearly understood by the little girl, is something that she will “understand” once she is a “grown woman”. This is one of the points in this seemingly straightforward text where one senses a distinct, ironic distance between Andreas (the author) and her usually appealing and reliable witness, Ali.

The gravest error of judgement that Ali makes vis-à-vis her friend has near-fatal consequences for Kauna, but Ali seems not to grasp her own (minor) degree of responsibility for what ensues. Again it is a mistake she makes presumably because of her own happy marital situation, which desensitises her to an extent to the precarious feelings and situation even of a woman she loves as much as she believes herself to love Kauna. What happens precedes Shange’s death by a few years. Ali, having been away on a visit, returns in an elated frame of mind, hoping to share a “juicy story” (52) with Kauna. On the visit she had obtained a photograph proving something neither she nor Kauna had ever suspected: that Shange does not do dangerous or high-security and therefore (in the common view) "glamorous" work for the mining company which employs him, but is a lowly chef cooking for the mineworkers. Knowing how much reason Kauna has to resent her husband for his terrible, intermittent and ongoing abuse, Ali imagines that the information will hugely amuse Kauna. She is perplexed when her friend does not seem to find the sight of Shange in a chef’s hat comical. Even though Andreas (the author) does not fully delineate the psychological mechanisms at work here, one imagines that, to his abused wife, the information about her husband’s lowly profession adds insult to injury. Kauna is the daughter of a pastor and herself relatively educated, so the shock of finding out that Shange works with cooking pots rather than with diamonds humiliates her, as well as increasing her sense of how she has come down in the world – to be the punching bag of a mere cook.

More seriously than this upset, however, is the fact that Shange immediately and aggressively notices a change in the way Kauna looks at him, much as, for her own safety, she denies this. When their one little boy innocently and happily shows his father the photograph, which Kauna had prudently hidden in her Bible, Shange cross-questions him as to where he found it. Upon being told, he attacks Kauna like a crazed creature; hitting her to the ground and incessantly kicking her with his boots until Ali’s husband, Michael, at last manages to restrain him, but not before he has inflicted such serious injuries that Kauna has to be hospitalised for a lengthy period.

The village where the two friends live is also the home of a strong spirit and a champion of downtrodden women: Mukwankala, a village elder, and widowed. Having heard about Shange all but killing Kauna in the attack described above, Mukwankala tracks Shange down to a shebeen (locally known as a cuca shop). Here she confronts him in a fierce, public denunciation. The normally irrepressibly arrogant Shange is for once shamed and silenced by the undeniable validity of Mukwankala’s words. “His face turned a ghostly white,” the narrator says. Among other things, she taunts him by asking: “Why didn’t you marry one of the many women you whored with and fathered children with?" She also tells him that “Men who beat women are the ones who cannot stand up against other men" (63). Tellingly, Shange never again hits Kauna, although he maintains his promiscuous lifestyle.

Another outspoken and independent-minded woman in the novel is Kauna’s aunt, Mee Fennie, who divorced an unsatisfactory husband and successfully raised and educated her three children by herself. She is fond of her brothers, but disgusted with them for not standing up for Kauna. Being “hardworking, nice” and “kind” is “not enough”, she declares: “they need to march down to your husband and give him the beating that he will remember as long as he lives," she insists (80).

Even though Andreas exposes the flaws of both women and men who fail in various ways to protect vulnerable women, her evocation of the social texture of life among the rural Ovambo people is a balanced one. She exhibits the social gatherings and formal rituals as well as the daily interchanges of people with a sure hand. Especially detailed is the description of a co-operative work party of local women (the local name for such an event is okakungungu) in which even women whom Kauna had fancied were unsympathetic or actively hostile towards her, willingly, arduously and happily participate. As Ali says to herself at the end of the women’s huge job of ploughing Shange and Kauna’s lands: "Most of our husbands, in fact most able young men, worked hundreds of kilometres away from home. Except for the headmen and a few older men, this village was headed, literally, by us, the women" (119).

Another lengthily and fully evoked scene portrays a town market where Kauna’s beloved Aunt Fennie sells food. The contrast between the communal quality of the rural and agricultural scene and the bustling but dirty and dangerous town setting is telling and subtle. In other balancing contrasts, the awful husband Shange is offset by the gentle, strong Michael, while Kauna’s parents display tellingly different attitudes towards her marital difficulties – her mother insisting that she endure it all; her father (a church pastor) asking her to consider getting a divorce before irreparable harm is done to her. Her mother’s rigid conservatism is also contrasted with her Aunt Fennie’s much more daring and independent personality.

Of course Kauna is eventually (actually, mere weeks after the funeral!) told by Shange’s people to leave her husband’s property with her five children and little else, her in-laws having secured possession (this, despite their earlier promise to look after their dead son’s widow and children). But Kauna is not defeated by this long-expected misfortune. As she and Ali say their tearful farewells and promise to keep in touch, the surprising strength of spirit in her (of which Ali had gradually grown more aware) again shows itself. After a teasing question from Ali whether Kauna will now reject all further relationships with men (“I guess you are saying, 'shoo, never ever will I have anything to do with men of that generation again'"), follows this passage:

"Me?" she asked, pointing at herself. "No. No, I don’t think so. You have not seen anything yet. You know what happens to the mahungu millet? After it has been knocked down, stepped on and mercilessly destroyed by cattle, it finds the strength to repair itself and grow better. It is often bigger and more vibrant than the millet that has not been threatened by any danger and cut to the ground," she said. "No, I am not finished with them, I am only just starting." She shook her head slowly as if she were giving this idea long and careful thought. (174)

To the reader, this is recognisably the same voice as that in which Kauna had earlier resolutely declared (to a somewhat anxious and socially scandalised Ali) why she refused to weep for her husband’s death. As she explains there, those who demand a display of grief from her would in any case merely label her a hypocrite were she to do so. She adds:

"I cannot lie to myself and everybody else in this village. They all know how I was treated in my marriage. Why should I cry? For what? For my broken ribs? For my baby, the one he killed inside me while beating me? For cheating on me so publicly? For what? For what, Ali?" (49)

Andreas makes clear to readers that Kauna’s unfair treatment by her in-laws is unfortunately not an isolated or exceptional case. The narrator provides the terrible story of the widow who had faithfully nursed a husband who was dying of AIDS (and who in all likelihood herself faces death because of this) being hounded by her in-laws and (here, too) deprived of property. The in-laws get a sangoma to pronounce that the husband died because the wife had bewitched him. When Michael, himself a relative of the deceased, attempts to intercede on behalf of the widow and her children, he is denounced for attempting to interfere with “tradition” (104). So strong is the “wife-blame” urge that even the reckless promiscuity of the dead man, which had led to his AIDS infection, is blamed on the faithful wife. She was too lenient with him, the in-laws now declare!

Just before she leaves the village with her children (and little else besides), Kauna confesses a "sin" to Ali – how she had at one point, consumed with bitterness at the undeserved awfulness of her own marital situation, secretly yielded to an intense upsurge of jealousy towards Ali, even though Ali was her only real friend. She had wished misfortune upon her and her husband. Soon afterwards, Michael was in fact involved in a terrible taxi accident. Overcome with remorse at the "fulfilment" of her angry wish, Kauna had rushed to Ali’s assistance, looking after her children for her and praying non-stop for Michael’s recovery. Although Ali initially finds it hard to forgive Kauna for this lapse in her friendship, she relents, and they part on loving good terms.

To this reader, the dark moment in Kauna’s life described above is in fact one of the most poignant parts of the narrative. It reveals the pattern of the circling-out effect of the evil of spousal abuse – that moment when the innocent victim herself or himself begins to lash out in pain at anyone within reach, often even at other loved ones, or their dearest allies.

The Purple Violet of Oshaantu is a small text, but one that distinctly enriches our continent’s literary store. Its flavour may be more tart than sweet, but this violet is a healthy growth