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Transformative Voice and Silence in Neshani Andreas’s The Purple Violet of Oshaantu

Selene Delport - 2010-10-19

Title: The Purple Violet of Oshaantu
Author: Neshani Andreas
Publisher: Heinemann Educational Books
ISBN: 9780435912086

Click here to buy a copy from Kalahari.net.

Neshani Andreas’s1 first, and thus far only, novel, The Purple Violet of Oshaantu (2001), has elicited much praise from the literary world. Her publisher, Irene Staunton, describes Andreas as “a talented writer whose perspective, compassion and social conscience is [sic] needed” (in Von Wietersheim).Gagiano describes the book as “one that enriches our continent’s literary store”. Moreover, she is “the first Namibian author to be included” (Fallon) in the Heinemann African Writers Series. The Purple Violet of Oshaantu is also a unique post-independence Namibian literary text. Whereas “many writers want to focus on the South African military occupation, return from exile and political events” (Fallon), Andreas writes about “ordinary things” (Andreas in Fallon).

What makes the publication of this novel even more noteworthy is that “[w]riting is still not encouraged by Namibian society, it is not regarded as a respectable job, as something that has any benefit” (Andreas in Fallon).2 In addition, Andreas, as a female author, had to break into a “male-dominated literary scene” (Rhode, 36). Rhode makes a strong case for the importance of African women writers, focusing on their work as benefiting society because it makes audible the previously ignored voices of African women and can potentially transform oppressive social structures. She refers to African women writers as “agents providing a platform from where the voice of the oppressed African woman can be heard” and claims that they “generally give a more realistic picture of the African women’s condition and predicament” (41). Rhode calls their writing itself “an agent for change” (41), emphasising the transformative power of this writing.3

I use Rhode’s description of African women’s writing to discuss the way Andreas depicts her female characters’ search for and development of an autonomous voice within traditional patriarchy.

The narrator of The Purple Violet of Oshaantu, Mee Ali, candidly criticises the domestic violence that is viewed by many of the other characters as acceptable, even expected. Early in the narrative, Andreas juxtaposes Ali’s views on marriage with those of Mee Maita, “a respected and somehow powerful member of the village” (4). Ali makes various attempts to stop the abuse her friend, Kauna, endures on a regular basis. In one such an attempt, Ali appeals to Mee Maita to ask the church to intervene in Kauna’s marriage. However, Ali soon notices that Mee Maita “believes that marriage should be one miserable lifelong experience. Husband and wife should fight every day, he should abuse her and the children, he should go after other women” (4). Ali firmly opposes this view, stating that “marriage doesn’t need to be a miserable thing” (4).

Mee Maita represents her culture’s passive acceptance of the abuse of women. Kauna’s mother insists that “Shange is the man God has given you and you must accept him as he is” (67). Shange’s clan lessen the severity of Shange’s abuse as by claiming that he “was not a perfect man” and that he “made mistakes like any other human being” (99). Even Ali’s loving and considerate husband, Michael, urges Ali to “not interfere” (9) in her friend Kauna’s marriage. Although he validly points out that Kauna might be confiding in Ali because she “only wants [Ali] to lend her [an] ear” (9) and not because she expects Ali to rescue her from the abuse, Michael also expresses concern over how the other men of the village perceive his masculinity. As a man who does not abuse his wife, which is the norm, he is considered to be under Ali’s control and therefore weak (4, 9, 16). Despite often saving Kauna from Shange’s violent and potentially lethal beatings, Michael refers to this abuse as “marriage problems” – the same phrase Kauna’s mother uses (9). This indicates that Michael, just like several others in the community, views domestic violence as a private occurrence as well as a normal part of most marriages.

Despite this incident, Ali and Michael’s relationship is built on mutual respect and deep affection for each other.4 In order to reinsert Michael and Ali’s uncharacteristic marriage into the customary practices of the village, Ali is described as “lucky” (65). But Ali refuses to accept domestic abuse as the norm by emphasising her status as a fellow human being. Whenever she is called “lucky” she resists being incorporated into oppressive traditional practices by declaring that she “simply [does] not deserve to be treated like a filthy animal” (65). Ali also tells Kauna that if she had been married to an abusive husband she would have left him because she “want[s] to be a wife, not a punching bag” (172).

Ali is not the only character to resist oppressive social practices of traditional patriarchy. Mukwankala is described by Gagiano as “a champion of downtrodden women” in Oshaantu. After Shange beats Kauna almost to death, Mukwankala confronts him in the cuca shop. By choosing a public and male arena in which to do so, Mukwankala makes abuse a public matter and compels the men in her community to face their traditionally sanctioned roles as bullies. She draws attention to Shange’s physical strength to question his masculinity: “Men who beat women are the ones who cannot beat other men” (63). Mukwankala also speaks for Kauna when she emphasises Kauna’s status, not only as a human being, but as someone “undoubtedly above [Shange]” (63). Shange’s humiliation under Mukwankala’s tongue stops him from ever beating Kauna again, although he continues to assert his dominance over her by deciding when she is allowed to visit her family and continuing his extra-marital affairs.

Not every female character’s acts of resistance result in positive change. Mee Namutenya attempts to show her dissent when her husband marries a second wife. Initially she appears to accept the new arrangement but soon becomes ill. The doctors are unable to find any medical reasons for her sudden illnesses. It appears that Mee Namutenya internalises the conflict between accepting the new wife and rejecting her subjection to sexist social customs. Her conversations turn inwards until eventually she undresses herself in the cuca shop – the very same public and male space in which Mukwankala humiliated Shange. Her blatant exposure of her naked body is a potentially powerful display of her defiance of traditional customs that render women voiceless. Her previous silent acceptance of traditional customs is replaced with “non-stop” talking but the community refuses to listen, labelling her as simply “crazy” (29, 117).

Ali connects Mee Namutenya’s reaction to her husband’s marriage to a second wife with Kauna’s response to Shange’s death. Kauna realises that, as a disempowered woman, she will be blamed for Shange’s death. She hysterically attempts to convince onlookers of her innocence. The Oshaantu community gossips about Kauna’s possible involvement in Shange’s death (129) and Shange’s relatives indirectly accuse her of killing her husband (98–9). Unlike Mee Namutenya, Kauna resumes the silence she practised during her marriage. Although the villagers were aware of the abuse, Kauna would hide her bruises and scars with brown shoe polish despite the physical pain it caused. Kauna only occasionally discussed her abuse at the hands of Shange, and Ali, Michael and Mee Mukwankala would intervene on behalf of Kauna.

Kauna’s silence is often filled with Ali and Mukwankala speaking for Kauna, but after Shange’s death Kauna embraces her silence, which becomes a very powerful form of “speaking” against oppressive social customs. Shange’s relatives call for a meeting with Kauna. Initially she attempts to answer their questions, but is constantly interrupted. She then “bravely” (100) responds to their questions with counter-questions. Eventually she just sits “silently, indifferently” (101). Her silence in the face of her in-laws’ accusations and greed differs from her silent acceptance of Shange’s abuse. She was unable to divorce Shange, because she was financially dependent on him. During the meeting with her in-laws, Kauna realises that she will inherit nothing. Having nothing to lose, Kauna uses her silence as a form of resistance by refusing to speak when told to do so.

Mee Kiito, Shange’s first cousin, attempts to bully Kauna into speaking at her husband’s funeral. At the funeral Kauna’s silence is made visible by the blank space on the programme where her name would have been. When Kauna refuses to speak, kuku Peetu speaks for her. Initially it seems as if Mee Kiito wins and patriarchal order is restored. The silent gap left by Kauna’s refusal to speak, is filled by the voice of a male representative. But kuku Peetu is a sharp contrast to the traditional, often very abusive, masculinity and even to Michael’s protective masculinity. Mee Ali emphasises kuku Peetu’s difference from other men in their culture by expressing amazement at his “confidence” in “open[ly] showing emotion (160).

It becomes evident, however, that kuku Peetu’s show of emotion seems to be part of a performance he delivers. His “flamboyant” (125) appearance immediately disrupts the gravity of the funeral proceedings and Kauna’s “disobedience”. Kuku Peetu is dressed for the funeral in vibrant colours: a “navy-blue wrinkled blazer, pink shirt and yellow pants” (159) and eventually he reveals his “lime-green handkerchief” (160). Although attention is shifted away from Kauna’s refusal to take part in a ceremony, which will only further degrade her, kuku Peetu’s performance strengthens and supports Kauna’s rebellion. Ali highlights the ridiculousness of his speech. She repeatedly points out that “it sounded as if he were speaking out of real distress”, he “sounded genuinely sad” (159), and “he was performing like a star” (160) (emphasis added). Both Kauna and Mee Ali are highly “amused” by kuku Peetu’s speech and are unable to look at each other for fear of “laugh[ing] out loud” (160). Kuku Peetu’s speech invalidates Mee Kiito’s attempts to maintain sexist traditional customs that either silence women or force them to conform.

Kauna and her children are eventually forced from her home by Shange’s relatives.

Although Kauna’s resistant silence did not change discriminatory social practices, she changed. She uses an aptly gendered metaphor to describe her development. She compares herself to the mahangu millet, the plant the women in Oshiwambo society cultivate. The plant is repeatedly destroyed by cattle – considered in Oshiwambo culture as the men’s property and under their care. Despite this “merciless” destruction the mahangu “finds the strength to repair itself and grow better ... often bigger and more vibrant than the millet that has not been threatened by any danger” (174).

Kauna’s farewell to Ali emphasises that transformation is possible. The social hierarchy has not shifted, but Kauna was able to establish an autonomous voice for herself within that structure. Although traditional patriarchy with its discriminatory customs are left intact, Andreas illustrates that transformation of the individual is possible, hopefully leading to the transformation of an entire community.

Andreas, Neshani. 2001. The Purple Violet of Oshaantu. African Writers Series. Oxford: Heinemann.
Fallon, Helen. 2007. As Honest and Realistic as Possible. Africa 72(2):24-25. (1 Sep 2010).
Gagiano, Annie. 2009. Review of The Purple Violet of Oshaantu, by Neshani Andreas. LitNet. (2 Sep 2010).   
Rhode, Aletta Cornelia. 2003. The Subaltern “Speaks”: Agency in Neshani Andreas’ The Purple Violet of Oshaantu.’ Unpublished MA thesis, UNISA.
Von Wietersheim, Erika. 2004. Neshani Andreas: A Passion for Writing. Sister Namibia 16(5-6):4-6. Gale. (6 Sep 2010).

1 Andreas was born in 1964 in Walvis Bay. She was the second of eight children. Her parents worked in a fish factory (Fallon; Von Wietersheim).

2 This might explain why, despite the success of The Purple Violet of Oshaantu, Andreas has yet to publish her next novel, which she hinted at in an interview with Von Wietersheim.

3 Andreas’s social and cultural concerns can be traced in her teaching career. She is currently the programme officer of the Forum of African Women Educationalists in Namibia (FAWENA). This organisation promotes the education of girls and women (Fallon).

4 Ironically, it is the loving nature of their marriage that also causes marital difficulties. Michael works in Windhoek and can rarely go home. This leaves Ali to take care of their children and home by herself. Michael and Ali miss each other very much because of his long, but necessary, absences. The community criticises their marriage because Michael does not abuse her.