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Lives of Women: Author | Albertina | Rosalina | Valentina

Lives of Women


In this final section, women's narratives of adulthood take us from the 1920s to the early 1970s. Although some interviewees (including Valentina and Rosalina) offered forceful opinions about Frelimo, independence, and the Renamo war, for the most part women's memories of the more recent past seemed too painful or fragmentary for me to prod them to speak about it at any length. These were also, of course, sensitive subjects as far as my own position in Magude was concerned, and because it was important that women not see me as attached to the government it seemed best not to impose questions about politics when women themselves did not raise political issues. Even when women did begin to discuss political matters more openly in my presence, most still became visibly uncomfortable, or dropped their voice to a whisper, if I pursued the topic with the tape recorder switched on.

Others, less fearful, laughed at my presumption that they would know anything about this masculine realm to begin with, or they would shrug off inquiries about their political opinions with answers like Albertina's: "Oh, Renamo, they killed people. Frelimo, they killed people. We didn't know what the fighting was about." 1 More often, I witnessed men and women sitting together, gingerly (under the cover of darkness and around a pot of beer) drawing forth war stories from one another as they struggled to balance their belief that it was better to forget traumatic experiences ("So we can live together, and not always be thinking, 'He did this and this to me'") with the need to mend hearts, cool spirits, and purge the bitterness of loss. Memories of this awful time were still somewhat inchoate, still being cautiously and collaboratively worked out. In this sense, they were qualitatively unlike narratives of the pre-independence period. Women spoke about that earlier time in a way that made it clear they had articulated these memories many times before and had achieved a degree of closure with respect to their meaning.

I would argue that there is an additional reason for the reticence that elderly women exhibited on the subject of postindependence politics. Like their mothers and grandmothers before them, interviewees were extremely reluctant to grant the state, colonial or postcolonial, a role in their narrated life. The three women featured here all acknowledged various kinds of encounters with manifestations of official colonial power: Valentina through the villainous brother-in-law she blames for her husband's untimely death, whose envy of his brother's missionary and bureaucratic connections she claims drove him to murder her husband with witchcraft and then force his "animal" attentions on her; Albertina in the form of a woman friend's admonition that, if she tried to complete her overland journey to South Africa she would be apprehended by Portuguese authorities, "locked up in jail," and assigned to forced labor because she did not have a husband; and Rosalina (most intimately of all) through employment in a colonial hospital, as a vendor in the central market in Lourenço Marques, and in a string of ambiguously defined relationships with Portuguese men whose position in colonial society ranged from truck driver to radio announcer to "chief of public works" in Chibuto town.

Yet even Rosalina recalls her adult experiences as though she lived them, for the most part, in blithe ignorance of colonial government structures and legal controls, and she situates her most carefully tended memories in places (homes, yards, shops, fields) where the state was unlikely or unable to go. Like Valentina and Albertina, she throws her narrative spotlight on the domains of feminine community and authority that occupy the foreground in earlier categories of women's life stories: farming, mothering, domestic life, sexuality, spiritualism, care of the sick and the dead. If the physical landscapes of tales of womanhood seem more narrow than those of girlhood (the protagonists in these stories rarely venture to the woods, dance grounds, or "other lands" unless wifely or maternal duty obliges them to), and if the multifaceted identities of youth seem to have been replaced by a persona who has time for little besides work and familial concerns, it is also true that the affective networks women remember from adult life are substantially broader, more creative, and more emotionally complex than ever before. Implicated through marriage, work, the cash economy, worship, and other adult activities in an array of female-centered communities beyond their natal lineage, women's life stories by this point are crowded with "kin" of various kinds—even when they are biologically childless, like Rosalina and Albertina.

The greater depth of these communities does not, unfortunately, mean that women's adult lives are better cushioned against hardship or conflict. Indeed, the narratives in this section are laced with memories of bodily suffering and emotional pain, often the cumulative result of tensions that have informed their histories (and those of their foremothers) for as long as they can remember. Valentina's struggle to reconcile her traditional inheritance with Christianity's claims to moral and class superiority, Albertina's struggle to overcome vusiwana (poverty, solitude) without sacrificing her self-respect, Rosalina's struggle to defend her racially conflicted privilege whatever the social compromise or cost—these are life-defining tensions that mount for each woman until a crisis (or a series of crises) requires her to take decisive, sometimes radical action.

Sometimes even the most thoughtfully considered response can have unexpected, contradictory consequences, as all three women discover at least once in the course of their respective battles. Kukarhata (to be difficult), a term that appears frequently throughout the following stories, is what women are called, or what they call themselves, when they assert the desires of an independent heart against the social troubles that threaten them. A term with both flattering and pejorative connotations (to be "difficult" is to be brave and strong but also to be tiresome, refractory, and bothersome to others), kukarhata captures the ambivalent meanings of female agency in rural society before, during, and since colonial rule. In this regard, the retelling of stories by and about "difficult" women is a powerful historical statement in itself, a claim of feminine continuity and community over time—a claim that remains stubbornly indifferent to the details of masculine authority, indigenous or foreign.

Lives of Women: Author | Albertina | Rosalina | Valentina


Note 1: Interview with Albertina Tiwana, 23 February 1996, Facazisse. The vast majority of interviewees, already in their fifties (at least) by the time Frelimo took power in 1975, had little to say (and even less that was positive) about the sweeping socialist reforms introduced after independence, even those directly aimed at "improving women's status." Many elderly women seemed to think well of "Samora" (Mozambique's first president, Samora Machel), but ill-fated Frelimo experiments with producer and consumer cooperatives and state farms and even the appointment of rural women to serve as local representatives of the OMM (Organization of Mozambican Women) were recalled with deep cynicism and, often, resentment, because they were accompanied by official attacks on the traditional practices that were still the pillars of women's identities and communities in the countryside.  Back.


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