Paulina Chiziane: Niketche: Uma História de Poligamia (Niketche : A Story of Polygamy; later: Fìrst Wife)
Our heroine/narrator is Rami, married to Tony, a senior police officer. The book opens when one of her five children damages the car of a local rich man. Her husband should deal with this but he is not there. He is never there. Where are you, my one and only Tony, for I hardly ever see you? Where are you, husband of mine, to protect me, where? I’m a respectable woman, a married woman. He comes, occasionally, then disappears for days on end. He claims that he is busy on night duty but she knows the truth. I pretend to believe him. But men leave a snail’s slime behind them, they can’t hide. I know very well what he’s up to..
Rami, twenty years married and with five children and the other women of the village are all in the same boat. Their husbands have gone to other, younger lovers.
Modesty apart, I’m the most perfect woman in the world. I made him into the man he is now. I gave him love, I gave him children so he could gain the esteem of others in life. But there is another woman called Julieta. So she decides to visit Julieta. She has a much nicer house (paid for by Tony). She rings the bell then wanders round the house, which she considers her house. After all Tony is married to her not to Julieta. She starts yelling obscenities and then hits her. They start a fight. Julieta is younger and stronger and wins. After the fight, however, Julieta looks after her. They start talking. It turns out that Julieta has also been abandoned by him, ever since she became pregnant by him for the sixth time.
On one of his rare visits, when she complains about his betrayal, Tony responds Betrayal? Don’t make me laugh! Purity is masculine, sin is female. Only women can betray, men are free, Rami.
She tries a love counsellor who offers various suggestions but they do not work. No-one is born a woman, you become one. The problem is that you had not been taught about sexual love and Don’t blame the other women for your failure. Just like you, they were conquered and answered their bodily call. A man’s desires are God’s desires. No one can deny them.
The third woman is Luisa. The day before Rami arrives, Luisa had had a threatening visit from Julieta so she was on the defensive. She goes straight into attack mode and wins. They are arrested but soon become friends after they are released. It turns out that there is yet another woman whom Tony spends his time with. And this latest one is not the last one. But neither Rami nor the others, inspired by Rami,are going to accept this. Today I want to change my world. Today I want to do what all the women in this land do. Isn’t it true that love must be fought for? Well, today I want to fight for mine. I shall wield all my weapons and face the enemy, in defence of my love.
And fight they do. But , of course while they come up with a series of strategies, Tony is not going to give up easily what he considers his right. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, were polygamous, weren’t they? Our old kings also were, and still are. What harm does that do? In the Bible, only Adam wasn’t polygamous and I did you a great favor, get that into your heads. I gave you status. I made decent women of you, can’t you understand? You’re five fewer women selling your body and begging for love along life’s highways and byways. Each of you has a home and your dignity, thanks to me.
It is hard on the women: The houses they live in are the man’s property, it’s he who pays the rent at the end of every month. He can expel them when he wishes, he can cast them out into abject poverty. If he dies, they won’t have a right to anything, because they’re not an integral part of his family, they are mere satellites of the main family. Even in the case of Rami, the first (and only legitimate) wife, she is dependent on him and realises this even more when he tries to divorce her, blaming her, rightly, for all his concubines standing up to him.
Her mother-in-law summons her and says that Tony turned up really miserable, and that Rami had tried to poison him. But when Rami tells her the truth, she welcomes it, as she suddenly finds that she has a lof of grandchildren she was unaware of, not to mention a few daughters-in-law. Indeed, all Tony’s relatives, male and female, support him and feel that Rami and the other women are going against their traditions.
But Rami makes sure they all get jobs, selling things in the market and they do well out of it. One or two even get boyfriends of their own. But Rami, who speaks to her mirror and gets responses from it finds out that it is not so easy: Tell me, dear mirror. Is there a woman in this world more betrayed than I?”
“All women are. Every single one! In love, all men are betrayers.”
But then Tony disappears and a body is found and Rani is kutchingaed.
Clearly, this system works to the detriment of women but given that most men are poor, for many many women having a rich husband has it compensations, if she has a nice house, clothes, food and so on , even if she has to share him. The downside, of course, is that she is wholly dependent on him. Chiziane is clearly very much opposed to the system and this is not the only book she has written it criticising it. It is certainly a fascinating insight into a system that most of us will know little about and will find abhorrent.
First published in 2002 by Caminho
First English translation as Niketche : A Story of Polygamy in 2010 by Aflame Books
Translated by Richard Bartlett
First English translation as Fìrst Wife in 2016 by Archipelago
Translated by David Brookshaw