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Imagine africa volume 3, p.4

Imagine Africa, Volume 3, page 4


Imagine Africa, Volume 3

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  Thus did distrust and intrigue fester in a polygamous family. It is only now that I am advanced in years that these things seem less confusing to me. If I were a man, believe me, I would take no more than one wife on account of my experiences, as a daughter and as a wife. Most of the counsels my mother offered concerned life in a polygamous home. Simply put, it was a struggle. To be even more exact, it was the kind of struggle that required deep intelligence. But she also initiated me into other kinds of struggle, like the business of trading. I joined her in selling her wares, went with her to the market where she bought the goods. It became clear to me that trading, what we call buying-and-selling, was difficult work. However, I excelled in it, and my father provided me with the start-off funds.

  At this time, many young men began to trouble me; they wanted to marry me. I was attracted to the dark-skinned, to the light-skinned, and to the tall ones. How I detested short men! I counted it as a supreme blemish. I was giddy with these attentions, and could not make up my mind. I often expressed these frustrations to my mother; after all, a maiden’s mother is her first confidant.

  She said, “A hasty marriage leaves you without one in the end. Men aren’t like that.”

  Those words were pregnant, too complex for me at the time. But now I know. Anyone who fails to carefully choose a wife or husband will regret it in the end. On my way to the market, a man would ambush me. While returning home, another would hail me. I did not blame them; I was beautiful, and was conscious of it. I moved with grace, walked with a swagger. It was my time, after all.

  One morning, early at dawn, my father called me into his room.

  “Asabi, my child, the Discerning,” he said. “Your life shall be happy, you shall prosper…I have found a man for you.”

  I said, “Found a man for me?”

  “Yes,” he replied.

  “Have I cried to you about needing a husband? An earthly husband or a ghostly one?”

  It was disrespectful to talk to my father in such a jesting tone, but I was already quite furious. And who was the man that he had found for me? His name was Babalola, the eldest son of the chief of the maskers in our town. When he said this, I laughed in derision, forgetting that I was before an elder, and launched into another jest.

  “Did I ask you to find a man for me? Well, I already found myself a man. He is the son of Efun, the Obatala priestess.”

  My father too laughed, but he did not look amused. He was frowning. Anger was visible on his face.

  Said he, “That will not be. Is that what you and your mother are plotting? No way!”

  It seemed like a joke, and we jested about it, but gradually that morning the matter developed into rancor. Why would the mother be blamed for her child’s conduct? I wondered about this at the time, and even now, I still do not understand why my mother was to be blamed for my actions. My father remained obstinate about his proposition, as he was certain that my mother was my counselor and had a hand in my disobedient attitude. I was as resolute in my decision to marry the Obatala priestess’s son.

  My mother camped nearby, eavesdropping on the debacle. She did not put in a word. After all, in those days, a woman did not have much of a say in the things that concerned her child. But thereafter, she called me in private, and warned me against talking to my father in such a disrespectful manner in the future. She advised me to follow his wishes, saying a solid family home was as important as a good matrimonial home, for marriage was not a minor matter. Further, she advised me to apologize to him the following morning, to make up for my insolent behavior. Of course, I refused. Now I can see clearly where I was wrong. I was not just being rude to my father; I had also committed to the priestess’s son, and I really liked him. Obviously my father had got wind of that before he called me in that morning. Love could be blind.


  “Massa” and Minah

  ZANELE MUHOLI is a South African photographer and visual activist whose work explores gender, race, and sexuality, particularly in relation to South African society and the political landscape. In 2009, Muholi wrote a thesis mapping the visual history of black lesbian identity and politics in post-Apartheid South Africa as part of her MFA in Documentary Media from Ryerson University, Toronto. Since 2004 Muholi has exhibited extensively worldwide, most recently at the Brooklyn Museum (NYC). She has also taken part in important exhibition platforms such as the 55th Venice Biennale and Documenta 13 in Kassel. She is the recipient of numerous prizes and one of the shortlisted photographers for the 2015 Deutsche Börse Prize for her seminal series, Faces and Phases.

  Massa and Minah I, 2008

  Massa and Minah VI, 2010

  Massa and Maids IV, 2009

  Massa and Minah II, 2008

  Massa and Minah III, 2008

  Minah V, 2009


  Queer(y)ing Domestic Service

  KERRY BYSTROM teaches English and Human Rights at Bard College Berlin. She is the author of Democracy at Home in South Africa: Family Fictions and Transitional Culture and co-editor, with Sarah Nuttall, of the special issue of Cultural Studies “Private Lives and Public Cultures in South Africa”.

  SINCE SOUTH AFRICA’S “liberation” in 1994, much has changed, and much has remained the same. This is certainly the case with the institution of domestic service. Having a domestic worker is no longer the almost exclusive domain of the white upper and middle classes but common among wealthy people of all races, and many master-servant relationships have taken new directions. Yet attitudes of white paternalism deeply engrained during apartheid persist, alongside a kind of willed blindness to the costs for workers themselves of the “intimate labor” extracted through an exploitative system that treats them “like family” rather than as normal employees. As domestic worker Joyce Nhlapo noted in 2009, “inside white people’s houses, it is still apartheid law. We are their servants, like girls. You have grandchildren, but you are still their ‘girl.’”

  Zanele Muholi’s on-going photographic series “‘Massa’ and Minah,” from which the images here are drawn, stands as a challenge to such lines of continuity and a provocation to think differently about domestic work and domestic workers. These images depict Muholi herself posed in scenes—both realistic and fantastical—drawn from her memories and imagination of the life of her mother Bester Muholi. As the artist describes it for the Stevenson gallery where a selection of these images were first exhibited in 2009:

  In…“Massa” and Mina(h) (2008), I turn my own black body into a subject of art. I allow various photographers to capture my image as directed by me. I use performativity to deal with the still racialized issues of female domesticity—black women doing house work for white families. The project is based on the life and story of my mother. I draw on my own memories, and pay tribute to her domesticated role as a (domestic) worker for the same family for 42 years. The series is also meant to acknowledge all domestic workers around the globe who continue to labour with dignity, while often facing physical, financial, and emotional abuses in their place of work. There continues to be little recognition and little protection from the state for the hard labour these women perform to feed and clothe and house their families.

  Since 2009, Muholi has continued adding images to the series. The “tribute” and call for “acknowledgement” Muholi articulates can be seen clearly in images such as “Massa and Minah II,” which renders visible both the tough labor accomplished by domestic workers and its disregard by those socially and literally higher placed. The need for “recognition” and “protection” takes center stage in “Massa and Minah VI,” where the character Minah pauses in her duties to turn away from the camera in a moment of anxiety or distress, and “Minah V,” where she inhabits a room barren of personal detail and sits in an awkward position that underscores a kind a bodily discomfort and sense of smallness. Again she stares away from the camera, filled with thoughts of somewhere or someone else. Is she a live-in maid and this her living quarters? How often can
she go home? Is she thinking of her children, whom she left to care for her employer’s family? And what memories haunt Muholi’s pose from within, doubling the maid’s isolation with that of a child wishing for her mother?

  Muholi’s images also stretch the definition of a conventional memorial and the serious aesthetics of much activist art; as curator Gabi Ngcobo reminds us, “[b]y performing the same role as her mother, Muholi makes a chain of gestures including but not limited to that of paying tribute to her mother.” This is accomplished in part by Muholi’s willingness to play with tonal register, combining images of pain and loss with indignation, self-knowingness, and dark humor to open up new frames for thinking about domestic service. “Massa and Maids IV” satirically inverts the unfortunately all-too-common story of a white master sexually abusing his black domestic worker with an image depicting a man all but worn out by the prowess of his maids. These women are clearly triumphant, radiating control, having found a way to turn the tables on their employer. And yet, on what terms have they won the game? Here as in “Massa and Minah III,” there is something deliberately troubling about the way satire re-inscribes (even in reversal) longer narratives about gender, race, and sex in the colonial and apartheid context, making the laughter provoked by the image multiply disruptive.

  Queer theory has taught us to be attentive to these shifts across tonal registers, and it is not surprising—especially given Muholi’s very public identity as a lesbian photographer—that another way Muholi moves beyond paying tribute is by building into this series the signs of queer desire. Ngcobo writes that the “‘Massa’ and Minah” images “build up a story of an emerging love affair” between the black maid and white madam depicted there. Desire infuses images such as “Massa and Minah I,” with its intimate caress, but this desire across unequal racial and class positions leads to troubles animating all of the images that follow, creating new and intersecting layers of interpretation. What drives desire founded in servitude and what are its emotional impacts? How much agency can Minah have in this situation? Can love alter the power relations between employee, lover, and the family she serves, or it impossible to escape the racialized and socially-reinforced roles of master and servant?

  Muholi is most widely known for her work depicting the struggles of black lesbians in South Africa, with earlier projects such as Only Half the Picture documenting hate crimes suffered by this group even as her images seek to enlarge the space for living and loving supposedly guaranteed by the equality laws included in South Africa’s 1996 constitution. Xavier Livermon, noting the danger faced by queer black bodies in the democratic state, speaks of the importance of cultural activists “queer(y)ing” a “freedom” that is at best incomplete, whether we speak about freedom from apartheid racism, from heterosexism, or from material want. Borrowing his pun, we might say that Muholi’s images productively “queer(y)” domestic service—drawing attention to previously ignored experiences of lesbians within the institution, while at the same time calling for a very needed reexamination of its parameters and place in society as a whole.

  Works Cited

  Ally, Shireen. From Servants to Workers: South African Domestic Workers and the Democratic State. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009.

  Bystrom, Kerry. Democracy at Home in South Africa: Family Fictions and Transitional Culture. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015.

  Muholi, Zanele. “Artist’s Statement.” Stevenson, 2009. http://​www.​steve​nson.​info/​exhib​ition​sbs/​muholi/​text.​htm.

  Ncgobo, Gabi. “It’s Work as Usual: Framing Race, Class and Gender through a South African Lens.” AfricAvenir, 2010. http://​www.​afric​avenir.​org/​publi​cations/​e-​dossi​ers/​revis​ions/​gabi-​ngcobo.​html.

  Livermon, Xavier. “Queer(y)ing Freedom: Black Queer Visibilities in Postapartheid South Africa.” GLQ 18.2–3 (2012): 297–323.


  Translated by DAVID BROOKSHAW


  UNGULANI BA KA KHOSA’s Ualalapi won Mozambique’s National Prize for Fiction in 1990. It is a collection of six loosely related stories focusing on the figure of Ngungunyane, the emperor of Gaza, who extended his power over much of Southern and Central Mozambique between 1884 and 1895, the year when he was eventually defeated and captured by the Portuguese, who sent him into exile in the Azores, where he died in 1906. After the independence of Mozambique in 1975, the figure of Ngungunyane was rehabilitated, and his remains returned to his native land, where he became a national hero. Among the peoples he suppressed, however, there is an oral tradition surrounding the emperor, which represents him as a brutal tyrant rather than a hero. Khosa tapped this tradition to give us a narrative which could almost be described as a novel, tracing as it does the ruler’s rise to power over his murdered rivals and his eventual decline. The six stories are intercalated with excerpts from the writings of colonial officials involved in the campaign against Ngungunyane. The final episode, which includes the emperor’s prophetic speech as he boards the ship for exile, foresees the apocalyptic civil war, which brought the newly independent Mozambique to its knees between 1978 and 1992. The book is a disguised warning against tyranny. “Ualalapi”, the first story in the book, recounts Ngungunyane’s rise to power following the death of his father, Muzila

  DAVID BROOKSHAW is Professor of Luso-Brazilian Studies at Bristol University, UK and has translated a number of books by Mia Couto, including most recently Sleepwalking Land (2006), and A River Called Time (2009). He has also compiled an anthology of stories by the Portuguese writer José Rodrigues Miguéis titled The Polyhedric Mirror: Tales of American Life, and translated stories of immigrant life in North America by the Portuguese/Azorean/New England writer Onésimo Almeida, Tales from the Tenth Island, both of which were published in 2006.

  You are Ngungunyane!…

  You will terrify women and men!…

  (Anonymous, 19th Century)

  WHEN THEY reached one of the small elevations overlooking the nearby village, the warriors sighed with relief as they gazed at the houses scattered among the ancient trees, immersed in a deep silence, typical of that time of day, when the sun had majestically passed its zenith in the cloudless sky, casting its rays mercilessly down on the faces, the backs and the naked torsos of the warriors, sheathed from their waists to the upper part of their thighs in the skins of wild animals.

  At the head of his warriors, Ualalapi ran his eyes over the village and thought of the doro, the term used to describe the sorghum liquor prepared in these lands of the Mundau, taken to wash down a good chunk of meat in the shade of the leafy tree, while his wife stoked the fire in front of him and his son played and night fell peacefully, bringing with it the half moon and yet farther away the voices of other men gathered for the evening, their stories journeying over the deeds of the Nguni in times of war and peace.

  He smiled at the warriors who accompanied him, loaded down with fresh meat, the result of the slaughter carried out within these lands, and began the descent down a winding path, oblivious to the ceaseless rustling of the tall bushes on either side, until, half-way down, he paused, forcing the others to stop and gather round him.

  Two pangolins, creatures of ill omen, gleamed sleepily in the sun, there in the middle of the path. Ualalapi glanced surreptitiously at the warriors on either side of him and detected the same clear, fearful, absent glint in their eyes. He said nothing. He passed his hand over the fresh meat, a sign of abundance and good augury, and then looked hard at the pangolins, animals of ill fortune, as already mentioned. And all of them stood there without moving, as if petrified by the mournful sight, and feeling the sun scorching their bodies and the bushes brushing their most robust branches against them, bending on contact with their bodies, until, after minutes on end, the pangolins regained their strength and withdrew from the path, allowing the men to pass freely and all their sinister thoughts to disperse.

  Ualalapi thought of his son and saw him take his shie
ld from so many battles down from the mud-smeared wall. But why his son, he thought, and not the mother of his son who always offered him her body on moonlit nights and on occasions that were sometimes inappropriate for fornication?…He passed his hand through his hair, picked the leaf of a wild plant out of it, looked up at the birds that flew quietly overhead, and felt a slight tremor run through his body. No, it can’t be her, he thought, I left her healthy in both body and spirit. And as a woman, an Nguni woman, she could foresee her fate. My son as well, that’s impossible, for how can the child of Nguni parents die unexpectedly at the age of two, without having been trained in the use of arms like his fathers and grandfathers?…No, it just cannot be that the winds of misfortune will reach the family so soon. It might be the case with these warriors, he thought, and he watched them, their heads hung as if they feared the earth would swallow them up, as they stumbled and tripped over every tiny obstacle. No, it’s not these either, for they belong to the masses, and unhappiness has always presented itself to the masses, since the beginning of time, without riddles, as straightforward as their banal lives that have no history or destiny unless to serve their betters until death. So to whom is this puzzle directed if the only family I have is a wife and child?…He looked at his warriors and saw that they were in a similar state of recollection, thinking of their wives and children, or their parents and grandparents, while they were being cast out into the boundless empire.

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