Didn’t we agree to share?

Sheila Heti

In 1990, when she was 35 years old, Paulina Chiziane became the first woman in Mozambique to publish a novel. She has since published six more books, writing in Portuguese, and is one of Mozambique’s most culturally significant writers. In interviews, Chiziane has explained that she has received a lot of criticism for her books from people who think that the women’s lives she depicts aren’t deserving of attention; that the subject matter of a number of her books – women in love, as it were – is decadent, in a country where there is so much development work to be done. But, she corrects, ‘I’m talking about a country where most people are women. We have a rural country made by women. Therefore, the true development of Mozambique is in the hands of women.’ And it is to women she is mainly writing.

Chiziane’s father was a factory worker. She grew up speaking Chope and Ronga, and learned Portuguese at a Catholic mission school. She married young, had two children, then left her husband in her mid-twenties. At university, she studied linguistics but soon quit to dedicate herself to her writing. In the 1980s, she became a member of Frelimo, the Marxist-Leninist movement which had achieved independence for Mozambique in 1975, but grew disenchanted with it, and has since worked with NGOs, including the Red Cross, on development work across the country. So she witnessed Mozambique’s successful land liberation process, but also understood that ‘the process of mental decolonisation has not yet been concluded.’

The narrator of The First Wife – Chiziane’s fourth novel, but the first to be translated into English, which shared the José Craveirinha prize with Mia Couto in 2003 – is Rami, a woman of forty. She is a mother of five, and the wife of Tony, a police chief. Although they have been married for twenty years, their relationship began to suffer long ago when his promotions and growing wealth meant beautiful women would ‘fall at his feet like diamonds’.

When the novel begins, she hasn’t seen Tony ‘since Friday’ and suspects he’s with a woman. Most urgent is not her jealousy, but that she needs Tony because their son is in minor trouble with the police. Worried about having to deal with it herself, she remarks, in the first of many such declarations of the way things are for women: ‘A husband at home means security, protection. Thieves keep away if a husband is present. Men respect each other. Women neighbours don’t wander in just like that to ask for salt, sugar, much less to bad-mouth the other neighbour. In a husband’s presence, a home is more of a home, there’s comfort and status.’ Her loss of comfort and status has only just begun, and adjusting to it is her central task – perhaps an impossible one because ‘in matters of love, women are a defeated army, they have nothing left to do but weep. Lay down their arms and accept their solitude. Write poems and sing to the wind in order to chase away their pain. Love is as fleeting as a drop of water in the palm of one’s hand.’

Rami begins a hunt to discover her rival in love and confront her (‘a husband isn’t a loaf of bread to be cut with a bread knife, a slice for each woman,’ she complains), but the first woman she finds leads her to another one, and that woman to another one, and still on to another one: in total, Rami discovers four girlfriends, all of whom are being betrayed by Tony, each one younger than the next, like Russian dolls.

Most of the women she finds have children, and one, Julieta, has five. Julieta has been his mistress for 19 years. When Rami first meets her, they fight in the street, but the fight is broken up, and when Julieta takes Rami into the house that Tony has given her, and tends to her wounds, she opens up. ‘He made wonderful promises. The years passed. I saw my children born one by one, and each time he would renew his promises of marriage.’ Now it has been seven months since Julieta has seen Tony – not since she delivered him the news of her most recent pregnancy. ‘He only comes to me to answer the call of the divine creator,’ she complains. ‘To seed my belly, in order to fill the earth and multiply.’

‘Poor thing,’ Rami thinks, ‘She is more of a victim than a rival.’ She tells Julieta that they are together in this tragedy. ‘Me, you, all women.’ She can’t keep herself from admiring Julieta’s beauty, as later in the book she will admire another of Tony’s girlfriends:

She had smooth skin while mine was wrinkled. She had abundant, uncrimped hair while mine was sparse and frizzy. Once again, I admired my rival. She had fire in every vein. She exuded strength with every breath she took. She had a shooting star in each thread of hair, my God, how resplendent she was. Her eyes were as gentle as moonlight, that mouth of hers must be as sweet as honey … She had all the charm I had lost.

When she returns home from the fight with Julieta and confronts a sleeping Tony, he wakes up angrily and cries: ‘Don’t make me laugh! Purity is masculine, sin is female. Only women can betray, men are free, Rami.’ Then he leaves the house in a fury for the comfort of another woman. Rami considers divorcing him, but it wouldn’t help matters: her husband would be lost for good, and her children would be his, not hers.

Desperate to win him back, Rami considers visiting psychologists, elders and medicine men, but settles on taking lessons from a ‘love counsellor’ from the north, who says that since Rami has not undergone the initiation rites (only northern women do), she is ‘not a woman’. Rami is determined to learn as much as she can, and begins visiting the woman regularly. She is stirred by the love counsellor’s wisdom:

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