Review by Sarudzayi Elizabeth Chifamba-Barnes
Published November 12, 2007
Joyce Jenje-Makwenda’s GUPURO
Joyce Jenje-Makwenda, author of Zimbabwe Township Music, has entered the scene of modern Shona literature with her debut novel, Gupuro. Published by Storytime Promotions in 2006, the 204-page Gupuro hinges on the theme of abuse of the traditional divorce token known as gupuro in Shona. Written in a modern Shona language and rich in literary devices such as irony, satire, metaphor, caricature, symbolism and parallelism, Jenje-Makwenda makes Gupuro an appealing and interesting story to the reader of all generations. It is about real people and real characters, and can also be a good set-book in Shona Literature. SARUDZAYI ELIZABETH CHIFAMBA-BARNES writes.
Gupuro was a token given to a wife when her husband felt he no longer loved her. Traditionally, divorce would be concluded only when such a token had been issued by the husband in the presence of a witness.
Through Gupuro, her debut novel, Jenje-Makwenda exposes the various ways through which this token of divorce is used to threaten and humiliate women in marriage. She contends that gupuro was used by men to end a marriage when it suited them.
Written in a ‘born-location’ (or urban) Shona variant, which is a fusion of various Shona dialects, English and languages from neighbouring countries, the story is set in the immediate aftermath of the post-colonial era, which saw the birth of an African middle class. With the rise of this new middle class African society there was a tendency to embrace modern values of life. One notable feature of this new movement was the birth of women’s rights, with African women assuming more power and a voice in politics and proprietary rights.
Jenje-Makwenda, who is pursuing a master’s degree in musicology at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, uses Herbert and Netsai’s parents (on the one hand) and Netsai and Bessie on the other to show some of the clashes between some aspects of the traditional values of life with modernity.
Herbert is a man who wants to embrace western values as well as maintain the tradition which allowed men to have as many women as they could. Netsai, on the other hand, represents the modern woman who fights for her position to acquire joint ownership in terms of property rights rather than to be seen as a man’s acquisition, one who could be inherited upon the death of a husband.
Herbert engages in an extra marital affair with Aida and expects Netsai to accept it but the latter will have none of it as hers was a civil and not traditional marriage. Caught in the web of cultural clashes is Netsai’s parents and Tete (aunt) Susan who think that Netsai should be submissive to Herbert.
They refuse to take her back when she is given a Z$2 note as because, according to them, there is no witness when the token is given to Netsai, and also because traditionally this divorce token is supposed to be badza (a hoe).
Perhaps the intriguing questions which the story puts to the reader are why Herbert, a modern man representing a new culture, and is married in a civil ceremony to Netsai, does not want to follow proper divorce channels. Why does he give Netsai $2 which was not even enough to pay for bus fare from Eastlea to Mufakose? Why do Netsai’s parents refuse to recognise that today’s modern badza is money?
In the past our ancestors used badza to pay lobola (dowry) or gupuro because a hoe symbolises new life: it is used to till the land to sow plants which bring new life and nourishment. Axes, knob-kerries (tsvimbo) or any other implement such as spears were not given as gupuro because they symbolise warfare.
Did Herbert really want to divorce Netsai or did he just want to arm-twist her to accept polygyny or ‘small house’ as it is commonly known today in Zimbabwe?
To Netsai, the whole issue of gupuro is like a double-edged sword threatening to cut her. Gupuro is about domestic violence and how it affects children and the weaker partner, usually the woman.
Written in a modern Shona language and rich in literary devices such as irony, satire, metaphor, caricature, symbolism and parallelism, Jenje-Makwenda makes Gupuro an appealing and interesting story to the reader of all generations. It is about real people and real characters, and can also be a good set-book in Shona Literature.
The author uses parallelism to show the ever changing economic values in modern society, a departure from an agrarian-based economy (granary) to an industrialised economy (bank accounts).
Tete Susan fails to realise that when Herbert withdraws money from his joint bank account without Netsai’s consent it is as good as what their father did when he invaded their mother’s granary to support his new wife resulting in an avenging spirit haunting the entire family.
Perhaps what is more interesting to the reader is how Jenje-Makwenda portrays the role of churches and witch-doctors in marriage break ups. It also gives the reader an overview of how single women in the African community are shunned by society. It shows how women themselves look down on each other, the married woman versus the unmarried woman.
When Netsai’s marriage is in turmoil she is ridiculed by her community. Gupuro shows that the battle of women’s rights should start within the women themselves.
While Netsai’s mother represents an old age which sees a woman as born to persevere male dominance to maintain a certain status in society, Netsai gives the reader a uniquely strong woman who breaks the barriers of tradition and files for divorce to set herself free from abuse.
Bessie, too, who is Netsai’s aunt, is also a symbol of how the old generation of women also yearned for independence from male dominance, something which earned her the nickname, ‘mazakera’ (a woman who builds a home and stays by herself without a man), because she is divorced.
The reader does well to note that African women’s independence dates back to pre-colonial times as we are reminded that even Ambuya Nehanda, who led Shona men and women into rising up against oppression from White settlers, was a free woman.
Jenje-Makwenda uses Bizeki to satirise some aspects of greed associated with bride-price (which in itself makes some men to see women as objects which can be bought and discarded at will). The reader does not only laugh, but is reminded of greed when Aida’s parents charge money for ‘mbariro’ (or ceiling and denga) as part of bride-price ‘because when Aida was conceived her mother was lying on her back facing the roof!’
Gupuro is a unique piece of work, which everyone interested in issues affecting gender inequality, should read. However, it falls short of highlighting the issues about HIV and AIDS, especially when there is promiscuity in a marriage.
Jenje-Makwenda’s message to the reader is “watch out for part 2 of Gupuro”.
Sarudzayi Elizabeth Chifamba-Barnes, a Zimbabwean based in Coventry, Britain, works part-time for the Coventry City Council in the Arts and Heritage Department.