Review by Zenzo Sibanda
Published February 9, 2008
Joyce Jenje-Makwenda, the prolific feminist Zimbabwean writer, journalist and filmmaker, has a new and inspiring novel for the abused woman. The book, Senzeni-What have we done? is a rich and compelling account of the experience of a gifted yet deprived African girl in a patriarchal setting dominated by hard-line masculine values, attitudes and approaches to running an ‘African’ household. ZENZO SIBANDA writes.
Set in the late 1980s, the book takes the reader into the life of Senzeni, the main character in the book. Capturing the ‘situation on the ground’ for most rural based families in an outstanding depiction, the book portrays the struggles of the day-to-day rural African mother who vows to reach the ends of the earth to better her child beyond what she herself has been; she typically fights this battle without the support of her husband who invariably drinks his money away and yet expects the world to keep running efficiently around him.
Faced with the potential end to her daughter’s brilliance, Senzeni’s mother turns to the extended family for assistance wherein her sister in law heeds the call, an initiative supported by Mpala, Senzeni’s father, who nonetheless has a wicked motive as Neli, his sister, was in a desperate family situation of which MaNkomo, Senzeni’s mother, has no idea.
This act that turns out to be the response of a wolf clad in sheep’s clothing as ‘Aunt Neli’ sees in this the opportunity to change her childless misfortune by giving Senzeni to her husband to bear her a child.
This moment reflects the masculine domination inherent in Ndebele culture because the lack of a child in the household is seen purely as the fault of the woman with not even the slightest attempt to even suggest or ponder on the possibility of this being a mutual failure or more so, the man’s failure.
A hideous act and an outright exploitation of trust in the name of culture is committed by Sithole, Senzeni’s uncle, when, in the absence of Neli, he rapes Senzeni, a girl who, by virtue of being immediate family to Neli, would culturally constitute the right candidate to bring a child into her aunt’s family if such a need arose.
On learning about this, Aunt Neli makes nothing of this act and sweeps it under the carpet in what is quite an accurate depiction of the submissive and subservient role the African woman in a patriarchal setting has come to identify with.
Dreams shattered and unwillingly married off by her father, uMpala, to a rapist at the age of 15, the book takes the reader through the harsh trials and challenges of an innocent young Senzeni, a journey marked by miscarriage, verbal and psychological harassment, subsequent mental scars and a fear of men which takes quite a while to heal. The ‘typical’ comforting and supportive role of the African woman is portrayed in the support Senzeni receives from her mother and immediate aunts, a portrayal which is coupled with a rather new concept of the somewhat ‘ideal’. African woman: the fearless, decisive, strong and innovative independent woman who sees not pain in hardship but an opportunity to transcend unfavourable situations and make the most out of herself. This is the kind of woman men have demeaned and unfairly labelled as is depicted in the character Polina who is the young sister to Senzeni’s mother, around whom Senzeni models her development from here on, a woman who takes the challenge of empowering the women of her family into her own hands, successfully taking Senzeni through her Ordinary and Advanced Levels of secondary education, her university career leading to a desired job, and ensuring the independence of Senzeni’s mother and the initiative of her grandmother.
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The ending of the story shows just how immaculately fertile a burnt field becomes especially when good rains fall on it because Senzeni’s terrible situation leads not only to her rise as an independent success but also to the success of her mother and grandmother.
Three generations are empowered in the process of saving Senzeni because the women closest to Senzeni who have for all their lives been dominated and subordinated by males come to determine their own in such an exemplary way which leads all men to sit back and really consider how much they have hindered or held back the women in their lives.
The fact that Nkomo, Senzeni’s grandfather admits his shortcomings and turns on a new leaf in terms of how he treats Senzeni’s grandmother shows that men have the chance to take the step and make a difference to change the way societies think and act towards women.
This story is likely to make men see that women are people too and that they possess equally great capacities for success as long as men stand with and not against them. It opens the man’s eyes to the reality to which he has either consciously or unconsciously turned a blind eye or considered as normal: the continued and varied ill treatment of women across societies.
About the reviewer
Zenzo Sibanda, based in Grahamstown, South Africa, is a Bachelor of Social Sciences student at Rhodes University.