Review-The First Wife: A Tale of Polygamy by Paulina Chiziane

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Archipelago Books via Netgalley.  This is my second contribution to Women In Translation month.  Please see the hasttag #WITMonth on Twitter for all of the great reviews that have been shared.

My Review:
The First WifeThis is a challenging book to read for several reasons.  It is a sad fact that women in Mozambique, even in the twenty first century, have extraordinarily tough lives and the author does not hold back from describing the hardships that women face on a daily basis in this country.  The story is told from the point of view of a woman named Rami who is in her forties and is tired from trying to raise her five children alone.  She is not divorced and but her husband of twenty years is the chief of police and doesn’t come home very often.  Rami reaches her breaking point when one of her sons breaks the window of a car while playing ball and she has to take care of the situation by herself.

Rami suspects that her husband, Tony, is not only kept away from home by his career but she also thinks he has another woman stashed away somewhere in the city.  Through local gossips she learns the name of this woman and goes to her home and confronts her.  Rami is shocked to find out that Tony is not only seeing another woman, but he has another family and home with this woman that includes four children and one on the way.  Rami gets into a physical altercation with this woman but once they both calm down and get to know each other they realize that Tony doesn’t visit either of his families very often because he has a total of fives wives and five different families.

Once the knowledge of Tony’s polygamist lifestyle is out in the open and the shock wears off,  Rami becomes empowered to improve her life and the lives of the other wives.   The only family that Tony sees on a regular basis is his fifth, most recent and youngest wife.  The other women and children suffer from the lack of a partner and male figure in their homes and they are dependent on Tony for whatever money he happens to throw their way every month on his sporadic visits.  There is an underlying tone of humor as a battle of wills ensues between Tony and his five wives who have now joined together to force him to become a proper husband.  Rami makes Tony accept the bride price from each family and recognize each woman as a proper wife.  Even though Rami is his only wife by law, the acceptance of the bride price is an acknowledgement of marriage in Mozambique culture.  The wives draw up a conjugal rota in which Tony spends one week at each house and the women have a meeting to discuss his health and his mood before they pass him off to the next wife.

There is a lot of repetition in the text as Rami constantly laments her loneliness and inadequacies.  The emphasis on cultures in the north of Mozambique versus those in the south are oftentimes reiterated.  The style of writing reminded me of epics like the Iliad and Odyssey which are prone to repetition because of their origins as oral literature.  In addition, each wife is assigned a sort of epithet that is repeated throughout the text: Rami-the first wife, Julieta-the abandoned one, Saly the feisty wife, Maua the youngest.  These titles for the women were very helpful in remembering each wife and her role in the polygamist family.

Chiziane, the first published female author in Mozambique, brings out into the open the harsh reality of life for women in her native country.  But Rami, her main character, becomes a role model for all women to take charge of their lives instead of passively accepting the dominance and suppression forced on them by the old customs in their culture.  As Rami and the other wives ban together they realize that they are stronger as a unit and eventually they come to realize that Tony is no longer so important to them and he loses his power over this family.

About the Author:
P ChiazinePaulina “Poulli” Chiziane (born 4 June 1955, Manjacaze, southern province of Gaza, Mozambique) is an author of novels and short stories in the Portuguese language. She studied at Eduardo Mondlane University, Maputo. She was born to a Protestant family that moved from Gaza to the capital Maputo (then Lourenço Marques) during the writer’s early childhood. At home she spoke Chopi and Ronga.  Chiziane was the first woman in Mozambique to publish a novel. Her writing has generated some polemical discussions about social issues, such as the practice of polygamy in the country. For example, her first novel, Balada do Amor ao Vento (1990), discusses polygamy in southern Mozambique during the colonial period. Related to her active involvement in the politics of Frelimo (Liberation Front of Mozambique), her narrative often reflects the social uneasiness of a country ravaged and divided by the war of liberation and the civil conflicts that followed independence. Her novel “Niketche: Uma História de Poligamia” won the José Craveirinha Prize in 2003


Filed under Literature in Translation

2 responses to “Review-The First Wife: A Tale of Polygamy by Paulina Chiziane

  1. buriedinprint

    There was a lot of repetition in Ernest J. Gaines’ A Gathering of Old Men, which I recently read and enjoyed as well. I think it’s quite powerful in the right context (and, as you’ve mentioned, as an expression of tradition in some instances, too). This sounds like a very inspiring story overall! (And the cover art is so striking!)


  2. I have not read any book set in Mozambique. It sounds interesting


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