The First Wife: A Tale of Polygamy

The First Wife: A Tale of Polygamy


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After twenty years of marriage, Rami discovers that her husband has been living a double--or rather, a quintuple--life. Tony, a senior police officer in Maputo, has apparently been supporting four other families for many years. Rami remains calm in the face of her husband's duplicity and plots to make an honest man out of him. After Tony is forced to marry the four other women--as well as an additional lover--according to polygamist custom, the rival lovers join together to declare their voices and demand their rights. In this brilliantly funny and feverishly scathing critique, a major work from Mozambique's first published female novelist, Paulina Chiziane explores her country's traditional culture, its values and hypocrisy, and the subjection of women the world over.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780914671480
Publisher: Steerforth Press
Publication date: 08/09/2016
Pages: 250
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 6.20(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

PAULINA CHIZIANE was born in an area of Mozambique in 1955 in which communication with the white colonizers was forbidden. She devoted herself to writing in her mid-twenties and became the first Mozambican woman ever to publish a novel. She claims, however, that she is not a novelist: "I am a storyteller... I take my inspiration from tales around the campfire, my first art school." Her works explore themes of race, polygamy, colonization, and cultural change in her country, quietly signaling a new era for African feminism.

ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR: DAVID BROOKSHAW is a London-born professor of Brazilian Studies at the University of Bristol specializing in comparative literature, translation, and postcolonial Portuguese literature. He has translated works by Mia Cuoto and Onésimo Almeida and compiled an anthology of stories by the Portuguese author José Rodrigues Miguéis.

Read an Excerpt

The First Wife

A Tale of Polygamy

By Paulina Chiziane

archipelago books

Copyright © 2016 Paulina Chiziane
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-914671-48-0


An explosion can be heard somewhere over there. A bomb. A landmine. It must be the war returning once again.

I think of hiding. Of running away. The explosion scares the birds that seek refuge in the heavens. No. It can't be the sound of a gunshot. Maybe it's two cars colliding somewhere on the road. I look down the road out of curiosity. I can't see anything. Only silence. I feel a faint fluttering in my breast and remain motionless for a minute. A crowd of neighbors is walking toward me.


"What was it?"

"The car."

Their arms are moving like gentle waves, ready to quell the uproar. There is feeling in every gesture. There's a hint of quiet, feigned pity in each look, which makes me feel more alarmed.


"Yes. The window."


"Yes. The car window."

"Oh! Who was it?"



An invisible dagger slithers down from on high aimed at my breast. I'm as speechless as a stone, I'm terrified. All I can do is sigh and think: Ah, Betinho, my youngest! That car belongs to a rich man. What's going to become of me?

I enter a stage of deep, silent panic. My nerves are buffeted by gusts of anxiety, like some razor-sharp wind. This accident fills me with pain and longing. My Tony, where are you? Why do you leave me all by myself to fill the role of both woman and man in solving everyday problems, when you are out there somewhere?

There are moments in life when a woman feels as isolated and vulnerable as a fleck of dust. Where are you, my one and only Tony, for I hardly ever see you? Where are you, husband of mine, to protect me, where? I'm a respectable woman, a married woman. A deep sense of loathing poisons my way ahead. I feel dizzy. A bitter taste in my mouth. Nausea. Repugnance. Impotence and despair.

Betinho dashes in, hides away in his room awaiting his punishment. I chase after him. My weekend is already ruined, my Sunday has been overcome by disaster. I need to scream in order to get rid of this bitter taste. I need to give someone hell in order to dispel this pain. I need to mete out some punishment in order to feel I'm alive. "Betinho!"

I'm unable to scream. The tears glisten like moonlight on Betinho's face. Betinho's sadness is overflowing with innocence. Betinho's sobbing is as sweet as a baby bird chirping. His tremor shakes his whole body like flowers on a bush swaying in the breeze. I sniff the smell of urine.

"Betinho, a man doesn't wet himself with fear."

"It was the mango, mom."


"Yes, that ripe one, high up there in the tree."

I look up at the mango tree. The mango is swaying serenely in the breeze. It looks a tasty mango, yes sir. Round. Youthful. And Betinho was trying to halt its flight when it was in life's first flush, when it was still very green.

"Oh! Betinho, what have you done to me?"

"Punish me, Mom."

Betinho's voice ripples in my ears like the gentle rustle of pines and my rage melts away into pity. This son of mine is beautiful. Instead of forgiveness he asks for punishment. I have a just man here. I grow tender. Enchanted. My anger subsides. I feel a mother's pride.

From the bedroom window, I am aware of comments wafting up from the street. The words I hear drive me to despair. I feel their flaming tongues licking the inside of my bones. I boil. My eyes grow moist with tears. If Tony were here, he would berate his son as a father and a man. If he were here now, he would resolve the problem of the broken window with the owner of the car, men understand each other. Oh, if only Tony were around!

But where is my dear Tony, whom I haven't seen since Friday? Where is that man of mine who leaves me to look after the children and the house, and gives me no inkling of where he is? A husband at home means security, protection. Thieves keep away if a husband is present. Men respect each other. Women neighbors don't wander in just like that to ask for salt, sugar, much less to bad-mouth the other neighbor. In a husband's presence, a home is more of a home, there's comfort and status.

I leave Betinho alone and go out into the street. The owner of the car is seething with fury. I thought he would hit me, but not a word. He's one of those men who are classy in the way they talk and don't assault women. I go up to him and apologize on my son's behalf. I tell him my husband, Tony, a police chief, will settle the matter with him. He agrees, but I get the feeling he doesn't believe me. What respectable man believes the word of a woman in despair?

A whole procession of women comes to meet me. They console me. Children are like that, Rami. They talk about children and the broken window. And they talk about absent husbands who don't look after their children either.

"There's no order because there's a man missing in this house," I burst out. "This is all Tony's fault. He's never here. First he was away for a night, then it was another, and then another. It's become a habit. He tells me he's on duty at night. That he has to supervise the work of all the police officers because night is when thieves are on the attack. I pretend to believe him. But men leave a snail's slime behind them, they can't hide. I know very well what he's up to.

"You're not the only one, Rami. My husband, for instance, left me years ago," a neighbor says, "and ran after a young fourteen-year-old girl because he wanted to start all over again. An old man became a child."

"Mine has those concubines you all know about, with children and everything," says another. "Do you think I care?"

I look at them all. Tired, used women. Beautiful women, ugly women. Young women, old women. Women defeated in the battle for love. Outwardly alive, but dead within, forever inhabiting the shadows. But why have our husbands gone away, why have they abandoned us after so many years living together? Why have they cast us aside like unwanted baggage, like weary loads, in order to pursue new lives and loves? Why, when they are already approaching old age, are their appetites renewed? Who told old men that mature women don't need affection? Oh, Tony, my love! If only you were here. Bring me springtime again. Where are you that you can't hear me?

My neighbors comfort me with astonishing stories. They are mothers. In order to alleviate my pain, they tell me stories of their own unhappiness and suffering.

Our minds wander in nostalgic murmurs. In the eyes of each of us, there are images of a husband who has gone and will never come back. Quelling our anguish has become our daily struggle. In my street, most women have been abandoned, their husbands decided to get out almost at the same time. I'm the only one who still sees her man's face from time to time – but only when he comes home to eat or change his clothes. There are no men left in this area, it's the women who are the head of their families, but when night falls, lots of men can be seen entering and leaving some of the houses surreptitiously, like thieves. They are married men, for sure, and from these relationships here, children will be born, many of whom will die without knowing their father.

Love. Such a tiny word. A beautiful, precious word. A powerful, elusive sentiment. Just four letters, giving birth to all the emotions in the world. Women talk of love. Men talk of love. Love that comes, love that goes, that flees, that hides, that is sought, that is found, that is cherished, that is scorned, that causes hatred and unleashes endless wars. 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.

Dreams dwell in the dead of night. Sometimes they have bright colors, like flowers. Other times, they are black birds dancing, ghostlike, in the shadows. My God, night is falling, and I am terrified of a cold bed. I lay my head on the pillow and count the number of times I've died. I fight back. I can't accept the idea of being rejected. Me, Rami, a beautiful woman. Me, an intelligent woman. I have been loved. I was a target for rivalry among the young men of my generation. I was the cause of burning passion. Of all those who wooed me, I chose Tony, the worst of the lot, because at the time, I thought he was the best. I enjoyed only two years of complete happiness in more than twenty years of marriage.

I close my eyes and scale the mountain within me. I look for myself. I can't find me. In each corner of my being, all I can find is his image. I let out a sigh, and all I can utter is his name. I sink into the very depths of my heart and what do I find? Only him. My love for him is pure and perfect, can he not see that?

No one can understand men. How can Tony despise me like this if there is nothing wrong with me? When it came to obeying, I always obeyed him. I always did what he wanted. I always looked after him. I even put up with his craziness. Twenty years is a record in modern-day marriages. Modesty apart, I'm the most perfect woman in the world. I made him into the man he is now. I gave him love, I gave him children so he could gain the esteem of others in life. I sacrificed my dreams for his. I gave him my youth, my life. That's why I say, and say it again, that there's no other woman like me in his life! In spite of this, I'm the unhappiest woman in the world. Ever since he was promoted to chief of police and money began to fill his pockets, unhappiness has wormed its way into this house. His old flirtations were like fine rain falling on an umbrella, they didn't affect me. Now I dance alone on a deserted stage. I'm losing him. He spends his time in the company of the most beautiful women in Maputo, who fall at his feet like diamonds.

I go to the mirror to try to find out what's wrong with me. I see dark rings under my eyes, my God, huge rings! I've cried so much these last few days, I've even overdone it. I examine my face. With this sad mask I look like a ghost, this person here just isn't me. I sputter the words of an old song, one of those that brings tears to the eyes. When it comes to singing, I know my roots. I'm from people who sing. Where I come from, we sing of happiness and of pain. Life is one big song. I sing and I weep. I savor the tears that flow and taste of salt, and I feel the greatest pleasure in the world. Ah, how this crying makes me feel free!

I stop crying and go to the mirror again. The eyes reflected there gleam like diamonds. It's the face of a happy woman. The lips reflected there convey a message of happiness, no, they can't be mine, I don't smile, I weep. My God, my mirror has been taken over by an intruder who's laughing at my misfortune. Can it be that this intruder is inside me? I rub my eyes, I think I've gone mad. I think of seeking refuge from the image in the comfort of my bedsheets. I take two steps back. The image imitates me. I take two steps forward, and we come face-to-face. The image there is a source of light, and I am a deep pit of sadness. I'm fat, heavy, and she is slender and well kept. The color of her skin is similar to mine. Whose image is it that hypnotizes and bewitches me?

"Who are you?" I ask.

"Don't you recognize me? Look closely at me."

"I'm looking. But who are you?"

"You're blind, dear twin."

"Twin? I'm nobody's twin. Of my mother's five children, there are no twins. I'm in front of my mirror. What are you doing there?"

"You're blind, dear twin. Why are you crying?"

I release a whole torrent of complaints. I recount all my unhappiness and tell her that the women of this world are stealing my husband from me.

"Can a living person be stolen, least of all a police chief?"

"In this place, a husband can be stolen."

"Don't be a child, dear twin. He got tired of you and left." "You're lying!"

I start panicking. The image dances as I sob. I stop crying and remain silent in order to listen to the magical song to which she is dancing. It's my silence I'm listening to. My silence is dancing, making my jealousy, my solitude, my pain, dance as well. My head joins the dance, I feel dizzy. Am I going mad?

"Why are you dancing, dear mirror?"

"I am celebrating love and life. I dance upon life and death. I dance upon sadness and loneliness. I stamp into the ground all the misfortunes that torture me. Dancing frees the mind from life's passing concerns. Dancing is praying. When I dance, I celebrate life while awaiting death. Why don't you dance?"

To dance. To dance to the defeat of my adversary. Dance at my birthday party. Dance upon my enemy's courage. Dance at the funeral of my loved one. Dance round the fire on the eve of a great battle. To dance is to pray. I also want to dance. Life is one big dance.

I attempt to take my companion's hand in mine so that we can dance. She offers me her hand as well, but can't lead me out. Between us there is a cold, icy, glassy barrier. I am heartbroken, and look closely at her. Those cheerful eyes possess my traits. The contours ofher body remind me of my own. That inner strength reminds me of the strength I once had and lost. The image isn't of me, but of what I was and want to be again. The image is me, that's true, but in another dimension.

I try to kiss her face. I can't reach it. So I kiss her lips, and the lips taste of ice and glass. Ah, the mirror is my confidante. Ah, my strange mirror. My revealing mirror. We have lived together ever since I got married. Why are you only now revealing your power?


Excerpted from The First Wife by Paulina Chiziane. Copyright © 2016 Paulina Chiziane. Excerpted by permission of archipelago books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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