The Purple Violet of Oshaantu (2001), set in a village in northern Namibia, depicts the status and role of women in traditional Namibian society. It draws on a number of issues – marriage and widowhood, economic status of women, reproduction rights, and domestic violence, religion and (dis) inheritance rights – to critique an oppressive patriarchal system. And it also, through a myriad of voices and other devices, offers up modes of behavior that undermine and resist a traditional system that seeks to silence women and close off any path to empowerment. Like other African women writers, Neshani Andreas has written a compelling work of post-colonial feminist literature.
This is the story of young Kauna and her marriage to Shange. Kauna’s story is narrated by her older friend Mee Ali, who unlike Kauna, enjoys a good marriage. Kauna’s husband is abusive, the novel is really about the choices open to Kauna and the path that she takes to understand and deal with her predicament. Mee Ali fears for a friend and does all that she can to bring attention to her friend’s plight. Other women, notably Kauna’s aunt advocate for Kauna. But the grim reality is that Kauna’s options are few. As a married woman, she cannot go back to her parents’ house; her mother’s advice is to appreciate the man that God has given her, with time and prayer Shange will change. The village community and the church are both unsympathetic, indeed there is no acknowledgment of Kauna’s suffering. When Shange suddenly dies, her husband’s family suspects her of witchcraft. Kauna does not cry and refuses to speak a tribute to her dead husband at his funeral. Instead she is vocal about her suffering in the marriage.
“Well, I ’m sorry you all feel uncomfortable about my behaviour, but I cannot pretend…. I cannot lie to myself and to everybody else in this village. They all know how I was treated in my marriage. Why should I cry? For what? For my broken ribs? For my baby, the one he killed inside me while beating me? For what? For what, Ali? “
It is at this point that she starts to imagine herself as an individual and not as a woman in relation to a man. When her husband’s family disowns and kicks her out of her marital home, Kauna goes almost too willingly. Because she is ready to live a life, ready to start afresh as a free woman. I admit to feeling a sense of urgency for Kauna to leave her oppressive marriage and have wondered whether she would have stayed if her husband had not died. But it is to the credit and insight of Andreas to present a mode of resistance that is consistent with and is accommodated by the realities, responsibilities and sensibilities of Namibian women. At no point in the narrative is Kauna allowed to accept her role as a victim. There are several women in the novel whose voices, friendship and support remind Kauna of her worth and also provide respite, however brief, from her situation.
The Purple Flower of Oshaantu is Andreas’ first novel and is included in Heinemann’s African Writers Series. Her prose is simple and accessible. The voice of Kauna and Mee Ali are very strong which allows for an intimate understanding of Kauna’s predicament and emancipation. A recommended read.