long time ago before I fully understood the meaning of marriage. Not that I understand it now. I do not. Marriage is such a complex institution.

This quote came back to my mind when I was driving along with Piri on our way to a kitchen party in Chitungwiza last week. At the traffic light along Samora Machel Avenue, Piri stared at a couple in the next car. Then she said she can always spot the difference between a married couple and a small house or lover relationship.  “And how do you know that?” I asked.

Piri said: “During weekends, like a Saturday afternoon, married couples in a car are easy to spot. They do not talk. They are not friends anymore.  Father looks straight ahead, serious, like he is going to fight someone. Or he looks bored.

You can tell that he has been forced to visit his in-laws or he is on his way to drop his wife at a funeral or some family function where he is meant to make an appearance. Mother also looks straight ahead or turns around often to look at people in other cars, maybe comparing her husband’s car to the one next to it.

But if Father is with a girlfriend or  small house, Father and the woman talk loudly and cheerfully.  Vane nyaya.  He looks at her with laughter in his eyes. He pats her on the thigh as he drives. Unlike married people, these two are not just lovers, they are friends. And they communicate.”

We arrived at the kitchen party. Just before we entered the house where the party was being held, Piri said if the Master of Ceremony, or MC, was a pastor’s wife, then she was catching a kombi straight back home. “Such kitchen parties talk about God and nothing else. They are boring. Some church women talk as if they do not have intimacy with men. So what is the point of having a kitchen party, unless you teach the young girls how to please the man and the secrets of a good marriage?”

Once we got in to the house, we were greeted by bottles of beer in the cooler box and a whole table full of untouched food. Piri smiled and said this kitchen party was an educated one.

“Iyi, Sis, yakadzidza. You could almost think they have hired catering and white cloths to wipe our hands  like we are in the top suburb of  Borrowdale Brooke.”  Piri and I sat on the brown carpet right in the middle of a huge lounge room in a house that was still going through construction. The sunken lounge was complete. But the ceiling was missing and an odd blue electric light bulb hung above our heads. In the corner was Mazviita, the bride to be,   sitting  quietly on a rug, bare foot and looking glamorous in a red cocktail dress, long wavy wig and lots of make-up.

This was an adults-only affair of mostly young mothers, a few single women and some of us, who were neither young nor old, just somewhere in the middle. Some older women sat on the red sofas placed against the wall. There were no children or teenagers. We were here to give advice on marriage, motherhood, sex, relationships with in-laws, budgeting, business, religion, health, friendships, conflict and everything to do with  marriage and love. I counted the women. We were close to 40, all in one room. The MC was a short middle-aged cheerful woman wearing a colourful red and white strapless dress, high heels and a blonde wig.

After  prayers  the MC was the first to speak. “We are gathered here today to celebrate Mazviita’s forthcoming wedding. Today, we give her and others advice on marriage and other issues to do with love and romance. As for me, my advice is simple: Madzimai, please, I beg you, learn to respect your husbands.”

A young pretty woman in a big orange T-shirt and tight leggings stood up and, before she could speak, people asked her to say her name. She said her name was Lovely Legs  from  Waterfalls.

Some kitchen parties ask for sexy or bedroom names. “I respect my husband, very much. But he does not respect me,” Lovely Legs said.

“What do you mean he does not respect you?” the MC asked. Lovely Legs said, “Before we got married,  aunt ka, we were the best of friends with my husband. We were inseparable. We went to movies, soccer matches, music shows and  everywhere. Once  I got pregnant with our first child that was the end of everything.”

“So where did you want him to take you when you were pregnant?” someone asked.
“Pregnancy  is not an illness. I still wanted to go out, but he said no, it was not healthy. We were good friends then. But not now. I do not even know where he goes most times. He comes home after midnight. We do not talk like we used to do,” she said, sitting down. There were sympathetic murmurs from the women. Someone said she had the same problem with her  “baba vekwangu”, the father in her home.

The MC asked others to comment on what had happened to the romance  and companionship in marriage. An older woman, with a blue head scarf, black tennis shoes,  and an African print wrap-around  cloth, stood up in the middle of the lounge room. She was unusually tall and slim.

“Pamusoroi, vasikana we. Excuse  me, girls.  I am the aunt or tete, sister to Mazviita’s father. I live in the village kwaMurehwa. When Mazvi came to tell me  that she was getting married, I asked her what her husband’s totem was. Do you know what she said? She said,  handizive. I do not know.

Then I asked if the husband to be knew her totem, she laughed and said, ‘Tete, that does not matter.’  Girls, you are getting lost. Muri kurasika. I want to tell you that in the old days, our marriages lasted because we respected our men by their totems and they respected us. Out of that respect, came friendship, communication and love. If you do not respect each other,  how can you communicate? If there is no talking outside the bedroom, how can it start once you close the door?  Kana pabonde pacho munotaura sei?” Tete then sat down. The women laughed and clapped hands. Then there were hands  up everywhere.

“And why would you want to talk pabonde anyway? That is not the place for conversation,” Piri whispered to me drinking  beer from a white mug. She had managed to take a beer from the cooler box without asking anyone for permission.

The MC motioned everyone to keep quiet. An older woman dressed in a matching  pink skirt and jacket introduced herself as a teacher.  She gave us a short lecture on the meaning of  beauty and romantic love in the old days.

She said a beautiful woman was often associated with natural beauty. Her behaviour was characteristic of her totem. Zviito zvake, her individual behaviour, mirrored the beauty of who she was. On the other hand, the husband’s character and masculine prowess was connected to his totem.

Totem Hungwe, meant he carried the power and authority  of  that amazing  eagle-like bird.  A man could also carry the  fearlessness of Nyati the Buffalo or the cunning managerial ways of  the Monkey, Tsoko Branch Manager, or Nzou Samanyanga the Elephant. The teacher ended by encouraging the women not to look down on the idea of totems.

“They  define  who we are because a totem is linked to the line of your ancestors,” she said. Some women nodded in agreement but others said it was way too difficult and the man would not understand it anyway.

“Tete, tell us what keeps a good marriage,”  one very young mother breastfeeding a baby said. Tete stood up again. She recalled the friendship with the man she later married  back in the village. Tete said during courtship, they met  under the tree, pamuhacha,  on the flat rocks, paruware, or by the village well, kutsime or by the river bank, pamahombekombe.

We all listened and Tete continued: “My advice to you young women is this one:  Respect your husband and learn to praise him by his totem. If he is a Shumba the lion like my husband, do not forget to  thank him by totem. Say, thank you, Shumba, king of the jungle. Maita zvenyu Shumba, varidzi vesango, vabapatyuro. Everyone wants to be appreciated.  Also, be as natural as possible.

Some men  adore their mothers so much and they are looking for their mothers in a woman they marry. Cook for him what his mother cooked for him. Do not just pour powdered  soups  from packets all the time into every single meat dish. Food is the love portion of everything.

Chikafu ndiwo mupfuhwira mukuru. Introduce variety in food.  Our elders had varieties of  food, meats and vegetables. Millet, sorghum, rice, chicken, rabbit, pheasant, other game meat, fresh and sun-dried vegetables. You can still cook all that if you want.

Marriage needs different spices to keep the friendship and love going. And do not always let the maid cook for him. Surprise him and cook that old traditional dish of rabbit in peanut sauce or even sorghum sadza with thick creamy milk.”

A big woman with tight jeans stood up and said: “As for me, my husband is easy to please. What  else is there to cook if he only wants his sadza and nyama everyday? Sadza, nyama, sadza, nyama and his beer. That’s it.”

A woman who introduced herself as the Pastor’s wife, Mai Mufundisi,  then added that a woman should say I love you to her husband often.  Before I could pull her down, Piri suddenly stood up to respond to the Pastor’s wife. Someone shouted that Piri should introduce herself first.  “Sorry, I forgot the rules. My name is . . .” Piri paused, looked at me, smiled and turned to the MC. “My name is Sweet Pumpkin or you can simply call me Manhanga Kutapira.” Everyone laughed, even the pastor’s wife.

“Madzimai, let me tell you. Love is an overused and abused  word.  There is this story of a man who gave $10 to a prostitute, kupfambi. The woman was so grateful that she quickly said, ‘I love you’. So  the man said to her, give me back my $10, because one does not pay for love.”

The women laughed.  That was not an appropriate story to tell in front of a pastor’s wife. I pinched Piri’s foot telling her to sit down.  But Piri continued. “Love? Rudo chairwo? Do you know what it is? Let me tell you because at one time I was in love. My husband and I lived back in the village.

One day we came to the city and the love started withering. It was hit by a cold spell due to lack of money. Rwakarohwa nechando nekushaya mari. Love will not flourish where there is poverty and hunger.

Most marriages these days are not just for love. They are for money. Who wants to make love when  they are hungry?  Let us not lie to one another.” There was raucous  laughter and  clapping.

Piri sat down and drank more from her mug. She looked at me and whispered, “Am I lying, Sis? Ndiri kunyepa here?  Most of  these women you see here do not even know the real meaning of love.

They look for money first in the man, then the man. It’s not their fault. Times are hard.”
Piri  then  got up again. It seemed the beer was taking effect too soon.  “Excuse me. Ruregerero, madzimai.  Just a reminder to those still in the courting business. Young people use too much English words during courtship, pakupfimbana.  They fall in love with being in love.

“They say love is  sweet and it tastes like honey, sugar, jam,  and chocolate, anything sweet. Sometimes you hear a boy calling the girl my honey, huchi hwangu, or she is huchesiti, meaning she is even sweeter than honey. Once  they settle into the marriage, huchesiti is no longer that much of a honey jar. There is salt in the honey. Bills, relatives, funerals, lies, resentment and all that come in very quickly. Sometimes,  if you want your marriage to survive, you need God.”

That  last sentence coming from Piri, a person who only went to church occasionally.  This  little speech was meant to please the Pastor’s wife and other good Christian women in the group. Piri can be very sensitive to others when she chooses to.

On the way home, we gave a couple of women a lift. One of them, a young woman wearing a traditional Apostolic women’s plain-coloured  light blue dress and an elaborate white headscarf, said to us: “I was shy to speak in a big group during the kitchen party. Sisters, the secret to a good marriage is respect, communication and friendship. Love is an addition to this package.”

Dr Sekai Nzenza is a writer and cultural critic. She holds a PhD in International Relations.

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