Rihanna, defiant witch-woman

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An appreciation by Percy Zvomuya for the Mail and Guardian.

Sometimes when I remember my paternal grandfather, it is in monochrome: I imagine him capable of expressing only one emotion: anger. In my mind the Shona patriarch dispenses neither hugs nor kisses but bellows, commands and, occasionally, the whip.

Happily, I never stayed with him for long, for the little time I spent with him was never fun. Older cousins would always say to us with envy: “You guys are lucky, he has become a saint; we saw the worst of it.”

A conjoined, yet contradictory fact was that my aunt – grandfather’s only biological daughter – is one of the strongest women I know, able to stand up to her father. When I was older, I discovered this trait is one she shared with my grandfather’s sisters. As the concentric circles grew beyond direct blood kinship, I found out that this independent and strong-headed streak is shared by other women in the clan of vaHera.

The clan folk are generally known as vaHera and the woman of the clan is known as chiHera or achiHera.

VaHera are of the Mhofu/Mpofu clan, of the Shava totem, whose totemic animal is the eland, the spiral-horned, tan-coloured animal in the antelope family. The origins of the chiHera’s autonomy is steeped in the same mythologies as that of the Shona, who arrived on the plateau of what is now Zimbabwe from that mythical land of bounty in the north, sometimes called Guruuswa, Shona for the land where the grass is tall and green.

Much later, when I was older, I would hear snatches of dialogue along the lines of, “chiHera is an outlaw”, a patriarch might grumble over a sorghum brew as he wipes the edges of his mouth with the back of his hand. “Yes, she is a renegade,” his companion would agree, sighing in accents in which desire is never far away. Somehow, against impossible odds, chiHera had managed to carve out not negligible autonomies, in which she lived without bother and with minimal censure.

If she lives in the village, often she is divorced or never married, in which case she lives on her own or at her parents’ homestead raising her children, daring the men around, including her father, brothers and uncles-patriarchy’s local representatives; in other cases she is married but it is a well-known fact that in her household it is her word that is law.

Unlike most cases in which patriarchy meets a match and throws its favoured epithets of witch and prostitute in the general direction of its targets, chiHera is, for some unfathomable reason, spared these categories. Her rebel DNA is a given, it’s just the way these chiHera women are and it’s better that they are left alone.

This figure, to be sure, comes back again and again in other tribes, nations and races to menace the landscapes of patriarchy, one day as the bitch, the next day as the witch, what has been argued to be the social and spiritual categories for “deviant” women.

One of the most dramatic and, unhappily, fleeting moments this witch-woman appears in fiction is towards the end of Heart of Darkness, the much maligned novel by Joseph Conrad.

When she makes an entrance, she naturally brings the darkness she inhabits and with which she menaces the men around her. “Dark human shapes could be made out in the distance, flitting indistinctly against the gloomy border of the forest …”

In a portrayal that would not be out of place if it was Charwe, the most famous medium of the spirit of Mbuya Nehanda, the legendary renegade woman credited with inspiring the anti-settler war of 1896-1897, popularly known as Chimurenga and on whose orders a white colonial administrator was killed.

On the eve of her hanging by her colonial captors, rebuffing the entreaties of a priest to convert her, she is reported to have declared “my bones shall rise,” and then went to the gallows singing and chanting. Whether by coincidence or by dint of the rebellious cultural DNA that runs in the women of her clan, Charwe herself is also a chiHera.

In Heart of Darkness, we read of how the witch-woman “walked with measured steps, draped in striped and fringed cloths, treading the earth proudly, with a slight jingle and barbarous ornaments. She carried her head high; her hair was done in the shape of a helmet; she had brass leggings to the knee, brass wire gauntlets to the elbow, a crimson spot on her tawny cheek, innumerable necklaces of glass beads on her neck; bizarre things, charms, gifts of witchmen, that hung about her, glittered and trembled at every step.

“She must have had the value of several elephant tusks upon her. She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent; there was something ominous and stately in her deliberate progress,” the narrator tells us, one moment his voice cracking with awe and the very next with lust.

“She came abreast of the steamer, stood still, and faced us. Her long shadow fell to the water’s edge. Her face had a tragic and fierce aspect of wild sorrow and of dumb pain mingled with the fear of some struggling, half-shaped resolve. She stood looking at us without a stir, and like the wilderness itself, with an air of brooding over an inscrutable purpose. A whole minute passed, and then she made a step forward. There was a low jingle, a glint of yellow metal, a sway of fringed draperies, and she stopped as if her heart had failed her.”

How were those watching this spectacle taking it?

“The young fellow by my side growled. The pilgrims murmured at my back.” Some man on the steamer then resorted to a time honoured method of controlling those you can’t dominate: “If she had offered to come aboard I really think I would have tried to shoot her.”

It’s natural that this woman elicits this reaction, a reaction reserved for independent women such as the Wife of Bath in Chaucer; or Lucia in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions, “a wild woman in spite of- because of- her beauty”.

Back when the mantra “black is beautiful” didn’t have any currency, Lucia was already espousing it, mocking women who used skin-lightening creams in this classic line, “Fanta and Coca Cola. Aiwa! Not me. I prefer to be the same colour all over.”

The renegade in Jamaica Kincaid’s prose poem Girl is determined not to be a lady but is bent on fulfilling her destiny as a “slut”. Like an Ogbanje, the child in Igbo mythology forever destined to come into this world again and depart again for the next world in a cyclical journey, this woman has come back as Rihanna, the Barbadian-American pop star. Even calling Rihanna a pop star sounds so wrong for someone who has been described as “magic,” “epic” and “a folk hero”. I am tempted to speculate whether in her ancestry there were some djukas or maroons, runaway slaves who escaped and set up free communities across the Americas.

I have outgrown American pop culture and so for some time now have had a detached relationship with its pop music. But, for some reason, it is principally Rihanna whose career I follow, perhaps because she is one of a few American pop stars who is also steeped in the Caribbean sound. No one mixes those soulful, dreamy vocals with a nonchalant Jamaican style half-chants better than Rihanna, a rough DJ-meets-singer soft style which reached its apogee in the 1990s when Buju Banton and Cocoa Tea had that memorable duet Too Young or when Cutty Ranks & Cocoa Tea collaborated on Waiting in Vain. I believe their version is better than the Bob Marley original.

Few celebrities walk the world like a goddess, own their sexuality like a slut and show the self-assuredness of a witch – after all, if she so desires, she can take your life. As Miranda July wrote, Rihanna “hasn’t created a persona around herself like Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Madonna or so many other stars at her level. She doesn’t have to manufacture dimensionality, because she actually is soulful, and this comes across in every little thing she does.”

Maybe I adore her because of her uncultivated badassness, maybe because she reminds me of my clans woman, the achiHera.

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