Review of The Purple Violet of Oshaantu - Erika von Wietersheim
The Purple Violet of Oshaantu
2004: (pp: 159) 205 x 130 mm
Reviewer: Erika von Wietersheim
A passion for writing
'Writing is a lonely business', says Neshani Andreas, one of Namibia’s most successful but unsung authors. 'You write alone, and you never know if anybody will ever read what you write.' But Andreas remains passionate about the written word. 'I could never stop writing. It is with me every day, I never forget it. I edit in my mind whatever I hear or read. I pick up what people say, how they say it, I pick up words, expressions ...'
It is not easy being an author in a country whose writing culture is still at its infancy. Andreas has written one of Namibia’s finest post-independence novels, for which she gained international recognition. Her 180-page novel, The Purple Violet of Oshaantu, was published in 2001 by the prestigious Heinemann African Writers Series, generally regarded as the literary debut for some of Africa’s finest writers. The series includes about 70 authors from 20 different African countries, and Neshani Andreas is the only Namibian novelist included in the series to date.
'I always wanted to write', says Andreas. 'I wrote as a child, in high school, as long as I can remember.' However, when her first novel was published and became an immediate success, Andreas was already 37 years old. Why did it take so long to bring her writing before the public?
'For most of my life I just wrote for myself,' Andreas replies. 'I never told anybody.' In her community, writing was not recognised, let alone encouraged as a serious activity. Even as a child, she withdrew into her own world, shy and almost embarrassed about a passion that was completely strange to the society in which she grew up. 'I lived in a world that did not make sense to anybody else. On the other hand I had to fit into a world around me that did not make much sense to me', the author sums up her existence.
Andreas was in her early twenties when she made the first attempt to mention to friends that she liked writing. The reaction was devastating; nobody gave her wish to write any serious thought, and the young woman felt even more discouraged than before. Undeterred, Andreas continued her lonely writing for the following ten years, filling pages and pages with notes. 'My writings became part of my luggage whenever I moved from one place to the next. They were my most treasured things,' she says.
Andreas was born and grew up in Walvis Bay. After school she trained as a teacher at Ongwediva Training College and taught for five years in northern Namibia. During this time she got to know and understand rural life, on which her first novel is based.
In 1994 she moved to Windhoek, where she did a post-graduate degree in education at the University of Namibia before joining the Peace Corps. It was here that her life as a writer took a new direction. 'I became computer literate, I polished up my English, and by doing a lot of travelling inside and outside Namibia I broadened my views and became more confident', Andreas recalls.
A turning point in her life came when Andreas finally met someone who shared her literary passion. One day she was speaking to a young Peace Corps Volunteer, Reed Dickson, and mentioned in passing that she had tried her hand at writing. Dickson’s reaction was different from any Andreas had experienced so far. Dickson immediately asked his shy colleague to show him some of her notes. Andreas gave him a few pages to read and, to her surprise, he was impressed. 'This was one of the most treasured moments in my life', she remembers. 'I had met the first person in my life who showed interest and understanding in my writing.' The exhilaration of being acknowledged as a writer prompted Andreas to buy a laptop computer, and she started writing with a purpose. All the stories stored in her mind for years, particularly about village life in northern Namibia, surfaced in an outburst of creativity. 'Now I was doing it!' she recalls. 'There were papers lying all over in my room, I was writing all day.' – Andreas’ first novel was in the making.
The unfolding storyline was 'inspired by true events', Andreas emphasises, 'it is a combination of many stories fitting together like a puzzle.' One problem Andreas encountered was finding a balance between absolute truthfulness on the one hand and love and respect for her community on the other. 'I did not want to be insensitive to my culture, I did not want to be insulting, but I wanted to be as honest and realistic as possible,' she says. 'I have to write honestly, otherwise I would feel uncomfortable. Being dishonest to please others goes against your own creativity.'
Barely ten years after independence, Andreas thought Namibians might not be ready to look honestly at themselves and their society. 'Namibia was a new country. people were still talking about the struggle, about exile and returning home. Writers were expected to write about great events, to glorify the past and the present, to glorify people.' Andreas, who was not in exile, realised that she could not do justice to such topics. 'My struggle was different', she explains. 'I was not involved in high-profile political activities. I had to write about other things: travelling in overcrowded minibuses, selling and buying at markets, about sickness, witchcraft and church, about ordinary things.'
The Purple Violet of Oshaantu is indeed about ordinary people and everyday life. But the story is neither ordinary nor simple. Set in a fictitious village community in northern Namibia, it tells about the friendship of two women, of marriage and widowhood, of domestic violence and death, of harvests and markets, of witchcraft and AIDS. The novel dissects the positive and negative forces within a rural community and exposes the vested interests that lie behind traditions and gender roles. Written in simple, gentle prose with beautiful poetic passages, the novel reflects on modern rural life with all its contradictions – its beauty and brutality, its wisdom and foolishness, its simplicity and intricacies.
When Andreas completed the manuscript in 1999, she handed it to Namibian publisher Jane Katjavivi, who passed it on to the editor of the African Writers Series. Katjavivi considers this as one of the most memorable moments in her publishing career, realising as soon as she had read the manuscript that it would be a success. One year later the novel was published and publicly launched in Namibia.
Since then, The Purple Violet of Oshaantu has sold steadily, both inside and outside Namibia and will be reprinted shortly. 'She is a talented empathetic writer whose perspective, compassion and social conscience is needed,' says Andreas’ publisher Irene Staunton.
The response to the novel back home was mixed. Andreas appeared on Namibia television, the book was reviewed in most local newspapers, and people in the streets stopped to congratulate her. This made her feel happy and comfortable with what she had done. However, most of the accolades were in response to her coverage in the media, rather than to the novel itself. People reacted to her as a person, a friend, a family member, but rarely as an accomplished writer. Those who did were often disconcerted, taken aback or simply curious. ‘Did you actually write this book yourself?’ some would ask. ‘Where do these stories in your book come from? Did they happen to you?’ or ‘Why do you write something like this? Are you up to something?’ – As much as family and friends were happy for the budding author, Neshani the person and Neshani the writer somehow did not fit together.
In spite of the success of her first novel, writing remains 'a lonely thing'. 'You don’t want to talk about something that people do not relate to, so I keep talking to myself,' says Andreas. 'Writing is still not encouraged by Namibian society, it is not regarded as a respectable job, as something that has any benefit'. But today the author is at peace with her life, which is so different from most of her contemporaries. Loneliness has turned into a 'most treasured solitude', the chosen price for being able to write. Andreas has just finished her second novel. 'It is quite different from the first one', is all she reveals at this stage.
As is the case for most Namibian artists, Andreas cannot live off her creativity alone, and continues to work full-time as a project officer at Forum for African Women Educationalists of Namibia (FAWENA), an organisation promoting women’s and girls’ education. Would she like to become a full-time author if the money allowed? – Andreas’ face lights up with the thought: 'Yes, yes, yes, a million times yes!' The breaking news that her novel has just been included in the English literature syllabus for secondary schools in Zimbabwe is certainly a step in this direction.
Reprinted with the permission of insight Namibia, October 2004.
© The author/publisher
Review of The Purple Violet of Oshaantu - Jane Katjavivi
The Purple Violet of Oshaantu
2004: (pp: 159) 205 x 130 mm
Amended review from Sister Namibia, 14
Reviewer: Jane Katjavivi
The Purple Violet of Oshaantu was first published by the Heinemann African Writers Series and subsequently by Weaver Press, Harare. This review was first published in Sister Namibia, Windhoek, and we are pleased to carry a slightly amended version here.
The Purple Violet of Oshaantu is the first Namibian novel to be published in the African Writers Series. The only other Namibian title that has been published under the AWS is Battlefront Namibia, not a novel but the life story of the late John ya Otto, one of the triallists alongside Andimba Ya Toivo in the infamous Terrorism Trial of Namibian activists in Pretoria in 1968, and a leading figure in Namibian history.
Ya Otto’s book dealt with his life in the liberation struggle, and much Namibian writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, continues to deal with themes of colonization and liberation, including both the experience of exile and return.
The Purple Violet of Oshaantu does not touch on these issues at all. The setting, characters and events are those of an imaginary village, Oshaantu, in the north of Namibia. National politics do not figure. Windhoek is a place where men disappear to in search of work. The life of the novel is the life of the village, and one of the novel’s successes is bringing the village to life in its richness – even for those who readers have no personal experience of such a community.
The novel opens with a celebration of harvest:
'It is that time of the year again. The season when our village, Oshaantu, camouflages itself in a rich green carpet and provides a breathtaking sight …We had good rains this year and are promised plenty to eat … I gently stroke the rough surface of the omahangu millet in appreciation of the abundance of Mother Nature. God is good, I think.'
The land, the seasons, the village, the work of women, are the context for the central story of the novel, which is the story of a friendship between two women – Ali and Kauna – and their contrasting relationships with their husbands. Ali has a husband who works far away and returns home rarely, but is kind and supportive of her when he is home. Kauna has an abusive husband who beats her repeatedly and who moves between her homestead and that of his latest girlfriend.
The title of the book comes from references to the beautiful flower that grows round the homesteads in the village. Kauna is likened to this flower, but her beauty is spoiled by the beatings she receives from her husband. On a visit to her parents, to recover from one particularly violent beating, her father tries to encourage her to make a choice about the marriage:
‘Child,’ he said, ‘don’t wait until it is too late. I know your mother wants your marriage to work. But I have seen women who have died in this thing called marriage, or have done things you don’t want to hear about. I don’t want it to get to this ... You must do what you think is best for you.’
That time, Kauna returns to her husband. Her stand against him comes later.
Few novels focus on village life and bring it to life as successfully as this one. There are some classic African novels, particularly from Nigeria and Kenya, which describe village life in the changing context of colonization. These all focus on the experiences of boys. Andreas’ novel is unusual in that it tells us the story of the women of the village, not the boys, women who are funny, creative, strong, bright even though not well-schooled, and who mix modern and traditional values and strive to maintain their dignity and their right to make choices.
Yet Andreas does not romanticize rural life. Her novel depicts village life in its complexity. There is conflict and competition between women in the village, as well as cooperation and friendship. There are women who try to impose old values that oppress other women, and who gossip and accuse each other of witchcraft. There is the reality of hard physical work in the fields and the juggling which women face all over the world, trying to fit in all their daily tasks, on the land, in the home, looking after children and elderly relatives, maintaining a relationship with their husbands.
On one significant occasion, the women of Oshaantu come together to help Kauna and her children prepare the fields before the rains come – a tradition called okakungungu. Ali prepares food and omalovu and the women come together.
‘We worked and worked.
We worked with one spirit.
We worked as if we competed for a prize.
We sang in harmony.
When we finished one song, the women would start another one.
We sang all kinds of songs:
songs of our ancestors,
songs of sorrow,
songs of joy,
songs of forgiveness,
songs of unity and hope.
When we did not sing, the omatemos [hoes] did. We let the music of the omatemos take their course, loud and clear.
‘We call on our ancestors, our great-grandmothers,’ one of the women called and the rest of us confirmed. We called on them …
‘Wake up and look at us.’
‘Yes wake up …’
‘Wake up and watch our bent backs.’
‘Yes wake up.’
‘Wake up and look how hard we work.’
‘Yes wake up …’
‘Wake up and join your grand-daughters.’
Yes wake up …’
‘Wake up and bless us.’
‘Yes wake up …’
…The women understood Kauna’s situation. There was a wonderful spirit, a spirit of sisterhood. For once, all ill-feeling and hatred were forgotten. We were one again, sisters sharing a common cause.’
Through Andreas’ descriptions of work in the home and in the fields, the making and selling of produce in the market – all domains of women – she gives significance to the work of women. Yet the sisterhood of the women is broken by the realities of power and authority in the village – power and authority which is still patriarchal. The absent men return, the male elders come together, to decide the fate of Kauna and her children when her husband suddenly dies.
Kauna is accused of bewitching or poisoning her husband. Relatives arrive to mourn him and they compete with each other for access to his property. Kauna in the end makes a choice. She takes a stand which shocks relatives on both sides of her family, to show them all that she will no longer pretend that her husband was a good man. She chooses the moment when convention would have it that she publicly bewail the loss of her husband, to show that she does not mourn or miss him.
As a widow, Kauna has no rights to the homestead she shared with her husband or the fields she put so much work into. Moreover, her refusal to mourn her husband antagonizes his family. Kauna and her children are cast out of the village. Nevertheless, she leaves feeling strong:
‘…You have not seen anything yet. You know what happens to the mahangu millet? After it has been destroyed by cattle, it finds the strength to repair itself and grow better. It is often bigger and more vibrant than the millet that has not been threatened by any danger and cut to the ground,’ she said.’
Launching the book in Windhoek in November 2001, Minister of Women Affairs and Child Welfare, the Honourable Netumbo Ndaitwah, talked about how she did not want to put the book down once she had started it:
'The Purple Violet of Oshaantu appears to be one story but as you read it you get many of them, telling a lot. …The book also takes me to what is happening in the world and in Namibia, in particular the power relationship between men and women, the experience of women in marriage and the suffering they have experienced at the deaths of their husbands.'
'… It is heartening and gratifying to see women writers coming up in Namibia and women’s issues written down …. I see this as a step in the right direction and women’s empowerment is surely becoming a reality in our country.'
Andreas’ book has appealed to readers in Namibia and internationally. Three hundred copies have sold in Namibia alone in the three months since publication date, which is a record for this small market.
© The author/publisher