Kuperekwa is a ceremony conducted when a woman is formally taken to her husband’s family homestead after marriage. It is the final ritual in the marriage process. It is commonly practiced in the Shona culture.
Today I slept in absolute agony as my husband peacefully, and rather sweetly, lay asleep beside me. We both got to bed tired from a long day. Although I am sympathetic about his fatigue, I can’t help feeling saddened by how the same long day yielded very different outcomes for each of us. While he is tired from the length of the day, I am exhausted from the substance of it.
I got customarily married today and it was grueling – a jarring reminder of how the roles allocated or prescribed to men and women are so deeply prejudicial against women. For me, the day culminated in swollen feet, a sore back, and just enough anxiety to inflict insomnia. On the other hand, my husband fared better than me since all he endured was some embarrassment over the fact that our customary marriage had been ‘commemorated’ through the performance of grueling labor by me, with the help of female friends and relatives. We, the women, had endured a day of back-breaking chores in a bid to prove our feminine prowess and domestic worthiness. Meanwhile, my husband had borne the brunt of boredom having been mostly idle and waiting for his food, as scripted in the patriarchal rulebook.
You could call the series of events I am about to describe below the ‘Humble Humility Struggle Olympics’ or simply ‘kuperekwa’.
Now some readers who cherish these kinds of customary marital rites might feel defensive at this point. Perhaps such readers might even rehash arguments about the importance of preserving culture and the value of celebrating customary union as a rebuttal to the reflections I make here. To such readers, I say, perhaps this particular reflection is not for you.
I write this from the perspective of a woman who has deeply loved her husband enough to defy her own convictions on marriage and venture into the institution in the attempt to appease all those who feel offended by the idea that true love can exist outside the institution of marriage. After over a decade of resistance, a life-threatening event, and living through a global pandemic – I reluctantly tried to enter the arena of marriage on my own terms.
Hahaha! I soon learned that a woman could not be wed and maintain much agency under our (Shona) cultural practices if she is to know peace. She will lose most battles and be reduced to a nodding, unheard, inconsequential pawn in a theatrical production so elaborate that it would put Studio 263 to shame.
She, the newly married blushing bride, becomes the expression of all the humility, hard work, and general submission of her mother (the marker by which said mother can be judged and found wanting).
She becomes the embodiment of a family’s values and ‘hunhu’ (ethics, morals, and attitudes).
She becomes the prize of the family she enters: hardworking, humble, and obedient.
She loses her voice, her opinions, her authenticity (except in relation to tasks directly related to cooking, cleaning, and bathing people… but we will unpack that later).
She becomes the conduit through which all others will be proud.
She is humbly sacrificed on the altar of propriety. She proceeds to perform under the skillful guidance of the ‘Guardians of the Patriarchy’, ‘Defenders of What is “Right”’, and all-around don’t question what I say Champions of Culture (a group of women tasked with the immense responsibility of ensuring that not only are all protocols observed but exceeded, in the pursuit of pleasing the family their humble daughter will enter into). These guardians pull every string and ensure all kneeling, crawling (literally) and humble humility is performed with feminine perfection and in the service of the new wife’s new family, with the diligence and efficiency that embodies the wholesome, hardworking new wife they have brought to this homestead.
Now, to be clear, I have absolutely nothing against service, custom, and hard work, in fact, I have been known to embody these attributes once in a while in my natural habitat; however, when these ‘virtues’ are shrouded in archaic practices that return women to their state in 1912, I struggle to see their value for the 21st century, and most importantly for the women who live in this time.
If anything, culture is dynamic, even our roora practices have begun to evolve but for some reason, our requirements of women in this process seem to be lagging behind.
No one could convincingly answer why it was necessary to cook on an open fire when an electric and gas stove was available. Why were we required to carry hot water in clay pots to summon each family member to bath, water by the way which was boiled on the fire, despite the presence of a geyser and a bathtub? What of the suitcase with the new wife’s sheets and blankets even though she will not be living there? More worryingly, all the small monies dropped about at the end of each task, apparently as a token of appreciation, hiding the more sinister meaning that you have been weighed and measured at each point and have been found to satisfy the expectations of a good wife.
The elaborate play includes actors who do not know why their lines are scripted in the way they are and why exactly they act in the way they do. The only thing the cast can agree on is that this is “the right thing to do” if this woman is to become a part of the clan.
We sacrifice common sense for optics and find ourselves so deeply wrapped up in an outdated comedic scene of our own creation, where a chicken must be presented live, slaughtered, and cooked whole on the fire for men to inspect, appraise, and consume. They, the men, have the difficult task of sitting all day in deep manly conversation, nodding, grunting, and discussing world peace while they patiently wait for the new woman in the house to wash their hands (and their bodies… not literally), prepare their meals and kneel before them in humble deference.
Behind the scenes is a cacophony of activity. A frenzied rush to complete our tasks diligently and with excellence. To pass the worthiness exam at all costs, with smiles on our faces, good humor in the face of insults, and all the other niceties a good woman should know. Multiple female members of the new wife’s original family work furiously behind the scenes to adequately bring the play to a fulfilling end… They cut, chop, fan flames, wash dishes, fill buckets and move at the speed of light to adequately serve the patriarchy (and all its aunties) as the race for the good wife continues.
Eventually, all are bathed, fed, and honored, and again the behind the scenes work to clean and leave no evidence of their presence there, except for the full bellies they have so excellently catered to, continues. They are again thanked in kind for their great service then with all the pomp and fanfare they entered with, they humbly bid farewell and leave the new wife behind to continue the excellence that has already been briefly displayed.
This play may sound charming to some, a real bastion of the importance of culture, and in some ways, one could understand why. But I leave you here with a few key thoughts. What is the point of culture if it fails to account for the time in which it is being practiced? If we fail to articulate its significance and meet generations at their place of need how do we hope to preserve it? In a world where women bring so much more to the table, why do these gendered portrayals of struggle, domesticity, and humble humility remain the benchmarks of her worth? More fundamentally, why must an inter-familial relationship begin with the subjugation of one party as a symbol of worthiness?
There is so much more to unpack, and if you have made it thus far, I should perhaps be fair to you and admit that I am lying awake at 1 am because I have failed to sleep and my feet are throbbing in pain as a testament of the day I have had, so my reflections may be tainted by my physical discomfort. If I had written this a day later, I may have had more wisdom to impart. Alas, it is not to be…
I know these reflections are my own. They do not represent the fullness of the culture. They cannot speak for anyone else’s experiences. Perhaps you were lucky enough to have a nice lunch in your honor at your arrival at your inlaws. My point is not to debate the nuances of the individual experience but to interrogate how fit for purpose this custom remains, who it serves, and what message it sends to the modern woman. Failure to adapt eventually results in extinction… and on this custom that may not be an entirely bad thing.
Written by: Ms M
Featured photo: A woman cooking at a traditional wedding ceremony, part marriage rites in Zambia/Shutterstock image