I am the daughter of a chief

Date: October 2, 2009
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My father has three wives at any one time living with him on the royal grounds, but he always keeps two more in the surrounding village. Our Tonga culture allows and even encourages polygamy. At the last count, I had 22 siblings and I hear the mothers are pregnant so another three are on the way.
On the grounds, his wives have their own little huts adjacent to the palaces’ three bedroom house where we, his children, live with him. Depending on who your mother is (if she was the flavour of the month or if was she living on the palace grounds) you had a bed with a mattress, or just a mattress, or you sleep on an mpasa, a reed mat.
Father does not have an income, save from what his subjects give him and an allowance from the government. His wives till the land and feed the family. In monetary wealth, we would fall into the poverty bracket. We were saved from illiteracy by the school authorities whose duty it is to enrol the chief’s children at the only primary school in the area. That is as far as anyone does for us to get an education. The rest is up to you.
The only maternal thing the mothers do for the children is ensure that the palace servants light a huge brazier at first light. A giant clay pot is placed on it. This pot first boils water for bathing. A little later the water would be used to make tea for breakfast.
Mid morning, meailie meal would be added to the water to make a thin porridge for lunch, which would boil the whole day until evening when more mealie meal would be added to the porridge to turn into nshima (sadza) for supper. We do not sit down for meals, if you are hungry; you simply scoop up whatever is boiling. I hate that cauldron because it embodies everything I hate about my family life.
As royal family, we are supposed to be privileged with lots attention, but this is not my reality. The mothers, including my biological mother who is the longest serving wife, are uncaring, pre-occupied in trying to stay married to the chief. The mothers encourage the children to be competitive for my father’s attention À“ for example to get married and bring in a good lobola. There is competition amongst the mothers on whose children looks after them better.
The royal household is mayhem. My father and his wives have humiliating arguments and fights about whose bed my father would sleep in that night, about whose children were being favoured, they fight about finances, everything. My father encourages the strife so that he could manipulate them.
This fighting permeates to us the children. We fight with our siblings who were not from our mothers or from a mother we did not like. The older siblings with jobs do not assist younger siblings with whom they do not share a mother.
Violence characterises a large part of my family life. If you were weak or could not defend yourself, you are in trouble. I have unsightly scars on my stomach and legs and my arm was once broken. As younger children, we carried our possessions, consisting of clothes, books, hair combs, Vaseline, in our school bags which never left our side. If you took your eyes off it for a minute, it would be gone and you would battle for years to get a replacement.
One time, I became emotionally attached to a sweet. My father brought a packet of sweets and was gave us one each. I did not eat my sweet but hid it. Every so often I would take it out and just hold it, happy to have been given something by my father. One of my sisters grabbed it from my hands and ate it. I was so angry I beat her.
Her mother who was skinning a goat aimed the knife at me. It embedded in my thigh. I now walk with a slight limp. I stole a pencil sharpener from one of my half sisters when mine went missing. Her sisters ganged up on me, I fell and broke my arm. It did not set properly so I have a bent arm.
There was nothing that I owned that I did not get through violence whether it was food, shoes or a piece of clothing. I often wondered whether we were any different from children living on the streets.
I enrolled at journalism school and began to work as a hotel chambermaid to pay for the fees. Unlike my workmates who were ashamed to clean toilets, I found a kind of liberation in being able to buy myself a chicken drumstick for lunch and being able to eat it alone without sharing it with two dozen others.
I shocked a young man who tried to date me. At our first meeting, I asked his views on polygamy! Obviously, he had never thought about it and could not give me the answer I was looking for and so ditched him. Word went round that I asked ‘weird’ questions and boys avoided me.
I have dated a few men but as soon as they start professing their love for me, I think, ‘this is the same thing my father says to his women when he wants to marry them’. I look at men as liars and potential polygamists and just go cold. At 38, I must be the only virgin of my genre!
Like my older siblings, I say I hate my father because his polygamy brought me such pain, but I have never been able to completely cut him off from my life. When he is sick which is now often, I have him brought to Lusaka for treatment. I feel a sense of duty and also an underlying need for his approval or just a simple acknowledgement that I am his daughter and he cares for me.
Instead, he never fails to point out that he is losing out on wealth because I refuse to marry and bring him a huge lobola. He thinks my views on polygamy are a testament that education for women is wrong.
This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service, which offers fresh news on every day news.

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