If the first episode of Moja Love’s (DStv Channel 157) reality series Ukungenwa showed us anything, it’s that without open communication in relationships, everyone is stumbling around in the dark.
But when it comes to delicate and complex traditional practices like ukungenwa, in which a man must take on his late brother’s wife and children as his own, there are subtleties that you’d only pick up if you listen closely when the elders talk about what they expect from you and unpack the euphemisms they’re using. If you’ve grown up without an example happening in your lifetime, and you don’t feel able to ask questions for fear of being disrespectful, you might easily take home a lot of wrong ideas. And then there’s utter chaos in your life! Just ask Siyabonga Mhlongo…
What we learned in episode 1
In the first episode of the series, we meet two members of the ukungenwa arrangement – Siyabonga, and his fiancée Busisiwe Mkhize (MaMkhize), mother to their young child, Amahle. Siya and MaMkhize both give their sides of the story, seek counsel from friends and family, and reveal why they’re so confused.
“Siya” was just 23-24 years old and in the middle of the lobola process with MaMkhize when his older brother died. His father strongly suggested that he “take care of” his brother’s widow, Macingwane (also referred to as Nomiya and MaMchunu). Siya reveals that his ears were open when he heard about his job to take over his brother’s taxi business, but in focussing on that, he missed out on other important things he was told. “I had not matured. All I thought about was being a young man and taxis. I just thought about getting ahead in life. So, when I was told to go back and look after my brother’s children, at the same time I had just had a child (of my own) at that time so that caused major confusion for me,” he admits. He saw his duty to his brother’s widow in black and white terms: “The person she loved and married is no longer there. My role would be to make sure she doesn’t get uncomfortable, and her needs are fulfilled. Not that there’s love involved.” But life and love are not that simple.
Now he’s juggling 3 households, 2 women, 2 families, a business, and the burdens of expectations that come with all of those – along with his own inexperience and misconceptions of what it means to be a husband and father, and a lack of empathy for the women involved or insight into how his actions are impacting them.
As 1 of his older advisors, Qumisa, points out in the show, when Siya describes his brother’s widow as “disrespectful”, he might want to look to his own actions first. Siya complains to Qumisa: “She’s rude. I don’t know what my brother saw in her. I don’t get that woman. She speaks too much and says whatever pleases her. I’ve tried to sit down and understand her, but she just changes on me sometimes.”
Qumisa delicately points out that that’s on him. “Every woman is said to be disrespectful. All women are the same. If you take it as that Macingwane is disrespectful then we’ve to teach you about manhood. I suspect that’s you, son, because there are reasons that cause a woman to speak harshly. We need to help you man up.”
Meanwhile Siya’s Babymama and fiancée MaMkhize is also wrestling with a fear that she is being kept in the dark and told half-truths. Siya keeps turning off his phone around her whenever MaMchunu calls. He accuses MaMkhize of provoking arguments with him when she wants to have her own way or visit her sisters. And she reveals that while his family “explained” things to her about him taking care of his brother’s widow, she didn’t feel comfortable about asking questions and seeking clarity about the finer details of the arrangement, as it would not have been appropriate at the time (something Siya and MaMkhize both seem to agree on).
Now she has awkward questions for Siya, like, “How can Siya look after such a grown-up woman? What is he keeping guard of in MaMchunu’s house?” She adds, “I don’t like polygamy. I don’t approve of it, nor do I understand it.” And she reveals that when she realised that there was more happening than a simple, practical arrangement, she took off her engagement ring. “Because our agreement has changed.”
She also felt disrespected by his family during their last meeting during which they announced the ukungenwa. “It seems to me that they look at me and think that Siya just impregnated a girl from Gauteng,” she laments.
MaMkhize now faces an awkward choice: become a junior wife to MaMchunu, which she point-blank does not want. But rejecting that would mean breaking off her relationship with Siya completely, leaving her a single mother. Not that great but still barely acceptable in her eyes, would be being acknowledged as Siya’s first wife. As for what she really wants? Well, Siya could back out of the agreement to marry MaMchunu. Then it’s “no stress, no problems,” says MaMkhize.
But what about the “virgin” at the hostel who Siya’s making heart-eyes over?
What about the letter that MaMchunu seems to have secretly written to MaMkhize?
What about the rumours that Siya and MaMchunu had a sexual relationship while his brother was still alive?
And if Siya runs his brother’s business and all the money goes in trust to his brother’s children, how will he support his own son?
There are plenty of hints dropped in this first episode that there are boxes still to be unpacked, lies to be uncovered, and lessons learned. And we’re hoping to hear MaMchunu’s side of the story in episode 2, because we smell a nervous, hand wringing rat!
It’s a fact Fact
A Levirate marriage – as mentioned in the show – is 1 in which a widow must marry her late husband’s brother. Levirate marriage is known across the globe, both historically in Japan and Korea and in present day Indonesia, Cameroon, Kenya and Zimbabwe.
Watch Ukungenwa Season 1 on Sundays at 19:30 on Moja Love (DStv Channel 157) and on Catch Up.
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