Small House: ‘A Zimbabwean expression describing an extramarital affair or a party involved in one. It usually describes girlfriends of a married male, a reflection of the polygamous history of the country.’
- Wikipedia definition
Around April of this year my friend gave me a book called ‘The Uncertainty of Hope’ by a Zimbabwean author Valerie Tagwira. To be honest with you I was a bit reluctant to read at first because the cover was ugly and because I had never sat down to read anything by an ‘unknown’ African author; I was more into the widely recognised novels by Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Adichie, which had been given the seal of approval by the literature gate-keeper. After contemplating about reading it and never getting round to it, I returned it but the owner insisted I keep it for as long as I needed. Good thing I did though, because the day I finally decided to pick the book up, I did not put it down until all 363 pages were thoroughly read!
What an enlightening and emotional journey that was. To put it in Fungai Machirori’s words:
‘Many passages in this 363-page journey had my skin swelling up in goose bumps because yes, here is a woman who speaks about the things we are not often too ready to acknowledge, and therefore address.’
While reading this book I came across the concept of ‘small houses’ ; Onai’s husband Gari has a small house called Gloria whose former partner dies of AIDS. Onai’s reaction, when she learns about her husband’s infidelity is one that shocks me and probably prompted me to write this article. She asks herself, ‘How could he be so irresponsible?’ as if it would have been responsible of him to deal with a woman who was not known in the neighbourhood for being a prostitute. She then tells herself that she can do nothing but accept whatever life pitched at her. Then we learn about Melody, a university student who sleeps with a married man to pay for her university fees. Later on in the book when she is confronted by this man’s wife who is a nurse in London, the anger she feels is not that she has been found out but rather that the money he has been spending on her was his wife’s hard- earned salary. I wished that these two women – who were different but similar in many ways – could have handled their predicament better.
Small houses are being hunted down by HIV/AIDS organisations in Zimbabwe because they are thought to be one of the key drivers in the epidemic that continues to claim lives of thousands of people. Adultery is no longer a three-way thing; it is now a complex web of risks. I will use an example to explain this point; John is married but he is having an affair with a HIV-positive work colleague who has casual sex with her driver who is a nymphomaniac and sleeps with at least four different people a month, some of them are married but are ‘experiencing’ what is out there, and their partners have maybe sampled the greener pastures once or twice to prove Maya’s point; ‘when you’re out in the club don’t think I’m not.’ The connection does not stop there; you can just keep adding more people and just watch the HIV virus spread like wildfire. I can hear you ask, what ever happened to using condoms? Well listen to this, a friend of mine once told me that as she waited in a hospital waiting room in a local hospital somewhere in Africa, she was approached by a nurse who said to her that young people were lucky because they had the freedom to use condoms whenever they felt like it. Married men or women on the other hand could not tell their partners that they wanted to have sex with a condom. It was an abomination – one that the village elders could hear about. Exaggeration! But on a serious note, many women have received a beating for suggesting such!
I cannot tell anybody that marriage values seem to have vanished in today’s society because I have yet to walk down the aisle. I am with the view that a marriage should be about two people from the beginning until death do them part, but it would also be naive of me to believe that affairs are things that only happen to other people or that only my husband is capable of contemplating adultery. This book has forced me to re-evaluate my opinion on the much open relationships and polygamy – still practiced in several African countries.
South Africa’s current president, 69-year-old Jacob Zuma has been married five times but he remains with only three wives – the second wife divorced him in 1998 and the third one committed suicide in 2000. On top of these, he has paid lobola (bride price) for two other women whose wedding dates are yet to be confirmed. For us that live in Western societies, where having two partners at any one time is forbidden, it may be simple to label this arrangement as tribal or uncivilised, but the truth is the divorce rates in Western societies are equally worth raising an eyebrow at. Every week Hollywood announces yet another couple divorcing on the basis of irreconcilable differences – this week in the newspaper I read about a French woman who got £8500 compensation because the husband she was divorcing did not have enough sex with her in their 21 years of marriage. I mean if I had Tom on Mondays and Tuesdays, Harry on Thursdays and Fridays and Mitch on weekends, I wouldn’t have to worry about any differences or the lack of bedroom activity. They do say that variety is the spice of life!
I do agree that to a certain extent small houses are a key driver in the HIV/AIDS epidemic however as I venture out in the world and hear different sides to the story I do truly wonder if they are all as bad as people make them out to be. If HIV and other sexually transmitted infections did not exist, would people be more open to them? The reality is however that HIV is no longer a myth; it is no longer an illness that plagues the poor or everybody else but you. On September 5, we gawked and squealed at yet another genius Google Doodle celebrating Freddy Mercury’s life, many of us probably ignored the causes of his death and concentrated on his music legacy as Queen’s frontman. Well nothing new there, we only care about something when it slaps us in the face – wouldn’t it be better if we chose the prevention rather than the cure route. But anyway all I can say is this; small houses they may be, but they definitely have the strength to bring any big house down.