WHEN Mark Mathabane was reunited with his grandmother, mother, and sister nine years after he left South Africa for the United States, he learned shocking and inspirational stories about their lives, which had remained hidden to him while he was growing up.
These stories, he realized, were not only about the women in his family. They also mirrored the lives of millions of black South African women who have suffered untold oppression under traditional attitudes toward women, intensified by apartheid.
In ``African Women: Three Generations,'' Mathabane, the author of several books including ``Kaffir Boy,'' a novel about his coming of age under apartheid, and ``Love in Black and White,'' the story he wrote with his wife about their interracial marriage, tells the saga of Granny, his grandmother; Geli, his mother; and Florah, his sister.
Related in the womens' own words, the stories include accounts of being sold at a young age to older men for marriage, being physically abused by husbands and boyfriends, living in one-room shacks in slums, and toiling to preserve their dignity in a culture where the subjugation and degradation of women is deeply rooted. It is the kind of book that is difficult to put down, because the women bring the reader into their world quickly, candidly, and vividly.
Granny's story begins when she is sold to a man for lobola (bride price). After having several children with her, he leaves for work in the city, takes another wife, and stops sending money. With no means to support herself and her children, she travels to Alexandra, a township of Johannesburg, to try to eke out a living.
When her daughter Geli turns 17, Granny refuses to let her marry the man she loves. She picks an older man with the hope that he will be faithful, because he has already ``sown his wild oats.''
``I don't want you to end up like me,'' Granny tells her. ``I married your father when he was too young. He grew tired of me and left me for another woman. And look what a miserable life I've led ever since.''
Geli's arranged marriage to Jackson proves to be a union of hardship. He spends most of his meager wages on gambling and drinking, leaving the family with little money for food. Geli realizes she must earn her own money to survive, even though Jackson forbids her to work, and begins selling spinach behind his back.
When he finds out about her entrepreneurial activities, Jackson begins beating Geli when she spends her money without his permission. He steals the cash she's stashed away and gives it to his mistress. When Geli buys school uniforms for their children, he burns them.
Despite this behavior, Geli forgives him, telling her outraged family: ``He's suffered so much under apartheid. He gets no respect anywhere, so he takes it out on me and the children. Yes, he's to blame for his actions, but also apartheid is to blame for what it's daily doing to him, what it's doing to our men. It denies them jobs and it turns around and arrests them for being unemployed.''
Florah's life patterns the lives of her grandmother and mother in many ways. Her boyfriend pays lobola for her when she is 18. Though the relationship starts out well, it sours when he begins having affairs. She begins living with a man who brutally beats her. It takes a while to extricate herself from the relationship, but after she does, Florah realizes that one reason women in her family have problems with men is that they have always been taught that men are superior and control every aspect of their lives.
``Custom and tradition told us it was normal for men to cheat and lie, to abuse and domineer, in the course of a marriage,'' she observes. ``On the other hand, we women were told we were duty-bound to remain steadfast and faithful to our husbands no matter what they did to us or how undeserving of our affections they were.''
``African Women'' is a finely crafted book that makes it easier to understand how the vicious cycles of abuse and oppression of women snowballed under apartheid. The women tell their stories in alternating chapters, and it is sometimes difficult to remember whose story it is, because their lives are so tragically similar. It's almost as if the reader is listening to a broken record. Yet despite their hardships, these women have emerged with admirable strength and hope for the future.