Sandra A. Mushi is an interior architect, poet and author of Rhythm of my Rhyme (poetry). Her articles, poems and stories are available online and in popular journals. Her latest publication, Stains on my Khanga, is a collection of stories and poems filled with ordinary people struggling to survive each day life hurls at them. Having read several of her short stories here on Africanwriter.com, I ordered a copy of the book to see what it was about. I read the collection in one sitting and it left me with internal bruises.
Sola Osofisan: We have published several of your fiction on AfricanWriter.com over the years, Sandra, and we knew it was just a matter of time before the books followed. Congratulations.
Sandra A. Mushi: Thank you so much, Sola. I am indeed grateful and humbled.
Sola Osofisan: Stains on my Khanga, you acknowledge, was produced by women — a conscious effort “by women, with women and for women” – in your words. Can you elaborate on its significance?
Sandra A. Mushi: The team behind the making of the book has been mostly women. From the writer, yours truly; the publisher, Rehema Isa of Hadithi Media; the editor, Luso Mnthali; the cover designer Nocebo Bucibo; the photographer of my official photographs, Asteria Malinzi.
It was a conscious effort since the stories in the book highlight the situations women find themselves in, whether directly or indirectly. It has been a conscious effort since we want to show the women who can relate to the stories that yes, we can, we are able and we do have choices. We should not let our self-worth, self-belief and self-confidence get crippled by whatever situation we stumble upon.
Some months ago I was talking to this lady who runs a successful catering business. I commented that her family and husband must be very proud of her. Instead of a huge smile, she replied with a sigh. It turned out that not only was the husband abusive, he was also an alcoholic who had never held a job in the twenty or so years of their marriage. And every business ever opened for him would either be drunk to the ground or (the investment would be) spent all on women. She said she would have preferred to be at home taking care of her family instead of working late every day but if she did, then what would her children eat.
I asked her if they had sought any counselling, had they talked to anybody – to which she replied that the few times she complained to her family and the elders she was told to persevere, that “that is how marriage is.” So I pressed on – if the situation was so unhealthy and disruptive, what was next; to which she simply replied, “Is there an option? Do I have a choice?”
Society tells us that we do not have a choice. So Stains on My Khanga is by women who have risen above the situations they might have found themselves in; women who have found their voices, and for women who are trying to find their voice. There are choices.
Sola Osofisan: So the fact that this collection of stories mostly features women struggling to overcome adversity was an impetus to you all to unleash the stories?
Sandra A. Mushi: These stories are around us and they happen every day, but we are told it is what it is. But it is not! With these stories, I pray and hope to instill change instead, because it is not what it is! I have written this collection in the hope that somewhere out there, one woman will realize that she has a choice and that she can survive. I am hoping to find beauty through helping others find a voice by telling real life ugly stories. That it is not what it is and she should talk about it; and through talking and sharing, women will be empowered.
The girl child being very dear and personal to me, I feel I should walk with and stand by her, in whatever adversity, through my story telling.
Sola Osofisan: The book also contains your poetry, and most of them share the themes of several of your fiction – people in “tight places” seeking escape. Is that the only reason why you combined poetry and prose in the same volume? Or you think the audience is similar for both?
Sandra A. Mushi: I’m a frolic writer. When I started contemplating having a collection for publication, I had some poems, but I felt the different themes I had did not reflect how I had grown as a writer and my newly found large voice. And there was no message per se. So I removed the pieces that I felt were rather playful.
I had some short stories that I was considering for another collection, so I took these and tried to place them with the poems – I was not even thinking of the audience then: But voila! There was a flow and a theme.
Sola Osofisan: You’re always smiling in your photos. Your smile is the type that can light up a room. Kurt Vonnegut says to the writer, “be a sadist…make awful things happen” to your characters. No character goes unscathed in Stains on my Khanga. Your stories are snippets of lives unravelling or already in tatters. What feeds the mind that imagines these stories? Is the cliche true in your case that the seemingly happy exterior sometimes harbor and imagine the darkest horrors?
Sandra A. Mushi: None of the pieces in Stains on My Khanga are personal stories – thanks to God. I write what I see around me and I question my surroundings a lot. The pieces in the collection stem from my many questions. I pen about the wrongs so that, hopefully, we make them right.
My happy exterior does reflect what I feel inside. I think it is because I am happy that it irks me to see others in unhappy situations that can be changed. I admire women for their many qualities that we can not do without; our mothers who nurture, sisters who listen, wives who love, and daughters who care, et cetera – women with such qualities deserve nothing but the best of treatments.
I might harbour questions but not dark horrors, because for the life of me, I can not understand why these loving and giving creatures should be treated less than queens. Being an artist, I tend to dream a lot and live in my own world. In my world — and it should be in everybody’s world — women should be celebrated. They should be appreciated.
Sola Osofisan: You seem to have an uncanny instinct for sensing precisely where to start your story, and it is always in the deep dark soul of ruinous action. That’s a rare gift. Your openings dare the reader to go a little further, at his own risk. Kurt Vonnegut also says of a story; “Start as close to the end as possible”. He says further of the reader; “throw them into the fire” and let them figure out what’s happening when they start burning. I like that you do that a lot. Your stories start so deeply into the action, when they end, you leave the reader wondering “is that all? Where the heck is the rest of it?” And you don’t dawdle explaining so much. You start late and end early, but a lot is compressed into those handfuls of pages – tons of emotions, information, conflict… So much is said, but so much more is left unsaid…
Sandra A. Mushi: As a person I am very impatient. When conversing, I always want people to get straight to the point. I am not into dawdling over explanations. I write to get clarity and make sense of things, so when I write, I tend to find myself having an open conversation with myself. I always try to get straight to the issue at hand so that the readers do not get bored.
Once I have a story that I want to address, I start putting together the components. I always try to compress that issue at hand, the point of view, the primary plot and some hint of characterization into that very first opening paragraph. By the end of that paragraph, I want the reader to have a sense of the setting and conflict, unless the storyline calls for this information to be provisionally withheld. The most intimidating task is the putting together of the components and profiling of the characters.
What is left unsaid is usually not really that relevant to the story. Leaving the reader with a little homework of dotting the unsaid can be a healthy exercise for the mind. I was once told that a good story leaves the reader with a lot of questions about what comes next, leaves the reader wanting more. If my stories have that effect on readers, then I am truly humbled.
Having said that, I think it is easier with short stories. With novels I find that as you go, the characters tend to have a mind of their own and sometimes spin the story in another direction.
Sola Osofisan: You hinted at a response to this question earlier, but I’m sure you expected it. There is no story behind your intense focus on marital abuse?
Sandra A. Mushi: It’s more of a curiosity, questioning and bewilderment than anything else, really… Why as a society are we still letting this happen in this day and age? In Tanzania — like in many African countries — the girl child is expected to be born, go to school and right after graduation – primary education or university level, depending on the society – be asked, “Why are you not married yet?” She will hardly ever be asked about her dreams or aspirations or what is next after schooling. No. If time passes without her getting married, that girl child will then be told to “at least have a child.”
Sadly, some mothers will even happily ‘pimp’ their daughters to a married man, as long as the ‘shame’ of not being married or not having a child is removed.
Sola Osofisan: In “The Plate of Ugali”, a wife is repeatedly assaulted by her husband – and it was reasoned away by the elders of the community as a “disciplinary slap” – a “necessity” to keep a married woman “in check”. As you observed earlier, this sort of thinking is still widespread in some African countries. Keeping silent in the face of obvious abuse, justifying it… Some women are brain-washed into thinking they’re to blame for every assault on them. It gets worse when the women trapped in these relationships that are slowly killing them begin to line up excuses for the abuser as we see in your book: it’s the alcohol, not the man; he provides for us; he doesn’t mean to… How do we go about rethinking the “I know he loves me. He feeds me, doesn’t he?” mentality that’s pervasive in African homes reeling from abuse?
Sandra A. Mushi: Exactly what I was saying, Sola. Unfortunately this has been instilled in us for so long that many have come to believe that it is what it is. A year or so ago, I was having drinks with this beautiful corporate woman and after a few glasses of wine she told me about her abusive relationship, which she tried to justify. When I told her that no matter what she has done, abuse should never be tolerated, she first laughed saying, “but all women get slapped every now and then. So what are you on about, really?” When I kept on insisting that it is absolutely wrong and should be reported when it happens, she looked shocked, “Acha mambo ya kizungu, Sandra! All women get slapped.” As in, stop with your white ways. This was coming from a learned corporate woman.
In our patriarchal society, most women subscribe to the idea that women need to be looked after by men a hundred percent and that nothing can be achieved without men. Subliminally, that has been so entrenched in our minds that the struggle becomes a challenge. Women have been stifled so much – by our societies as a whole and not necessarily by men (alone) – that we believe that without men, as abusive as they might be, we can not (exist). The society does not tell these women to try hawking fruits, maandazi and other wares along the road sides so as to escape the need to stay with an (abusive) man. Hence the challenge.
Sola Osofisan: And it doesn’t always get better, does it? “It will get better” is the title of one of your stories. It is also a line many abused women are familiar with, especially when they run to their mothers with bloodied noses and broken limbs. They are told to persevere because it will get better. Some of these women get dead instead. And when the family urge the wife to “hurry and give him a child”, do they not realize that only adds stress to a broken bridge?
Sandra A. Mushi: For many women what matters is the survival; “as long as I am fed, dressed, housed, I can go on living on hope. After all the same thing happened to my mother and her mother before her, so why should I be special and expect any different?” This, unfortunately, is the thought of many women in such situations.
A local magazine asked me almost the same question so I will say to you what I told them; I strongly believe that if the girl child was empowered and educated, our communities would be less challenged. If the girl child was equally educated, she would have been inspired to have the desire for change and also have the understanding that change is possible; be able to make own decision and thereafter implement them. Educate a woman and you educate a village, as the saying goes.
It is interesting to note that when a school girl child is impregnated, she gets expelled from school and her future thereafter is bleak, while the perpetrator is left and does not get persecuted. Let us now assume that this girl child does not get married and the family shuns her. Meaning the young girl is left alone to fend for herself, uneducated and unemployed. She tries to get help from baby daddy, but following up on child support, sadly, is almost impossible and the customary law, which many societies follow, hardly supports the girl child.
The survival of women, to a large extent, is still left at the mercy of men, thereby amplifying the inequality, discrimination, oppression, exploitation, abandonment, violation of women’s rights and even the spread of HIV/AIDS. The girl child and the boy child should be given equal opportunities. Equality and democracy should be ensured for all men and women and boys and girls. All.
Sola Osofisan: Your themes range from marital abuse to abortion, women with raped daughters and sodomised sons, desperate women accusing their daughters of trying to steal their men, hunger, oppression, women turned by desperation into deserters of infants… Even the stealing of the poor people’s vote is a vicious type of rape. It is only in your poetry that we encounter proud, defiant and strong women who manage to redeem the characterisation in your book. I shouldn’t be the one asking this question because I’m a dark themes purveyor myself, but I know critics who will ask you, where are the bright spots? Is your book a fair representation of African marriages? What about the Khanga that has no stains?
Sandra A. Mushi: Africa is full of stainless khangas, with brightness and richness in love, colours, laughter, smells, sounds, textures, tastes, cheers, warmth. But we have our share of problems too — be they social or political, they are there – that we can change by addressing and having conversations about. The reason why I don’t write ‘they lived happily ever after’ stories is because sometimes with happily ever after, we get contented and comfortable and end up forgetting about the stains out there.
Sola Osofisan: I couldn’t find one good man in Stains on my Khanga, except for maybe in a cameo role in a poem. Why is it so hard to find one good man in your book? I know we’re screwy, but we can’t all be that bad…
Sandra A. Mushi: We have some super amazing men in Africa. In fact the greatest men that I know are from Africa! We have amazing men who have good manners and a strong sense of chivalry and who care for their women; men who are willing to make big sacrifices to gain a chance at prosperity; men who have a sense of commitment for paving a better future for himself and his family; men who don’t take life, stability and comfort for granted and who have their principles in order; men who are God-fearing, honest, hardworking, responsible, supportive, resourceful and devoted to their queen. We have them aplenty.
The men in Stains on My Khanga just happen to be the main antagonists in what would have otherwise been a different story. The men happened by default. The stories here are not about the men but about the women and their situations. The men are just happenstance.
Sola Osofisan: I love the seemingly throw-away observation in “It will get better” about women getting prepped all their life to make someone else happy by being the good wife and nurturer of the children, but the men are only taught to provide and hardly schooled in how to treat their wives and women. Gems like this abound in your book. Do you think we ought to re-appraise a tradition that also places women third in the hierarchy that’s helmed by the husband – the man first, children second and the woman last? Or is it just a way to make a home happy? I mean if the husband responds in kind – even if unspoken — by seeing himself as number three in the hierarchy from his own perspective, thereby placing his wife topmost and the children second, it could do away with much of the conflict in marriages. But in a patriarchal society like we have, only a few African men would think like that, right?
Sandra A. Mushi: It is not and should not be about hierarchy. It is not about who comes first. It is simply about respecting, honouring and loving each other. In the perfect world the husband leads, the wife submits, and the children obey. But in the imperfect world, the world of many women, the husband would lead with abusive words while drunk and throwing punches; the wife will submit by staying and taking the punches while she goes out to look for food to feed her children; and the children obey by learning that it is what it is.
Sola Osofisan: Is it time to chuck the age-old mantra that every woman should have a man? Why do we still have the mentality that a woman without a man is incomplete and unfulfilled, a “shame” to herself and her people? And many women seem to be perpetuating the (to quote your poem) “No shame no more / No shame as she got a man” mentality too.
Sandra A. Mushi: Every woman SHOULD have a man. Every man SHOULD protect and provide for his woman and family. But that protection and provision should not come with a license to abuse. Likewise, a woman should not endure the abuse simply because she is being provided for and protected.
I think it is because the “a woman can not do without a man” mantra has been drummed into the heads of women for so long that we do not know otherwise. Every woman should have a man, but that man should not be there to complete a woman but to complement her.
Likewise, the woman should not want that man because he will offer a roof and food on the table; and in some cases a car and a shopping trip to Paris; or because he is removing the shame; the woman should want to be with that man because they balance each other.
Sola Osofisan: I expected a book written by an interior architect to be full of atmospherics and intimately laid out backdrops, indoors and out. Instead, you leap straight into your characters’ lives and start ripping, shredding everything. Despite that, one did not feel lost or displaced. The setting was still vivid enough. Did you have to fight the temptation to over paint the setting?
Sandra A. Mushi: When I first started trying to write fiction around 2007, I found myself doing that a lot. But I later found that it took too much (away from) the essence of the story. Yes, I was tempted and it was hard not to, especially when using these settings in helping to profile the characters. But as the themes unfolded, I found out that it was more about the character than the type of couch she sat on.
Sola Osofisan: You were once quoted as saying “Writing Swahili will be like committing suicide – it’s that hard!” But you managed to squeeze quite a bit into your book…Weren’t you concerned that some of your meanings may get lost with so much Swahili in the book? Whole sentences, interjections, even conversations. There’s an extensive glossary of course, but who consults those things in the heat of reading?
Sandra A. Mushi: It is hard! Swahili has an extremely rich vocabulary. Speaking Swahili for the sake of communication is completely different from writing it. If you want to do written Swahili justice, you just have to pull all the stunts. Since the Swahili words I used were spoken, I was not really worried. If I was to use the words as a narrator, then it would have been a completely different story.
Sola Osofisan: You have an intimidating social media presence. Is it translating well in reception to the book?
Sandra A. Mushi: It is, Sola. Quite well, I must say. It has gotten so many talking and asking about the book. I had hoped that social media would give it a platform but I never suspected it would be this huge of a platform.
I had tried having a blog but realized that if it does not have pictures, my people will not follow and read. So it is now on Facebook where I do everything – not by choice though. But I think at some point I will have to be more organized.
Sola Osofisan: You credit your parents with getting you close to words. How did they do that? What was your childhood like?
Sandra A. Mushi: I was quite a handful as a child. My mother had gone back to school at that time and to keep me from out of her hair as she wrote her papers, she would give me scrap papers and pencils. I started with drawing then. My mother said I drew so much that she sometimes had to give me toothpaste and cereal boxes to draw on as I would finish papers in no time.
My mother then became a teacher. I am not blowing a trumpet because she is my mother, but I really believe it was her passion in teaching that made me fall in love with words. While she taught me to love the written word, my father, not wanting to be outshone, bought me books. And at some point he even tried to get (me) to cram the dictionary.
So I grew up drawing and reading. Some of the earliest books I remember reading were by Enid Blyton, Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde. I also remember reading The Arabian Nights and later its Swahili version Alfu Lela U Lela. There were other books but these stuck with me the most.
My dad has always been a comic. Growing up he was either cracking my brother and I up, or he would be teaching us ways to frustrate mom. I remember how he used to give us sugar cubes and he would take off, leaving the two of us sugar high with poor unsuspecting mom. He still enjoys getting her ticked off.
Sola Osofisan: Do you still listen to Boney M?
Sandra A. Mushi: (Smiling) I do a lot around the Christmas season.