‘Chiramu’ is a custom that allows brothers in-law and uncles to play the role of husband in a young girl’s life under the guise of teaching the young girl how to handle proposals from boys.
According to the Shona culture, my mother’s brothers are considered my ‘husbands’, but they can also stand in as my ‘mothers’.Their children are considered my husbands too. I can be their mother since their father is my husband. I know it’s confusing but try to keep up. All these relations are based on roles assumed through cultural beliefs. In the event that I were to even marry or date, my little sister would take my husband or boyfriend as her own. Some little sisters act coy for the in-law and ask for material things, it is all part of the play acting.
This is what local artist, Winky D brings out in his song ‘Chiramu’ where his wife’s younger sister makes advances towards him in the name of ‘chiramu’ and goes as far as dressing to seduce him when the wife goes away on a trip. In the beginning, he is complaining about such an arrangement but then he ends up playing along until they are both caught red handed in a compromising position when the wife walks in to collect her forgotten passport.The rest of the song is predictable.
Now this is a perfect example of ‘Chiramu’ gone terribly wrong but the younger sister in the song is accused of taking it too far, or did she? ‘Chiramu’ is a practice that puts women in vulnerable positions as it was in my experience. Younger sisters or nieces are expected to play the role of wife to their brother in laws and uncles and take on traditionally assigned duties in another case of blatant patriarchal expectations of women and girls.
Trapped in cultural practice
I once visited my aunt (father’s sister), whose husband was again considered my ‘husband’ in our culture. I was in my twenties, with my voice still lying somewhere in the dark places of my childhood. Yes, even at 20 I was still a reserved person. My aunt would insist on my serving him as expected. I was asked to fetch anything he asked for. I would be called to assist him with washing his hands before meals. I would have a kitchen towel draped over my arm to dry his hands. It had to be perfect. I would then open his coke or pour a glass of water for him before I could sit down to eat my own food. His children were not called on to partake in this ritual. oddly enough, I have no memory of his wife doing this in my presence.
In my eyes that were still innocent to the ways of the world, I looked at this scene from a place inside of myself and I loathed it. Something about the way I was expected to call him ‘daddy’ and the way his eyes would look into mine sickened me. I refused to accept this as normal. To me it was not right.
At times, I would think I was being oversensitive, something I have often been accused of. I looked at the motivation behind the practice and everything seemed malicious. All I knew was, I was a young woman who had no idea how to act around men because I had grown up without a father.
Tradition gone wrong
My suspicions were confirmed one morning when I was in the kitchen doing dishes. My uncle walked in and came straight at me while I quickly muttered a quiet good morning. This wasn’t enough for him though. He came and stood right behind me and whispered in my ear that I should say, “Good morning, DADDY”. I remember him standing close, too close… muffled footsteps on the hallway carpet put an abrupt end to this scene.
For the life of me, I cannot remember my unwitting saviour but I remember how cold I suddenly felt even though my cheeks were hot with shame. I had a hundred questions running through my head.
“What just happened? My God, did he just do that? Should this be normal or acceptable?”
I couldn’t even cry.
My hands continued soaping the breakfast bowls mechanically. Later on the same day, I was asked to go stay with my cousin, surprisingly. I then assumed it was my aunt who had walked in earlier and summed up the situation. She never said a word about it but in her eyes I was a threat not the threatened so I had to go.
My uncle is late now. A few days ago was the anniversary of his death and my mother was reminiscing about him saying he was very fond of her. All I could do was grit my teeth. I have never told her what happened. I probably never will.
I am 32 now and I still remember the word ‘daddy’ as a title that was used to put me in an uncomfortable position. When someone asks, “Who’s your daddy?” I still have to stop myself from flinching. I do not understand how this practice was meant to bring the extended family unit closer because I think it traps the vulnerable who in this case are women and girls. I have even heard of aunts who ‘sacrifice their nieces on the ‘altars’ of their husbands’ lust when their marriages falter. Older sister’s too.
Our culture upholds expectations that society has of married women such that if they fail to live up to that, their younger sisters or nieces are expected to chip in. But abuse is abuse, not even ‘chiramu’ can sugar coat it.
It is so important to outline abuse in a vivid way even if it means speaking against cultural practices that have been with us for centuries. Many girls have been socialised to think that ‘chiramu’ is normal and expected of them. I am not sure if actual physical contact was ever intended but the idea alone still compromises the rights of women and girls involved. As we continue to call for gender parity, I would love to see some of these cultural practices shift to respect and recognise our worth. Culture should not constantly put us in situations where we are at the mercy of men who take any advantage to quench their desires.
Main image taken from www.cultureafrico.blogspot.com