Graca Marcel Mandela, a widow of virtue


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When the embers of the fire that burned Kenya in 2008 began, one of the people present at the talks that eventually pacified the country was Graca-Marcel Mandela. Pictures of Graca serving then opposition leader Raila Odinga tea at Harambee House are etched permanently in the collective memory of Kenyans.

The singular act of going to the table, taking a cup and gracefully walking back to give it Raila, who was chatting with former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, helped ease the tension in the group that included Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete and former Tanzania President Benjamin Mkapa among others.

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“This is a true African woman – so respectful,” was the reaction to what she had done. Twice First Lady and now twice widowed in two countries, Graca’s place in history will remain unique.

Steely character

She was wife of Mozambican founding President Samora Marcel. One can only guess her agony after the death of her South African iconic husband, Nelson Mandela on Thursday. Graca’s steely character and the admiration she elicits remind one of a woman so loved for simplicity and Africanness as much as her intellect whose suffering evokes massive sympathy.

The former SA First Lady was one of the three Eminent African Personalities who hoisted Kenya from the abyss it had sunk into following a disputed presidential poll outcome.

It was her second involvement in Kenya’s national wellbeing. Prior to that she had been to the country on African Peer Review Mechanism to look at the performance of the Kibaki administration and her verdict was less than flattering to the Executive. However, her upside is interspersed with tragedy of sorts – losing the “loves” of her life.

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For students of literature – indeed lovers of African folklore  – there are striking parallels between Graca and Ihuoma, the main character in novelist Elechi Amadi’s fiction, The Concubine.

Graca was the woman who stood by fallen African icon, Nelson Mandela, whose sojourn in the world came to a close on Thursday.

Ihuoma was the wife of Emenike, a man held in high esteem in Omakochi Village in Nigeria, for his hunting and wrestling prowess. Graca’s first husband, Marcel, “hunted” freedom through guerrilla war in Mozambique. Ihuoma’s stunning beauty and intelligence elicited admiration and revulsion in equal measures. So much so that another main character, Ekwueme, became lovesick that he had married her instead of her crybaby wife, Ahurole.

Ekwueme’s disillusionment with Ahurole, an irresponsible wife who would never appreciate her husband, drew him closer to Ihuoma.

It was through the divination of Agwoturumbe that it is realised that Ihuoma was the wife of a sea-god consumed with jealousy that men who tried died.

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Bound by tradition and expectations, and always wanting to do the right thing and not bring shame on herself or others, Ihuoma rejected her other clumsy admirer, Madume. By the same measure she initially rejected Ekwueme, who had been betrothed to another young woman at birth. Flip over to Graca. Although she had the opportunity, she is unlike other African First Ladies who exploit their proximity to power loot the coffers of the state. Instead, she used the opportunity raise the profile of the African woman.

It is often joked that if African first ever went for a beauty contest Graca would beat them all. But sorrow stalks her. She is a convergence of beauty and intellect.

Here is there another parallel. Mandela was forced to divorce Winnie Madikizela-Mandela because of her waywardness. President Mandela, his intellectual and moral fortitude notwithstanding and looking heartbroken, stunned South Africans when he told a family court that Winnie had never been to their matrimonial bed before midnight since his release from prison in 1994 to the time of their break-up in 1996.

Strong rebuke

A divorce was granted. After that, Mandela developed interest in Gracas (but not exactly like Ekwueme), who he began to date secretly. He needed a pillar he would lean on outside demanding public life.

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When he began seeing Graca secretly after parting ways with Winnie, Mandela elicited strong rebuke from his close friend, Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Amadi’s novel tells of Igbo culture and society and the struggles of young people to do the right thing and stick to tradition. It was very much like Desmond Tutu repeatedly admonishing Mandela for “betraying” his mandate as the moral fibre of the nation. Tutu would advise Madiba against setting a bad example if he partook of an illicit affair.

It was much like Ekwueme’s father severely admonishing his son for behaving like a boy and hankering for what cannot be his. Tutu was Mandela’s spiritual mentor.

And when Emenike dies, it grants Ekwueme an opportunity to be with his widow.

In fact, on the first anniversary of Emenike death, it was Ekwueme a gifted hunter and trapper, who supplied all the meat that was used to prepare stew for guests. “It is as if my husband is alive,” was how Ihuoma thanked Ekwueme.

In Graca’s case, Mandela filled the void left by Samora Marcel. Both presidents were guerrilla fighters during the wars of liberation of their respective countries.

Well, she was already widowed when he left prison. Similarly, the Mandela-Graca and Ekwueme-Ihuoma relationships did not result in children.

The novel tackles the tough subjects of tradition, expectation, and the rules of society. The love and longing in the life of Graca is echoed in this story of religion, divinations and the appeasement of spirits.

Her story may not be necessarily le femme fatale, but it is a compelling tale of the centripetal force in enduring African womanhood.

To stand by Mandela to his last day was demonstration of the humanity or in Madiba’s own words “ubuntu encrusted in an African woman: The strength of a woman”.