/ 20 March 2009

Mesmerising mistresses

In Africa, as elsewhere in the world, mistresses walk tall in the corridors of power, pulling boardroom levers from the bedroom. Many think they are the best thing since the invention of the motor car. Some mistresses even get upgraded to wives. And the tales of mistresses help to thicken the plots of bestselling books and blockbuster movies.

And it comes as no surprise that in Africa mistresses are not only part of a successful man’s CV, but come with a variety of colourful noms de guerre to boot.

From kings and presidents to corporate leaders, all have claimed to have a mistress or two. In some societies they are officially recognised.

References to mistresses make for interesting and volatile debate; do not wade into them with a weak heart or without paid-up funeral cover. And it’s best to discuss mistresses several miles away from your spouse.

The magic of mistresses or ”the other woman” has deepened men’s imagination, powered their lust, oops … er … passion, without doubt extended the frontiers of morality and remoulded the concept of marriage. Just check the litany of names and phrases fashioned to define mistresses. From hostess, special assistant, secret lover, concubine, courtesan, companion and comforter, mistresses are an institution.

In Zimbabwe you would be forgiven for thinking that men are talking about the latest model of a vehicle or some blue-chip investment: small house, the junior mother, small mother, the spare wheel, the side-kick. In Zambia I heard men talk of ”plot two”, while in Kenya a friend of mine said men pay tribute to ”women in secret service”. In Uganda a man’s mistress is referred to as ”obwenzi” in the language of the Baganda, one of the largest Ugandan ethnic groups.

In much of Africa having a mistress may be frowned upon in public but pretty much accepted in private. In fact, having a mistress is rather like wearing a badge of honour, adding to the man’s social standing, even though it can be a ticket to an early grave. If the woman’s husband does not kill you first, it’s likely your wife will either Bobbitt you or sue the pants off (forgive the pun) both you and your mistress.

High- and low-ranking citizens in all spheres are known to have mistresses and concubines even though they might not be referred to as such. The Afrikaans word for a mistress clearly spells out the danger of such dalliances; a mistress is referred to as a ”skelmpie”, derived from the word ”skelm”, meaning thief or crook. It makes me think of the skull and cross bones sign usually dangled in high-voltage areas to keep away trespassers — but some people enjoy skipping underneath power lines.

Words such as ”official hostess”, ”personal assistant” and ”the leader’s friend or contact” are all pseudonyms for mistress. African leaders have had them. In Malawi one leader had an official hostess and in Zambia a former leader married his mistress. In Uganda Idi Amin Dada was reported to have had four wives and more than 30 mistresses. In Kenya a leader was in the news recently denying rumours of having a second ”wife”. Since this leader threatened to sue whoever perpetuated this grapevine news, let me say no more.

What drives men to have mistresses and women to accept being the ”spare tyre”? Money, influence, love or downright lust? I have heard of men with an ”inborn” high concentration of the small blue pills.

I wonder if polygamy was widely legalised, could mistresses halt the spread of HIV transmission and help stop a cancer to marriages which defies moral chemotherapy? According to a self-confessed serial mistress and author of the book The Mistress, Victoria Griffin: ”As long as there is marriage, there will also be the mistress.” Critics of the book have said it is a great buy. But do not be caught reading it by your wife.

Busani Bafana is a journalist who lives in Bulawayo


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