Diary of a Guji Girl

Amina is a Guji girl from Newcastle. When she arrives at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) with her cousin, Ayesha, to do her first year, she is excited and anxious about the prospects of being away from home for the first time in her life. She wants to fit in but she is also very conscious about the expectations on her as Guji girl. There are many basic, but fundamental questions for her too. Does she wear a scarf on campus? Being in the ‘City of Gold’, a city of “ideas, freedom and new beginnings”, should she and / or can she redefine who she is?

However, Diary of a Guji Girl is not just about a first-year student trying to find herself. It is fundamentally about a community that consciously and subconsciously struggles to accept change. Of interest to me is the centrality of daughterhood, wifehood and motherhood in this exercise of producing and reproducing a community and its culture. First and foremost, Amina is very conscious about what it means to be a Guji daughter. She seems to understand the limits that this puts on new beginnings. Being a Guji daughter has been engrained in her being and looms large in her world. It is the only aperture through which she views what is possible and not possible. She is not able to consider men as just friends. For a Guji girl men can only be possible husbands. In fact, life for her as a girl is only in pursuit of wifehood. She confesses that “I never ever wanted to be a professional. I came to Johannesburg to find a husband and I am not ashamed to admit that.” So, whilst education for young men is in pursuit of prosperity and success, for young women it is essentially about buying time. In fact, education could even be a barrier to potential suitors.

In a light-hearted manner Hunter presents the reader with a community whose fundamental preoccupation is about making, finding and keeping wives; and the role of mothers therein. What I found curious though is how women move from being weak and vulnerable wives, to being strong and powerful mothers who control the destiny of both their daughters and sons. It is mothers who groom their daughters to be eligible wives. Whilst at university, it is her mother who ensures that on Saturdays Amina attends Guji cooking classes – essentially Guji wifehood classes. When she is home during vacation, she ensures that she is visible in “suitable families” as a potential and suitable wife.
It is also mothers who play a leading role in identifying and vetting suitable wives (and families) for their sons. They are the ones who conduct interviews and provide the final signal to their sons. This I found interesting because in their suitability criteria, these mothers vigorously protect and maintain the status quo. It is because of them that their sons are looking for wives that:

“Have small milk white toes”
“Prepared to stay with my mother…Forever”
“Fresh roti is a must”
“A wife who cooks, cleans and sews”.

But Hunter also shows that, although under pressure from their family and community, these young women realise that wifehood for them is hollow. Beneath the seemingly warm and fuzzy family life is domestic violence, cheating, pain, resentment and life often devoid of meaning.

I was actually surprised at the widespread nature of arranged marriages, even so for the middle class. Before I read the book, I was not aware of the actual process, and how crude it is – what Amina calls the Samoosa Runs. The underlying layers of prejudice that underpin the criteria were a revelation to me: class; sect and even complexion. To improve her marriage prospects Aunty Benn advises Ayesha to get skin lightening.

Towards the end of the book, Hunter provides a glimpse of hope. Against the norm, Amina takes charge of her father’s business when he gets sick. She also resigns herself to a life outside wifehood. With her pediatric friend Summaya they demonstrate that women can play a meaningful role in the larger community. But it is her conversation with her new suitor, Suhail, that closes the loop for Amina. Unlike the first-year student she was, now in Suhail she is looking for a “sincere, kind and respectful” husband. The question for me was whether Amina will ultimately find meaning in life beyond wifehood, and whether in turn she will be a different mother to her sons and daughters.

Writing the book as a diary offers Hunter latitude to deal with issues that would have been otherwise deemed “politically incorrect”. In a diary one jots down personal thoughts and feelings liberally. Narrating the story through Amina’s voice also gives the reader an insider’s view into everyday life in this particular community.

Diary of a Guji Girl is an easy read. Its strength lies in satiric presentation of deep issues underlying the reality of life for women in Guji communities.

Qaanitah Hunter is a political reporter for the Mail & Guardian in South Africa. Diary of a Guji Girl is her debut novel that started off as a Blog Awards 2013 for Best Entertainment & Lifestyle Blog.