The Ones with Purpose

As a woman, The Ones with Purpose hit me on so many levels. Jele skillfully weaves together a number of themes that represent the reality of many women’s lives: joys and pains of motherhood; bonds of sisterhood; patriarchy; journeying the sick to the grave; living with deep hurt and trauma. She poignantly concludes that “Aunties (carry) the strains of their marriages in their tight doeks covering their heads in the wee hours of the morning, in their neatly pressed church uniforms…”

When Ma gave birth to a son, Mbuso, instead of joy she recoiled into depression. Untendered wounds of losing her first borne son oozed. She was overcome by fear. She resisted bonding with baby Mbuso in case she loses him too. Nobody understood her because nobody had paid attention to her trauma. When, five years later, she lost her husband to a truck accident she sought refuge in alcohol. Fikile, her eldest daughter, was then thrust into the unenviable responsibility of raising her siblings, Anele and Mbuso. But when Fikile died of cancer, it was Anele who was left to pick up the pieces. Hence, it is through Anele’s eyes that Jele tells this heartbreaking story of what happens when a mother’s “world cave(s) into itself like a sinkhole”.

Every (married) woman and mother will see themselves in one page or another of this book. Jele tactfully holds a mirror deep down in the corners of women’s bleeding hearts. Reflecting on her many challenges, Anele admits (be it reluctantly) that “the family has a way of weighing you down, placing your dreams on pause, sometimes indefinitely…(and) sometimes I wonder if my sole purpose in this life is to take care of other people’s happiness. Like that’s my job, except maybe, I don’t want that job. I know it sounds terrible…”. For me, it is precisely because Ma doesn’t see her way through to successfully making her family happy, that she falls apart. She is paralysed by the guilty of being a “failed mother”. It is sobering to realise that women are in fact pushed into being homemakers and family anchors. Contrary to we want to believe, they don’t necessarily do this willingly.

But as a mother, I was left conflicted in this book. As I saw all her children deeply impacted by their mother’s “falling apart”, I moved from judging Ma to judging the children. As the eldest (girl) child, Fikile was vulnerable as she sought means to support the family. That’s what trapped her into an abusive relationship with Thiza. Feeling rejected and uncared for, Mbuso grew up into an extremely angry man. And Anele fell right into Sizwe’s arms without giving herself any time for a proper due diligence. But on the other hand, can we really blame our parents for the people we become? At which point is our response to our circumstances, our own choice?

Jele layers the insidious issue of family secrets onto her storyline. As in Thuli Nhlapo’s Colour me Yellow, these secretes revolve around children’s identity and the abuse of the girl child within the family. By juxtaposing Fikile’ secret and uncle Joseph’s secret, Jele emphasizes that there’s a lot more going on inside the doors of families than what we see. But most importantly it is almost always about the protection of men.

The book evoked many memories for me. Having lost my father through cancer, I know what it means to journey a loved one to their grave. The layered and complex bonds of sisterhood, built over shared experiences, come through as Anele tenderly baths “Fikile’s body (that) had shrunk into itself under the blanket, leaving an outline, an approximation of the woman she once was”. But I also wondered whether Jele is using cancer symbolically here. Perhaps the cancer eating away Fikile’s body, is symbolic of the pain and hurt eating away women’s hearts – the helplessness; the despair; the denial; the hope; the ceaseless prayers. In the same way as I wondered what goes on in Fikile’s head as she lay there dying, I wondered what goes in Ma’s head as she woke up every morning after yet another day of alcohol binging.

Jele is a brilliant storyteller. The Ones with Purpose has a complex storyline with multiple themes, yet she manages to knit and knead it together. She skillfully uses the flashback technique to thicken the plot and bring her characters into life. If you’ve stayed in the township, you will relate to the goings on in Ma’s family. You will relate to what death does in dislocating the seemingly well-oiled family machine. You will relate to the role the various aunts play in the family, particularly during funerals.

Jele is the author of Happiness is a Four-Letter Word. She won the Commonwealth Writers Prize in the Best First Book Category (Africa Region), and the 2011 M-Net Literary Award. She also writes short stories.