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The Woman by Kristina Rungano

“The Woman” appears in Kristina Rungano’s first collection of poetry, A Storm is Brewing (1984). She is the first female Zimbabwean poet to publish a book of poetry. It is the only poetry collection of post-independence Zimbabwean-English literature. In her poem, Rungano talks about the role of women in rural Zimbabwean society and how they are treated in the prevalent pro-patriarchal system. The essence of the poem alludes to the indigenous expression, “vakadzi ngavanyarare,” meaning “women should keep quiet.” This piece records how a woman’s voice is muted, burdened with the big earthenware of duty and domestic oppression.

  • Read the full text of “The Woman” here, along with the analysis section.
Analysis of The Woman by Kristina Rungano


Summary

In “The Woman,” Rungano talks through a lyrical persona who belongs to the rural scene of her country. She represents the majority of the women who are oppressed in the macro-level societal framework, family. This woman is seen invested in various works such as fetching water, working in the fields in scorching heat, bearing children, doing domestic works, etc. She does what he is destined to in a patriarchal society. In contrast, her husband stays busy in worldly pleasures without caring about the pain of his wife. He returns home, sadistically draws pleasure from his weary wife. This cycle keeps repeating in the speaker’s life until her death.

Structure & Form

Rungano’s lyric poem “The Woman” contains 36 lines that are grouped into a single stanza. As there is no regular rhyme or meter, it is a lyric poem. Besides, the text is written from the perspective of a first-person speaker (a rural woman) who talks about the cyclical suffering of womanhood. This piece showcases the feature of 20th-century confessional poetry, where the speaker talks about the untold cruelties, mental agony, and hopelessness. Apart from that, Rungano stylistically uses dashes in some instances for the sake of emphasizing particular terms: “And how feared for the child – yours – I carried.”

Poetic Devices

Rungano’s “The Woman” contains the following poetic devices that make the subject matter more appealing to readers.

  • Enjambment: It occurs throughout the text. Rungano uses this device to make readers go through consecutive lines to grasp her idea. For instance, she enjambs the first three lines of the poem.
  • Simile: This device is used in the following lines: “Where young women drew water like myself” and “As I hire the great big mud container on my head/ Like a big painful umbrella.”
  • Imagery: The poet uses olfactory imagery in the phrases “the smell of flowers” and “sweet smell of the dung.” She uses visual imagery in “the stream that rushed before me,” “How young the grass around,” “the great big mud container on my head,” etc. Besides, she also uses organic imagery in order to convey the internal feelings of the speaker.
  • Metaphor: Readers first come across a metaphor in the phrase “sound of duty/ which ground on me.” Here, the sound comes from the speaker’s subconscious mind and keeps her tied to her role as a dutiful mother, devoted wife, and relentless worker. Rungano also uses this device in these phrases, “the pleasures of the flesh,” “angry vigilance of the sun,” etc.
  • Repetition: There is a repetition of the term “big” in lines 9-10. It is used to emphasize the magnitude of the speaker’s burden.
  • Personification: The poet personifies the “sun” as an angry, vigilant, and male representative. It symbolizes ever-watchful patriarchy.
  • Rhetorical Question: The poem ends with two rhetorical questions asked indirectly to the patriarchs, with an undertone of bitter sarcasm.


Themes

Rungano makes use of a number of themes in her poem “The Woman.” These include patriarchy, womanhood, women’s suffering, and struggle, motherhood, and society. The poem revolves around a Zimbabwean rural woman who has been married at a young age. She does all the domestic work and looks after her family. Even she has to work in the fields under harsh weather in order to make a living. In contrast, her husband does nothing but intensify the suffering of the wife. Through this story, Rungano shows how a woman is treated in a patriarchal framework. The last two lines pose a serious question to readers regarding how women are brainwashed to take up their gender roles.

Line-by-Line Analysis & Explanation

Lines 1-6

A minute ago I came from the well

Where young women drew water like myself

My body was weary and my heart tired.

For a moment I watched the stream that rushed before me;

And thought how fresh the smell of flowers,

How young the grass around it.

Kristina Rungano’s poem “The Woman” presents a rural woman who is married at an early age. She works all day relentlessly under the strict schedule of duty. It is important to mention how Rungano begins her poem. She creates a sense of urgency from the very beginning.

The speaker had just returned from the well a minute ago. She has no time to think about other things except her family and chores. It does not happen with only herself. Several young women face a similar fate in Zimbabwe’s rural scene.

Working under the strict vigilance of the ticking clock makes the woman’s body weary and her heart tired. In the next line, the speaker manages to look at her surroundings. She can feel the force of the rushing stream, the smell of fresh flowers, and the lush beauty of the grass. Here, the “stream,” “flowers,” and “grass” are used as a symbol of youth and freedom. These images from nature are contrasted with the lives of young women who fetch water from the well, including the speaker.

Lines 7-13

And yet again I heard the sound of duty

Which ground on me – made me feel aged 

As I bore the great big mud container on my head

Like a big painful umbrella.

Then I got home and cooked your meal

For you had been out drinking the pleasures of the flesh

While I toiled in the fields.

The speaker has no time to heed to such uplifting thoughts inspired by nature. A “sound of duty” rings directly from her subconscious mind. She has to leave her self-fulfilling thoughts aside and attend to duty’s tough call. The speaker is still a girl. Naturally, she has to be drawn to nature’s freeing call. In reality, she can’t.

The bond of marriage has already chained her wings. It has clipped her young feathers right before she could learn to fly. The sound of dutifulness feels like a heavy burden on her back. But, she has to carry it throughout her life and pass it onto her next generation, especially her daughters.

The burden makes her feel old. As she bears the “great big mud container,” a symbol of women’s responsibilities, she can feel how withered her heart is. It is not her age but her duties that make her feel aged. In the next line, Rungano uses a simile in order to compare the earthenware to a “big painful umbrella.” The “umbrella” of patriarchy gives women apparent protection by drawing out their personal desires and sense of freedom.

After fetching water from the well, she got home and cooked a meal for her husband. As she works without any break, her husband has been out drinking and carousing with his friends. He keeps himself busy in the “pleasures of the flesh,” a metaphor for drinking and having intercourse. In contrast to that, his wife toiled in the fields to make a living for both.

Lines 14-21

Under the angry vigilance of the sun

A labour shared only by the bearings of my womb.

I washed the dishes; yours

And we swept the room we shared

Before I set forth to prepare your bedding

In the finest corner of the hut

Which was bathed by the sweet smell of dung

I had this morning applied to the floors

Rungano uses an important symbol in the first line of this section, “the angry vigilance of the sun.” As readers can see here, the “sun” is depicted as a male counterpart. With its scorching heat, it intensifies the suffering of the woman toiling in the fields. Like her husband is indifferent to her suffering, so is the sun. Unlike the symbolic significance of the “sun” in other romantic poems, here the sun is depicted as a tyrant, a vigilant overseer of women’s suffering.

Nobody is there to share the suffering of the woman. Interestingly, only her “womb” is there to share her pain of childbearing. It hints at the fact that the woman is pregnant. Given the fact that she is bearing a child, her husband does not even care to look after her or even help her with her chores.

After returning from the fieldwork, the speaker washed the dishes. Rungano especially emphasizes the term “yours” (the husband’s) by using a semicolon. In the next line, she dexterously uses the pronoun “we” that readers may ignore while reading. Here, “we” include not the speaker’s husband but the child she is bearing.

In reality, she swept the room her husband also shared. Then, she prepared his bedding in the finest corner of the hut. These lines hint at the privilege a man enjoys in his family. Most of the work is done by the woman, but the man is there always to receive special perks like having the finest corner in the hut. She bathed his husband’s cost corner with the “sweet smell of dung” that she applied to all the floors.

Lines 22-30

Then you came in,

In your drunken lust

And you made your demands

When I explained how I was tired

And how I feared for the child – yours – I carried

You beat me and had your way

At that moment

You left me unhappy and bitter

And I hated you

Finally, the lord, with his drunken gait, came in. Then he made his demands to the speaker without looking at her condition. She tried to explain how weary she was after all day’s work. But, he did not care. She brooded over the infant in her womb that was also his child.

The agonized words could not soothe the patriarch’s, cold heart. He beat her and forcefully had his way into her. After he had satisfied his lust, he left her like an object.

The speaker felt unhappy and bitter. She hated him after all he did to her. But, who was there to listen to her agonized request? She had to suffer the pain alone.

Lines 31-36

Yet tomorrow I shall again wake up to you 

Milk the cow, plough the land and cook your food,

You shall again be my Lord

For isn’t it right that woman should obey,

Love, serve and honour her man?

For are you not the fruit of the land?

This abominable cycle keeps repeating in women’s lives. Readers can find this scene in any rural society of the world. The unspeakable suffering of women is universal in nature. This cycle has been in motion from time immemorial.

The next day, the same woman who was tortured last night by her husband and her duties should wake up to his duties. She had to milk the cow, plough the land, and cook his food as usual. He should be her divine “Lord” again. Here, Rungano capitalizes the first letter of the term for sake of emphasis. It also has an ironic undertone.

The last three lines contain the crux of the poem. These lines pose two important questions to society. Firstly, the speaker asks whether it is not right that a woman should obey, love, serve, and honour her man. Here, she tries to say that women are destined to be subjugated figuratively. Then she uses a patriotic metaphor, “the fruit of the land.” She asks whether women are not the fruit (children) of the land. This question is not for the women to answer. Rungano asks this question to men.

Historical Context

Kristina Masuwa-Morgan, better known as Kristina Rungano, depicts Zimbabwean society and culture in her best-known poem “The Woman.” This piece was published in Rungano’s first and only published poetry collection in Zimbabwe, A Storm is Brewing. The book was published in 1984 when the poet was 21 years old. She wrote this poem a few years ago when she was studying in Zimbabwe. In this poem, she describes how women are seen in Zimbabwean society and culture. They are treated like objects and subordinates to their male counterparts. The patriarchal framework of the country promotes women’s silence and their utter subjugation. Rungano describes all modes of suffering a woman is entitled to in her family, ranging from doing all the household work to mutedly digesting domestic violence.

Questions and Answers

What is the poem “The Woman” about?

Kristina Rungano’s poem “The Woman” is about women’s life in Zimbabwe’s rural scene. Rungano describes how a woman has to perform her duties relentlessly and serve her lordly husband throughout her life.

When was “The Woman” published?

The poem was published in Kristina Rungano’s first collection of poetry, A Storm is Brewing, in 1984.

Who is the speaker of “The Woman”?

The speaker of this poem is a young woman who is married at an early age. Rungano uses the first-person narrative technique in order to describe her feelings and sufferings to readers.

How does Kristina Rungano describe the woman’s suffering in her poem “The Woman”?

Throughout this piece, Rungano talks about a woman who is seen chained to her duties. She works under a strict schedule. Alongside that, she has to work in the fields for a living. On top of that, her drunken husband intensifies her suffering by his indifference.

Why does the poet repeat the adjective “big” in lines 9-10?

Rungano repeats the term in the lines, “As I bore the great big mud container on my head/ Like a big painful umbrella.” This repetition depicts the magnitude of the speaker’s pain and her duties.

What is the tone of “The Woman”? What effect does it create in the poem?

The tone of this piece is complaining, sad, and hopeless. By using a complaining tone, Rungano tries to pose a series of questions to patriarchal society. It makes the speaker’s case more piercing and appealing to readers.

Why does Rungano depict the sun as angry and vigilant?

Rungano uses the “sun” as a symbol of patriarchy. Neither the woman’s husband nor the sun cares for her suffering. It rather intensifies her pain with scorching heat.

What do the lines “And thought how fresh the smell of flowers,/ How young the grass around it” say about the speaker?

These lines hint at the fact that the speaker’s heart is still young. But, the burden of her duties makes her feel aged. Rungano uses these images to contrast them with the speaker’s condition.

Why is the speaker’s heart tired?

The speaker’s heart, the source for personal desires, is tired of the burden of her duties. She has no time to think about herself. For this reason, her heart is gradually weakened.

What does the line “For you had been out drinking the pleasures of the flesh” mean?

This line hints at worldly pleasures such as drinking and having sex. The speaker’s husband keeps himself busy in entertainment while she works throughout the day.

Why does Rungano use dashes in the line “And how I feared for the child – yours – I carried”?

The use of dashes naturally puts emphasis on the term “yours.” Here, the speaker wants to point at the fact that the child she is bearing also belongs to her husband. But, he does not care about either her or the child.

What do lines 31-36 say about the speaker’s mental state?

The last few lines of the poem describe the cyclical nature of the woman’s suffering. No matter how tired she was for the last night’s torture, she should wake up the next morning and have to follow the same routine. She dejectedly asks herself whether women are destined to serve men.


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