Keynote: Grace A Musila

MaKhumalo’s Spaza Shop || Lena Moi’s Dance

This lecture sets the life stories of two African First Ladies in conversation: South Africa’s Gertrude Sizakele ‘MaKhumalo’ Zuma and Kenya’s Helena ‘Lena’ Tungo Moi. Although remarkably different from each other, their interface with their respective men’s political careers; their fraught relationships with the limelight; and the forms of political widowhood they endured prompt me to set their lives in conversation. In South African and Kenyan public memory, two mnemonics frame these First Ladies: MaKhumalo’s spaza shop, which was part of the controversial improvements at President Zuma’s Nkandla rural homestead, and Lena Moi’s rumoured refusal to dance with then President Jomo Kenyatta, believed to have precipitated the end of her marriage to President Moi. Treating these mnemonics as avatars which reveal as much as they obscure, I trace MaKhumalo and Lena Moi’s navigation of their husbands’ complicated political careers — an unexpected Moi presidency that became drenched in autocracy and an equally surprising Zuma presidency soaked in scandal—; and the two women’s senses of themselves as subject to particular Christian, ethno-cultural and liberal protocols, which inevitably exacted heavy gendered sacrifices. I am also interested in the two women’s illegibility to both the liberal and popular moral lenses; and the speculative archives constructed by public discourse in response to their opacity. In the rumours that swirled around Lena Moi’s absence from Kenyan public life, popular consternation at MaKhumalo’s spaza shop, and the two women’s self-inscription in their local communities, lie important insights into the textures of moral discourse that framed Kenyan and South African public life prior to, and during, the Moi and Zuma presidencies.


Grace A Musila is an associate professor in the Department of African Literature at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. She is the author A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder  published under the African Articulations Series (James Currey/Boydell & Brewer, 2015). The book explores Kenyan and British interpretations of the 1988 murder of British tourist Julie Ann Ward in Maasai Mara Game Reserve, Kenya. She also co-edited Rethinking Eastern African Intellectual Landscapes (Africa World Press, 2012) with James Ogude and Dina Ligaga. She writes on Eastern and Southern African literature and popular culture.