First published in 2003, Okorut’s The Official Wife provides an insight into how the marriage institution has evolved in many parts of modern day Africa. The book, which won the National Book Trust of Uganda Literary Award for Best Novel of the Year is written in a candid style and with sharp humor.
The story is told through Liz, a woman who is locked in a loveless marriage with Ishaka, her polygamous husband. From the day Ishaka takes a second wife (who Liz names Manga), the intimacy between Liz and her husband becomes history.
When they had first married, it was all roses but things start to turn after Liz has two children- the number she and Ishaka had both agreed on. He despises her in front of their domestic workers and hence they don’t respect her. He sleeps with all the house maids she brings into their home. She wonders what went wrong, yet as a young girl she had gone through all the rituals meant to please her former husband. But her mother had told her that:
“At the end of the day, it is the you in you that matters.”
And this is what Manga, her husband’s other wife tells Liz when one day she follows them into a hotel room to confront them. As Liz starts telling Manga off, how she is better than her; Manga retorts back saying:
“……. I thought you were clever enough to know what matters to a partner is what you are; the real you, not the additionals which you have put on your body.”
Liz tries all tricks to rekindle the fire in her marriage without success. In one incident, she dresses up in a sexy outfit but her husband rebuffs her, saying:
“What do you think you are doing……. please leave that stupid act and put on decent clothes, remember you are a mother of two.”
Thus, Liz moves from being a lover and friend to being an ordinary and official wife- her husband only goes with her for official functions. And so she goes through a lot of emotional pain until she decides she can’t go on any more and takes on the advice of her friend: she walks out of the marriage and has an unsatisfactory affair.
Events at the end take an unexpected turn when Ishaka falls ill and seeks to reconcile with his wife. As Liz ponders whether to accept him back for the sake of her children, she remembers the words of her father.
‘An African woman is like the mighty oak tree……..who weathers even the fiercest storms for her offspring. She ceases to live for herself, transcending into the higher realm of sacrifice……’