In the interaction some would say “change” or “transition” that is taking place between tradition and modernity in the world in the political, economic, religious and social spheres, human sexuality is intimately involved. This is also true, and perhaps especially true, of Botswana. From the fairly stable life of the village and single ethnic community regulated by well-known customs, attitudes, and mores, life in towns and cities does not now have such guarantees, especially for the youth in these situations. The interaction is often disorienting resulting in what can only be described as chaos: most people do not know where to stand, as for example in sexual morality and ethics.
The practices of adults and the youth in this area portray different images and sometimes give contradictory information. Most of all, the mass media, now spread even to the remotest villages seem to have no consistent sexual ethic at all; it is as if “everyone is a law unto him/herself)” “Sexual activity is all right as long as nobody gets hurt,” seems to be the general slogan. Given this confusion, then, what is marriage? Is polygamy, as practiced in many African traditions, all right? Is homosexuality morally justified? How about prostitution; should it be legalized? And abortion – what has it to do with the woman’s “right to her own body”?
Obviously, not all of these questions and issues are addressed in this short discussion, but they are alluded to. The purpose is to stimulate thought on sexuality and sexual relations in Botswana today. It is an attempt to ask concerned Batswana to try to come with answers and solutions to Botswana sexual issues, issues that cannot now be completely abstracted from what is going on elsewhere in the world, spread through globalization.
I derive courage to raise these questions from the thinking of the Roman philosopher Terence who lived around 190-159 BCE. I think he spoke for all of us when he declared: “I am a human being, I count nothing human foreign [or indifferent] to me” (Homo sum; humani nil a me alienum puto). This we can easily experience and so agree with. The claim so often heard that some things only happen with certain people in certain parts of the world cannot be more foolish, especially when made today, surrounded as we are with information through the mass media.
What is more controversial, from a social and organizational point of view is when Terence went on to say, “So many men, so many opinions; his own a law to each” (Quot homines tot sententiae; suus cuique mos). If this is not a prescription for chaos, I do not know what is! For social order, no one can be a law unto oneself. Legal and religious codes and social norms and customs are there to regulate and control human behaviour and attitudes, since these can become very destructive. No society or organized human grouping can exist and function as an entity without some sort of regulatory system of “law” based on a certain worldview. My aim is not to take sides or offer prescriptions on very complicated issues but to throw open questions on sexuality and sexual relations in contemporary Botswana for rational discussion.
Psychologically, the general attitude and treatment towards homosexuality and homosexuals – the sexual attraction towards and/or sexual activity with a person of the same sex, male or female – is essentially a result of denial or disavowal. In Botswana it is a cultural one, fortified by religious and aesthetic ramifications. In psychoanalysis “denial (disavowal) is a defense mechanism which is aimed at the elimination of traumatic sense organ perceptions. In this manner, the offensive perceptions and those effects mobilized by it are kept from consciousness.” From the religious and aesthetic point of view, homosexuality is a threat to African societies: it does not promote physical life, a central cultural and religious requirement of African sexual relationships, and is generally seen as “dirty.” Thus, it is repressed psychologically in the individual and in society in general it is often accompanied by strong sanctions.
According to many writers, “from earliest times, there is abundant evidence of homosexualism, and anthropology has established proof of its widespread occurrence among many peoples and cultures.” As Sherwin Bailey shows, “It has not been consistently treated, however, by law, society or religion. Some cultures have tolerated or even institutionalized it; others have ignored it; and others have penalized it or attempted to suppress it.”
The problem, as many psychologists and psychoanalysts see it, lies in the distinction between the homosexual orientation and homosexual activity. And in the popular mind the two tend to be confused. However, should be distinguished as it is done in heterosexuality, between the heterosexual orientation and heterosexual activity. The orientation, it is now almost universally acknowledged, is not chosen. In whatever way it may be acquired – genetically, hormonally or through nurture – it cannot therefore be imputed as guilt upon the individual concerned. The activity, whether homo- or heterosexual, is clearly another matter: it involves choice and free will, and for this reason may be culpable. In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe reportedly at one time described homosexuals as being “worse than dogs.”
The recent and ongoing worldwide controversy over homosexuality, especially in the Anglican Communion, has surrounded how scripture is interpreted on this question. There are some who argue that the Bible categorically rejects it in any form and damns anyone with either the orientation or indulging in homosexual activity because, according to their perception, “it is against nature” (see Gen. 19:4-11, Lv. 18:22, Rom. 1:24-32, 1 Cor. 6:9, and 1 Tm. 1:10). But there are those who urge tolerance, arguing that what little the Bible has to say about it does not warrant such a harsh and uncompromising verdict. Martti Nissinen puts forth the biblical principle of love as the only measure of authentic sexual relationships, heterosexual or homosexual. One can say right away that this will not play well in the ears of most Batswana.
It is tempting but dangerous to give easy, dogmatic answers to very complex issues. Issues, though unpalatable, need to be thought out, and as much as possible, the whole story surrounding them investigated. We are referring here to tough questions such as prostitution and abortion. Again, although it would be obviously absurd to claim absolutely that these “evils” did not exist in traditional African societies, the rate and reasons of occurrence could not be compared to the situation today. In contemporary times, then, there is more to prostitution and abortion than meets the eye.
Discussing these situations it is the symptoms and not the root causes that are often emphasized. Yet, for both, one cannot ignore the question of economics as a fundamental contributing factor. Just as the “whole story” of HIV/AIDS cannot be told without reference to poverty, we cannot tell the full story about prostitution and abortion without reference to the same reality of the poverty, powerlessness, and marginalization of women in society. But this is not easy, again with people operating from a fixed perspective. When in 2000, for example, in a speech in Durban to scientists, doctors, and AIDS researchers then President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, suggested that the story of the prevalence of HIV/AIDS is incomplete and dangerous without including poverty, he was almost universally vilified as irresponsible and described as callous towards the sufferers. Nevertheless, his was the more comprehensive, empathetic, and, in the end, more effective view to combat the pandemic. With prostitution and abortion it is necessary to borrow a leaf from Mbeki.
Perhaps among the most pressing cultural challenges in Botswana must include what Peter Knox describes as “The attitude of entitlement that some [I would say most] men show towards sexual relationships.” It is an attitude that deprives women of any say in sexual matters, and leads to sexual violence even in marriage. Does a woman have anything to say about her sexuality in relationship with a man, even if that man is her husband?
We can turn this sexual crisis in Botswana induced by globalization into an opportunity for self re-creation and integration. But it is a process that demands that we all take part to make it succeed. Whatever we do, we cannot afford opacity on the issue; and silence, I think, would be a crime.