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Category Archives: Religion/Culture/Tradition

Yindaba Kabani Nxa ndilahl’umlenze: That Time When I “Hung Out My Thighs For All To See”

Written by Doreen Gaura for iamTehn 

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So it was a regular Saturday morning (and by morning I mean well after midday) and I was chilling at home, you know? Vegeing out, minding my own business, dealing with my most recent existential crisis (I get a lot of those and quite frequently too) of whether or not getting out of bed and showering was something that featured in my immediate future when my phone went off. It was a whatsapp message. “Could it be Great Mother Universe stepping in to rescue me from the prospect of a dreadful day of planlessness brought on by that insidious devil called brokeness?” I wondered as I excitedly picked up my phone to open the message. I could barely contain my excitement I was almost certain I was going to need to open a bottle of wine right there and then and take a swig straight from the tap just to calm my nerves when lo and behold, right before my eyes, was a message from one of my uncles instructing me to change my whatsapp profile picture right before he proceeded to question my sanity. o_O!

I was so angry I almost did actually open that bottle and take that swig but because I was operating in rationing mode due to my most recent post holiday financial crisis and also, well, because I am not an alcoholic (of course) I opted to make a really strong cup of filter coffee instead. That and ignore the message. I have a general rule not to respond to anything whilst I am angry, especially if it’s coming from family, friends or jobage people a.k.a. colleagues. My weekend shot on by, in that hateful bullet-speed way weekends tend to do without any further incidence. Monday arrived, uninvited as usual, *blegh* and yet another message pertaining to the offending image found its way to my whatsapposphere but this time it was from another uncle, whose approach, to his credit, was a lot more tactful because he first acknowledged its “artistic” value (bless his heart) before telling me that he considers it inappropriate. I again chose to not respond instead waited another couple of days before I eventually did.

During this waiting period I experienced various emotions; of which, to be honest, most of them were really just a variation of anger; and also drafted and redrafted my response to them, all the while leaving the controversial image, right where it was, as my profile picture. After venting to friends, consulting the ancestors and battling with myself over what to do I eventually respectfully responded to both uncles inviting them to a mature and respectful dialogue on the issue of my (exposed) thighs and my identity as a post-colonial/ Afro feminist, Afrocentric Pan-Afrikanist and Afro Spiritualist woman.

Outside of the obvious personal/subjective elements that this whole situation just by its very nature presents, there are greater issues that speak to public politics as well as identity at play. This seemingly minor debate goes beyond my whatsapp profile picture, power struggles within my family and my uber sexy thighs (yes, I have decided that they are uber sexy) but speaks to various problematic issues that exist within our communities, especially in Zimbabwe. It is really because of those issues that I’ve got my knickers all bunched up in an uncomfortable knot and has left me feeling some type of way and I’ll quickly highlight two of them here.

  1. One of my uncles, rather predictably, pulled out the “our culture” card and I felt compelled to inform him that in recent years I have made the conscious decision not to put too much stock in the dictates of our quasi “Afrikan” culture as much of it is grossly contaminated by the influence of our colonisers and their religions. It has, in the main, become so bastardized that much of it, and how we engage with it, makes a mockery of our pre-colonial/”authentic” ancestral heritage. It is true that cultures evolve and some may argue that is what happened with our cultures on the continent as they have done most everywhere else in the world but what people do not take into consideration is the conditions under which our cultures “evolved” i.e. oppression, colonisation and slavery. When the occupiers of our lands came, they observed and judged our societies and the way we lived. They decided that our way of life was wrong, they interpreted it using their own understanding and in certain countries, like SA for example, they decided to codify our laws using this understanding and make them secondary to their own which they deemed superior.

It is worth noting that many of our societies had more “revealing” dress codes in those days and the sexualisation of the black body as we know it today (both female and male) is as a result of the adulteration of our cultures and it has reconfigured our moral compass to align itself with that of the colonial masters, ultimately dividing our communities by not only introducing foreign definitions of masculinity and femininity; creating binaries in societies that traditionally had a lot of grey areas but also by creating new hierarchical structures that are more oppressive and destructive e.g. patriarchy.

  1. My uncle also pointed out that according to our “Afrikan” culture (because we must remember ka that Afrika is a country with one culture, one chief and one donkey and plough) certain parts of the body are not meant for public consumption and true as that may be this is not true to the parts in question here and as I have already highlighted, back in the day, and in very few places today, boobs, thighs and buttocks were the order of the day in our communities’ fashion trends, from the oldest gogo to the youngest little whippersnapper in the village. The female body is sacred. This was true then and this is true today and our people knew that respect of this body was not only the responsibility of the soul in it but also the responsibility of all who gazed upon it and that is why it was not necessary to impose morality and ensure personal safety and bodily integrity by covering it up.

This kind of thinking that informed my family’s intervention plays out almost daily in public spaces where in our cities and villages, women are subjected to being harassed and stripped by mobs of mostly men, for donning clothes considered indecent and you have countries like Uganda that have even criminalised the wearing of mini skirts. The notion that certain parts of the female body being exposed automatically translates to an open invitation for anyone to help themselves to it, be it by physically taking it forcefully, or by hurling verbal abuse at a woman and her body and turning around and placing the responsibility and blame on the victim of their violation not only vindicates but also condones the alarmingly increasing levels of gender based violence in our societies. It also supports the notion that we (women) are minors and that our bodies do not belong to us but instead belong to the men in our communities giving them the go ahead to define and dictate how we should live in them and for the men to do with as they please. What is particularly troubling is that instead of men (and other women) standing with us to fight these heinous forms of oppression and violation which are the ones that actually go against our authentic culture, they endorse them.

The controversial image that is my profile picture when captured and posted as such was never meant to be sexualized and by extension controversial. The focus when captured was not on my thighs but on my feet and the water and it was in this spirit it was posted which begs the question “who is really responsible for any discomfort in this context? The subject of the image or the one engaging with it or both?”

We take pride as a nation in being conservative, despite the fact this conservativeness can be attributed to colonisation gone “right” more than it can be attributed to the preservation of our cultural identity and heritage. It is only in an attempt to justify oppression and exploitation that people pull out the “culture” card and champion and claim it as ours even though most of it really isn’t not to mention that most of us have turned our backs on our ancestors and their ways of knowing and doing and labelled them as evil and/or demonic. The result of this is an increasingly divided community with women being pitted against men and vice versa by false cultural ideals and ill informed western neo liberal (western feminism) ideals simply because as women we fight for our natural and authentic cultural rights to be respected, loved, seen as equals and to be safe in our homes and our communities. Not only will I continue to challenge this foolishness but mina ngizabe ngilokhu ngilahlumlenze wami ngoba thina njengabantu abamunyama, siphila ngengoma njalo ngiyaziqenya ngalokho (I shall continue to dance this way because as children of the soil we live by the drum and I pride myself in this). That is the way of my people.

 

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Confronting Cultural Imperialism in Human Rights Discourse

Written by Doreen Gaura for Africa on the Blog

Photograph taken by Beenish Ahmed for The Atlantic

Photograph taken by Beenish Ahmed for The Atlantic

A few days ago, a good friend of mine brought to my attention The Atlantic’s article Confronting a Sexual Rite of Passage in Malawi penned by Beenish Ahmed and the subsequent response to it by Kim Yi Dionne published on Africa is a Country and she asked for my thoughts; particularly with regards to Dionne’s response. In short, I am inclined to agree wholly with Dionne’s position but I’d like to take it further and extend this discussion to include the human rights sector and not just limit it to international media and it’s reporting on Afrika and the cultural practices therein.

I work in the human rights sector and actively work on children’s rights so it goes without saying that I appreciate what The Atlantic was attempting to achieve with this piece. Indeed, child protection is of paramount importance however, people must remember that children’s rights are an all encompassing issue and therefore must be approached with a holistic strategy and this is to say that in addition to ensuring their physical, psychological and emotional well being, we should also seek to ensure their social and spiritual/ cultural well being and that also means the right to have their cultures. This of course applies to all children but I particularly want to focus this discussion on the children of Afrika exclusively.

Often international reporters come to the continent and do more harm than the good they believe they are doing especially with such irresponsible reporting and activism. This is not the first time we have seen this. One side, often one that tends to paint whole communities with a very dark brush with very little to no attempt to fully understand the very cultures they are confronting, how they have evolved and to what extent that has been as a result of colonial influence, poverty, conflict, disease, migration, education, greater global politics, exposure (or lack thereof) and access is often the only one presented before the global audience which in turn results in reinforcing cultural imperialism directed towards Afrika as well as enabling the perpetuation and normalization of unchecked ignorant ideas around Afrika and her communities.

I have never been to Malawi and I confess that I know very little about the various cultural practices in the country. This little is mostly (and sadly) thanks to an extremely biased/one sided international media and international human rights organisation reports on human rights issues in the country but based on my experience on the never ending vilification of the Afrikan cultures I am more familiar with such as my own along with some of the responses from Malawians to this story, I know that initiation rites are not as entirely harmful as often portrayed by/ for the western observer neither is their portrayal very accurate.

Malawian on January 26, 2014 at 12:39 pm said:

Thanks so much, professor for your well-informed article. As a Malawian, I fumed as I read the original article due to its careless disregard to facts. A girl goes through initiation only after reaching puberty and has started menstruation, never before. 13-14 years or above is more like it. Therefore if a girl goes to initiation when she is ten or less, as claimed in the original article, she must have had very early menses indeed. Also the article makes it look like the Malawian’s life is all revolved around sex. During initiation people are taught more than sex, like how to behave in society, how to respect elders, general hygiene etc. In any case, sex education is important in life, and there is nothing wrong in learning about it from elders who have experienced it. It is certainly much better than learning it from porn, which is usually the case the so-called advanced societies, or fumbling around by trial and error, which can easily dent one’s self-esteem.

As highlighted above, most initiation rites are not as bad as they are often portrayed, at least not entirely. It is important to highlight that there are a lot of positive qualities in these rites of passage which we almost never hear about in international discussions around Afrikan cultural practices as well as that these rites are also sacred to those that practice them and that too should be respected even if it’s not understood.

It is disturbing to note that in various human rights spaces here in South Afrika where I am based for instance, there still exists a somewhat imperialistic vendetta against Afrikan cultures and this is often expressed through the ubiquitous phrase in these spaces “harmful cultural practices”. It is true that there are plenty of cultural practices on the continent that are harmful and should be abolished as a matter of urgency and others still that have either become irrelevant or redundant and should either evolve or face dissolution but there are plenty more that are not, in their truest form, harmful or polarised against the realisation of human rights for all but are instead being practiced harmfully or used as a weapon of oppression instead of the tool of building the community that it was always intended to do.

It goes without saying that practices like female genital mutilation, for instance, are in my opinion extremely harmful and serve no other purpose but to oppress whereas practices such as ukuthwala in their original form were never intended to oppress but, instead, to facilitate an honourable union between two young lovers who might have otherwise met with opposition, mostly from the girl’s family, to said union. Generally speaking, this practice is no longer relevant given the various pieces of legislation that exist in South Africa to protect children from forced marriage as well as those that enable adults to marry whom they wish but this of course does not take into account that to a lot of people community values and family honour are just as important to them as their individual rights are so such practices can be very relevant and very useful in aiding them to fully enjoy their rights without doing away with their cultural identity.

When one googles the definition of ukuthwala they will find a western/ modern definition and understanding of the practice and this is mainly; and rightly so; due to the abominable way in which it has been practiced in recent times, the result of which being activists calling for its abolition and culturists calling for its protection with no common ground and/or collaboration being reached by the opposing camps and ultimately little effectiveness of whatever protection initiatives are being conducted being realised. It should be noted that majority of the people who use ukutwala nowadays in the manner in which and the purposes of which they are using it are in fact in violation of their culture as it was intended and go against the fundamental values of their traditions which summarised boil down to the principle of ubuntu.

Much the same can be said of the also contentious issue in South Africa and Kenya which is traditional male circumcision of boys and young men that has resulted in the tragic deaths or grievous injuries of hundreds of boys and young men due to botched circumcisions. People in a lot of human rights spaces are baying for the elimination of this cultural practice without actually engaging with it – and most other cultures in fact – and working with those charged with protecting said cultures i.e. traditional leaders and communities to establish how best to protect the rights of people while at the same time preserving people’s cultures and their cultural identities.

The trouble is a lot of activists, and journalists alike do not realise that the cultural identity and autonomy thereof of the communities in which they work is very important in any real empowerment discourse therefore alienating and undermining cultures and traditional leaders does nothing to aid the fight for human rights. Such insensitive, ignorant and harmful reporting as seen in The Atlantic’s article and activism as seen in a lot of human rights spaces is in my opinion counter productive to the cause. Instead, it reinforces imperialist views that Afrikan cultures are inferior and barbaric as well as make community members more resistant to making the necessary amendments. As Afrikans, we have found over the last few centuries that our right to cultural identity is one we have fight for because in all honesty it is currently not truly a right but instead a privilege. A privilege that we do not have while others do.

My recommendation would be that we need to move away from alienating traditional leaders in our initiatives. We also need to stop being paternal in our engagements with them in our bid to eliminate the harmful and irrelevant aspects of cultural practices. We need to form equal partnerships therefore mutual respect for the other is paramount. Lastly, as Afrikans, we need to start telling our own stories and taking charge in the evolution of our cultures and be prepared to leave behind the things that go against the protection of our people and their human rights and the advancement of our communities in our bid to preserve our cultural identities. We need to uphold the fundamentals of our heritage which in these here parts in the South most part of Afrika we call ubuntu.

 

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When Afrikans Can’t Even Be Afrikan in Afrika

Written by Doreen Gaura for Africa on the Blog

 

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On the 5th of December, 2013, Judge Azhar Cachalia of the South African Supreme  Court  of Appeals made a unanimous judgement where he ordered the reinstatement of Johanna Mmoledi, a section chef sacked by the Kievits Kroon Country Estate, near Pretoria, in 2007.

This judgement was met with mixed reactions with some people (the minority judging from comments on online news publications) celebrating this judgement and the rest of the people being highly critical of the judgement. It is worth mentioning that the majority of the negative responses to the judgement came from non brown (black) commenters who, to say the least, found it to be ridiculous which I in turn found very offensive.

For centuries Afrikans have been at the mercy of the dictates of others outside of ourselves and we have been forced to give up a lot, not least of all our identities and beliefs and this case and the responses to the verdict are proof of this. We have had to defend, on the battle field, in the churches, in the classrooms, at the ballots and everywhere else imaginable our identities and even today, we continue to be forced to do so, and in our own land no less.

A year ago, I attended a traditional ceremony hosted by a friend and colleague of mine who happens to be a sangoma, at her house in predominantly white suburb Observatory in Cape Town, South Africa and to say that her mostly white neighbours were not pleased is an understatement of note. Despite the fact that she had followed all the dictates of etiquette and sent out communication well in advance to all her neighbours notifying them that she would be having this ceremony as well as notified the police in the area of the event who in turn gave her the green light and a curfew of midnight and yet her neighbours kept knocking on the door every half hour (before midnight) asking us when we would be done and if we could keep it down;  i.e. the drumming, singing and dancing. It is interesting to note that when my friend (who hardly entertains anyway) throws a less traditional affair which is more in line with western culture and has more or less similar levels of “noise” they never complain.

What is very apparent in these two scenarios is that it is still considered unacceptable for us to be truly ourselves in the land of our birth and that of our ancestors and we are expected to seek permission and validation from white “Afrikans” as to what parts of our identities and heritage get to survive and which ones should be done away with. In addition to this, based on the comments at the bottom of the article published in the Mail & Guardian  reporting the ruling, it is very clear that there persists the ideology of white supremacy and notion that the only and best ways of knowing and doing are the western (read white)ways. In the one comment a man exhibits his ignorance and bigotry by infantilising traditional healers by referring to them as “naïve” as well as by stereotyping traditional leaders through his hard accusation suggesting that butchering children is what all traditional healers do:

“It’s no wonder we have one of the world’s highest export of trained medical personal, who would want to be campared to some naieve person with some animal bones and children’s body parts!”

 Another frustrating thing about all this is that people know very little to nothing at all about Afrikan traditional spiritualities and yet are so dismissive of it to the point of discrimination never mind that a significant proportion of the population of the continent and most especially South Africa, identify, utilise and venerate this part of our heritage in one shape of form. Several commenters to the article substantiated their disdain by comparing the duration of the western medicine course and the traditional medicine course with one commenter saying:

“Surely the honourable judge cannot get away with dissing the medical profession so easily? Qualified doctors spend the better part of a decade learning their trade – how can a five-week “course” of traditional healing be considered an equivalent when it comes to the issue of a sick note?” 

Again this highlights just how little people know or understand of indigenous cultures and processes and yet they want to come out being very superior and dismissive despite their gross levels of ignorance on the subject.

Others still argued that Mmoledi should have been a little more considerate of her employer’s needs but the same can be said for the employer. He does not need to believe in what she believes but he needs to be considerate of the fact she does, if for nothing else but for her Constitutional right to do so and for staff wellness on the part of the employer. One needs to be aware and respectful of the fact that they live in Afrika and that there are certain things that they may not comprehend but must respect nevertheless because not only are they revered but they are also borne of the continent and precede all else that exists in post colonial Afrika.

It is funny how a lot of white Afrikans identify as such and yet continue to disregard and undermine fundamental aspects of indigenous heritage and when they do recognise them it is usually in a disrespectful and self serving manner. They love Afrikan “art”, the Afrikan drums, dress etc; even to the extent of capitalising on and profiting from them by starting businesses around indigenous Afrikan effects and yet they refuse to accept that the physical and aesthetic are inextricably linked to the spiritual that they are so quick to dismiss.

When people purchase Kananga masks of the Dogon while on vacation in Mali they do not take into account that in a lot of cultures these same “artefacts” actually symbolise people’s ancestors or spirits; or when people go to (mostly white owned) restaurants with an “African” theme they do not realise that the very same mbirafeaturing in the “Afrikan music” they are grooving to, is more than just an instrument but is in fact believed to be a spirit by the Shona peoples of Zimbabwe; and yet the same people will vehemently protest a Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court finding in favour of the recognition of the legitimacy of ubungoma and its equality in status to the more modern and Western forms of medicine.

People need o take cognisance of the fact that the Judge Cachalia did not in his ruling demand that people (employers) believe in indigenous belief systems but instead said that people must at the very least acknowledge and respect them which to me is a very fair and just judgement indeed.

 

 

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Rise of the Ancients: With the Silence of the Dead Comes the Night

With the silence of the dead comes the night

Thick and heavy

It blinds the eyes

Muzzles the mouth

And suffocates the lungs

All is still

As it should be

For it is night time

The animals of the day retire

To make way for the creatures of the night

With the silence of the dead comes the night

The eyes cease to see

And the ears to hear

The heart slows down to a mellow beat

To lull the body to sleep

The mind shifts to crossover to the chambers of the night

With the silence of the dead comes the night

 

To make way for the creatures of the night

We retire to the safety of sleep

Hoping to remain oblivious and unscathed

By those creatures that come to life at dusk

We pray to white Jesus to keep us safe

And for dawn to hurry back to us

For the sun has once again escaped

To make way for the creatures of the night

And so it is for most

But for those who carry with them the spirits of the ancients

For it is in the dead silence of the night

That the dead come to life

For it is when we sleep that we do not shut out our grandmothers and grandfathers

It is then the mind shifts to crossover

To make way for the ancients of our past

 

Their voices start out as whispers

And for as long as we ignore them

Louder they will grow

Until all that can be heard is a loud buzz

The voices all talk at the same time

They speak a language long forgotten

And no longer loved

They yearn to be heard by their children

To give them comfort through the hard times

The voices come as eerie loud shrills

For they mourn

For their children who continue to suffer

And live in anguish

They mourn for themselves

For they have been abandoned by their children

They yearn to be heard by their children

 

Their faces are distorted

Morphed into something horrific

As they struggle to come back into the light of our minds and hearts

Out of the dark depths of hell we have pushed them to

Their faces are abominable

As they contort to ram through the barricades

That the colonisers and missionaries erected in our minds

Painstakingly implanted to keep them out

Their faces are ghastly

As they push past the white faces

Faces of the white saints we replaced them with

They are fearsome in their blackness

Against the white backdrop of purity and divinity

Their faces are distorted

Morphed into something horrific

Through their mournful cries

And through their anger

As we fight to push them back

Into the dark depths of hell

Back into the night

 

When dawn breaks

We scramble to seek refuge in the light of whiteness

In the magnificent buildings built atop the tombs of our ancestors

We kneel before the altar of the white man

And seek deliverance from the demons of black hell

That haunt us through out the night

Tormenting us to the point of madness

Speaking heretic primitive tongues

Beckoning us

Their black hands grabbing desperately and fiercely at us

Trying to ply us away from the whiteness of God

Into the darkness of blackness

Pulling us further away from pearls and white gates

From the paradise promised us

As reward for our loyalty to whiteness

 

But oh Lord white Jesus

Begotten son of Pope Alexander XI

These black monsters now chase us during the day

They drive us mad

Constantly speaking

Shouting

Screaming

We no longer comb our hair

We rip off our clothes

Why do they tear us from God so?

Will you not save us from these horrors of black hell

From these demons who were once our mothers and fathers

That never knew God until you reached our shores

They come at us

Claiming us

Will you not save us and take us to white heaven

Have we not served your children faithfully

Have we not handed over our wealth and inheritance

Why must you allow this black hell to torment us

We destroyed our shrines

And discarded the beliefs of our forebears for you and you forsake us

Will you not save us from these terrors of black hell

 

© This work is the intellectual property of Doreen Gaura/ Ray 04/12/13

 

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Ties that Bind: Could Tradition and Culture Bridge the Gap Between the Personal and Political?

Written by Doreen Gaura for Bokamoso Leadership Forum

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In spite of the progress that has been made thus far regarding public policy and legislation to ensure gender equality and bodily integrity in a lot of Southern [1] Afrikan countries there continues to be a barricade impeding the smooth flow of these policies from the public/ political space into people’s personal spaces and more specifically the home. It has become abundantly clear that it is not enough to just have laws written down on a piece of paper  that the majority of people do not know exists or do not understand or cannot identify with.

I recently attended a symposium organised by the Women’s Legal Centre, Heinrich Boll Stiftung and Bowman Gilfillan in Cape Town, South Africa, on customary law and women’s rights. The recurring theme of the conference was the need to find an effective way of marrying customary law/ traditional justice systems with state constitutions which are essentially designed to ensure equality and entrench the inalienable rights of all people. Yet, of course we know that in most cases as in some countries “all” does not include their queer citizens, within that state. The attempt to reconcile customary law with common law especially as it regards gender equality is nothing new as this has been the aim, at least in theory anyway, for decades and a question remains: is it working?

The answer is both yes and no. Yes, in the sense that a lot of countries in the region have either signed or signed and ratified various international and regional instruments that speak to the advancement of gender equality such as the Convention to Eliminate all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women, Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC), Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the United Nations Millennium Declaration, the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development and the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons especially Women and Children and most — have gone as far as legislating the provisions in most of these conventions. However, it is a ‘no’ in the sense that implementation in most countries has left a lot to be desired as well as the fact that there hasn’t been substantial buy-in or internalisation of these principles and laws as they are presented and understood from the majority of the public.

Various factors play into the perceived resistance of these ideals along with obstructions to effective implementation but here I will focus one of the perceived main obstacles to entrenching human rights on the continent: cultural and traditional practices. I am of the view that the differences between common/constitutional law and customary law are that to most people, the former exists only in the confines of the public and political domain while the latter exists both in the public and the personal spaces so in other words, it is a matter of accessibility and ownership.When I speak of accessibility, I am referring to the accessibility of the language of these modern and progressive laws as well as accessibility to and of the structures, the advocates, officials and enforcers of these laws. Regarding ownership, as far as most people who these laws are supposed to serve and guide are concerned, these laws belong to the white people, the economic elite and politicians whereas customary laws and culture belong to “us” – the rest.

Having worked in the gender sector in South Africa for a few years, I have noticed that this disconnection between common law which represents the public space and customary law which essentially represents the personal spaces is not limited to the rural and/ or uneducated public. They also affect the role players and service providers, including some activists and legal professionals, as they too have personal realities influenced by the very same personal politics as their beneficiaries such as culture. Sylvia Chirawu, National Coordinator of Women and Law Southern Africa (WLSA) in her paper All that Glitters is Not Gold: Challenges Faced by Women in Implementation of Laws that Outlaw Harmful Cultural Practices in Zimbabwe highlights:

Anecdotal evidence shows that very few African women would marry under general law without lobola having been paid

Due to colonialism and its influence on indigenous traditional legal structures and the need by the colonised to assimilate, we see people living dual realities with many of us balancing our traditional customary identities with our modern, colonial and post-colonial and global identities. As a result we are CEDAW wielding, Simone de Beauvoir quoting warriors by day (in the public and political space) and culture preservationists by night (in the personal spaces) and we seem to be struggling as activists, professionals, service providers and experts ourselves to make the two aspects of our politics and our realities meet.In my opinion it has a lot to do with two facts and these are our need to preserve our autonomous cultural identities as empowered Afrikans as well as thewrong notion that our customs and their laws are inherently opposed to the realisation of human rights.

Our customs and laws are not inherently opposed to human sights

There is no such thing as a homogenous Afrikan culture/tradition but there are similarities and recurring themes across most, if not all, indigenous cultures and traditions and these include the preservation of the community and the protection of its individuals. Bearing that in mind, a many customary laws — even the ones that are being harmfully practiced today — were essentially designed to ensure this and not the opposite. The subsequent perversion of our cultures and laws can be attributed to the contamination by and influence of the cultures of the colonisers. Thus, a lot of things that we claim to be part of our culture or our tradition may not actually be ours to begin with and our communities were more inclusive and tolerant than we are led to believe.

We must remember that indigenous customs were not always essentially patriarchal or homophobic, for instance, and despite popular belief gender identity and gender relations in Afrika prior to colonisation were more egalitarian than has been alleged and certainly more egalitarian than European cultures were. If anything, it can be argued that colonialism introduced and facilitated the marginalisation of women and LGBTI people in our societies.Customary law is by its very nature an evolving system.  Instead of calling for the banishment of customary laws and cultural practices in a bid to ensure human rights and equality, we should facilitate this societal evolution ourselves.  Without interference from outsiders, we can create something context specific and workable that we can all call our own. This can start with understanding the authenticity and origins of a particular customary law or what necessitated it and what issues it intended to address and ultimately the relevance of the said law in the present society and/or whether modification or erasure is necessary and how this can be done. Justice Westhuizen, in the case of Shilubana and others vs. Nwamita and others, aptly pointed out:

The involvement was stagnant during the colonial and apartheid era but it should not continue and the free development by communities of their own laws to meet the needs of a rapidly changing society must be respected and facilitated.

Ultimately, I am of the opinion that there needs to be a realisation that regardless of one’s level of education, exposure or class there appears to be more of a connection, be it at internal or environmental and conscious or subconscious levels, between their personal and their cultural/ ethnic identity than there is between their political and the personal. I would like to posit that a connection between the political and the (evolved and evaluated) cultural be established and perhaps by doing so we may see the required and necessary integration of our political rights and bodily integrity into our homes and making those spaces safe for women and girls.

[1] In this post (and on this blog) Afrika is spelt with a ‘k’ in line with the author’s Afrikan activist affiliations. Most Afrocentrists use the letter ‘k’ instead of ‘c’ as way of acknowledging that ‘Africa’ is not the true name of the continent. When one speaks of Afrika, they’re bringing an Afrikan-centered view to the meaning.

 

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Positionality and Privilege in Spirituality: I am a Healer

Written by HeJin Kim

Which is a very loaded statement; not in the least because the word “healer”, in English has all sorts of new age connotations, but mostly because of my own positionality. More accurate would be to say that I am iSangoma, which would be confusing to anyone who doesn’t know what that is (basically anyone who is not from Southern Africa and/or doesn’t speak a Nguni language.) The problem is that there are two ways for me to look at it: personal and political… though the two aren’t separate (it would be easier if it was), the old saying “the personal is political” might be somewhat retro, but it still applies in many of its interpretations.

But let me start in a more linear way to explain what I’m trying to explain. I am iSangoma, I am also Korean (South-Korean… and a Korean adoptee, specifically), and as I write this, I’ve been living in Cape Town for the last four years. iZangoma are traditional Zulu healers, though it is hard to really translate it; its etymology lies in the word ngoma which in various places in Southern Africa means drum, and in others refers to a song. Still, that doesn’t explain much, and nowadays the word iSangoma is used in South African English to refer to any traditional healer, from any of the many of the indigenous cultural groups in the country. The easiest way to explain it is that such traditional healers are “called” by their ancestors to take up the profession of a healer, this calling is innate to a person – meaning, you either have it or you don’t – and presents itself as a period of illness, then you find a healer who will initiate you, and Bob’s your uncle.

I could spin an interesting story,  about how I found out about my calling, how I’ve suffered, how I’ve been shown the iSangoma who initiated me, and describe all the personal hardships that the initiation entails; but I’m not going to. I understand the interest in the story, especially with the unusual factor of not being a black South African; but that’s just the thing, that simple fact means that telling the story isn’t, and shouldn’t be, so simple. I am asked often why and how I became iSangoma, and in some cases this is done in the context of “are you a valid iSangoma?” or am I being a new-age hippie; the story of my calling and initiation would answer that, but not in the right way, I feel.

Whether me being iSangoma is valid or not would be a nice discussion, on a spiritual level, but in essence is mostly relevant to myself and those patients I treat. But on a broader political level, it needs to be criticised in the context of post-colonialism and cultural appropriation. I have been questioned regarding my initiation by other (black) iiZangoma, and by other black people in general, and I don’t mind; in fact I think it is important that they do. They rightfully question why I entered something that is so intrinsically linked to their culture. It doesn’t offend me, rather it gives me hope. Too often we forgo questioning cultural appropriation. At its best, it is justified in the spirit of a some sort of utopian “nobody owns spirituality”, and “we are celebrating a culture”; at its worst it is exotification. In the context of a post-colonial world where white privilege endures, whether they are the minority or majority, it if needs to be questioned further; is such cultural appropriation simply a new form of (spiritual) colonialism?

I am actually urging people to critically look at me and what I do and say; wait, correction, I am urging people of colour, and specifically those black people whose culture I have entered, to criticise and analyse me – don’t really give a damn what the rest of the people think. Whatever I feel and believe on a spiritual level does not ever mean that it should simply be accepted. Being a person of colour has been brought forward by some friends of mine as a reason why my situation is different, and perhaps to a certain extent it is, however, racial dynamics are different depending on context and locality and being in South Africa means that being of East Asian heritage is quite different than in other places. I think it is also too simplistic to say being a person of colour precludes any possibility for cultural appropriation.

I have accepted a calling to be initiated, and was resistant at first. The whole thing didn’t make sense to me; why should I be iSangoma? It would make more sense to be Manshin – a Korean spiritual healer – but then on a personal/spiritual level it wasn’t at all about choice. I have, however, learned – and am still learning – the fine line that is my responsibility to walk, and talking about the political issues at hand is critical.

Apart from being ambushed by one friend, I’ve tended to hold off discussing it too much in the public sphere. The only thing I have realised is the fact that I needed to acknowledge the personal stake, the validity (to a certain extent) in some places, in order to respect those who were gracious enough to accept me into their spiritual and cultural realm (i. e. the people who initiated me, and opened themselves up for criticism as much as I have been opened up to it).

Above all, my own positionality is important, and something anyone engaging in spiritual practices that are not their own, needs to acknowledge. I have a privileged position in this context, and discrimination towards black iiZangoma is something I don’t face to the extent they face it, black iiZangoma are often stereotyped as backward, anti-Christian, etc. all too often. My own context means that I don’t have to face this, as I don’t live and practice in the same context.

For the most part, I’ve learned that it is a continuing journey, and a constant struggle to find the balance; it is the same struggle anyone with any privilege must endure. And often, it is about learning when to shut up.

* HeJin Kim, apart from wondering why she writes this in the third person, is a blogger and an activist. She is a Korean adoptee who wastes what little spare time she has getting lost on the internet, and ends up writing about issues of race, gender, sexuality, and her troubles as an overworked NGO worker. Check out her blog at http://universityofbrokenglass.wordpress.com

 

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The Afrikan and The Queer

I Am A Gay African

I Am A Gay African

It is 2013 and we are still having the same conversations and not making any nation building progress. The content of one half of these conversations seeks to separate and cultivate hatred and intolerance while the other half seeks to establish acceptance &/or tolerance, equality, dignity and unity. Queer Afrikans are still not accepted in most Afrikan societies and the justification for this hatred of the other used by homophobic Afrikans often finds its rooting in ignorant and irrational fears, adulterated and bastardized cultural beliefs and religious dogma, mainly in the Christian and Muslim faiths. Because I generally do not believe in organized, monotheistic Abrahamic religion – as they are generally infamous for encouraging hatred/oppression and the exclusion of the other e.g. black people, women and “heathens/kaffirs” – neither do I acknowledge the perceived infallibility of their respective texts of instruction, I will not bother with tackling the issue of religion as a contributing factor to the persistence of homophobia in Afrika. That and it would require an entire post of its own.

When heterosexual Afrika says that homosexuality and transgenderism are unAfrikan I often wonder where they are getting their information from and on what authority? Let us suppose for a second that it is in fact a western import, are the people positing this argument living purely indigenous Afrikan lifestyles? Are their public and personal politics authentically Afrikan I wonder? They are more willing to adopt what can be argued to be harmful imported cultures like consumerism, (in my opinion) capitalism and ecologically detrimental technologies than they are a harmless and allegedly unAfrikan “practice”.

When we speak of the Afrikaness of sexuality and sexual orientation, I question the logic, or lack thereof, of those who argue that it is not Afrikan because I do not believe that these arguments come from a place of truth. Why? Well other than the fact that there is vast historical evidence available to prove otherwise I am also of this opinion because I am a young, albeit urban, Afrikan; half Zezuru and a quarter Karanga and quarter Matebele; who recently answered a calling from the ancestors to be a healer and spirit medium. I am also bisexual. I am not an exception. There are loads more sangomas * I have encountered over the years from various cultures across the Southern Afrikan region that are queer, from transgender/sexual to homosexual or bisexual. According to my understanding of ubungoma, you are chosen before you are even born to carry this gift and by the time you enter this world, you already have the gift, even if you may not know it. Because I, like many other queers such as myself, was born queer, I did not learn it, inherit it or “contract” it from other queers along the way (as though it’s some sort of infectious disease), and in spite of this, the ancestors chose me. Not only did they choose me out of other heterosexual kin in my clan or lineage but other queer people’s ancestors have chosen them too. If the guardians and custodians of our heritage can accept our natural way of being why do mortals who have long lost their way feel that they have any authority to call us unAfrikan or unnatural? Mind you, these same self proclaimed defenders of all that is Afrikan, the majority of them have long since renounced their ancestry as something evil or primitive and clung to other people’s ancestors brought through the religions imposed on Afrikans over the centuries as a tool for oppressing and subduing the Afrikan. The ancestors of the very same people they accuse of bringing about the “scourge” that is homosexuality to our people.

Sexuality and sexual identity are naught but human constructs aimed at controlling the masses and not only that but it is also becoming more apparent that our understanding and definition of gender and gender roles today is different from those of our ancestors, particularly prior to colonialism. In the South of the Limpopo, a sangoma will be addressed as Gogo* be they male or female and in the North as Sekuru*, again, be they male or female. In South Africa, one is not permitted to let their ancestors walk around “naked” and this means when one communes or communicates with their ancestors, be they male or female, they have to wrap a cloth around their waist if they are not already wearing a long skirt or dress. Also, a sangoma embodies the spirits of their ancestors, both male and female and depending on the dominant ancestor at that time in that moment, they will adopt their personality and mannerisms regardless of their sex or gender or that of the ancestor. Basically, sexuality and sexual identity in the culture of communing with the ancestors is very ambiguous. Of course some sangomas in their human personalities have their own (learnt) prejudices such as homophobia but their ancestors do not bother themselves with these things (well at least the ones I have encountered anyway) so why do self proclaimed gatekeepers of all that is Afrikan?

We say that the reality of homosexuality never existed or was never accepted on the continent and yet we have cultures that even coined words such as “chirambavarume” in Shona or “umazakhela” in isiNdebele for women who never married a man but in most cases, co-habitated with other women “friends”. Anthropologists Stephen Murray and Will Roscoe in their publication Boy Wives & Female Husbands reported that women in Lesotho engaged in socially sanctioned “long term, erotic relationships,” named motsoalle.In Northern Congo, Azande warriors routinely took on boy-wives between the ages of twelve and twenty, who helped with household tasks and participated in intercrural sex with their older husbands. Among the Dagara in Burkina Faso, homosexual and transgender people were considered to be very spiritually gifted and responsible for maintaining the society’s psychic balance and were believed to be the gatekeepers between the world of the living and the world of the dead.

In a conversation started by a “friend” on facebook a few days ago, the recurring theme was what the law states in a lot of Afrikan countries and democracy i.e. what the majority wants. It is interesting to note that female same sex sexual activity is legal where as male isn’t in quite a few Afrikan countries such as Zimbabwe, Zambia, Nigeria, Namibia, Tanzania, Seychelles, Sierra Leone to name but a few. In a few more, same sex sexual activity, be it male or female is legal, just not the relationships. However, what is most interesting is that these are not even Afrikan laws but colonial laws that still exist today. Homosexual expression in native Afrika always existed – it manifested itself and was understood and accommodated in different ways in different communities across the continent – and was instead quelled or suppressed by colonialists. Anti – gay legislation is the western import not homosexuality and it is this import that informs and perpetuates contemporary Afrikan homophobia and persecution not authentic indigenous identity and values. We need to know our history and to quote Cameroonian anthropologist Patrick Awondo “Knowing historical truths lets us avoid unhistorical (sic) lies.”

As far as democracy is concerned, I think one of the biggest problems democracy faces today, especially in Afrika, is that people do not understand what democracy is meant to achieve. Yes it is supposed to represent the majority but not at the expense of the minority. The minority also has a voice that counts. With that in mind, the present state of things robs Afrikan queers of their rights as human beings to enjoy freedom, citizenship in their homelands and countries of birth and now with all these anti – gay laws being passed on the continent, their right to life. In one conversation recently some argued that they did not have a problem with homosexuals but they believe that if homosexuals want rights they should leave their homes and go to countries whose legislation accepts homosexuality, never mind that these same countries may not be as accepting of immigrants. Basically a lot of Afrikans believe in forcing their queer brothers and sisters, daughters and sons into exile even if they do not wish to leave and they call this democracy. This is especially tragic and infuriating given that for a lot of us less than 50 years ago, under colonial rule, people were forced to leave their home countries because of another form of oppression that did not view “their kind” as equals or completely human.

In addition, is a continued brain drain really what Afrika needs? Even today, the continent continues to lose huge chunks of her resources to the East and West and this is not limited to the natural resources but also includes human resources which in turn has an adverse impact on our socio-economic advancement as individual states and as a continent in the global arena. The outflux of human capital from the continent into the Afrikan diaspora is one that has been bemoaned by many (more so self proclaimed Pan Afrikanists) and yet our states continue to feed into the push factors that force the children of the soil to escape to foreign lands to go and contribute to the further enrichment of our former oppressors simply because we so naively choose to fervently hold onto the hatred they instilled in us through divide and rule as part of ensuring that we will never unite and reclaim our heritage and glory. Homophobia, like patriarchy and tribalism, is yet another red herring that has been planted in our psyche so as to distract us, preventing us from keeping our eye on the ball. Instead of focusing our common energy on the true problems, wrongs and injustices that plague our continent like corruption, genocides, wars, disease, famine, GBV, land, access to food, water and quality education etc, we’re expending it on a victimless crime that shouldn’t even be a crime and fueling division and entrenching oppression.

What Homosexuality Isn’t 

Now, there is a terrible and ridiculous rumour making the rounds stating that homosexuality is contagious or a form of brainwashing. I would like to ease people’s minds by saying that this absolutely false. I can attest to this and tell you unequivocally that I did not “contract” my bisexuality from some “unwholesome homosexual fiend” as I was neither exposed to nor did I fraternize with any (this not taking into account those on the down low as there are many) other homosexuals until my late teens. In fact, in our household, homosexuality was something that hardly ever came up, save for the rare occasions when my very educated and mostly open minded grandfather would express his disgust at the idea of male coupling, and yet I was fantasizing about kissing other girls from a very young age. Actually, I discovered my sexuality and sensuality to thoughts of girls and not boys despite having attended co-ed schools throughout my primary school years.

Some pontificate that homosexuality is unnatural… well of course it’s unnatural, to heterosexual or even asexual people, much the same way heterosexuality is unnatural to queer people. Others still, claim that homosexuality is synonymous with sexual predators and yet if we are to be honest with ourselves, heterosexual sexual predators are more rife than homosexual ones. I am 28 years old and I have been in a lot of queer social and professional spaces and I have never been raped or sexually assaulted or harassed by any queers. I have however been sexually harassed dozens of times and have been sexually assaulted by straight men. I also can count on one hand people I know or have encountered that have been violated by a queer perpetrator but I know scores of people; friends, family, colleagues and clients (both in the gender and child protection sectors I work in) who have been sexually violated by heterosexual people, mostly men.

There is especially a fear by a lot of heterosexual males that they will be “raped” by homosexual men. Perhaps this fear in these men comes from a place, be it conscious or subconscious, where it is to be expected and perhaps even acceptable for women to be violated by men but it is an unfathomable abomination for a man to direct that sort of violence towards another man. I don’t know. All I know is a lot of these men I have heard express this fear are often quiet or nowhere near as vocal when it comes to sexual violence committed against women. The thing people do not take into account is that sexual violence is no more a heterosexual thing than it is a homosexual thing. It is a pervert and socio-path thing and you get those across the spectrum. It is a stupid argument and it just makes you look like an ignorant male chauvinist.

Homosexuality or transgenderism do not contribute to the moral degradation of society. Society itself does. Last I checked majority of television and radio programming, music, main stream literature, religious doctrine, legislation and policies and educational structures are very heteronormative and cisnormative and humanity and her societies have been well on their way to moral degradation long before Senzo and Jason’s controversial kiss on Generations a couple of years ago or homosexual couples in New York started signing marriage certificates the same as straight people. The differences between heterosexual members of society and queer members of society only go as far as the sex and gender of our chosen partners otherwise the same rules apply to us. Murder is still murder, the sky is still blue, we love the same way and for some God is the same God you worship and for others like me, our ancestors are the messengers of Umdali*. Heck! We even have sex in more or less the same ways. I am bisexual remember, I know what I am talking about *wink*. However, a lot of people don’t see or appreciate this. They will still scream the Armageddon of human morals at the hands of “homos”. It is heart breaking that we live in societies where it is more acceptable for a husband to beat his wife, a man to rape his neighbour in order to “cure” her of being lesbian, a pastor to sexually assault female members of his congregation in the name of God than it is for a law abiding, compassionate and hardworking woman/man to be queer and yet the former is more unnatural than the latter is. To most people, the former does not represent a threat to the moral fibre of society and yet the latter does. If you think the state sanctioned murder of your gay nephew or lesbian neighbour or trans colleague who has not hurt or violated anyone else is right and just then it is your own moral fibre that should be questioned, not ours.

What Homophobia Is 

First and foremost, homophobia is a message of hatred, deprivation and exclusion, plain and simple. You can try and defend it and explain it whichever what way you please but at the end of the day it is just plain hateful. Homophobia is also unnatural. It is taught and learnt and seeing as we are trying to do away with all things unnatural, I suggest we start with that and leave the natural be i.e. being queer.

Homophobia is also a remnant of a time long gone by when it is was vital to encourage population growth be it in a family, a village or kingdom due to systems such as agriculturalization, pastoralism,  expansion and occupation. We are presently living in a world where it is again no longer necessary to churn out as many babies as possible. Instead we live in a world where we are faced with overpopulation, hunger, famine, global climatic change and economic melt downs. So no, homosexuality will not bring about the extinction of the human race. Heterosexuals (and modern science) will make sure that human production continues with no interruptions.

People ask us “why all the noise?” Why we don’t just go about our “gayness” quietly and stop making a song and dance of it. The answer is simple: until I can legally fall in love in my Motherland, until I can legally give my girlfriend a kiss in public, until men stop raping us in order to “correct” us or until they stop beating us and killing us for being queer and until communities and governments stop baying for our blood as though we have actually harmed anyone just by being gay we will continue to make a big deal about it. We will shout and march until we realise as Afrikans that homosexuality really doesn’t seek to eliminate or replace heterosexuality and that it is in fact heterosexuality that seeks to eliminate homosexuality. We really need to check ourselves and the things we stand for and against based on falsehoods and ignorance. Being queer is neither unnatural nor unAfrikan, the sooner we realise this the better it will be for all of us.

*Sangoma – Traditional healer & spirit medium

*Gogo – Grandmother/ elder

*Sekuru – Grandfather/ elder

*Umdali – Creator

© Doreen Victoria Gaura/ Colouredraysofgrey, 2013

 

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