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.