Lessons about love, sex and gender in the postcolony

Lessons about love, sex and gender in the postcolony

By: Merrian Brooks*

This year’s theme The personal is the political: love, sex and gender in the postcolony created some wonderful thought provoking articles. I enjoyed reading them every week and encourage any missed articles be revisited. It was refreshing to read thoughtful reflections on the role of love, family, relationships, gender, and sex on the lives of the writers. Entrenched systems such as patriarchy were relentlessly challenged in refreshing ways such as: 1) Molemo Ramphalile’s take on transformative positive masculinities, 2) Steve Arowolo’s   masculinity as responsibility, and 3) Athambile Masola’s careful take on relationships, love, sex and love in the black community.

Due to the fact that the intention of this theme was to connect the personal and political, the reflections often showed discomfort and ambivalence about the overarching cultural structures that can both liberate as shown in Doreen Gaura’s examination of the intersection between human rights, tradition and culture, and how, for example, may limit our liberation.

 I loved reading about the direct roles patriarchy and homophobia play  in the daily lives our writers, as captured for example by Lerato Makate.

I also loved reading about the nervous task of raising a child well within this flawed patriarchal white supremacist systems from George Gathigi, and the conversation between Gcobani Qambela and Rethabile Mashale.

Further, I really enjoyed the few comments that showed clear discomfort with the ideas being portrayed (e.g. Atuls comment to Gcobani’s piece about masturbation and homosexuality, or Charles Marfo’s comment to Dorca’s piece on academic achievement from a feminist perspective), it shows that we have a long way to go. I hope these comments most of all show that we have pushed a few people to the edges of their comfort zones which is never a bad result.

For those of you who, like me, were totally fascinated by these topics and the sensitive and intelligent ways they were handled, I have compiled a list of books that were referenced or referred to me by contributors. Below each title is a brief description. I hope that the theme for this year will kindle broader interest  in what I consider to be, one of the most important group of topics of our generation.​

  • 1) Salvation: Black people and Love ( 2001);  2) All about Love (2001);  and 3) Communion: the female search for love (2002), all by bell hooks:  This collection of books by renowned feminist bell hooks takes us deeper into the many historical and cultural aspects of society that influence our ability to give and receive true love. They each touch in different ways on the role of patriarchy or racism and other structural barriers, in limiting our ability to love fully. hooks clarifies the ways we can fight oppressive systems, defeat oppressive legacies, and let true love be our liberation.
  • Daughters of Anowa (1995), African Women and Patriarchy by Mercy A. Oduyoye:  A Ghanaian woman, writes about the role of stories, culture, and religion in maintaining the oppression of patriarchy in West Africa by training both men and women from a young age to maintain their “rightful place” beneath men. She also shows the heterogeneity of different cultures placement of women by introducing fables and metaphors from different African cultures that show women in equal and powerful roles to men.
  • Male daughters, female husbands: gender and sex in African society (1987) by Ifi Amadiume: Challenging the received orthodoxies of social anthropology, Ifi Amadiume argues that in precolonial Nnobi society in Nigeria, sex and gender did not necessarily coincide. Examining the structures that enabled women to achieve power, she shows that roles were neither rigidly masculinized nor feminized.
  • The invention of women: making an African sense of Western gender discourses’ (1997) by Oyeronke Oyewumi:  The author traces the misapplication of Western, body-oriented concepts of gender through the history of gender discourses in Yoruba studies. The invention of women demonstrates that biology, what Oyewumi terms European bio-logic,  a rationale heavily based on gender as a way of organizing the social world is a Western construction. This  Western “world view” is not applicable in Yoruba culture where social organization, “world sense”, was determined by relative age/seniority. 
  • Love in the Time of AIDS: Inequality, Gender, and Rights in South Africa (2010) by Mark Hunter:  In some parts of South Africa, more than one in three people are HIV positive. Love in the Time of AIDS explores transformations in notions of gender and intimacy to try to understand the roots of this virulent epidemic. By living in an informal settlement and collecting love letters, cell phone text messages, oral histories, and archival materials, Mark Hunter details the everyday social inequalities that have resulted in untimely deaths. Hunter shows how first apartheid and then chronic unemployment have become entangled with ideas about femininity, masculinity, love, and sex and have created an economy of exchange that perpetuates the transmission of HIV/AIDS. This sobering ethnography challenges conventional understandings of HIV/AIDS in South Africa.
  • African Masculinities: Men in Africa from the Late Nineteenth Century to the Present (2005) edited by Lahoucine Ouzgane and Robert Morrell:  Great book dealing with men in Africa looking through four main lens, viz: a) interpreting masculinities, b) representing masculinities, c) constructing masculinities, and d) contesting masculinities. It’s a really great historical account of African men through many different lens, some of the chapters look at religion and how it reduced black wo/men’s personhood by perpetuating the light/dark skinned myths in Africa, e.g. that light skinned via Biblical representation = white and capable, while dark skinned = dumb and incapable. Other chapters look at representations of manhood by Drum magazine, masculinities in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s ‘Nervous Conditions’, men doing “Women’s work”, sexuality and so much more. 
  • The Republic of Therapy: Triage and Sovereignty in West Africa’s Time of AIDS (2010) by Vinh-Kim Nguyen:   This book looks at how West Africa is responding to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The book is narrated through the experiences and perspectives of community organisers, activists, and people living with HIV in West Africa. The author documents the politics of triage used to determine who would/would not get antiretrovirals.  For example, the book shows how international agencies created a “market” for the barter of HIV stories, and how this required men in conservative West African societies where primacy is placed of men not being vulnerable to renegotiate the “self” for confessionals in exchange for access to limited HIV treatment. The book also covers many other issues around sexuality, pleasure, and religion in the time of AIDS. 
  • Reproduction, Globalization and the State: New Theoretical and Ethnographic Perspectives (2011) edited by Carole H. Browner and Carolyn F. Sargent: This book features research from Africa, Asia, Western Europe and the Americas. The book has  a focus on the interaction between the state (public) and the personal domain (intimate relationships/individual aspirations/reproduction). Some of the chapters include the role of men in family planning, transnational reproduction among Africans in Europe and a look at structural responses to male sex workers/tourism workers. 
  • The Quiet Violence of Dreams (2001) by  Sello Duiker: The book follows Tshepo, a young man on a journey of self-discovery in Cape Town. In the world of male prostitution, he confronts his father’s horrendous deeds, discovers sexuality, and that what he’s been longing for has always been inside him. A deeply sad, but eventually triumphant book.
  • Thirteen Cents (2000)  by  Sello Duiker :  Through the telling of  13 year old Azure’s story, the book that takes us into the heart of urban South Africa, and the violence young boys raising themselves in the streets have to get themselves through.  
  • A man who is not a man (2009) by Thando Mngqolozana:  This book follows the story of a young Xhosa man who suffers a botched circumcision. It traces his journey as a “failed man” as he renegotiates for himself what it means to be a “man” in a society that tells him he is not one for having not completed the Xhosa male circumcision school successfully. However it’s also a (beautiful) love story, not all doom and gloom or all about a penis. 
  • When a man cries (2007) by Siphiwo Mahala: The book follows the story of Themba Limba who is a teacher and municipal councilor in Sekunjalo, Grahamstown. The story traces his early life to his eventual “downfall”. It’s an engrossing look at manhood and the challenges it presents when men attach heavily to harmful societal sanctions for how men should be. But it’s more than just manhood, it’s about shame, vulnerability, dignity, grief, and the various socio-economic realities of many South Africans post-apartheid have to grapple with.


*Merrian Brooks is a regular Bokamoso Leadership Forum Contributor. Read her short biography and previous articles here.

Merrian Brooks

Merrian is a medical resident studying the specialty of pediatrics in the USA. She was born and raised a Black American and feels proud to be the descendant of a group as a resilient and strong as those known as African slaves. She hopes to one day be a part of a movement to make medical systems work better for people of color in the US, and children and adolescents in sub-Saharan Africa.

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