All arguments have a biography and I owe the readers a brief outline of this one. My ethnographic foundation is first of all fieldwork in a medium-sized, semi-pe­ripheral Botswana village situated on the fringes of the Kalahari. The village con­sists of about 4,500 inhabitants, is populated mostly by people from the Kgalagadi ethnic category, and serves as a sub-district administrative centre. Most villagers belong to multiactive peasant households, i. e. a majority of the households prac­tise agriculture and/or animal husbandry, but almost all also have incomes in cash from wage work, small-scale business etc. (Helle-Valle 1997:118ff.). During my fieldwork I unexpectedly stumbled on a theme that I was not at all prepared for. I found, in my efforts to gather data about socio-economic characteristics of households, that a significant number of young and middle-aged women engaged in informal sexual relationships that were locally termed bobelete. These are sexual relationships that in their core imply that men and women establish more or less lasting sexual relationships, that these relationships are informal, and involve a transfer of economically signicant gifts from the man to the woman. The rationale behind these exchanges is that women ‘give’ men sex, hence the men have to re­ciprocate by giving her gifts. These gifts take many forms; as cattle or the building of houses but also food, clothes and cash are common.

These sexual practices are ‘new’ and hence a historical perspective is needed. During the colonial era it was the younger men who were the main agents of change. Their labour migration to the mines in South Africa gradually gave them control over cash as well as exposing them to new masculine ideas. In short these new ideals implied conspicuous consumption of ‘Western’ goods, and an increas-



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ing focus on sexual seduction of young, unmarried women (Schapera 1947). The result was a steadily increasing number of pregnant and deserted women in the villages. A core element in the men’s seduction strategies was to enter into secret betrothals with the girls. By way of betrothals they followed traditional ways of establishing sexual relationships but the secrecy of the agreement personalised the relationship and hence gave them leeway to pursue their own sexual goals.

The young deserted mothers, who were one conspicuous result of these strat­egies, were obviously losers in these relationships. Due to the traditional roles of women they did not have the economic or social position to rectify the wrongdo­ings of the seducing men (Comaroff and Roberts 1977; Molokomme 1991). However, as the social framework gradually changed, new opportunities were made available to women and they were to an increasing extent able to turn dis­advantages into advantages. Alongside new opportunities that had nothing to do with sexual practices (like education, new jobs, etc.) unmarried women found that the cultural logic of the marriage process—that the men had long been exploit­ing—could be manipulated by them also. The traditional marriage process im­plied a steady flow of gifts from the man’s family to the woman’s family, but as the young men had personalised these relationships by entering into secret be­trothals directly with the women, this implied that women had potential incomes by way of the gifts men gave them. This possibility—together with all the other opportunities modernisation has generated—has given the unmarried woman the means to decide whether she will marry or not. And it is obvious that more and more women decide not to marry, or at least postpone marriage plans indefinitely (cf. also Haram’s chapter in this volume). Moreover, as these informal sexual re­lationships are not confined to unmarried people, they also imply a lot of infidel­ity. Both wives and husbands engage in extra-marital affairs—to the extent that it is considered one of the main drawbacks of married life. Thus, by way of socio­cultural entrepreneurship young men and women have changed the social land­scape of Botswana. One conspicuous expression of this change is that between one third and a half of all households in Botswana are female-headed.

In various works I have described changing sexual practices and sexual mores in Botwana and explored various social implications of these changes (Helle-Valle 1994; 1997; 1999; 2002a; n. d.-a.; n. d.-b; Helle-Valle and Talle 2000). What I wish to do in this paper is to apply a perspective on this ethnography in which social context and dividuality are core concepts. I contend that this analytical approach provides a fruitful framework for understanding and explaining some of the hows and whys of domestic conflicts and gendered antagonisms—phenomena that many observers of African social life find conspicuously present. What such a perspective can provide is an analytical treatment of diversity; it deals with the fact that landscapes of sexual mores1 are many-faceted and contradictory, that con­flicts therefore constantly erupt and ambivalence is hence a common experience

Arnfred Page 197 Wednesday, March 3, 2004 2:38 PM


Understanding Sexuality in Africa: Diversity and Contextualised Dividuality


Significantly ‘mores’ is the plural form of ‘mos’—meaning morally laden attitude.




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Ethnographic and analytical backgroundEthnographic and analytical backgroundArnfred Page 198 Wednesday, March 3, 2004 2:38 PM

Jo Helle-Valle

for both men and women. A case will provide the empirical foundation for these arguments.