Jo Helle-Valle


This chapter is basically an argument about how to understand and explain sexu­ality in Africa. It is, needless to say, a highly complex and controversial issue and hence needs some initial qualifications. First, is it at all reasonable to speak of an ‘African sexuality’? Some say yes, others heatedly no. My position is somewhere between these absolute stances. On the one hand there seem to be certain aspects of sexual practices and ideology that are widely shared among Africans (in con­trast to other regions of the world) but on the other hand we also find such diver­sity that simple and conclusive statements about ‘an African sexuality’ must by ne­cessity be oversimplifications and essentialisations.

The stances taken on this issue are many but I contend that they all share one common theme; the controversies about variation vs. homogeneity are all linked to geography and ethnographic place. The advocates for the ‘African sexuali – ty’stance document that this or that sexuality trait can be found in such and such a place, tribe or culture, while critics have often argued from a ‘not in my tribe’ point of view.

In this paper I will take a radically different argumentative stance. I suggest that however large the culture-as-place variations are it is more ethnographically realistic and hence analytically rewarding to treat variations as contextual. By this I mean that although sexuality is meaningful practice, meanings are not unitary, invariable and geographically delineated wholes but linked to practically motivat­ed social contexts—a term I will elaborate on below. Social contexts are often linked to places but not territorially delineated and people move in and out of them routinely. My argument, therefore, is that sexuality, both as practice and as a discursive theme, is (in Africa as elsewhere) many different things depending on the contexts it is part of and must hence always be analysed as part of such com­municative contexts.

This perspective has many implications, some of which I will relate to in this chapter. It does not provide any conclusive argument in relation to the ‘African sexuality-thesis’, rather it might help to downsize the importance of that debate. More importantly however, is that this perspective implies not only that sexuality, as an aspect of a group’s social life, should be a term used in plural but that dif­ferent sexualities—because they are necessarily linked to persons through identi­ty—are found within each individual. Hence it is, I claim, analytically appropriate to apply the term ‘dividual’ alongside the more commonly used ‘in-dividual’ as a

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Nderstanding Sexuality in Africa: Diversity and Contextualised DividualityNderstanding Sexuality in Africa: Diversity and Contextualised Dividuality

Jo Helle-Valle

means for linking sexuality to personhood (cf. e. g. Strathern 1988). In short, ‘di­vidual’ is meant to lead our attention to the fact that human beings, irrespective of ideas about ‘indivisibility’, have different perspectives and in a sense are differ­ent persons depending on the communicative contexts they are parts of. This per­spective has, in its turn, consequences for the relationship between gender and sexuality.

The line of reasoning put forward in this paper is apparently inductive, emerg­ing out of a narrow empirical foundation. This is especially conspicuous in the way I present it here—drawing generalisations basically from one case. This case is, however, meant as an illustrative example of insights I have gathered as a field – worker in Botswana during the 1990s. From this experience, as well as from working as an academic within the field for many years, I know that the relevance of my arguments is much wider, partly because they are based on socio-cultural and economic mechanisms that can be found over most of Africa, and partly be­cause they point to theoretical perspectives that have nothing to do with geogra­phy. But in any case the fact remains that the arguments presented are of course contentions and not conclusions.