Reactions to social contradictions: Conflicts and ambivalence
The case of the dead man and his wife and lover also illustrates several important points related to individuals and their reactions to contradictory aspects of sociality. Obviously the man’s sexual infidelity provoked the wife. A man who keeps a lover (or lovers) has to spend a lot of time and resources on her (them) and these are resources and attention that both his wife and their children rightly feel belong to them. The lover, on the other hand, is at the receiving end: as he had to provide her with a steady flow of gifts in order to keep her she had a net economic gain. Thus, although the fact that the cultural logic of traditional sexual mores compels men to give and women to receive, it does not follow from the gendered positions in the transactions that the results of these exchanges can be understood only by looking at gender. A first clue here is of course whether the woman is a wife or a lover. In a situation where the man is married the wife is perhaps the principal loser, while the lover (at least in the short run) is the winner. In such a perspective the transfer of goods is not so much a transfer from men to women as it is a transfer from married women to unmarried women. Or, to be more precise, it is a transfer from the wife of the man to the lover of the man—since the lover may very well be married to another man. Thus, we find that there are crossing lines of conflict here; there is a conflict between wife and lover (and one woman might well hold both positions here), as well as a conflict between men and women.
A love affair obviously creates frustrations in the married woman. Since the husband is obliged to give the lover gifts she rightfully blames him for letting his own carnal needs go before the needs of his children and family, hence draining dearly needed resources from the household. Such complaints from the wife are common. However, her grudges against the husband are not always accompanied by a clear conscience and a single thought. First, it is not infrequent that wives cheat on their husbands and although this gives her just as good reason to blame him for draining the household’s resources she does not have the same moral weight when she blames him for being a sexual cheater (normally based on Christian ethics). Secondly, in cases where the wife does not have lovers the moral indignation might also be hampered by the fact that there is a good chance that she has had a phase in her life when she was the receiving lover. These conditions not only give the wife less moral credibility if she blames him for being unfaithful but it also makes the cheating easier for the husband and the lover. Lastly, even though she might have every moral right to be angry with her husband, it is not always easy for her to do anything practical about it. She can of course threaten to leave him, but that might well turn out worse for her than for him. And to engage the family group (losika) as a moral power to straighten him out is often not effective. As the kinship group loses more and more of its economic and political
Understanding Sexuality in Africa: Diversity and Contextualised Dividuality
strength and relevance its power over individuals’ conduct becomes less effective (Helle-Valle 2002b).
If we turn to the lover we find some of the same dilemmas and frustrations. Although she is on the receiving end she can, if she is married, easily identify with the wife of her lover, and hence feel bad. If she is unmarried her dilemmas are different but in no way less compelling (cf. Haram’s chapter in this volume). By choosing not to marry and rather be a receiving lover she definitely gets some economic and practical advantages (gifts as income as well as not having to obey a man; as a lover she has a freedom that many married women envy her). However, it is a risky strategy (and not always one that is voluntarily chosen), and the older she gets the greater the risks are because being young a woman can postpone the question of life-style because she will stand a good chance of having a suitor, while older women will normally not find men who will want to marry
them. Thus, her very life-style is a constant reminder for her of the risks she fac-
Nor do men have singular thoughts on infidelity. Apart from the obvious difference in attitudes between cuckolded husbands and seducing lovers (again one man might hold both roles simultaneously), most men have conflicting thoughts on the matter. Not only does the role as a breadwinning head of household conflict with the generous lover but most men are seriously torn between, at least, two masculine ideals that are to a large extent mutually excluding. On the one hand he can ‘make himself’ as a man by following the traditional ideals where being a husband, a father and a significant participant in the local political game are core elements (Alverson 1978; Comaroff and Roberts1977). These ideals are, however, gradually becoming marginalised ideologically, politically as well as economically (Helle-Valle 2002b, cf. also Silberschmidt’s chapter in this volume). On the other hand he might find the seducing male to be a more immediate and pleasant way to express his manhood. By keeping lovers (married or unmarried) he finds that whatever else happens he has had a good time. But this way of living obviously is not productive—as the costly gifts to lovers seldom provide any tangible repays—and his actions obviously generates a lot of conflicts (Helle-Valle n. d.-a). Thus, either way frustrations and ambivalence is generated also in the man.
The new sexual practices are thus expressions of new and contradictory sociocultural forces but are simultaneously also instrumental in bringing about these changes. Of course, every social reality contains contradictory elements but contemporary African sociality is probably special in this respect. Old and indigenous practice and ideology exist alongside modern ones, and it is up to each and every member of society to ‘reconcile’ these conflicting socio-cultural elements—to in – 
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tegrate them into their life-projects in ways that are existentially and practically acceptable. On a personal, individual level this involves both frustrations and ambivalence—ambivalence because a person’s individual qualities forces her/him to strive for a wholeness that social reality does not easily provide, and frustrations because being able to succeed in this wholeness-project requires not only skill but also power—something he/she will often lack. Hence, that outcomes are often dramatic is not difficult to see. While the death of a husband by witchcraft is not an everyday event, domestic fights are.
A perspective that links meaningful practice to contexts and dividuality has the advantage of lifting ambivalence from a private level—being a personal issue related to doubt, uncertainty and weak wills—to a social level. The advocated perspective demonstrates how private ambivalences are socially shaped and hence a core issue for the social sciences. However, in contrast to Bauman (1991), who sees ambivalence as originating in language and its inability to classify the world properly and which hence leads to indeterminacy and inability to act (cf. “Ambivalence, the possibility of assigning an object or an event to more than one category, is a language-specific disorder”— Bauman 1991:1), my perspective gives precedence to practice. Bauman states: “No binary classification deployed in the construction of order can fully overlap with essentially non-discrete, continuous experience of reality. The opposition, born of the horror of ambiguity, becomes the main source of ambivalence” (Bauman 1991:61, my emphasis). To me this amounts to putting the cart in front of the horse. Language gets its meaning and structure from human practice, and I contend that the ambivalence considered problematic by people themselves is that which is related to practical dilemmas. As such linguistic indeterminacy is only the symptom of this more fundamental practical indeterminacy (cf. Douglas 1975:252ff.). And this practical indeterminacy can best be grasped by understanding meaning as related to social contexts. Ambivalence results from the person’s responsibility to handle their various interests in ways that are culturally acceptable. This involves the need to acknowledge and relate to communicative contexts in adequate ways, which also implies a proper balancing between acting dividually (confining aspects of one’s personality to their appropriate contexts) and being individuals.
This perspective on the case described also shows how contexts, however cunningly they are kept apart by the actors, tend to collide due to practical matters (e. g. the draining of household resources in order to keep a lover). Thus, whatever types of choices individuals make the contradictory aspects of social organisation and cultural values are such that they constantly create conflicts and often also violence (either as wife-beating, as witchcraft or in other forms). These new socialities not only cement but in fact aggravate the lack of trust and intimacy that characterises many conjugal relationships in Africa. Although weak ties between husband and wife have been an ingrained part of African social organisation (Co- query-Vidrovitch 1997) the changes the African societies have gone through during the last 100 years have exacerbated these tendencies. This does not, however, imply that all social mechanisms have the same centrifugal effect. What seems to
Understanding Sexuality in Africa: Diversity and Contextualised Dividuality
be a new, emerging centripetal force is the growing relevance of romantic love. There are signs that romantic and erotic feelings are increasingly being acknowledged—and increasingly used as a legitimate reason for pairing. But so far romantic love has not been a force that has had measurable effects on conjugal bonds and whether it will become such a force in the future is another, and uncertain, issue.