Representing ‘African sexuality’
Following Richard Werbner and Terence Ranger’s argument that we need to look to the longue duree in the study of the dynamic complexity of postcolonial African societies (Werbner and Ranger 1996), I suggest that studies of the gendered constructions of culture and sexuality in postcolonial, and this includes postapartheid, southern Africa require an approach that acknowledges that the colonial society’s dynamics continue to shape postcolonial society. Sexuality and gender are
Efundula: Women’s Initiation, Gender and Sexual Identities in Northern Namibia
prominent among a plurality of contested arenas where it would be inappropriate to assume a break between the colonial past and postcolonial present.
In a range of recent publications on ‘black’ and ‘white’ sexualities and colonialism, anthropologists and historians such as Ann Laura Stoler, Sander Gilman and Megan Vaughan have shown how colonial discourses constructed the colo – nised’s sexualities as the opposite to the ‘civilised’ cultural identity of the colonisers (cf. Gilman 1985; Stoler 1997; Vaughan 1991). The notion of ‘African sexuality’ as unitary, coherent and different, served as a pivotal point in how Europeans viewed the indigenous ‘Other’. As has been pointed out by this body of literature, African sexuality, and indeed Africans themselves, allegedly diseased, primitive, uncontrolled and excessive, came to represent the darkness and dangers of the continent.
However, there was not just one colonial discourse on African sexuality; instead, there were at least two variations on the theme as Megan Vaughan has pointed out (Vaughan 1991:129). For some, particularly the missions, African sexuality was, and had always been, ‘primitive’, uncontrolled and excessive, and as such it represented the darkness and dangers of the continent. For others, including colonial officials, precolonial African sexuality had been ‘innocent’, and the danger lay rather in the degeneration of this sexuality which was seen as having come about through social and economic changes caused by external forces.
In spite of their different angles, both perspectives concurred that African sexuality was essentially ‘other’, namely, that it belonged to the realm of nature. In both views Africans and their sexuality were savage; at issue was merely whether African sexuality was of the noble or the ignoble savage variety. Their protagonists agreed that it had to be contained. But how this should be done developed into a major controversy. To the missions, excessive African sexuality was to be restrained as a salient element of their ‘civilising mission’ project. For the colonial state, on the other hand, the containment of African sexuality emerged as a concern of gendering mobility and control. Scholars of gender and colonial state formation in southern Africa have argued that ‘African women’ emerged from the often obscured gendered and gendering process of colonial state formation as objects of rule in a specific way. Studies from South Africa and Namibia have shown how state policy and practices constructed ‘women’ by reproducing and reshaping meanings of gender and culture (cf. Manicom 1992; Hayes 1998b). Central to this colonial discourse and practice was the reconstructed realm of ‘tradition’, in which, as in the Owambo case, rituals to define and legitimise female sexuality and fertility assumed centrality. In the present chapter I am thus much concerned with how in Owambo internal tensions of the colonisers revolved around the discursive and practical conflicts about women’s initiation.
Sander Gilman (1985:83) has famously argued that in 19th century literary discourse, “the black female [came] … to serve as an icon for black sexuality in general”. On the other hand, it appears that the colonial state’s controlling engagement with male and female sexualities was uneven. In different times and spaces the focus was variously on either male or female ‘natives’ as the peril to white sex-
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