Tackling Africa’s Last Taboo
By Kawuma Daniel Busuulwa
African Voices, Volume 5, Issue 4. March 2005.
Africa has always been labeled for its conservatism regards to sexual or gender issues. In most African ethnic cultures, talking openly about issues regarding sex was taboo. Some have gone further to correlate these tendencies with the escalating HIV/AIDS infection rates especially in sub-Saharan Africa. This as many observers argue has resulted into the failure for the more knowledgeable adults to pass on the crucial information in a precise and direct manner to the adolescent Africans. The failure to hit the hammer on the head as the pundits argue is costing Africa many lives in an era where we always need to adjust to such a dynamic world with new physical, economic and social demands.
The most recent case that clarifies this scenario happened in Uganda in February 2005. The Uganda Media Council refused a Women’s group to feature the Play entitled ‘Vagina Monologues’, an issue that raised eyebrows throughout the nation and resulted into widespread debate in all media outlets.
The play ‘The Vagina Monologues’ was supposed to staged on February 19, at the Ndere Centre in Ntinda, Kampala (Uganda) by a group of Ugandan women; this play was coordinated by Kenyan director Mumbi Kaigwa, who had also directed the same play in Kenya where it was also not well received. After negotiations, the Uganda Media Council proposed that the organizers should remove/edit some parts of the play that were seen as socially and morally unpalatable for the Ugandan audience. The organizers refused to comply and as a result they could not get the permission to have the play feature in the Ugandan theaters.
Vagina monologues is the work of Eve Ensler…selfacclaimed feminist in 1998 who put together stories from women she had talked to all over the world. She talked to them about themselves, and their bodies. They talked about their hair, scents, sex, orgasms, periods, birth, rape and their vaginas.
She put together all these hundreds of interviews into a one woman’s play; she called it The Vigina Monologues, and the world has never been the same since then. “I say ‘vigina’”, she explains in an online interview, “because I like people to respond. And they respond, because they know they shouldn’t. I say it because I’m not supposed to say it. I say it because it’s an invisible word – a word that stirs up anxiety, awkwardness, contempt, and disgust”.
Ensler explains that she wrote the play because women were ‘hungry’ to talk about their viginas. “They had no context or place where they would do that. By talking about them, they made themselves more real, more present and more legitimate”, she was quoted as saying. “I have no idea what people are talking about when they say (it’s a bad word). It’s like saying: ‘Do you want to breathe?’ ”
When the play was first performed in Kenya in 2001, it generally caused a few shocks in society, according to Musarait Kashmiri, who was supposed to be in charge of the publicity for the one-day performance in Kampala. “Of course they were all shocked but that’s what the play intends to do, to shock people into realization that we have big problems which have to be dealt with,” she said. Every year, preferably on Valentine’s Day, performances are held in various places around the world and proceeds from these shows go to domestic violence programs. The first V-Days took place in New York, London and Los Angeles and, in these performances Ensler was joined by such women as Cate Blanchett, Winona Ryder and Whoopi Goldberg.
As I already mentioned, this play never featured in Uganda as a result of the actions of the National media council. Since this is all about opinion, these were some of the views from people I was able to chat with about this scenario, all of whom go to University back in Uganda.
A: “Let us not take corruption and blindness for liberalism, the fact is this woman is an opportunist, it appears, and she is after promoting crude sexual practices and perverting morals.”
B: “Her kind of feminism is the western brand, one that is not applicable to the African female.”
C: “We are still Africans and if we are proud of our heritage and the way we were nurtured, let us not deny our descendants a chance to this pride. Let us protect this jealously; it is naive and immature for us to be so excited by a few western vices just because we have interacted with the ‘west’.”
D: “There is no modernity in perversion! Who of us would let our kids watch pornographic films? I wouldn’t, but does that mean sex is bad? The play Vagina monologues is not bad, but should we go ahead and design T-shirts with their pictures on?”
E: “I say given that it’s an adult audience, people should be left at will to watch and accept or criticize the play. As is evident even from the raging debates, different people have different tastes, different criteria for evaluation of what’s important, interesting and what’s not.”
F: “Before and after you watch that play you’ll be forced to question its rationality and effectiveness and that, my friends, is half the battle won. You are forced to THINK about women’s issues and DISCUSS them. That is what we call dialogue. I should say Vagina Monologues is being pretty effective in advancing dialogue on women’s issues in Uganda.”
G: “I would love to get the opportunity to watch that play but on the other hand, I am not surprised by the decision of the Media Council. If they could translate the play in our local language, I doubt that anybody would even attempt to mention the title. Despite the assimilation of western cultures; there are still elements and norms in our culture that stir hysteria whenever they are challenged by outside forces”
You can judge for yourself how people responded to the play ‘Vagina Monologues’, none of the people who gave those opinions got to watch the play but the title itself was enough to provoke people to give opinions such as those above. That is what has always been the stem of what is normally referred to as cultural relativism. The fact that cultures should be understood judged and valued on their own terms rather than judged according to the standards set by outsiders. This point of view has changed over the years due to the notion that in certain cases it was used as an excuse to justify abuse and exploitation of certain groups. Culture has been and will always be challenged. Though it is very clear that the motive of the play ‘Vagina Monologues’ was in the interest of stimulating dialogue about women’s issues in particular domestic violence, we still get to realize that there are walls that exist between us even as we struggle towards having universal standards. Though in this case the effort did not yield the expected results, it is important to understand that we should always respect cultural differences but at the same time challenge practices that harm individuals within that culture.
Kawuma can be reached at email@example.com