Prudish Africa

2009-11-19 00:00

IT was ostensibly about obscenity, but it was really about corruption and censorship — and in the end, justice prevailed. On Monday, a Zambian court found journalist Chansa Kabwela not guilty of “distributing obscene material with intent to corrupt public morals”. What obscene material? She had sent photographs of a woman giving birth in a hospital parking lot during a nurses’ strike to senior government officials.

President Rupiah Banda called a press conference and declared the photographs “pornographic”. Soon after, Kabwela was arrested on obscenity charges. She faced a five-year jail sentence if she were to be found guilty — but Banda’s real motive was probably the fact that the paper Kabwela works for, the Post, constantly accuses him of corruption.

The Post is probably right. Banda succeeded Levy Mwanawasa, a president of unquestioned integrity, after the latter died of a stroke last year. But unlike Mwanawasa, he has failed to pursue the previous president, Frederick Chiluba, a monumentally corrupt man who has been ordered by a British court to repay Zambia $55 million that he had stolen.

Banda has not tried to collect the $55 million from Chiluba, and has stopped any further action against him in Zambia’s courts. An unsympathetic observer might wonder if some of Chiluba’s stolen millions have bought Banda’s complicity. The Post wonders that out loud, so Banda went after its news editor, Chansa Kabwela.

The pictures Kabwela sent out were not pornographic. Rather, they were horrific: images of a woman in the midst of a breech birth, the baby’s legs dangling out between her own, while its head was still inside her. It all happened in a hospital parking lot (she had already been turned away from two clinics), but nobody would help her because of the strike, and the baby suffocated.

Her appalled and furious relatives brought pictures of the scene to the Post. Kabwela did not publish them because they were so upsetting, but she sent copies to senior officials together with a letter urging them to intervene and settle the strike. That’s when Banda declared the images pornographic and had her arrested.

The courts are still independent in Zambia, and in the end Kabwela was found not guilty — but many of the witnesses were genuinely more shocked by photographs of a woman naked from the waist down than by the horror of what was actually happening. As one witness said: “We are all Zambians here. We all know this is not allowed in our culture.”

The word you’re looking for is “prudish”, and it applies to a lot of African popular culture. Never mind what’s actually happening. We don’t want to hear about it, and we certainly don’t want to see it. The Zambian elite has been devastated by HIV/Aids — the higher the social class, the worse the death rate — and yet nobody wants to talk about sex, let alone about the links between sex, power and violence.

Go a thousand kilometres south to South Africa, and the gulf between appearances and reality is even wider. Last June, the country’s Medical Research Council published a study about rape and HIV, which reported that 28% of South African men admitted to having raped a woman or a girl. (A further three percent said that they had raped a man or boy.)

Almost half the rapists said they had raped more than one person, and three-quarters of them said they had carried out their first assault before the age of 20. They didn’t use condoms, and they were twice as likely to be HIV-positive than non-rapists. This is a national calamity that is killing more people than a middle-sized war, and causing a huge amount of pain and grief. Yet few South Africans are even willing to talk about it.

Many Africans will be feeling very defensive at this point, but a lot of this reminds me of where I grew up. There was an amazing amount of low-level violence around — you saw it literally every day — and there was also a huge amount of sexual predation. In the boys’ school I went to, the male teachers molested the boarders on an industrial scale, although day boys like me were fairly safe. And none of it was ever admitted or discussed in public.

Now I live in a culture where we are no longer prudes. Everything is out in the open, including trivialised, commercialised sex on a hundred channels. Around half of all marriages end in divorce, but gays, once persecuted and forced to hide, can also get married if they want to. You can still get mugged in the street, but the level of casual violence — usually men beating up on women or children — is sharply down. I bet that the real figures for rape are down a lot too.

I like the transformed culture I live in now a lot better — and it occurs to me that what we are seeing in Africa now may be as transitional as what I grew up with in Newfoundland. In which case, the moral and cultural changes that socially conservative Africans see as a descent into darkness may actually­ be a move towards the light.

• Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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