Gwynne Dyer: Sex and violence in Africa

It was ostensibly about obscenity, but it was really about corruption and censorship—and in the end, justice prevailed. On November 16, 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 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 percent 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 mugged in the street, but the level of casual violence—usually men beating up on women or kids—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 every moral and cultural change that socially conservative Africans see as a descent into darkness may actually be a move towards the light.

Gwynne Dyer's latest book, Climate Wars, was published recently in Canada by Random House and Vintage.




Nov 17, 2009 at 2:56pm

Wonderful perspective and so clearly laid out.


Nov 18, 2009 at 9:40am

" 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 every moral and cultural change that socially conservative Africans see as a descent into darkness may actually be a move towards the light."

On the Rock, in his youth, Dyer was witnessing the unbridled ill effects of wholesale boozing unmitigated by the calming effects of pot smoking. I suspect that there is almost as much alcohol abuse today but the herb has brought a semblance of sanity to the screeched out streets of St Johns and the outports.

Africa's systemic stick up the ass prudishness is a direct result of the curse of christianity. This vile import inflicted upon African tribal culture is responsible for millions of deaths and is also responsible for the "softening up" and corrupting of Africans for the exploitation of their resources by Western corporate thieves and plunderers.

Africa is not going to get better until the catholics and other christian asshole perverts are sent packing.


The White Elephant

Nov 18, 2009 at 5:04pm

Western Liberal Democracies, Canada, European Union, the Great USA, continue to rape Africa of her land, resources, and People. Our nations have been doing this for so long we do not even question it, it has become normalized.
Lets not throw all the blame on the bible pushers, certainly they have a role, but lets look at the role of International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organizations...and the rest of them from back to 1500- to today. How many trillions of dollars have we ripped off from Africa and continue to do through the concept of either protecting the Africans or helping them to develop?
Why does our media always point the figure at the Africans, either individually or continentially and blame them for their current state. The USA and European Nations where built off the backs of African men, women and children, that is how they came to be dominant today.
I think if there where true FAIRTRADE Africa, they would not only create good paying jobs, but would be able to build the necessary infrastructure, schools, healthcare, courts and so forth.
Multinational Corporations have too much influence in Africa, they are not held to international accountable standards...from my perspective...they are the true rapist...lets look at this process from a historical perspective and look for the patterns, and I think you would agree.

Michael Castanaveras

Nov 19, 2009 at 12:12am

Wait, what? The IMF and WTO are responsible for the high rate of HIV infection through prostitution? Fair trade agreements are not going to change a culture where multiple concurrent sex partners are the norm. The economic issues are a whole separate problem. Admittedly the effect of HIV is taking an economic toll, but don't try to lump it in with post-colonialism.

White Elephant 2

Nov 19, 2009 at 4:53pm

Now Michael Castanaveras...I love you for taking the time to read the article and going one step jot down your thoughts, if the majority of people in our society actually got involved I thing it would make for a meaningful society...even when so wrong like your comment.

Literally every contemporary study will tell you that with fair economic development , you have the capacity to develop yourself, family, community and nation.I would ask you if you agree with this point?

Africa has/is been raped since the advent of capitalism, it's land resources and it's people, I am sure you heard of slavery, particularly in the USA. That process created the ability of Europe and the USA to become world powers.

When the Second World War came to a close, the Europeans could no longer sustain their control over Africa, in fact if you read the Atlantic Charter, The Americans explicitly stated they wanted access to world for freetrade, please read it yourself. The African Nations began to get their independence, which as we know was just like jumping out of the frying pan into the fire, what they got instead was a neocolonial relationship, in which the great USA and Europe (Europen Union) reframed their practices under the guise of "development"...which really meant that have you borrow money off them with many strings attached, which saw/see's them to continue to rip off Africa.

Perhaps if you read up on the numerous CIA files that are now available, you will see how they used (and still do) their influence to perpetuate instability in Africa so that the governments remain unstable and weak, and therefore easy to exploit for resources. This is the reality out there that the media chooses not to share.

Now Michael, if you where raised in that enviroment I wonder if you would have the perspective you do? Seriously think about that, generation after generation, your whole family, community and nation constantly bombarded by outsiders...who's real interest is making a buck.

We live in a society that perpetuates linear, compartementalized thinking...just like this article is puts the blame on the African Nation and People for thier current plight with no thought to the ongoing process of rape to their continent, people, culture, and and own that...but I still love you for taking the time to read and wright your thoughts.


Nov 21, 2009 at 6:17pm

Must be another white guy writing...!


Nov 23, 2009 at 6:44pm

So the tribal system, female circumcision, genocide, polygamy, Xhosa male circumcision, Cameroon breast ironing, rapists are all as a result of those outside influences. No historic traditions need apply for blame in your world view. Get a grip.

Simple Visigoth

Nov 25, 2009 at 7:48am

Your apparent unwillingness to recognize how Europe and The United States has contributed to the underdevelopment of Africa's economic, social, political, and cultural way of life suggest that you are wearing blinders, and refuse to move beyond the racist and paternalistic view that these countries continue to endure, I know somewhere deep inside you there is some form of empathy for those who have been and continue to be discriminated against by Western Racist thought, You are a dinosaur, and in complete denial.

Recruiting...great opportunities

Nov 25, 2009 at 9:38am

Visigoth, our BC regional KKK branch neeeds a new leader, someone with vision like you...lots of room for advancement, kinda embarrassing to say but our membership has been dwindling of late, on the positive side that means there's lots of opportunities for men like you, interested?