Women in Conversation with an African Man
on Gender Issues


Emevwo Biakolo, Maitseo Bolaane & Michelle Commeyras

University of Botswana, University of Georgia

Copyright © 2001 by Emevwo Biakolo, Maitseo Bolaane, and Michelle Commeyras, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the authors.

  1. "The full and equal participation of women in political, civil, economic, social and cultural life at national, regional and international levels and the eradication of all forms of discrimination on the grounds of sex are priority objectives of the international community," states the National Gender Programme Framework for Botswana (Government of Botswana, 1998, p. 1). The Gender Programme Framework further specifies, "the advancement of women in Botswana can be measured by the extent to which they have been constrained or assisted to develop as individuals as well as members of society at the levels of the household, the community, institutions/organizations, and the nation" (p. 3). In the document the government recognizes that at all these levels "women are still subordinate to men" (p. 3). The following indicators are specified as evidence of female subordination and gender discrimination.

    --unequal access to power and decision-making;

    --limitations on rights and freedoms that are not imposed on men, particularly within the marriage institution;

    --the feminisation of poverty (i.e., the majority of women are poor);

    --the incidence and escalation of male violence against women;

    --the sexism in educational curricula and the gender stratification of careers;

    --unequal employment opportunities and the marginalisation of women in the formal sector; and

    --male control of women's reproductive choices.

  2. In colloquial terms you could say that these days "everyone is talking gender." Attention to gender relations and gender equity is clearly in evidence in Botswana as well as many other parts of the world. The 1995 Beijing Declaration and the Global Platform for Action represent international attention to the concept of equal rights and the inherent human rights of women and men as enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and the Declaration on the Right to Development.

  3. It is within this context that three lecturers at the University of Botswana came together in 1998 to have a conversation to explore one African male's perspectives on the attention being given to gender in the region and beyond. The impetus for the following conversation came from Michelle Commeyras who was at the time a visiting lecturer on gender issues in education. She had observed that male faculty and students had a wide range of views on gender issues. She thought it important to document in some way what those views were. Conversational interviews were arranged with three African men on campus. To date the only interview that has gone beyond the transcription process is this one with Emevwo Biakolo, a member of the English Department faculty. Biakolo is originally from Nigeria and at the time of the interview had lived and worked in Botswana for three years. In that time he had acquired a significant familiarity with the cultural context and would attend from time to time presentations where gender relations were the focus. He wanted to participate in the interview because of his interest in gender issues. A Jouvert reviewer wondered if his interest in being interviewed had anything to do with his being from Nigeria and thus an expatriate in Botswana. Dr. Biakolo's reply is that his interest had nothing to do with his nationality.

  4. Before the conversational interview took place, Commeyras mentioned it to Maitseo Bolaane, a female faculty member in the History department. Bolaane, who was often engaged in friendly debate with Biakolo and very much interested in gender issues, asked to join the session. They are both members of the Humanities faculty, which is comprised of 100 academic staff; 67 are males and 33 are females. With regard to national origin, there are 63 Batswana and 37 are from countries in Africa, Europe and North America. Bringing Bolaane into the conversational interview seemed an excellent idea because as a citizen of Botswana, born and raised in the village of Bobonong in the Central District, she brought both her female perspective and her lifelong knowledge of cultural traditions in Botswana. One Jouvert reviewer wondered if Ms. Bolaane felt freer to respond because she was talking to two foreigners (one from Nigeria and the other from the U.S.A.). Her response is that as a woman and as a lecturer working on a Ph.D she often does not feel completely free or confident in expressing views that challenge the status quo in society or at universities. Presently she is studying at Oxford University and there she also experiences sexism as well as racism from the men who hold the majority of senior positions. She finds that the network that exists among males at universities intimidates women and often leads them to remain on the margins where they have less access to valuable insider information.

  5. The three gathered at the university's staff lounge around a tape recorder for several hours of conversation. To launch the conversation, Commeyras had provided in advance several quotations that focused on different gender issues. They are included in the following edited script of the conversation. We used a transcription of our conversation as a way of clearly and permanently stating the substance of our perspectives. In providing this script to an audience of readers, it is our intention to offer something provocative enough to stimulate conversations in many other settings that will focus specifically on how African men are thinking about the prominence of gender issues in contemporary life.

  6. Commeyras: Coquery-Vidrovitch (1997), in writing about Africa women, maintained:
    In different ways at different times, the women of sub-Saharan Africa have led, and continue to lead, difficult lives. In barely a century, their situation -- or, situations, because the subcontinent is huge, and widely divergent in types of social organization -- has drastically changed. . . . Femaleness is of course a common factor, but the woman is also a peasant or a city-dweller, intellectual or working-class, overburdened and over worked mother, independent, single, or divorced; all these factors play their role. And these life circumstances are experienced differently by women in Africa than in Western societies. African women have at least one other point in common: they have no time. They have always worked more than men (which is not to say that men did nothing, a false idea that is widespread). Today they work differently but, with few exceptions, just as hard. They are so overburdened with tasks of all kinds that they hardly have time to bemoan their fate or even to wonder about it. Their image of themselves remains cloudy. (p. 1)

  7. Bolaane: I think I like this quotation. I want to use my own experience to address the question: What gender dynamics did I experience as a child? I grew up in the countryside -- in a village. My mother like most of the women in the village was not working in the sense of formal work. But my mother was playing a significant role in the household. I feel now and I felt then that my mother was contributing a lot to the running of the home. For instance, my father was and still is a teacher while my mother has always worked in the field to produce food for the house. And my mother was cooking, taking care of the children and doing all sorts of things in the house. She was doing our laundry as well as attending to my Daddy. We could see that this woman is tired at the end of the day. She would wake up around four o'clock in the morning to collect water in a bucket from a distant well before she could attend to other household chores. She had to prepare a few things before she took off to work in the field, which is a whole day’s work. Usually there are so many different things to be done at different times in the field from the day the crops are sown to harvesting. There is weeding to be done by a hoe from morning till late afternoon and the business of chasing away birds or domestic animals which are likely to finish off everything in the fields if it is not well attended to. Women do much in fields in terms of not only participating in the ploughing but attending and guarding the field closely. The fields are given attention for months.

  8. Commeyras: Are you responding in particular to this statement that women are overburdened with tasks?

  9. Bolaane: Yes, with tasks of all kinds.

  10. Commeyras: What do you think about this claim that they have always worked more than men, which is not to say that men did nothing.

  11. Bolaane: I feel that my mother was overburdened. I think that my mother was probably contributing 90% in domestic work although she was not bringing a salary home like my father who was in a formal work situation.

  12. Commeyras: What's the problem? Is there a problem?

  13. Bolaane: Yes, I feel there is a problem. I feel that people should to a certain extent share the load.

  14. Commeyras: It wasn't shared in your view?

  15. Bolaane: No, I feel that the load was not shared. But probably my Daddy felt that they were sharing the load because in the morning he was going to work in a different environment.

  16. Commeyras: Shall we give Biakolo a chance?

  17. Biakolo: My immediate reaction would be that the suggestion that the African women’s image of themselves remains cloudy is absolute nonsense. To suggest that women have not been aware of their conditions, of their so-called fate, is nonsense. The idea that they do not have this kind of self-understanding is part of the Western construct of the black person, male or female, as unable to reflect upon their own conditions. It seems as if only the West is capable of providing the tools of analysis of life conditions. I think it is rubbish to suggest that African women have not been aware of their fate. We didn’t need feminism to make African women aware of their conditions. So I think I totally disagree there.

    In certain respects, some of the things we are looking at now . . . the condition of Africa, the condition of women, the condition of workers, the condition of virtually all aspects of the African life . . . could have been different. It may well be that because of the historical relationship of Africa and the West, we necessarily begin to re-examine certain things because of what is going on in the West as well. So in many ways I would say we do tend to react, to respond in various ways to what is going on in the West. Which is not necessarily to say that we have not been reflecting on our own conditions. Because what you say suggests that there has not been any reflection on the part of African women on their condition. I think this is untrue.

  18. Bolaane: I do agree with Biakolo. I think these women have always been conscious and aware of their conditions. I don't think my mother needed somebody from the Western world to come and say: do you see what is happening to you?

  19. Biakolo: Another part of this is that women work differently and just as hard. Now there are two aspects of that. We can distinguish between domestic work -- work within the context of the home environment and work outside the home environment. Now if we were to place these at par, we would see that in many ways and in many traditional African societies, women did participate in both forms of work. You know in the fields, for instance, they go and till. I grew up in the countryside and know the tradition. What went on was that in many ways the work outside the home was stratified. You know there was the female kind of crop, for instance, that a woman would work on and there was the male kind of crop. And within the domain of the home -- care of the children and house chores, cooking and so on -- it is in the domestic work that the men more or less abandon the responsibility to the women. We may theorize and may argue whether this derives from the culture and the cultural certification of this kind of labour. But if you put it in terms of aggregates, that is, the amount of work that women have to devote to labour outside the home in addition to undertaking all of the labour in the home, certainly you can say women did far more work in that sense. Of course we go on from there and say, what did the women in the traditional African setting themselves think about this? Did they feel, for instance, that the men should take some of the responsibilities for work in the home? What was their response to that cultural situation?

  20. Bolaane: Are you just focusing on the home?

  21. Biakolo: No I’m saying that if you look at the two domains of work, women participate in both of them. Men seem to have left one of the domains almost entirely to the women. All right. I’m saying the idea of leaving all that to the women, to the wives, may have derived from the cultural situation. And I’m saying we need to look at what women themselves feel, at what is or was their reaction to this kind of enculturation of burden, you know, of domestic burden, of leaving the entire work to them in the home.

  22. Commeyras: Perhaps the women would not want to relinquish control over their domestic responsibilities because that is their domain. That is where in one sense they have power. They control things within that domestic sphere and they don't have to negotiate because there they are the decision-makers.

  23. Biakolo: That’s a possibility. In many ways I have seen instances and not only within my own family -- my wife and me. But also within my own father’s family, and the neighbours, and all my experiences with my brothers and sisters and my cousins and nephews and nieces. I have seen many women would not tolerate the presence of the men in the kitchen, especially when they are cooking. They want you out because they feel that you are trespassing on their grounds. Many of them do feel for instance that this is where they command. But at the same time I have seen situations in which the women are cooking in the kitchen but they expect the man, for instance, to take care of the baby who’s crying outside the kitchen. And the question is: to what extent do the men support them? The fundamental questions come to rest regarding that. And I see that a situation of conflict perhaps tends to arrive in these transitional modes of life where people are emerging from traditional African societies and now the woman and the man are working for wages. We tend to retain certain attitudes toward domestic work that have come from the tradition and carry them on principally for selfish reasons, without taking into consideration the changed conditions and situations of work.

  24. Commeyras: Is that a confession?

  25. Biakolo: No it's not a personal confession. You can look at it as a gender confession.

  26. Bolaane: I like that. You know, to a certain extent I agree with you about the women's domain. Traditionally, cooking is not totally in the woman's domain in Setswana society. The cooking in the kitchen is the woman's domain but if you are cooking for a wedding or a funeral where you do the cooking with a big three-legged pot, of size twenty, then the men are there side by side with the women doing the cooking. For instance. men are to chop big pieces of meat (cow/goat) to throw in a big pot. Men are to attend to this pot of meat until the cooking is done. Women, on the other hand, would attend to the pot for porridge (sorghum/maize meal), where they would do the stirring in turns but may need men’s help (strength) when removing the big pot from the fire. They would then do the dishing of the porridge while the dishing of meat would remain the men’s responsibility. Towards the end of eating, the cleaning of the pile of plates becomes a responsibility of women. That was and is still our traditional division of labor. But the kitchen in the household remains the women’s domain. The society generally views it as a woman’s domain and would despise a man who offers to help in the kitchen. This notion is gradually changing within a few households in urban Botswana where a few women are demanding to be helped in the kitchen.

  27. Biakolo: There's no problem there.

  28. Bolaane: The men also helped in carrying big cooking pots in and out of the fire. Even when it comes to stirring the porridge men would agree to help. But they hardly help when it comes to cooking at home where the woman cooks just for the family.

  29. Biakolo: No, there’s no disagreement there. I mean that it is a question of definition of cooking. In several ways you are moving beyond the specific domestic domain to social functions, you know, the social party and so on. But even then in terms of all that went into the cooking activity, if you begin to clarify all of these questions it was not all women’s work. For instance splitting the wood, that was men’s work.

  30. Bolaane: And that is still men's work to a certain extent.

  31. Biakolo: Only the selfish men would refuse to help their wives to split the wood. And in traditional societies they would probably be the joke of the community. In several ways even that kind of labour was stratified.

  32. Commeyras: I don't think there is a problem with division of labor. That is often an efficient way to do things. The problem has been that the division of labour has been unequal. This is reflected in the claim made that women have carried far too much of the burden of work. We need to separate these two issues.

  33. Biakolo: That is why I thought I needed to clarify the difference of domains in which this unspecified idea of burden occurs . . . to clarify not only the difference in domains but also their roots and the cultural factors at play there.

  34. Commeyras: I want to go back to something you both talked about earlier when you reacted to Coquery-Vidrovitch's statement that African women's "image of themselves remains cloudy" (p. 1). I think you both agreed that women and men have long reflected on their condition -- their lives and they did not need any ideologies or feminists from the West to give them this mode of analysis. What I'm wondering about is what allows us to realize that a situation is not just or right. It seems to me that one could realize that she or he is working a lot but you could reason that it is just the way things are supposed to be. That it is one's lot in life. At what point does one arrive at the thought that perhaps life could be different if some kind of social change were to occur? What would you say within your own cultures brought about this kind of reflection or analysis? Do you think it was always there?

  35. Biakolo: My reaction would be that the history of the West is not necessarily the history of Africa, especially with respect to the women’s movement. Middle-class or upper-middle-class women have championed feminism and the women's movement. They do not necessarily reflect the lives of working-class women, of peasant women in Europe, or the United States, for example.

  36. Commeyras: Perhaps in the West it came about because middle-class women had the leisure to engage in self-analysis that led them to the idea that another social order was possible.

  37. Biakolo: Well you would be agreeing with the idea that the working-class women and the peasant women are probably too busy to think. That is more or less what you are suggesting there.

  38. Commeyras: It seems possible to me that if one is over-burdened with work there is not time to dialogue with many other people beyond your immediate sphere and arrive at this idea that another way life is possible.

  39. Biakolo: An alternative suggestion with regard to leisure is that middle-class women had time on their hands. They have working-class women working as domestics doing the entire job. So they have all the leisure to think, "Ahah, why am I so different from men? Why can’t I go out and work the way the men folk work?" The middle- and upper-class women with all of the leisure didn’t even have things to do. They didn’t even know how to make use of their own time. And they felt that being left in the home was oppression.

    It is not that the other women -- the working-class women, the peasant women -- did not feel the burden of life. They would feel the burden of life, all right. And it’s not that there were no injustices. I can tell you about specific injustices. For instance, there are questions of inheritance or questions of property, about women’s rights that have to be dealt with. Indeed, taking Britain and the United States as examples, women couldn’t vote. There were specific historical injustices that had to be corrected. And I would say that even in the case of Africa, there are specific historical injustices that have to be corrected in the long history of the way men have controlled power.

    In the West it is true that there was the idea that the public domain belonged entirely to the men with the domestic domain belonging to women. This kind of stratification, which you had in the Western world, very clearly needed to be overturned. Not merely because the middle- and upper-class women were idle but because males controlling the public domain was also a way of controlling the home, a way of controlling the whole of life.

  40. Commeyras: The thing I am struggling to understand is what gave rise to the apparent gender rights movement in Africa today?

  41. Biakolo: I find that very easy to answer.

  42. Bolaane: Let's see what you are going to say.

  43. Biakolo: The current attention given to feminism and women’s matters in Africa is a repercussion from what is going on in the Western World, the western ideology of feminism and its impact. For example, let’s take the example of human rights. A few years ago, before the fall of the Soviet Union, human rights were not such a dominant issue in Africa. Liberation was the dominant issue in Africa and you see, as far as the Western World was concerned, the protection of the Capitalist way of life was more important than the question of Human Rights as such. We know the influence of the Western World from the friendship of the Western World to a lot of dictatorial governments in the Third World -- people like Mobutu, the Chilean Pinoche, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and so on. All around the globe, human rights and the question of freedom and democracy were never dominant issues until the West took virtual total control of the World. Now the question of human rights has become a focal issue for the West. And so they can take time out to talk about human rights and the whole of Africa and the world begins to respond to all of these things. So we play to the kind of tune dictated by the West. And I’m saying that the women’s rights question is more or less a reflection of this entire trend. You see it even in historical studies -- you see it in literary studies -- you see it in the way we think. You know it is a shame but this is what is happening. I’m not saying there are no definite issues about women that we can and should address. But the current ideology is something that I find we are responding to just like we have always responded the Western World.

  44. Bolaane: How do you look at this ideology which you feel is dictated from the West? Do you see this ideology accommodating the African woman? How do you situate the African woman in this Western feminist ideology?

  45. Biakolo: Let me address it this way. We have to put feminism also in context. It’s true that we have so far not been very specific in terms of the history. But we have to situate it in the context of Western history -- Western intellectual history. Don’t forget that gender and feminism are social constructs. Gender is not just a biological given. And from that point of view, it becomes clear that feminism as a Western ideology and as a social construct emanating from the West has been given the kind of coloration, the kind of foundational espousal that implies that it is universal in many ways and therefore willy nilly it will apply to our societies. For instance you take the idea of the woman’s body as an important construct in feminist thought today. You see it very dominant in French feminism for example. What you realize is an attempt to universalise from that point of view. Every woman after all has a body. But is it true that the kind of attention, this kind of body theory, which you find in the West, is what is happening in Africa? Does the African woman fetishize her body? What kind of context leads to such a dominant metaphorizing of the body? Is this not also a construction? You move from the idea of a general biology to a socially constructed idea. And I find that in many ways that is what is going on. The impact of the West on Africa is the impact of a certain kind of definite historical, social construction, which is then universalized and to a point the rest of the world responds because of the power of the West. Its power of information, its power to influence researches, to influence discourse, its power to influence the social process. So this is what I see.

  46. Bolaane: It's power to influence the way we look at ourselves.

  47. Biakolo: Precisely.

  48. Commeyras: Given what you are saying about the impact of Western feminism on Africa, what do you think about what our colleague Changu Mannathoko at the University of Botswana has written?

    "...feminism has its roots in the African condition. This is because women in the continent have always been aware of the prevailing oppressive gender relations and have throughout history challenged these conditions in a variety of ways. It is a misconception to view feminism as a Western ideology which reflects Western culture simply because feminist theories, just like other theories, have been influenced by external pressures resulting from colonialism and imperialism." (p. 72)

  49. Bolaane: Western ideology has shaped the way we looked at things as women. But women in Africa have always been aware of their conditions.

  50. Biakolo: What she is saying here is generalizing feminism to imply female consciousness. Because I remember reading one article, I think it is by Toril Moi -- she distinguishes between the feminine and feminism. And I think it is an important distinction. And I think that Changu Mannathoko seems to be adumbrating things here, not distinguishing the female as a biological construct from the feminine and feminist as extra-biological constructs, if you wish. Feminism is a definite social and political construction with a specific history and a specific cultural context. And I think there is where Mannathoko has made a theoretical error when she says it is a misconception to view feminism as a western ideology.

    It cannot be claimed that gender consciousness was not there in Africa. What I see, however, is a specific form of this consciousness being promoted from feminism as a western ideology. I mean this consciousness is being given a definite kind of impetus and being promoted in a given way, but it has always been there in many ways. The way in which our women have responded to this consciousness over time has been different from one African society to another. In other ways and in many places you can see that it has been subjugated also. But there are different ways in which women have responded.

  51. Commeyras: How about giving us an example?

  52. Biakolo: This is the example. A husband spoke disparagingly of the woman’s body. He spoke publicly in a personal quarrel with his wife and made reference to the female anatomy in coarse and vulgar terms. And this woman protested to the women’s group or caucus in my village. And they took this matter to the clan. Since the protest involved all the women, they decided unanimously to withhold sexual favours from the men in the village. And then they, as a body, began a march to the chief at the clan headquarters some thirty kilometres away. And the men folk had to go and plead with the women and in fact the offending male was fined. He was really seriously fined and had to publicly apologise to the womenfolk. You could not speak disparagingly of the woman’s body in my community. In certain ways women were conscious of their position, of their persons and their bodies.

  53. Commeyras: Is there a circumstance in which it would be sanctioned to speak disparagingly of a woman?

  54. Biakolo: I can testify that outside of the hearing of women, men would say disparaging things. But that is not the main point. The point of it is, the social consciousness was there. You couldn’t say disparaging things in ways that would be known to women. It was something that was frowned upon as a public event. Which meant that the men were very aware -- very conscious of this, of the need to treat women with respect.

  55. Commeyras: It is a way of policing people.

  56. Biakolo: Precisely. So I think from that point of view I know that women have always had if we may now use the terminology in place -- feminist consciousness. But I would not use that terminology. I would rather speak of a specific consciousness of their humanity of a certain degree of their equality with men. I call it degree because in many ways also which you can reconstruct, both from the side of men and the side of women, women thought of themselves and the men thought of them as inferior. I can in fact give you specific examples of this, you know. So that kind of consciousness is something women need to deal with. I would say that in many ways feminism as an ideology from the West would certainly have -- perhaps has helped -- to rethink certain of those views of themselves and the views that men had about them.

    Sex workers and AIDs counselors report distressing attitudes to rape and battery among young men. Roger from Thoko Thaba High School in Thokoza says: "In the African way a woman must be beaten to make her stronger," while his friend Vusi adds: "Sometimes a little beating helps…if you don’t beat her you don’t love her." (Haffajee, 1997, p. 12)

  57. Bolaane: This quotation is from South Africa.

  58. Commeyras: Yes, but I have heard people in Botswana say the same thing.

  59. Bolaane: We have to consider the time and place because I'm convinced that when you go to the rural areas, most of the folks there will not agree to this statement. Life has changed, though, in contemporary urban life. I can give an example of the difference using an example of a couple that I know. The woman used to come to someone’s office and cry, wanting someone who could listen and console her. The husband had been beating her up and one day he started the quarrel, wanting to start a fight right here at the university. That’s when she came crying to someone’s office. At one point he beat her up and threw her in the street unattended. She was once taken to the hospital unconscious. Now she’s supposed to be a Gaborone woman and her husband is supposed to be a Gaborone man. This is just an example of many cases that I know. Some of the so called educated Gaborone men think this is the way of controlling a woman. To show power (to yet another educated person -- your wife). Domestic violence is then used as an excuse for declaring one’s position (the man) as a head of the family.

    It really depends on the generation, location and environment. This is why I always ask questions about the age when it comes to debates on domestic violence. I’m trying to check whether someone is talking about African men of today, or yesterday; African men of Gaborone, Francistown, Jwaneng (urban areas) or the African men of Mauntlala, Khwaai, Mapoka (rural areas). What we are seeing today . . . it’s a new breed with a new culture.

  60. Biakolo: It’s incredible. It’s really sad. It is a really horrible way to look at women. All the years of my life I never saw my father raise his hand against my mother.

  61. Commeyras: Let me ask about another layer of this. What about this idea that the husband somehow is supposed to discipline or control his wife physically or otherwise?

  62. Biakolo: I don’t know that really. Don’t forget that there have been a lot of influences, especially Christian influences, on the male/female relationships also in Africa. So that a number of the responses you get about this kind of thing can arise from that. I do not think that there are any specific aspects of the culture as such which instill a sense of being a minority status to women, of regarding her as a child. You may see certain cultural activities, certain cultural processes . . . for instance, the idea of a man marrying several wives. And then having a lot of children with the implication that these are like property. I think that is another kind of ideologization of the cultural framework.

    The system of polygamy was not thought of in those terms at all. From my point of view, there were a lot of economic factors for polygamy and there was a number of things which made it, shall I say, less honourable for you to have just one wife but also, as an offspring, for you to not have half brothers. In my community, because my father had only one wife -- my mother -- we were always looked upon as a bit incomplete. He was a Christian, that’s why he had only one wife. Of course there were also people in my community who were not Christians and yet had and have only one wife. You know there was nothing, no specific rules, but there was always something in the culture, which insisted that you have half brothers. You are always incomplete, as a family, if you don’t have half brothers. So economic factors may come in but a whole range of cultural beliefs and attitudes mattered. Other than that you could not say that there were certain specific things in the culture which showed clearly that the woman was a minor.

  63. Bolaane: I think the question still remains as to whether the woman was regarded as a minor.

  64. Biakolo: Perhaps. But I’m not able to see specific immediate signs, obvious signs, to indicate that the woman was a minor.

  65. Bolaane: It is a question of power relations and gender equality. I think the woman has always been regarded as a minor.

  66. Biakolo: Would you like to specify this more closely?

  67. Bolaane: For instance let's look at the Setswana kgotla (a village gathering or meeting place) where the woman has always been kept at a distance. But the kgotla is where the decisions are made by the so-called traditional male elders on important issues. In the past, women (irrespective of their level of intelligence) were not allowed to say their views openly. Now there is a transition. Women do attend kgotla meetings (although they still occupy their gender space -- crowding together as women -- sitting on the floor rather than on chairs like the men). They can now participate fully in kgotla debates. But most of them still feel intimidated by the presence of some men who still regard the kgotla as a male domain, and though the women may have something important to contribute to the debates, they would end up keeping quiet. Most women still come to the kgotla to listen to what the men have to say.

    Another example of regarding a woman as a minor in society is in case where a boy-child is supposed to take over from the father as a chief. If the boy is still a minor when the father dies then the elder sister or the mother or the aunt can be appointed as Regent and when he is of age he can take over the throne. In our Setswana context, though, the female Regent still remains a minor because there will always be a group of men surrounding her as the counsel or advisors. She remains a weakling because the counsel of elders makes the decisions. She's a Regent by title but the real power lies with the men around her. Recently there has been a new development in the country: a woman has been appointed for the first time as a member of the House of Chiefs. This is a step forward in addressing gender inequalities in society.

  68. Biakolo: There you are thinking specific power relations in the domain of leadership and politics.

  69. Bolaane: Even when the man comes to the home/house, there are specific power relations which place a woman as a minor in society.

  70. Biakolo: Can you describe these domestic power relations a little more clearly?

  71. Commeyras: Let me give an example I've heard over and over. When you are getting married the women take you aside and they tell you don't ever bother your husband asking where he's been or why he's home late. That's his business and you're not to interrogate him.

  72. Biakolo: It would be very strange if you didn’t show concern because it is a matter of concern. What happened? Why are you late? Why are you coming this time? It's something you expect the woman to ask.

  73. Commeyras: Are you saying it is different in the culture you come from?

  74. Biakolo: Certainly different. It’s not the same kind of thing.

  75. Bolaane: Let's come back to this discussion of power relations and use marriage as an example. I don't think this is specific only to Botswana. Who makes the decisions traditionally as to whom the girl-child will marry and when she'll marry? Who dominates the decision?

  76. Biakolo: You are saying who dominates or who makes the decision? They’re not quite the same thing. From what I have seen, decisions about marriage are often made in family councils. And family councils do not include just men. They include the father, the mother, the uncles and aunts, sometimes the sisters and brothers, if they are within reach.

  77. Commeyras: Which ethnic group?

  78. Biakolo: I’m Urhobo, from the Nigerian Delta.

  79. Bolaane: Maybe it’s different in that specific ethnic group in Nigeria. As far as I understand marriage in the traditional set up, mothers and aunts may be present and may be allowed to say something regarding the marriage arrangement, but at the end of the day decisions are made by fathers and uncles.

  80. Biakolo: Now it may well be that sometimes the final decision rests with the men in cases of conflict. Okay, we have arranged it so one side wants the marriage to continue but another side doesn’t want it to continue. But you see these questions are always very grey areas because I’ve seen cases where some of the women have rebelled and married the men they wanted to marry. All the man would say is I’m not taking the bride price from you -- from the in-laws.

  81. Commeyras: It’s hard to generalize.

  82. Biakolo: Yes.

  83. Bolaane: In Tswana society for instance the in-laws from the boy's side are the ones who make a move to say we want your daughter. It's a man's prerogative to come and approach the other family -- the girl’s family. And when they come, they approach the men and then the mother of the daughter and aunts will be informed in due course. My concern is that the mother and aunts are once again being treated as minors.

  84. Biakolo: Well you know there are differences. In patrilineal societies you do expect this kind of thing to go on. Okay? Because at the same time in matrilineal societies it doesn’t follow like that. Because I know that in certain of the ethnic groups in West Africa they will go to the uncles, that is the mother’s people, for questions regarding the marriage and so on.

  85. Bolaane: Which is not the case in Tswana society.

  86. Commeyras: Biakolo, do you see that gender relations are a lot different here in Botswana than at home in Nigeria?

  87. Biakolo: In some ways -- yes.

  88. Commeyras: Do you think the Batswana have more inequities?

  89. Biakolo: In some ways, yes.

  90. Bolaane: Such as?

  91. Biakolo: Such as the question of violence to women. That is a very specific kind of thing and I see that happens here far more than I can imagine it happening in Nigeria among any of the ethnic groups that I’m familiar with there. That’s something that’s more rampant here.

  92. Bolaane: Are you using Gaborone as a point of reference?

  93. Biakolo: Well, what you ask is general but from what you read, from what you hear from your colleagues, from what you learn interacting with people, I would say that by and large the degree of violence to women here is much higher than it is in Nigeria. I am thinking in terms of proportion because Nigeria is 100 million people and this is a country of 1.5 million people. But proportionately I’d say yes in terms of this sort of physical abuse there’s a lot of inequity here. There are also some other very specific things -- for instance, the laws in place when I cam here regarding whether if you were a Motswana your child can ever be a Motswana.

  94. Commeyras: Citizenship.

  95. Biakolo: Yes the citizenship question. I stand to be corrected, but in Nigeria once your mother is a citizen you are a citizen automatically. You know there are a few specific areas like that where I see there are inequities.

  96. Commeyras: Generally how do you see gender relations here as far as men and women working together -- living together?

  97. Biakolo: I see a lot more harmony between the genders in Nigeria than I see here.

  98. Bolaane: In what way?

  99. Biakolo:I’m thinking about a couple of things, questions of tensions and fights within the home, regarding the control of money and the control of children -- control of space -- control of incomes. I see a lot of…

  100. Bolaane: control of women...!

  101. Biakolo: I see a lot more tensions and struggles and, you know, antagonisms here than I’ve seen in Nigeria.

  102. Commeyras: Is there not a strong woman's rights or gender equity movement in Nigeria? You know how it is here -- quite strong.

  103. Biakolo: Yes. It's there. It’s also there. But do you know, even among the women themselves there is a sort of way they look at the women in the forefront of all these feminist struggles. Okay. Because perhaps most of those in these struggles are unmarried, middle-class, and educated women. Some of them divorced. So there is a certain way I have seen . . .

  104. Commeyras: Are they considered a fringe element?

  105. Biakolo: Yeah fringe, I think that’s the right word. They look at them as frustrated women who really can’t establish relationships with men, proper relationships with men.

  106. Commeyras: That is what they say here.

  107. Biakolo: But then, in Nigeria, some of the theorizing that’s has been done about gender relations have been done by women who are in homes, who are settled, maritally speaking. Because of my reading in this theory and the whole discourse of feminism in African literature, I have seen many of the positions taken; the most articulate positions have been by Nigerian women who are married, many of whom are in fact interrogating the whole Western construction of feminism, the woman’s body and the woman’s place. So the most articulate things I’ve read come from women who are married. It is not an antagonistic thing. It’s not a struggle between one gender and another in fact. Specific cases of injustice have to be dealt with, and on that score men and women actually have the responsibility to fight injustices together.

  108. Bolaane: I disagree.

  109. Commeyras: So you would agree or disagree with the statement that "women's issues can not be fought for by men"?

  110. Bolaane: The women I know who are involved in gender equity debates feel we need men to rally.

  111. Commeyras: I've heard men say on campus something like "Look, women, the opportunities are there. You just need to go for it. We are not in your way."

  112. Biakolo: But they are in the way. I don’t share that view. Because if there’s an injustice then everyone has a responsibility to fight it. Yes. That’s my viewpoint.

  113. Commeyras: I have said to my students on a couple of occasions that it seems to me that Black men can understand the fight for equity better than White men.

  114. Biakolo: Why is this?

  115. Commeyras: I figure that Black men understand oppression better.

  116. Biakolo: Yes.

  117. Bolaane: I agree with that.

  118. Commeyras: This means that I would expect that African women could have more success trying to communicate about equity issues with Black men because they share an abhorrence for oppression and discrimination that is very personal.

  119. Biakolo: Yes.

  120. Bolaane: In this conference on "women and decision making," organized by Emang Basadi (an NGO Women Organisation), women all said that they expect men occupying state positions to understand how it feels to be a junior person and not being allowed to express your views. Someone referred to the South African situation as an example to say these are people who have been oppressed. They know what oppression is. They know what fighting for your rights is. Therefore their men should understand gender issues.

  121. Commeyras: Theoretically that makes sense, but is it working out that way?

  122. Bolaane: Let us look at the University of Botswana. To what extent are men being conscientized? So far it has been a slow movement of women. If you look at attendance at a gender workshop or whatever it is, a meeting of women, you only see one or two men.

  123. Biakolo: As a matter of fact there’s a lot of gender consciousness here. Far more than I find in Nigeria.

  124. Bolaane: Why do you say that?

  125. Biakolo: From my personal experience I’ve seen that here people are aware. There are a lot of discussions that go on and which somehow fall back on gender questions. They arise ever so frequently here. The way I see them -- I never saw them arise in Nigeria, so there’s certainly in the academy a lot more awareness of gender relations.

  126. Bolaane: I'm talking about the attitude, the way people carry themselves, the way people relate to one another. There's a difference between what people say in small rooms as opposed to what we see happening in the larger context of academic and social relations.

  127. Biakolo: Social relations, -- I don’t know too much about that.

  128. Bolaane: The social relations in meetings -- the way people talk to one another, you know the dressing, the mannerisms, all that.

  129. Biakolo: All these things are non-specific. I mean you can generalize a lot there. And get into trouble with generalities. I always fear generalities because you may interpret a certain kind of behaviour pattern or event in a certain way. And you know you haven’t assessed the context and the motivations of peoples’ actions too clearly. So it’s always very difficult to generalize about these things, you know, how people react to one another.

  130. Bolaane: I think you are refusing to answer my question.

  131. Biakolo: If you give me a specific question perhaps I can respond to it.

  132. Bolaane: I still go back to the same question: do you think people on campus are conscious about gender relations?

  133. Biakolo: Yes, I think they are.

  134. Bolaane: What about the position of women in departments? What about the men’s attitudes to women when it comes to leadership and decision-making?

  135. Biakolo: I will respond from the point of view of my department. A year or two ago, a question was raised by outgoing Head of Department, a man. He said, "Looking at my department as it is, I find that it is skewed in favor of women." Overwhelmingly in terms of the number of local women -- that is, the Batswana women who are in that department -- it’s skewed very much in their favor. There are very few Batswana men in the English department. He felt the recruitment policy needed to be rethought with the incoming head of the department, who was a woman and a local, as he was leaving. And that we should begin to weigh things, taking a bit of affirmative action in the employment of men in the department.

    Some made light of it, but some felt that after all you need to look at other departments such as the Law Department, which is almost entirely skewed in favor of men. There are hardly any women there. So there are all kinds of divisions. But he had raised a very fundamental question. It just turned out to be that in this instance it was in favor of men. But if other departments are weighed too heavily in terms of males rather than females, or females than males, the situation should be redressed. And I think it is possible to redress these situations. There’s nothing which says women do not have a legal mind or that men have more of a legal mind or more a historical mind or that women have more of a literary mind. Where you have all these kinds of asymmetries they really need to be straightened out.

  136. Bolaane: But Biakolo, you've not answered my question. Don't theorize here and say, "maybe this is how you want things to be done." You're not writing a paper. This is an open debate. You're not telling me what's happening with your experiences as a male lecturer at the University of Botswana. I wanted to hear from you as a foreigner and as a man who resides in Gaborone. How do you understand the nature of gender relations today?

  137. Biakolo: Now I think the changes are coming. They have for instances in the English Department a small committee to look at the matter. It was as serious as that. I mean you can’t have something more serious than that. Because you’re dealing with how you can balance the gender employment situation. Okay, it turned out that not much happened from that committee.

    The committee didn’t do too much work, you know, so the matter is still pending. I imagine that a committee of that kind can be set up in various departments. The Law Department is a very good example. I don’t see why they have a situation where there are hardly any women in the Department of Law when a deliberate effort was made to recruit these women. The situation was unfair.

  138. Bolaane: There is a typical example in our faculty -- History. Why are you so much concerned about Law, when we have a case in the Faculty of Humanities? Why don't you show concern about History, where you have only two women as members of the departmen?

  139. Biakolo: I think change will have to come from you -- the pressure to change from you and the other female there -- since I don’t see any efforts being made by any men.

  140. Commeyras: That takes us back to this statement that "women’s issues cannot be fought for by men." And remember that when a woman raises such an issue, the men will say it is because she is not married and therefore frustrated. Remember that you acknowledged that activist women are viewed as part of some fringe element.

  141. Biakolo: No, that’s what I’m concluding here. Since I do not see any kind of positive effort on the side of the men to change the situation for the better, I’m afraid that the one who feels the pinch of the shoes must do something about it. You know you feel it more so the pressure for some change must come from you. If you don’t raise it in your departmental meeting then as a man I’m not going to ever be in a position to raise it. So that’s why I said the responsibility would still have to be yours.

  142. Commeyras: All this leads me to want to ask you, Biakolo, why are you interested in gender issues?

  143. Biakolo: Well it is inevitable to be interested in gender issues. As I said before, there is the impact of the West on our lives whether we like it or not. It’s there. Whether in fact we should respond the way we sometimes respond is another question. Okay because sometimes we begin to conceptualize life and look at things basically from Western constructions without in fact looking at these things in terms of their own specific historical, social contexts. Maybe I should elaborate a little bit on that. In terms of academic studies, in our own discipline -- the discipline of literature -- it is impossible to proceed in any reasonable exchange of ideas on any text without reference to these kinds of things. So you’ve got to deal with this thing. It’s there. That’s one point. The other point is that there certainly are a number of specific questions about the inequalities that exist between male and female. You know, in Africa. We may not be distinctly aware of them or may not theorize them the way it’s been done or is being done now. But they exist so they also have to be dealt with. So I’m interested in this because every injustice has to be dealt with. And if it is perceived as an injustice the voices of those who are suffering the injustice, are heard. So I think from the point of view of professional life and the point of view of my own political consciousness , inevitably one has to deal with gender issues

  144. Bolaane: I've always wondered why is it that men don't respond quickly to some of these issues such as AIDS and domestic violence?

  145. Biakolo: I think I will have to put it in the context of Botswana, of the University of Botswana. Look at the workforce at this university, academic and nonacademic. There’s a fair representation of women in the workforce in terms of sheer numbers, although the question of the hierarchies they occupy is a separate matter. And in many ways the cultural attitudes that you find here . . . one begins to see the women more or less dominating certain realms of life; in social life you are less likely to find men.

  146. Bolaane: Why?

  147. Biakolo: Why is that this? I think you have to look for the cultural explanations. If you turn the scales the other way and think about drinking parties and bars and so on, you are more likely to find more men there. So I think that kind of trend may be reflected in this representation of men at events involving AIDS or involving women's issues and so on.

  148. Bolaane: This takes us back to the influence of the West on Africa. When you go to a place like London, women are free to go to pubs and night clubs, chat with whoever, smoke and drink whatever they like to drink without having to think twice and look around to check if some man is disapproving her presence in the bar.

  149. Biakolo: Invited by the men mostly.

  150. Bolaane: I don't know. I look at these women in places like London; they seem to be free in the way they do things, in the way they want to dress, in the way they want to behave. Let me use as an example beer or alcohol drinking. Generally women in Botswana -- regardless of whether in the rural area or Gaborone -- won't want to be seen holding a can of beer. Even with a glass of wine there are women who would not want to be known to be drinking wine. Because they are thinking of what men will think about them.

  151. Commeyras: Will the men think they are loose or sexually available?

  152. Bolaane: Unhuh.

  153. Biakolo: So! What are you drawing from that?

  154. Bolaane: It leads me to wonder how much have we have taken from these Western ideologies.

  155. Biakolo: I don’t know. There’s certainly one thing I’ve observed here: there are a lot more women in bars and in drinking places than I find in Nigeria.

  156. Bolaane: It depends on which bars and it depends on who those women are in terms of class and status.

  157. Biakolo: I'm not classifying now. I'm just saying in terms of male/female. There are a lot more women that I find here than I find in bars in Nigeria.

  158. Bolaane: It looks like a negative thing for Botswana.

  159. Biakolo: No, it’s not a negative factor. In fact you misrepresent that it is a negative factor. I’m only talking about sheer numbers.

  160. Commeyras: He's not telling us how he feels about it.

  161. Biakolo: Aha. How I feel about it is not really the question. But this is what I see. And that does not prove that the women are looser here than there.

    Let me explain something here. For instance there is a certain idea I can see from my American colleague. I have been to her place and we have been out together with another colleague a couple of times and then she has seen my wife and me together. And the conclusion she would probably draw from that will be that "he’s man who puts the woman in her place." That would be, in fact, a totally wrong construction. Because you have to go back to the relationship with a woman and the perception from which the woman operates. It is not likely that she would like to go to a bar. That's okay, but because I’m a drinking person I would like to go to a bar. And if I made her go along she would feel bored sitting there drinking . . . maybe thinking of the children because there is a certain domestic orientation. I would say in this very specific instance she feels better at home than anywhere else and certainly does not care to go to a bar.

  162. Commeyras: If your wife wanted to go out with two male colleagues and she was a drinker, would it be okay with you to stay home?

  163. Biakolo: If she were -- but she's not.

  164. Commeyras: Well, all right, not drinking. They are just going out eating. She's going out with two male colleagues to eat and she would like you to stay home with the children. Is that all right with you?

  165. Biakolo: I’ve done it before. This is why that kind of representation is wrong. The thing has almost become stupid in the West you know. Just anything you say between men and women you interpret in feminist terms without constructing it from very specific, domestic instances. It is rote thinking. People are no longer using their minds anymore because of the feminist thing. For instance you see my wife bringing food to me in the office and say, "Aha this is a very good instance of a man who oppresses his wife." Because you wouldn't calculate that perhaps this couple has decided that to eat out is more expensive. Or maybe this woman loves this man so much she doesn't want him to eat outside. You just think : oh yes this is a veritable sign of oppression. She wouldn’t even think, for instance, of when my wife was teaching at the University of Ibadan, when there were several times I had to bring food to her.

  166. Bolaane: And you were happy to do so?

  167. Biakolo: Whether I did it happily? Unquestionably, because it’s a responsibility. She doesn’t like to eat out so I bring the food. Period.

  168. Commeyras: So are you saying there is equal opportunity or equal burden?

  169. Biakolo: The moral of my tale or my analysis is this: in the West right now, in this historical moment women activists are no longer -- no I won’t say that -- I shouldn’t say that -- some of these feminists are no longer thinking right. They are no longer thinking in terms of specific relationships between men and women. Everything seems to be ideologized. It doesn’t seem any longer possible to look at things from the point of view of love or marriage, of the specific relations between the man and the woman. But everything has been constructed in terms of power relations. And I find that a bit curious because people don’t seem to be using their minds anymore.

  170. Commeyras: I understand what you are saying. What comes to mind is a parallel with racism in the U.S.A. To the extent to which we are always looking for it, whether it be Black people or White. They don't always know how to interpret certain things that happen and they are constantly asking themselves "Is this racism?" I see a parallel with sexism. We know that it exists and many of us are constantly vigilant -- checking, always checking. Now of course we're going to make mistakes, just like I think people probably make some mistakes interpreting a situation as racist when maybe if they knew more about the context, as you're suggesting, it wouldn't be interpreted as racism. But I think you can understand that since sexism is a problem, those concerned tend to get rather vigilant with regard to looking for it.

  171. Biakolo: Not obsessed. I'm happy you are using the word vigilant.

  172. Commeyras: Maybe some are obsessed. Everyone is different. But I understand your point that perhaps people don't know enough about the situation and conclude that something is a sexist situation when if they understood more they would arrive at a different conclusion.

  173. Biakolo: Precisely, precisely. And in fact this is what worries me. We’re not contextualizing sufficiently in any of these discourses. In the instance of feminism we are not contextualizing enough . . . contextualizing in terms of specific events and instances that we see . . . contextualizing in terms of cultural differences that may exist. And I know a number of instances I’ve raised and I’ve tried to raise some of them even here. But what is the impact of the West on feminist thought -- thought about women’s presence in all spheres of life here? You know feminism is a Western ideology. There are not enough African feminists and thinkers along these lines. I’ve complained about this because of the insufficient contextualization.

  174. Commeyras: I worry that when feminism is always positioned as that Western ideology encroaching or influencing the situation in Africa, it is taking something away from African women. It implies that they couldn't have arrived at this on their own. They're just been influenced by the West. It's a way of disempowering or discrediting women.

  175. Biakolo: Well you cannot rule out some impact, positive impact, as I tried to say. Don’t forget that women are caught in two kinds of inequalities and sometimes in fact three kinds of inequalities; there’s inequality of gender, and the inequality of race, and sometimes the inequality of class. So sometimes you configure all these together . . . it's a genuine concern. The question of race has not been exhausted. We haven’t concluded matters there and probably it’s going to go on for another century or two or three or else the end of the world. But now we have the question of gender. So there are male/female inequalities in certain specific ways in Africa, but then this whole ideological way of thinking about it . . . not just the thought about it, but also this specific way of thinking about it . . . has emanated from the West. Is this again an imposition -- an imperialist kind of project? These are questions that women are raising, you know, because there is a specific need to reflect on whether it articulates their cultural situation and their own social and political situation as it exists on the ground, or merely reflects what is going on outside. I mean, these are important issues. It’s not just thinking in circles. I think it’s thinking symmetrically but thinking also in terms of a spiral.

  176. Commeyras: So where do you think we're headed? What's going to happen in the future? Think about Africa in twenty years.

  177. Bolaane: I feel that things will change in the near future. There will be a lot of change. And as a teacher I think we can start with the school curriculum. We can make changes so the small boys and small girls become conscious about these issues.

  178. Biakolo: I agree there.

  179. Bolaane: I'm very proud of my own culture. Definitely when we take these issues on board we're not necessarily saying lets throw away what is ours and adopt totally Western concepts or Western ways of living. I really wish one day it could be possible even for the Western world to borrow from Africa. We too have a lot to offer.

  180. Biakolo: There will be borrowings but they will not be acknowledged. But I think I agree very much with the consciousness in very many specific ways -- specific patterns of social behavior and relationship between men and women. There will be improvement. The consciousness is going to contribute to a lot of change -- rape issues, violence issues, issues of specific rights, equality between the sexes in many ways. Across Africa there will be a lot of changes in law and changes in social behavior. I’m not so sure about the theoretical constructions that have been erected to account for these things. The body of all these kinds of theories may go the way of all flesh. And it will be probably like any fashions which just goes out, you know -- you have Marxism, then you have deconstruction, and then you have feminism -- it's really just a fashion. It will contribute something, of course, to have texts that are perceived in a certain kind of way. But having taken that into account, it is going to go out just like any of the other theoretical fads.

  181. Bolaane: Where do you think we are heading? Are we seeing a positive future?

  182. Biakolo: Yes, but that’s what I’ve just said.

  183. Commeyras: When attention to gender fades, what will remain?

  184. Biakolo: As I said, gender -- it’s going to apply for a while -- and have an impact upon us the way we subsequently read texts and read social texts too. But by and large it’s going . . .

  185. Commeyras: When it fades what will remain?

  186. Biakolo: Just like you cannot think of class anymore without some Marxist understanding of class . . .

  187. Commeyras: Gender becomes just another lens?

  188. Biakolo: No, you’re not getting it right. I’m saying that it has a certain value in terms of the way we will subsequently read texts, read social text. There will be an impact. And this impact will also be felt in terms of concrete legal changes and changes in social behavior, in the way women are treated and regarded, yes, but in terms of an ideology that lasts forever as a power tool, I doubt it.

Works Cited

Coquery-Vidrovitch, Catherine. African Women. United Kingdom: Westview, 1997.

Government of Botswana. National Gender Programme Framework. Gaborone: TA Publications Botswana (PTY) Ltd., 1998.

Haffajee, Ferial. "Men’s march catches the imagination." Mail & Guardian 13.46 (1997, Nov. 21): 12.

Mannathoko, Changu. "Feminist theories and the study of gender issues in southern Africa." In Ruth Meena (Ed.), Gender in Southern Africa (71-91) Harare: SAPES BOOKS, 1992. 71-91.

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