Sunday, November 18, 2012

Love and Sex in Lesotho

Today I’m writing about my observations on love, marriage, and sex in Lesotho.  First I think it’s necessary to define love and what it means to Americans.  By love, I mean romantic love, which is different than the kind one feels for family members or close friends.  I actually don’t know if I’ve ever been in love, so I guess I don’t have much authority on this topic, but based on my experiences and what others have told me, love is a deep feeling of affection for a special person that evolves and intensifies over time.  It’s dynamic, meaning that it can grow and change.  Over time, one can fall in love, but it appears that one can fall out of love too.  In America, the phrase “I love you” is not thrown around casually.  Two people may be attracted to each other and have a nice romance happening between them, but they will not necessarily say the words “I love you” to each other.  This is because these three little words mean a special kind of mutual intimacy that is shared between two people who know one another in a way that’s different from all other people in their lives.  Saying the phrase also means a relationship is getting more serious and that these people wants to spend a lot of time, perhaps as much as a lifetime, with one another.  It’s possible that love doesn’t always happen like this or feel this way to Americans, but this seems to be the general concept.

Now, I’m not sure I can adequately describe love in Lesotho and what it means to Basotho, but I do know it is very different than our idea of “love,” particularly in my very rural region.  I’ll start with dating.  For Americans, dating is the period of opportunity in which people get to know each other and fall in love.  If mutual love doesn’t happen, the people typically break up and move on with their lives.  If it does, they will probably continue seeing each other, which can lead to moving in together, getting married, having kids, growing old together, and so on.  With the exception of polygamists living in some areas of the U.S., this is between two people only.  Like in the states, people are monogamous in Lesotho.  In spite of that, there appears to be a culture of having multiple concurrent partners, meaning more than one sexual partner, even if a person is married.  A partner may know that the other has another man or woman on the side, yet they typically turn the other cheek.  If a man is having an affair with another woman and his wife finds out about it, it is extremely unlikely that his wife will consider leaving him.

In a country where sex is obviously happening, HIV/AIDS is rampant, and not everyone uses a condom, it’s surprising how unaccustomed people are to talking about sex and the AIDS pandemic.  If an issue is uncomfortable or sensitive, Basotho will avoid talking about it. This creates a lot of problems, especially the fact that most parents here never have “the talk” with their children about sex.  But let me go back to the point I’m trying to make.  In America, multiple concurrent partners would be unacceptable.  It would be a violation of the norms of love that exist between two people.  When one partner is unfaithful and the other finds out about it, there is usually some sort of confrontation.  The afflicted partner may assume that the other doesn’t love him or her enough, because in America, when two people love each other, they shouldn't want to have sex with anyone else.  At least this is what we like to believe.  Maybe it’s true for some, others, maybe not.  In any case, after such an affair, there are a few different options for American couples.  Maybe they talk things through and stay together.  But, they could just as easily break up, or if they are a married couple, get divorced.  In Lesotho, however, sex is not openly discussed – it’s a taboo topic of conversation.  Most Basotho also seem to shy away from conflict.  I'm not sure if it's a result of the previously mentioned factors, but a lover or two on the side is common and seems to be an unspoken understanding among Basotho.  If someone gets upset and wants a divorce, well, that’s just scandalous.  I don’t know of any divorced people in my region of Lesotho.

The other difference I’ve noticed with “love” is that, a lot of times, it is imposed and controlled by men.  When a man proposes love to a woman, it means he has found a woman he wants to marry.  His family must first pay “lobolla,” the bride price, whether the currency is cows or cash.  The woman may barely know the man, but if she is of marrying age, has no other opportunities, or the future is looking bleak (i.e. she is uneducated or isn’t performing well in school), she may accept.  Of course, she may accept for other reasons too.  But because lobolla is paid, the man has a sort of ownership over his wife. 

Women also tend to get married at very young ages in Lesotho.  Case in point: two of my students, a 9th and a 10th grader, permanently left school to get married.  Many Basotho are bewildered when they find out that I’m 23 years old and still single.  Depending on what kind of mood I'm in, I'll make up lies about my husband and kids, just to stall the marriage proposals and prying questions about my love life.
Otherwise, both men and women express shock and amusement when I tell them that no, I do not need a husband to be happy and that I haven’t fallen in love with anyone yet.  Seriously, they laugh in my face.  Perhaps this is because, for rural and uneducated Basotho women, a husband isn’t necessarily someone they’re head-over-heels in love with, but rather, a person that can ensure their security and help fulfill society’s gender roles and expectations for them.  In my rural village, the expectations for women include taking care of the home, looking after the children, gathering firewood, wild spinach, and water, cooking, washing clothes, and making sure their husband is satisfied.  In return, the man looks after the animals and does some sort of work to provide financial security and stability.

I don’t want anyone to think that I’m making sweeping generalizations about all Basotho and the nature of their relationships.  I’m sure there are plenty of Basotho out there who think of love in the way that Americans think of it, who are faithful and very much in love with their significant others, and who accept more modern roles and expectations of women.  But love is definitely different here in many ways.  Although I’ve lived here for over a year, I’m still surprised when a man I’ve just met immediately tells me he loves me and wants to marry me.  I’ll probably never know how much of this is tradition and how much has to do with the fact that I am an exotic foreigner.  I have both male and female friends here, but I personally don’t think I could ever be in a romantic relationship with a man from Lesotho, because it seems as if our ideas of love, marriage, and gender roles clash.  I'm not saying cross-cultural relationships don't work.  They're certainly possible, and there are Peace Corps volunteers who date Basotho.  I know that a lot of my friends at home are getting engaged and married, but I’m not in a rush.  Until I meet the right person, I'm happy living the single life.

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