Sunday, February 12, 2012

Prostitution is unAfrican? You must be joking...

Comments attributed to Nairobi Mayor George Aladwa on plans to legalise prostitution in the city have elicited horror from a cross-section of society. The various reactions are well represented by Nairobi Metropolitan Development Minister Njeru Githae’s view on the subject. Wearing the pious face of the faithful, Mr Githae denounced prostitution as immoral, unlawful and unAfrican.

These terms, unleashed with self-righteous indignation at various points in our post-colonial national conversation, do not, in and of themselves, possess the eternal self-evident meaning their users presuppose. Their meaning is, in fact, dependent on the vagaries of social development and shifting power relations.
Take the idea of morality, for instance. The morality of Victorian England, in which the slightest hint of sexuality was frowned upon, was different from more permissive eras before and after. And in many traditional African societies, it was normal for women to go bare-chested, a practice that would today offend public morality in most African urban areas, at least.
In other words, a society’s sense of what is moral or immoral is a product of its worldview, which in turn is a function of social change.
If there should be any doubt about the political nature of law, Kenyans need only look at the number of laws that are being made obsolete by the new Constitution. The sedition law, for instance. During the Kanu dictatorship, scores of Kenyans were jailed after “due” process in courts of law on charges of sedition, which usually meant being suspected of holding views contrary to those of the president and the ruling party.
In the Jim Crow era in the USA, there were so-called miscegenation laws that, if not overtaken by political and social change, would have put many Americans in jail, including President Barack Obama’s parents. What is lawful and what is not is subject to political process.
The epithet “unAfrican” is a psychological weapon employed by traditional or modern elites to achieve conformity of thought or entrench privilege. It can be used in any number of situations.
African women drivers were, at some point, stigmatised as unAfrican, as if African males driving were a much revered practice in traditional society. And it was not long ago that democracy and human rights were dismissed as unAfrican by Africa’s autocrats.
African intellectuals too have found much use for the label, often ridiculing those who criticise their cultural nationalist theories as unAfrican, a practice that, at its most absurd, chastised as cultural traitors Africans learning ballet, classical music, opera or even playing rugby and golf.
But I suspect that most of us in the privacy of our thoughts know that the fulminations against prostitution are a cover for a deep hypocrisy. This hypocrisy is sustained by a myth propagated by ourselves but which fools no one else.
Kenyan writer Wangui wa Goro, talking in another context, says: “ I think there is a myth, an idea that people in Africa don’t enjoy love, don’t enjoy sex, that it is not physical and that it is not emotional...” Thus we refused to publicly discuss Aids and sex in the 1980s and early 90s until threat of extinction forced us to debate the subject and come up with remedying policies.
Prostitution is a reality that we all know exists among us, but which, to assuage our misplaced moral sensibilities, we pretend does not exist. After all, we lie to ourselves, it is not African, it is immoral, our laws forbid it! It is a lie we hold on to even when, as happened a few years ago, a police swoop on Koinange Street nets MPs and Cabinet ministers.
Research over the years has shown that limited legalisation of prostitution would have a number of benefits. Sex workers could be accorded better STD prevention and treatment services.
The trade would be confined to certain areas instead of being conducted all over the city. Legalising it would also protect the sex workers from abuse and exploitation.
The oldest trade in the world is here to stay. Confronting reality as opposed to hiding from it is key to any society’s survival. As we know from our experience with Aids, the sooner we come to this realisation the better.
Tee Ngugi is a social and political commentator based in Nairobi

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