I realize that I have been a poor blogger this past month, having written nothing since 13 February.
Plenty has happened since then. I will restrain myself and just tell you about two: Valentine’s Day and going “on safari” to the Okavango Delta and the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. This post is about Valentine's Day, to give myself some more time to write about the safari!
I would have thought that a fake-o U.S. holiday would not be much in evidence here, and I would have been wrong wrong wrong. Sometimes in my cynical moments it seems to me that every single one of the very worst aspects of U.S. consumerism have been transported directly to Gabs and then allowed to grow wild, like mint in my garden. That one mint plant looks like a good idea in the nursery, but then once it has been transplanted outside, it becomes an outrageous nuisance and you wonder what you were thinking in the first place. I often wonder if the elders of Botswana, who sacrificed so much for today’s under-30’s, ever wonder the same thing about shopping malls and fast food and cellular telephones.
I should have known that Valentine’s Day was going to be interesting just by watching the windows at the Riverwalk Mall, where there are many fashionable clothing outlets. There is a store called Woolworth’s (“Woolies” in South Africa) that sells both high-end groceries and fashionable preppy clothing. They always have these window displays featuring mostly white people and mostly white manikins, and they are packed, absolutely packed with people who appear to be Batswana. For the beginning part of February, the manikins stripped nearly nude and sported what I can only characterize as obscene underwear intended to accentuate the human body’s various erogenous zones. I didn’t even know that there were male torso manikins that could look like that – and the male clothing was much tamer than what few scraps bedecked the females.
By accident, I ended up going to a Valentine’s Day dinner. We were trying to say good-bye to a Fulbright friend, and her last day in town was February 14th. So we had gathered to eat a farewell feast only to find that the only options were to attend a Valentine’s Day special dinner party somewhere, or to eat fast food. We chose the Valentine’s Day special dinner, thinking, how bad can it be?
We chose poorly.
First, we had to buy tickets in couples, and put our names on the tickets. This caused some anxiety later, as you will understand in a minute. We were not in couples – we had only two “couples” with us, actually. So the rest of us cavalierly paired up and did not worry too much about what the doorman might think of our gender- and race-blind associations. As we bought the tickets, we became aware of white female manikins, this time wearing even more obscene clothing (if you can call it that – or should I say wearing even less obscene clothing?). They were wearing one-piece fishnet outfits that had long sleeves and long legs, and therefore had holes for the manikin’s head, arms, and legs. And crotch. Completely crotchless. Might as well have installed a giant blinking neon arrow pointing to the location in question.
We sat down with some trepidation, as we entered a world something like the Nightmare Before Christmas meets Valentine’s Day. We were the only ones not seated at a table for 2. The décor was outrageous, over-the-top in the extreme: giant size champagne flutes filled with pink or red colored stones, red and pink streamers, huge table centerpieces that must have been designed by a gay man making fun of straight people as he laughed all the way to the bank. The men were dressed in reasonably dapper suits, and the women were most often dressed in very slinky prom dress outfits in sexy black or red. But the women of Botswana can rarely be described as “slinky,” at least in the income bracket that could afford the price of the tickets. So it was sort of like those adult-only renaissance festival days where women of all sizes are wearing corset-boustiers jobbies that must surely impede breathing. I myself cannot be characterized as slinky, so I have some sympathy for the awesome female confidence on display at this event. But still, it was a bit much.
I will leave out the food, which was unremarkable except that in addition to serving watered down Indian food, they also served pounded beef; women ate the Indian food and the beef; men ate the beef.
On to the “entertainment,” which everyone except our table did appear to find entertaining, so perhaps I should remove the quotation marks. There was a d.j./host fellow, and several camera crews with gigantic flash lights or spots for taking pictures. To our horror, the host began by explaining the reason we had had to put our names on the tickets: they would be drawing the tickets out in order to award prizes to the lucky audience members written on the ticket! What if one of us had been chosen? I am convinced that the world would have come to an end that very moment. Anyway, we weren’t chosen, not even as the lucky couple who would get to take home the fishnet lingerie that welcomed ticket-purchasers to the event. The host would interview each couple with a wink-wink, nudge-nudge behind every word, and then the couple would win something “romantic” like a pedicure. The whole performance of gender was painful to watch, as every possible stereotype was on display, especially the insatiable uncontrollable man who literally needs sex, and the woman whose job it is to satisfy under conditions where satisfaction is literally unattainable.
There was a Rasta singer who sang about the love of Jesus for about 7 minutes. There was this odd hip-hop or house lip syncing guy who came on stage with two women who walked around like they were auditioning for Tyra Banks while he lip synced. Except he was a really bad lip syncer, and also there really wasn’t much to lip sync to given the dominance of the (recorded) rhythm section. One performer’s climactic number ended with him sexy-whispering into the microphone “let’s make a baby tonight” to a spellbound audience; after he crooned that phrase, you could have heard a pin drop -- in Joburg.
Thankfully, I have blocked out any further memories of the night. Valentine’s events in the U.S. undoubtedly have just as many painful stereotypes on display -- I do not often go out to watch them. I do know that for many us visiting from the U.S., gender relations and gender roles seem to be somehow “intensified” here compared with what we experience in the U.S.. This perception must be wrong, or at best incomplete, as every culture has a range of norms and people who violate those norms, and we must not understand the norms here. On the other hand, what I perceive as intensified need to fulfill certainly stereotypes about masculinity and femininity really rub me the wrong way -- they do seem sexist, and harmful to both women and men. My students and I, we wonder, what do Batswana think of our gender roles and relations? Are the gender roles and relations in Botswana really all that different from the ones on display in the U.S. movies at the Gaborone theaters? To what extent do we fulfill exaggerated gendered expectations? Do they impact our health as surely as sexual norms affect the health of Botswana’s peoples? Certainly, it is so much easier to look at someone else than it is to really see myself.