Who’s scared….of a few taboos?

Zimbabweans are generally a conservative lot and although we belong to different tribal groupings – there is a lot of commonality in our customs and beliefs especially in the area of sex education.

There was a time, I dare say, when people took pride in the sexual ignorance of young people; equating such naivety on sexual matters with chastity and sexual purity.

"..its taboo for a girl to have sex before marriage because it will break her mother's back" - Venda culture

The less a young person knew about sex and where babies come the more commendable they were for demonstrating that they were not inclined towards “naughtiness”.

In fact where ignorance about sex could not be imposed; our elders in their wisdom crafted clever lies to strike the fear of sex into the tender hearts and nubile bodies of the youth.

These clever lies are some of our Zimbabwean taboos drawn from various tribes and cultures and this post is written to remind us of them and to ask (tongue in cheek) – Who’s scared of a few taboos?

Who remembers the time when young girls were taught (and they believed these teachings) that:

Do not let a boy play with your breasts; because they will grow as big as pumpkins.
Do not have sex with boys; because you will develop pseudo-pregnancies
Do not look at the private parts of somebody; or else you will grow a boil on the eyelid.
Do not engage in sexual intercourse otherwise your sexual organs will turn into a frog or a chameleon.
Do not indulge in sex or else your sexual organs will move to your forehead.
Do not play with boys because you will fall pregnant.
A girl should not indulge in premarital sex because her parents will suffer from backache.

As a rule of thumb, human private parts were not to be exposed or looked at and the manner in which girl children sat was strictly monitored to ensure that their sitting posture did not expose their private parts.

Girls were always reminded to ‘sit properly’.

And of course the elders went to all the trouble of concocting these lies just to preserve the virginity of girls that “priceless” commodity tucked neatly between our legs. (Do I sound a bit irreverent?)

...no chastity belt required if your family can just 'lock' you with medicines and concoctions...aah - you gotta love the potency of African magic!

This brings me to the irksome topic of virginity testing since the virginity of girls was closely guarded as a matter of family honor and pride.

In some tribes, virginity tests were conducted randomly and usually the venue for these inspections was the river.

Some tribes relied on shaming the deflowered girls. If you failed the virginity test and it was discovered that you had been deflowered; you were made to carry a half-full clay water pot to your home as a sign to your mother that you’d been deflowered *cringe*.

Other tribes employed scare tactics to force a confession from a deflowered girl and this would involve asking the ‘suspect’ to suckle someone else’s baby. A virgin would not refuse but a deflowered girl would immediately confess and refuse because taboo had it that if a deflowered girl suckled a baby – the baby would fall sick and die.

Then there were the more hectic tribes that employed some really mysterious tactics to ensure that the girls’ prized virginity was not tampered with.

The families would simply “doctor” their daughters and the girls would have no idea that they were “fenced” such that when a young man had sex with them that young man’s stomach and genitals would swell (I kid you not!).

To avoid dying, the culprit would have to confess to the girl’s father ask for forgiveness, be cured by the girl’s further before being forced to marry that girl and be banned from having sex with any other woman and if he refused, he’d die.

Yeah…so that’s a bit on our Zimbabwean taboos and I know some of them will be considered outmoded because no young person these days will buy into these taboos but it’s always nice to reflect on the wisdom of old and acknowledge – they had a good thing going before modernity in the form of the internet, Google, TV and porn magazines ruined it!

…the end does not justify the means

...graduating with more than we bargained for...

I will never forget my first week at university because it proved to be such a culture shock, because on my first night on campus I found the Swinton residence for female students swarming with more men than women.

It was really unsettling to say the least because one could not go into any passage or corridor without being accosted – the hall of residence was literally overrun by testosterone saturated males of all shapes, sizes and age.

I mean there were men all over and I kept wondering if we had been placed in the correct hall of residence.

It was a season in the University calendar called the “gold rush” when men from within and without the campus descended specifically on the Swinton hall of residence to prey on the first year students.

It was said that even those who were lousy at courtship could get lucky during the gold rush.

Even now, my girlfriends and I still laugh as we reminisce on some of the creepy looking fellows who prowled the corridors carrying pizzas and offering any female in the vicinity a ‘free’ meal.

We remember too, some of the ‘respectable’ big fishes whose luxury cars littered the car park on weekends as they waited for some hapless female student to ‘need a ride to town’.

..trading the gold between our thighs for the cash in their pockets

Sex was very much a part of the university culture, co-habiting was the norm and in a way the UZ was to me for those years a microcosm of society.

Young people raised in a certain way, mirroring behaviours they had grown up seeing in their childhood and maturing into adults who would behave in the exact same way their parents or guardians had behaved and inevitably raising children who would repeat every action.

One incident that stands out to this day transpired the first week we set foot on Mount Pleasant (dubbed “mount pleasure” by students) – a female student beat her boyfriend until he lost consciousness, viciously bashing his head with a two plate stove.

She had discovered that her boyfriend had managed to ‘gold-rush’ a gullible first year student and she was not having any of it accusing the boyfriend, a fellow student, of trying to “bring AIDS” into their relationship.

Like I said it was a total culture shock, we had such a glamorous picture of what university life would be like but when we got there – it was nothing like we had imagined it would be.

Many female students did not make it to the end of their courses; they fell pregnant, got married and never came back.

Others did come back after their first pregnancies but later applied for permission to postpone their studies for another academic year because their husbands would have insisted on having another child immediately and they would be expecting their second child in as many years.

Most husbands only felt safe letting their wives continue with their education for as long as their wives were pregnant at the same time as an insurance policy that they would not be cuckolded.

In my final year I witnessed yet another phenomenon that was deeply ingrained to the university’s culture and was referred to by students and lecturers as the “PhD syndrome”.

The phd syndrome was an abbreviation of a behavioural trait prevalent among final year female students most of whom ended their studies having acquired three things – a pregnancy, a husband and a degree, the ‘perfect PhD’.

Fearing that they would be viewed as too educated to be courted and thus uncertain of their chances of getting a marriage partner outside the university community, most female students saw the phd as a way of killing three birds with one stone.

These unions were accepted by our peers, romanticized by those who had watched the various relationships flourish and flounder over the varsity years and welcomed by families who saw it all as a most convenient state of affairs.

I have never carried out a survey of how these marriages that sprung out of pre-marital sex have fared outside of the cocooned environment of the campus but I know a good number have either parted ways, become estranged or trying to juggle new relationships while dealing with the baggage of children they had in those gold rushing years.

There used to be a crude but popular sentiment among female students who noted that male students rarely married the female students they had casual sex with unless the girl in question ambushed the fellow with a ‘PhD’ entrapment stunt.

The long and short of it is that pre-marital sex should be avoided at all costs because could easily be the shortest route to a hellish marriage.

I hazard to say that it would not be too much of stretch to posit that domestic violence can be traced as easily to extra-marital sex and the unwillingness of married persons to be faithful to their spouses.

Strangely the reason why a person might find it hard to be faithful to their partner could also derive from the fact that they married someone they never intended to marry – so we go right back to pre-marital sex and its consequences.

Because when it comes to marriage, the means will never justify the ends.

…shame in our veins

It rained the day he died. It rained the day we buried him.

Pouring in torrents; it shielded us from the prying eyes of nosy neighbors who speculated for weeks and months later on whether the wetness on our faces was caused by tears or raindrops.

They would never know; because it rained the day we left the village.

The thunder drowning out the sounds of our footsteps and the rain incessantly pelting the path to wash our footprints away – no one would know where we went or what direction we took.

So it should not come as a surprise that when we chose a new identity, a new name for ourselves we chose to name ourselves after the rain – it had been our ally and Mother Nature had seen it fit to see us off by drenching us to wash away any trace that lingered of who we once were.

But even the rain cannot wash away the stubborn stain of the shame he smeared us with and no amount of rain can drown the memories of that humiliation.

We sought to deny his existence by stripping ourselves of his name and hoped that with time our children would forget him, cease to ask question we had no answers to.

For who were we to tell our children of the man whose loins they had come from? Who were we to mar their lives by speaking of such abominations?

For no matter how far we have fled, we cannot outrace the legacy of disgrace apportioned on us by that man.

There are reminders everywhere of the damage he has wrought, of the ignominy of it all.

For we see traces of him in the children we bore and against our will, we see traces of him even in ourselves. We feel the shame coursing through our veins, our blood forever carrying the taint.

How can we speak of him? He was our father, no, in truth he was a monster. He was a man who fed off his own flesh and blood, forcing himself upon our reluctant nubile bodies, while mama turned a blind eye to his beastly proclivities.

It was guilt that kept her silent, her failure to bear him sons making her take the blame for his behavior – in her warped mind; mama really believed that sacrificing us would appease him.

For in our village, even the barren woman received more sympathy than the woman whose womb could produce nothing but girls – it was believed that such a womb deformed the seed of a man making it virtually impossible for even the most virile man to father a son.

But with time, when our bodies began to bud attempting to blossom into womanhood, he had begun his nightly pilgrimage to our hut – tearing us apart and crushing us beneath the bulky weight of his manhood.

The silent tears we shed in the dark were our only reproach to him and mama’s compliant silence was deafening in its echo.