We often use the concept of culture. And the concept of Malawian culture. The idea comes back often in the gay debate, as in: homosexuality is not Malawian culture.
In this type of reasoning culture is a key concept. It is worth looking into it a bit deeper, because it can be quite a bit more complicated than we might assume at first sight.
If something (such as homosexuality) is deemed not to be Malawian culture, then how do we define “Malawian culture”. First we need to define culture. There are quite a few different definitions used. The Oxford dictionary gives the following definition: “the ideas, customs and social behavior of a particular people or society”. If we take it that the people or society is Malawi, then we can see that some people define homosexuality as falling outside the customs, but on the other hand, since Malawian homosexuals are undeniably practicing their sexual orientation, it is part of the social behavior.
And then: who defines ideas and customs, and who defines which ideas, customs and behavior fall inside the definition of “Malawian culture” and outside the definition?
In this area it is interesting to look into the ideas that were introduced by the Italian philosopher Gramsci, and further developed by the French philosopher Foucault. They hold that there is a dominant group in a society, the ruling class, that takes hegemony over the culture, and defines what is “the culture”. This cultural hegemony takes many forms. In the gay debate in Malawi, homosexuals have long been kept out of any of the public debate. The word was not used, the concept was not part of any public life. This, keeping an issue or a group of people out of the media and public debate, is called “symbolic annihilation”. When Monjeza and Chimbalanga came out of the closet, a lot of Malawians appeared surprised that homosexuality existed in Malawi. In the slipstream of this couple and the (characteristically hysterical) reaction of Bingu wa Mutharika, it became undeniably clear that there is a homosexual section of the population in Malawi. Testimonies were published, and the anti-gay movement was forced to stop denying the existence of homosexuality. The debate shifted to decriminalization.
If the ruling class decides what “Malawian culture” entails (exercises cultural hegemony), then who is this ruling class? It clearly cannot be just the people in government, it is a much wider network of people born from the ruling class (or sometimes a product of social mobility). The clergy tends to take on an important posture when homosexuality is concerned, and some seem to find they have the monopoly on moral issues. (This is debatable, considering the conduct of many of the clergy, both in sexual and in financial matters). Pretty much all of these clerics are Christian or Muslim, religions that were introduced into Malawi fairly recently. The start was 18th century for Islam, and 19th century for Christianity. But only in the last few decades became these two religions dominant over traditional Malawian religions. So here the question arises: how can the representatives of these foreign religions take the lead in deciding what is and what is not Malawian culture?
The village culture of Malawi, which is the culture of the large majority of Malawians, is much less publicized because of the socio-economic status of villagers who, due to their lower income, are less connected (most of them cannot afford smart phones, computers and internet connections) and they are geographically further from the newsrooms and other places where decisions on publication of issues are made. Most of the opinions from the village we hear on cultural issues in the media are from village headmen. These are the ruling class of the village, and the publication is mediated (and thus influenced) by the (overwhelmingly) middle class journalist. Only knowing that he is speaking to an urban middle class person influences the expressions of the villager.
In our culture and education system we have been conditioned to conform unquestioningly to authority, be it elders, teachers, rulers or people from a higher social class. We conform to what we assume the authority wants to hear. This way it becomes very difficult to publicize village culture, so like homosexuals in the past, the village becomes less publicized and consequently symbolically annihilated. This confirms the (mistaken) notion that Malawian culture is identical to hegemonic (ruling class) culture. The ruling class (those who have power over the media and other areas of society) prescribe what we are supposed to define as Malawian culture. I protest against this. I define my own culture without calling it “Malawian Culture”. Monjeza and Chimbalanga (and everyone else who deviates from what the ruling class defines as Malawian culture) have the same right to defining their own culture as Bishop A or Sheik B or Pastor C.