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Monogamous love is frequently used in global sexual health promotion efforts to try to inspire choices about ‘safe sexual practices.’ Yet there are two crucial and potentially harmful assumptions embedded here: first, that choice is something that every individual views as being available to them; and second, that love stories will always inspire.
In fact, a long history can be uncovered in which particular conceptualizations of love have monopolized debate and been used to marginalize other experiences—a legacy that needs to be exposed and disrupted. In doing so, I’m going to draw on my work in East and Central Africa, but I hope the core of my arguments speak to people from a whole range of different contexts.
What alternative possibilities are opened up in love stories when more dominant representations are subverted?
There’s a notable absence of love in many of the widely published historical accounts of Africa, mainly because the writing distributed about the continent was largely derived from the work of foreigners, often connected in some way to colonial enterprises. In a book of collected papers called Love in Africa edited by Jennifer Cole and Lynn Thomas, this silence about love is explained as an effect of the colonial fascination with the ‘other,’ and a narrow focus on the values of kinships and exchange in marriage, infused with insidious notions of white superiority.
The contributors to Love in Africa go on to describe how the loving and intimate aspects of relationships in Africa that are clearly demonstrated in songs, poems and love medicines were largely ignored. They discuss how Western projects of ‘civilizing’ and ‘developing’ Africans—maintained by the spread of Christianity, Westernized school education, and externally-controlled media—have hijacked public narratives about love on the continent.
Under these colonial and neo-colonial influences, love is constructed as a modern thing that can only be found in smaller ‘un-African’ nuclear families and in ‘companionate’ relationships—meaning those relationships which are rooted in intimacy and commitment as a choice and not as a duty. The work of Jennifer Hirsch, Mark Hunter and others describes this process as the “marketization” of love, in which companionate marriage becomes a deliberate strategy that’s used by people who consciously want to claim a modern identity that is built around commodities, consumption, and an individual’s ability to move in and out of relationships as a matter of personal choice.
But what about the large proportion of people for whom individual choice and consumption—in the capitalist sense of access to consumer goods—were and still are very limited? The urban, low-income young people I have spoken with in the course of my research in Tanzania describe relationships with others which are, as with everything else in their lives, deeply entwined with more omnipresent struggles for survival.
Many stated categorically that “there is no real, true love here” because of the “hustle” for money and commodities, which for girls, may only be accessible through their intimate relationships. As one girl described it, “relationships here are all profits first, love later.” In comparison to the ‘love conquers all’ narratives found in Hollywood movies and the ideal of monogamous love that’s pushed by NGOs and the international aid system, the lived experiences available to these young people just don’t match up.
Furthermore, when they describe their relationships they don’t just talk about themselves and their sexual partners. Care and responsibility to their kin are also important, so relationships and the potential they offer for improved socio-economic status are viewed at the level of the family and not the individual. This makes the individual agency that lies at the core of Western conceptualizations of love and healthy relationships highly problematic. Despite the good intentions behind many NGO and aid-funded campaigns, we have to recognize that positioning simplistic, individualized notions of love as the ideal may not inspire people at all. They may actually contribute to the demoralization of those who are already marginalized because that ‘ideal’ is simply not an option.
In African Love Stories: An Anthology, Ama Ata Aidoo talks about a cultural shift in Western publishing away from the tragedy and torment of love that’s connected to “the business of selling joy and happiness.” There’s a great deal of white and otherwise-privileged moral solipsism contained in this shift. Aidoo and others are part of a wider movement that aims to disrupt this marketized, one-dimensional and marginalizing version of love by creating and promoting love stories that more diverse audiences can identify with.
Yet I think that another important part of this process consists of opening up love itself for redefinition, and working to move beyond the dualisms of good and bad, or tragedy versus joy. The Ancient Greeks had many different words to describe love in all its various forms. But in the modern West this pluralism has been reduced to the prioritizing of one, amalgamated form that masks or denies space for the potential tensions and contradictions between, for example, romantic passion, love of family, love which endures, love of self, and the love that does justice.
A Kenyan friend once told me that the greatest colonization of all was the enforced learning of the colonizer’s language, and the knowledge that was lost in this process. She went on to explain how life skills are contained in Swahili sayings that can help people to think deeply and creatively. In their ambiguity they often signpost important questions instead of providing simplified answers to the complexities of life. “It is not this way in English,” she said laughing.
I think this holds an important learning point for understanding the multiple possibilities of love. To love another person is complicated and hard, yet Western, reductionist versions of love not only marginalize but also belittle the efforts that have gone into relationships in which endurance prevails. Discussions which problematize love rather than promote one shallow idealized form could be of much more use to young people in Africa and elsewhere whose lives are already overrun with contradictions of many different kinds.
In that sense, any effort that aims to connect love with safety and protection in sexual health needs to be rooted in subversion. Critical questions can be used to foster the skills that are needed to deal with and disrupt the complexities and power struggles of love and life in general.
An earlier version of this article was first published on Subversive Storytelling.