I am in the Transkei in South Africa, where I have been working on projects since 2007. The first five years I focused on AIDS orphans. After this period, we’re focussing on destitute children and their environment. To this day I am regularly besieged by women who want to marry me, being a single white man.
A white man is a first prize for the women. The groom must pay a dowry for his wife, consisting of a number of cows. The value of a woman is measured in cows. The number of cows depends on her level of education and her family’s name. Each time I dismiss their proposal by letting them know that I’m married to “The Lord.” If only they knew. I pretend to be a modern missionary.
Homosexuality is allowed here. South Africa has the most modern constitution in the world, someone told me. People are more open in the bigger cities, where it is accepted. Especially Cape Town is very popular. In the rural areas this is clearly different. Two men in a relationship would not be able to enjoy life. They cannot get children and will be poor.
Young men often walk hand in hand. This is normal, and is seen as an expression of friendship and has nothing to do with sex. Years ago, one of the female cooks of the hostels I stayed at asked me if I was gay.
“Why do you ask?,” I replied. “Because we never see you with girls, only with other men.” “Are there homosexuals here?,” I asked her. “Yes, but in secret.” I also let her know that I am married to “The Lord.” Yet I didn’t feel good about it. Telling everyone that I am HIV positive is absolutely no problem, but being openly gay here does not feel right. It is different for lesbians. One of them has a snake and is bewitched. The entire community speaks ill of them. They are basically loathed. The same goes for men.
“Why did your brother paint his hair red, and why is there whitewash on his face?” The young woman looks at me with a smile. “He is crazy. Look at his toenails, which he painted, and look at the slippers he’s wearing. They are for women. He is constantly changing his look.” A moment later, I see him picking up weights to train his chest and arms. I tell the young woman about transgenders, being born in a male body but wanting to be a woman, and the other way around. She listens with her mouth half open.
When I tell her that it is now possible to surgically alter your gender, she shakes her head. “Do you think that my brother is like that?” “Perhaps not, but anything is possible. It seems to me that he is happy with his feelings. You can have a private conversation with him, but please keep it confidential.” “What do you think?,” she wants to know. I smile. “He looks happy. Let him be who he is and enjoy himself.”
We all have to struggle with identity in this multicultural world. Being confronted by this culture has taught me a great deal. GLBTI people in the countryside here are in the closet. When a boy or girl has homosexual tendencies, the parents take them to the Sangoma, the medicine man. Well, not too long ago, homosexuals in our country also received “medical treatment.”
Cultural differences are a fact in our society. GLBTIs who were born in an Islamic, Catholic or Protestant crib are also born to battle with their identity. Acceptance can be difficult here as well. Some liberate themselves from their restrictive chains.
Others live two different lives and have different identities with family and friends. However, things are also changing for the better in these cultures, in which GLBTI people are now more accepted. Yet, these steps are small.
Culture and Identity. Cultures are always undergoing change. The search for true identity is almost always relevant.
About the author: Wil Groot has, after being diagnosed with HIV, completely changed his 'abundant lifestyle', and has been active in the fight against Hiv and Aids in South Africa since. Earlier this year he published his book 'Droom van een vrijbuiter' (Living A man's dream), where he wrote down his experiences in a country which differs from ours in nearly everything. For more information on Wil, his work and his book, please check www.willenendoen.com