Saturday, February 24, 2007

African Valentine

Those who tune into the BBC World Services, will be aware that Valentines Day took a mega blow in Africa this year. Even Focus on Africa, the wonderful program of evening highlights, covers the African reaction to Valentines Day this year. Agitated Anglican priests said it promoted HIV/AIDs, lay people accused the celebration of demoralizing youth, articulate Nigerian Muslim clerics worried that there will be a glut of unwed pregnancies, sensitive commentators railed about promiscuity and debate raged on how such imported customs as Valentines Day are ruining local customs.

Valentine’s Day! I can hardly believe my ears.

“What does Valentine’s Day mean to you?” I inquire of the research assistants on our way to the field.

“We didn’t know about it until we got to university,” says one, “then it usually meant a fellow wanted sex.”

“No chocolates, no colourful cards from secret admirers, no gifts, no candlelight dinners?” I ask.

“No,” they chorus back.

I tell them how we upended cardboard boxes, covered them with white paper, red hearts and angels in grade school and deposited cards in the slot in the center with sappy messages such as 2Ys U R, 2 Ys U B, I C U R 2 Ys 4 Me (Too wise you are, too wise you be, I see you are too wise for me) on them. I have to demonstrate this message in writing for them.

“It’s like SMS messaging,” they say.

In Grade 3, my mother, who baked us a big batch of heart-shaped cookies covered with pink icing for Valentines Day, gave me and my two sibs a batch of her tasty creations to take to school for our Valentine party. I was so proud to be able to offer these delicious treats to my classmates that the following year I again offered her services to make the Valentine box and provide the cookies.

“Doesn’t anyone else’s mother celebrate Valentines? ”, my mom pondered aloud and I had to confess that they hadn’t asked her to do it but that I had actually volunteered her services.

The first testing done of HIV/AIDS posters in rural Uganda revealed that the fat, red valentine-shaped heart used as a symbol for love was interpreted as a tomato by many. We thought at the time that indeed, love was like a luscious tomato, but the symbol was put on the shelf. Just maybe, I think, in retrospect , we contributed to the creation of this African association of sex with valentines.

Then on Valentines Day evening, I am listening to my favourite “Late Night Date” with DJ Ronnie on Capital FM which comes out from Kampala by relay to Mbarara. DJ Ronnie has extended an offer to his listeners to send valentines to friends, relatives and lovers over the air. He is inundated with harangues about the decadence, evils and perils of valentines by listeners who regularly call in for counseling, to discuss issues of the heart and send otherwise loving messages to each other.

DJ Ronnie hosts a remarkable show. Not only does he provide sensitive and caring listening to people with real problems but his advice is practical and supportive. When for the most difficult cases, he accesses professional counselors to assist him, his own advice and manner are much superior to that of the so-called professionals he finds.

Among university faculty, admitting that you listen to DJ Ronnie is a bit like being caught reading People magazine or maybe even True Confessions at home. When I have extolled what I see as his virtues, I am met initially by disbelief followed by muted agreement, often shared appreciation and always followed by complicit laughter. I find DJ Ronnie a stellar example of how we can all assist people in trouble just by active listening and making sensible, non-judgmental responses to people in need.

So for Valentines Day, DJ Ronnie once again rises to the challenge. After listening to all the comments for and against, he composes a response. It is short, simple and delightful. He points out that Valentines Day is first and foremost a celebration of love. Love for our parents, our friends, our neighbours, each other. Love for partners and family. Surely he admonishes his listeners, Africans can celebrate love, certainly this is appropriate. And surely Africans want to take part in this world wide celebration of love. He challenges us as his listeners and as members of the global community to use Valentines Day as an opportunity to celebrate love for each other.

Hearing DJ Ronnie's seasoned defence of Valentines Day is my second valentine of the day. The first was an internet valentine from my sister which I was only able to partially open because the band width or line speed is so low. I have been threatening to call DJ Ronnie. My colleagues say I will need to have a fat problem to share with him as he doesn't deal with small stuff. I think instead I will send this belated thank you.



Blogger Dr Dork said...

Eh. I like to think of it as the Hallmark/Cadbury Annual Celebration of Commerce.

12:36 AM  
Blogger Guruh Roy said...

i never have a valentine day but i know how does it will go on between two couples

2:14 AM  
Blogger Body Soul Spirit said...

I have enjoyed reading your recent posts. Glad you are refreshed and recharged.

11:04 AM  
Anonymous Marianne said...

hey this is funny, i also stayed in Sarawak (7 months) and I now also work in Uganda. And I also wondered what is going on with Valentine's Day here...will tune in to DJ Ronnie one of these nights :D

3:25 AM  
Blogger Borneo Breezes said...

Thanks for visiting and commenting. I have been having such blogger problems even getting in that it is so nice to find some comments. It is like a welcome back to the blogosphere. I think I am now on New Blogger but.....not sure what it means.

Dr. Dork - nice to have you drop by. And yes there is that aspect to it in North America.

guruh roy- glad to hear from you. I don't think Valentines is even celebrated in Sarawak, is it? but love it!

body soul spirit - I plan to get around visiting and you will be high on my list.

marianne- this is a coincidence, if you believe in such things. Welcome.

8:28 AM  

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