June 14, 2010 – The Nelson Mandela Foundation’s HIV/AIDS community conversations facilitator, Motlatsi Lekhuleni, recently attended a dialogue in the Khakhala Village in Giyani in the Limpopo Province.
Below, Lekhuleni shares his views on the importance of taking local practices into account in order to facilitate positive social change.
“One commonly held fallacy about culture is that it is the expression of unchanging tradition. Those who hold this view usually see African cultures as regressive and tribal and, therefore, unfavourable to development.”
According to The Commission for Africa, established in 2004 by the British government, this is contrary to the evidence. History shows African cultures to have been massively adaptive, absorbing a wide range of outside influences, and impositions, as well as finding ways to survive often difficult natural, environmental and social conditions.
Many African cultures nurture a sense of denial and passivity, or encourage the abuse of women, or pay respect to the elderly with such reverence that they exclude the young. But the dynamics of culture mean that people can be critical of what they have inherited. The lesson is that culture is an agent of economic and social change. The evidence of this change is noticeable in rural communities that have been engaging in community conversations to address the challenges of HIV/AIDS in their own areas. One such community is Khakhala Village in Giyani.
It is 10am on Monday, April 26, 2010, and it’s 30°C in Giyani, Limpopo Province.
Nelson Mandela Foundation project manager, Yase Godlo, and provincial co-ordinator, Motlatsi Lekhuleni, are visiting the colourful community of Khakhala Village, about 30kmfrom the city of Giyani, to witness a community going through social change in its efforts to stem the tide of HIV infection, especially where the community’s women and children are concerned.
In this village, by custom, men do not meet at the same places as women; likewise the youth do not meet at the same places as their elders and vice versa.
The gaps between these sectors of the community are wide.
According to members of the community, it is because of this lack of communication that the youth find solace drinking at taverns and engage in irresponsible sexual behaviour, missing school and falling pregnant while at school.
Traditionally, women are the first point of communication between parents and their children, so when things go wrong, like young girls getting pregnant, women are the first to be blamed by men as being incapable or useless. This situation further widens the gap between men, women and their children.
When this community began engaging in the dialogue process last year, the community’s reluctance to talk about sexual issues with each other highlighted the gap in the community.
Only a handful of youth attended the dialogues, where women expressed their frustrations about their children and not their husbands, while the men did not feel comfortable talking to women, unless they were blaming them for the children’s bad behaviour.
There was no relationship between the community and the local clinic, the tribal council and other stakeholders. The local chief was struggling to address the challenges HIV infections were posing to this community. People were apprehensive of breaking the norm and meeting in one place to talk about HIV, let alone sex. There needed to be a change. This was in early 2009.
However, by 2010 it has become customary for members of the village to meet for the community conversation. The conversation, being held at Chief Richard Baloyi’s farmstead, is set to begin at 10am.
To notify the community that it’s “that time” again, a bell is rung at the chief’s house. There’s a slight movement in the community. To notify the community further away from the chief’s home, a man on a bicycle with a whistle rides around, calling community members to the dialogue.
Yase and Motlatsi are amazed at this community’s creativity and innovative thinking.
The facilitation team has met to recap on the tools of the day, while other community members prepare food and mix juice for the community to enjoy after the conversation.
Meanwhile, community members are arriving in dribs and drabs at the chief’s yard, where the community conversation is to be held.
This community, unlike some in more urban areas, is disciplined and respectful of the process. Once people get into the yard they do not leave until the meeting is done. This is one of the unique cultural dynamics of Khakhala Village.
Community members arrive at the chief’s farmstead either one by one, or in small groups, in which they chat about what they want to see coming out of today’s meeting.
Motlatsi is nervous that because time is ticking away before the meeting begins some of the people will start walking away because they have better things to do. But they sit patiently and await the start of the conversation.
By 12pm everyone is seated in a semi-circle with women on the right, men in the middle and youth on the left. As the conversation begins there are 90 participants present, some of whom are representatives of the tribal council. Local churches and the local clinic are also represented. There are 13 male adults, 32 female adults, 12 male youths and 20 female youths.
The conversation begins and there is rigorous engagement from all members of the community. Women, youth and men are talking to each other without prejudice, or fear of victimisation.
It is obvious to Yase and Motlatsi that through the tools laid out in the Community Capacity Enhancement (CCE) methodology this community has changed.
Through tolerance and unity of purpose, they have arrived at the “Decision Making” stage of the six-step process laid out in the CCE methodology and have chosen the “Five Friends of Planning” tool to help them make these decisions with precision.
Issues raised were: the need for a satellite police station in the community: the creation of sports facilities in the community and forming a community police forum, which will work with the South African Police Service.
The meeting is completed and responsibilities are shared out among various community stakeholders.
There is no expectation that assistance will come from outside the community. This community is prepared to make the difference itself.
The tribal council is tasked with the responsibility of facilitating the inception of a satellite police station and the creation of sports facilities in the community.
Yase and Motlatsi are not just pleased with the progress made by this rural community in addressing their own challenges through practical solutions, but are also inspired to see that culture does not stifle change.
The overall lesson learnt from Khakhala Village is that prescribed solutions only succeed where they work with the grain of local ways. They fail where they ignore, or do not understand, the cultural suppositions of the people they seek to address.”