Don't Be Like a Pumpkin

The ABCs and Concurrent Sexual Partnerships

I just returned from a trip to Maseru. I was just there for the morning. The last couple of times I have been in Maseru I have noticed a strange occurance, or at least strange for me. During the last couple of visits I have been asked a number of times if I have found a Basotho girlfriend in Mafeteng. I didn't even know that I was looking for one. Maybe it is because winter is approaching and cold weather motivates people to find partners. The people who are asking know that I am married, but they are still surprised when I say that I do not have a girlfriend in Mafeteng.

I think it exemplifies a cultural difference regarding relationships. The practice of having concurrent sexual partnerships (two or more sexual partners at the same time) is fairly common in East and Southern Africa and for the most part is accepted if everyone is discreet. There are also polygamous relationships which are obviously not discreet. Over the course of a life time the average number of sexual partners that a person has in these cultures and in cultures that practice monogamy, or serial monogamy, are quite similar. The difference is in the timing. People here in Lesotho may have long term committed relationships with a number of people, whereas in Canada we will move from one committed relationship to the next committed relationship – I realize this isn’t always the case in either country, but I am just sticking to generalities. I was at a workshop and one man referred to it as horizontal and vertical polygamy.

I am not trying to moralize or say one way is ‘right’ and the other is ‘wrong’. However, over the last few years the practice of concurrent sexual partnerships is getting more attention in the field of HIV/AIDS prevention. The acronym ABC is fairly common in HIV/AIDS prevention programmes: Abstinence, Be faithful, and Condoms. I think that usually the A and the C garner a lot of debate and discussion, but over the last few years more campaigns are now focusing attention on the B. In Lesotho the OneLove campaign started about a year ago.

It seems logical that people in concurrent partnerships face a greater risk of being infected. If I am with one person and we break up I can get tested and know my HIV status. In this manner I would be able to take actions to make sure that I do not spread the virus to my next partner. However, if I am in a long term relationship with a number of people, and those people are also in relationships with a number of people then it becomes a sort of sexual network. Also, because we are in a long term relationship the necessity for condoms is undervalued. However, as soon as one person in the network becomes infected then there is the potential of infecting a large number of people.

The message on this poster is "Don't be like a pumpkin." It refers to a sesotho proverb which goes, “men are like pumpkins, they spread themselves all over the place, and women are like cabbages, they hold themselves in one place.”

I have also been reading some articles that have talked about countries that a number of years ago identified concurrent partnerships as an issue and were running campaigns to address it. For example, in Uganda a ‘Zero Grazing!’ campaign was initiated by Ugandans in 1986 and was effective in reducing the number of people who had multiple partners and was showing some results in decreasing HIV rates. This was before funding for prevention efforts or condoms were widely available in Uganda. In the early 1990s outside agencies such as the World Bank and USAID came into Uganda and basically silenced the Zero Grazing campaign in favour of promoting the use of condoms. HIV rates continued to decline until the year 2000 when rates started to slightly increase. The increase is attributed to the fact that more people are now involved in concurrent sexual partnerships and because these partnerships are committed relationships condom use is not consistent.

May 10, 2010

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