Africa: Writing About Sexuality in Maputo, Mozambique in Contemporary Times

29 March 2021

Debating Ideas is a new section that aims to reflect the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series, publishing engaged, often radical, scholarship, original and activist writing from within the African continent and beyond. It will offer debates and engagements, contexts and controversies, and reviews and responses flowing from the African Arguments books.

When I received an invitation to contribute to this blog, with a suggestion to reflect on heterosexual erotic culture in Mozambique, the first topic that came to mind - based on my fieldwork in urban Maputo, Mozambique - focused on the experience of cheating. Although cheating is usually considered problematic, we can also look at cheating from people's experience and in relation to desire for erotic fulfilment and personal realisation. This approach allows one to expand understandings of morality by engaging with the diversity of social realities. Cheating has its own dynamics. In my piece, I aim to highlight and discuss the context and unfolding of such dynamics amongst young adults in Maputo; thus, expanding understanding of morality. However, soon after my choice, I was struck by a second thought. I doubted if such a topic was appropriate. The main reasons for my doubt had to do with the fear of fuelling primitivistic erotic fantasies and metropolitan voyeurism (Meiu 2016: 216). While various scholars in the field of African sexualities studies have outstripped such views through engagement with sexuality that avoids homogenising and an essentialist view of people's sexuality; by contextualising the socio-sexual settings of various groups in the continent; and by incorporating emotional attachments in the understanding of sex in Africa; the media and public culture continue, to a significant extent, to portray the source of my hesitation.

After thoughtful consideration and inspired by Kopano Ratele's bold text in this blog series, I decided to stick to my decision. I focus on the dynamics of intimacy and social interaction amongst young adults in urban Maputo to critically reflect on how to write about Africa in contemporary times. At the core of my perspective is Achille Mbembe's (2002) suggestion to focus on contemporary everyday practices through which Africans invent something that is their own and that beckons to the world in its generality. Therefore, through using the case study of Maputo city, I aim to explore how people respond to dilemmas of intimacy. I depart from a general question about a phenomenon that people recognise all over the globe: How do people reconcile moral principles and ethics of social institutions such as courtship, dating, marriage or any other similar institution with the desire, feeling or wanting to pursue sexual liaisons while maintaining stability in their lives?

My response explores the life dynamics of young adults in Maputo. It highlights a contradiction emerging from their exposure to two distinct historical sources of values and principles that affected people's ideas and practices and how they manoeuvre in both the intimate and the social realm.

My research focused on young men and women born after Mozambique's independence from the Portuguese colonial regime (1975). They are dwellers of the bustling city of Maputo. Most are originally from Maputo, while some come from various provinces of the country. All have stayed abroad, whether long-term or short-term, to pursue their university studies or professional liaisons. They work mainly in the private sector and international NGOs or UN agencies operating in the country. They are all sexually active and involved in some kind of relationship(s).

As people born immediately after Mozambique's independence, they were raised under the socialist regime's dictamens. Right after independence FRELIMO's socialist revolutionary totalitarian regime began constructing the Mozambican nation through creating an identity for what they called the New Mozambican - in other words, not the colonised (discriminated and humiliated) one, nor the traditional one (polygamous, backward, users of sorcery or obscurantist beliefs). Instead, the Homem Novo ('New Man') was the model designed by the liberation movement and the government in power. This prototype - which included both men and women - focused on the Mozambican citizen and dictated that women should be emancipated and able to participate in all activities. Thus, giving women the right to receive the same benefits as men. However, this system simultaneously controlled and policed women's bodies, as well as liberal and non-heteronormative sexual practices and expressions through vehement punishment of what was defined as sexual corruption.

Participants in this study grew up in the late 1970s and 1980s socialist times; thus, in a context where monogamous marriage was encouraged and perceived as the ideal partnership and family model. Under socialist Mozambique, especially in urban areas, non-monogamous relationships were named and shamed publicly. Independent women or women who lived by themselves were perceived as prostitutes, thus ostracised and sent to re-education camps in rural Northern Mozambique (Darch n.d.). Growing up and being socialised under such a puritanical scenario contributed to shaping the affluent young adults of this study morally.

The social and economic challenges of revolutionary Mozambique led to the country joining the Bretton Woods system in the late 1980s, which was followed by Structural Adjustment Programs that appealed for privatisation and a state with a less powerful role in social control. The implementation of such programmes represented the end of the socialist regime. As in other African countries, Mozambique's development programme brought international development agencies and NGOs into prominence. Several such organisations followed gender policies that were introduced through lobbying and the advocacy of women's groups (Arnfred 2002: 9) and prompted discussions in the public sphere on issues of sexuality. This change in the political and economic landscape led to changes in contemporary Mozambican social fabric, including in areas of intimacy, sexuality and partnerships. The experiences of these urban young adults during the neoliberal donor-dominated and mass mediated period include exposure to mass contraception, less constraining social control and freed sexual expression of emotions and the attainment of desire, which I conceptualise as the normalisation of sexual appetite. Thus, while young adults grew up with strict moralities on the one hand, through time, they became exposed to the expressions of plastic sexuality - here understood as the pursuit of erotic needs and wants as well as the pursuit of sexual pleasure without the aim of reproduction.

I argue that the normalisation of sexual appetite is a circular combination of the following: individuals perceive sex as a normal and 'natural' desire (such as the appetite for food) that should be attained with partners to promote satisfaction. Conversely, satisfaction is associated with novelty and diversity in sex. Such notions emerge from a combination of discourses of what is desired and desirable in individuals' sexual acts and ratings as bom (good) or boa de cama (good in bed). Simultaneously, there is the belief that one cannot expect too much from one's partner, as creativity and the capacity to bring novelty to the sexual act are limited. Together with the desire for variety and novelty in sex, this realisation reveals a discourse (and the materialisation) of the need to have more than one partner.

There is a dilemma in young adults' sexual lives. The contention arises as, on the one hand, the moral principles and experiences of the young adults' socialist upbringing impact their adult life. They still wish for monogamous marriage and partners who would not get involved with extra-dyadic partners. On the other hand, they contemporarily live under the morality of the normalisation of sexual appetite, which is accepting of simultaneously having two or more similar or different types of affective or sexual partners.

Respect has emerged as a concept that would balance and mediate the contradiction between social expectations of monogamy on the one hand and, on the other, lived experiences in which a discourse of sexual appetite as healthy and normal has been informative. Performing respect was perceived as an acceptable manner to conduct relationships, and it included the following dimensions.

The understanding of respect is associated with consideration towards the steady partner, which relies on concealment and discretion of extra-dyadic partners and relationships by performing secrecy, concealment, discretion and pretence of morally ambiguous pursuits. The performance of respect is related to the maintenance of the higher rank for the steady partner in the hierarchical scale of partners. This implies privilege for the steady partnership, which means that even if one of the partners in the steady relationship has an extra-dyadic partner, he or she should primarily fulfil the expected couple's obligations - be it dedicated time to the couple; material contribution or provision, among others. Additionally, there is the expectation that highly regarded lifestyles (such as fine dining out, travelling, vacations, etc.) are exclusive to the steady partner. Finally, performing respect suggests the preservation and maintenance of the couple's shared sacred spaces. Respect in committed relationships denotes the existence of preserved areas, spaces, actions and memories exclusive to the couple that extra-dyadic partners should not pollute (such as their house, bedroom, their relatives and friends' spaces, their most cherished holiday destination, etc.). Even if one conceals, one should avoid being with the extra-dyadic partner in the couple's sacred spaces.

The ubiquitous contradiction in maintaining stability, while cheating, through fulfilling the moral principles of intimate relationships and individual desires and feelings is mediated by using respect. Through performing respect, young adults in Maputo navigate the bounds of being accepted and acceptable as decent and valuable members or moral beings of society. Serial monogamy or polyamory are other examples of devices used elsewhere in response to such a dilemma.

My concern at the beginning of this post had to do with the relevance of bringing to light the experiences and dynamics of sexuality from Mozambique, or any other reality less studied for that matter. As per my discussion, this case study expands understanding of morality. I believe that by bringing evidence from the least explored realities allows us to expand concepts in the Social Sciences to make social reality intelligible. Due to the historical context of their construction, many such concepts are analytically limiting. Under the discussion of decolonising science, I believe that bringing more evidence and reflection from more diverse and weakly explored realities contributes to enlarge (and even create new) available analytical concepts. As my colleague Patrício Langa (2020) critically states, rather than decolonising science, we should colonise it with evidence from our reality to allow its concepts to relate to the diversity of social reality fairly.


Arnfred, Signe, 2002, 'Conceptions of gender in colonial and post-colonial discourses: the case of Mozambique', CODESRIA 10th General Assembly 'Africa in the new Millennium'.

Darch, Colin, n.d., 'Centros de Reeducação, 1974-',, accessed 3 August 2020.

Langa, Patrício, 2020, 'Does internationalization of African higher education need decolonization?', paper given at the 'Africa Knows! It Is Time to Decolonize the Minds' conference.

Mbembe, Achille, 2002, 'African modes of self-writing', Public Culture 14 (1): 239-73.

Meiu, George Paul, 2016, 'Belonging in ethno-erotic economies: adultery, alterity, and ritual in postcolonial Kenya', American Ethnologist 43 (2): 215-29.

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