Challenging "well-known facts" and changing minds

In Malawi, a number of cultural traditions are wielded as a sort of litmus test. If something doesn’t match up, it’s condemned as bad, unnatural, or even un-Malawian. Various philosophies and theories are used to back up these traditional beliefs, including statistics. Even if these statistics may have a dubious origin, whenever they are invoked, they are prefaced with the phrase, “It is a well-known fact…”

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At a recent Umunthu workshop, John Mabatani*, stood up and said, “Now, it is a well-known fact and looking at the statistics, there are more women than men in Malawi. With this in mind, I think that lesbians are [engaging in such relationships] as a result of desperation. There are not enough men to date, so they just date each other. Or perhaps they are disappointed by the opposite sex, so they find dating the same sex safer.”

Throughout the workshop, the healthcare worker participants explore what the local philosophy of umunthu means to them and how they live its principles in their life. The idea of umunthu is that we all have a shared humanity. Additionally, participants get to hear from LGBTI guest speakers about their lives and experiences. It’s through this experience that John began to see things differently.

“I now see that being a lesbian isn’t an act of desperation, it’s just their sexual orientation,” he said at a follow-up meeting. “Whether there are men or not, they would still date their fellow women because that is who they are and they cannot change.”

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*name changed for privacy