Contact/Access: Translation

From the Series: Contact/Access

Photo by qimono.

Peter Redfield’s insightful commentary on access has left us at a very powerful place, questioning what is at stake and for whom. I will circle back to this issue, as I examine access from my charge of translation by drawing on a single example from my recent field experiences in Lesotho, in southern Africa. My research examined the transfer (one could even argue: translation) of HIV prevention–related biomedical knowledge. During the course of my investigations, medical male circumcision (MMC) became the big focus of global HIV prevention efforts in Lesotho. Yet folks in Lesotho were not convinced of the effectiveness of the practice. To further complicate matters, traditional circumcision activities still occur for about half of the male population (see Vincent 2008a, 2008b).

This was a topic area I needed to investigate, not only because it offered insight into how new knowledge flowed across different sectors and finally translated into risk reduction, but also because of the cultural, geographic, economic, and political complexity afforded by the negotiations of modern biomedical technologies seemingly at odds with longstanding traditions. But how do you integrate yourself into discussions about male circumcision in a region where male circumcision and associated puberty ceremonies remain a well-guarded secret, far from the purview of noncitizens, those not of age, and women, particularly when you happen to be a white, highly educated, young, modern woman?

I knew enough to know that asking the directors of NGOs (gung-ho to implement MMC) or government officials (resistant to talk about MMC) for contacts with individuals involved in traditional male circumcision was not going to get me far. Asking street merchants selling their services, herbs, muthi (traditional medicines), could potentially reveal some avenues, but these merchants, given their attention to economic prospects, had frequently broken ties with traditional healer affiliations. I could not exactly employ the strategies of Claire Sterk (1999), standing on street corners known to be frequented by young males, in hopes that one would take me into his confidence and introduce me to his traditional healer/circumciser. Also, I am no Fraser McNeill (2011), whose success in participating in female initiation ceremonies in Venda can be attributed to his membership in a popular local reggae band, ownership of a white "bakkie" pickup, and charming personality. I mentioned my interest to a few key informants in passing, most of whom had sons. Then, just like Redfield says—I waited.

Traditional healer stall, 2012. Photo by Nicole Bulled.

Unexpectedly, I was told one day that a meeting with a traditional healer who was involved with male circumcision had been arranged for me. Having no idea what to expect, I decided to do my best to break down any existing barriers to access including ethnicity, nationality, gender, and age, the best way I knew how in Lesotho—I replaced my faded and weathered jeans with my specially made seshoeshoe outfit. Seshoeshoe is the favored fabric of the Basotho, popularized by the founding king of Lesotho, Moshoeshoe I, over 170 years ago.

On a very hot day in Maseru, my key informant and I carefully made our entrance into an already cramped, unventilated meeting room. The conversation was already in full swing. Traditional healers, initiation instructors, and others involved in the preservation and revitalization of Basotho culture were discussing with concerned parents a situation involving recently circumcised boys being denied reentry into school. I relied on my key informant for translation; as indicated by Redfield, access is largely dependent on funding. As Sesotho language instruction in the United States is virtually nonexistent and I did not have enough funding to spend time while in the field devoted entirely to language study, my Sesotho language skills had to be developed while I collected data. Acknowledging my language deficiency, however, ultimately provided a means of equalizing power. People were seldom intimidated by a white person who was dependent on their generosity to teach her Sesotho or who remained deaf and mute in their presence when they decided not to translate. Also, by not relying on words, I became more sensitive to other forms of communication: mannerisms and body language. The parents were clearly anxious.

Ladies in blankets and seshoeshoe, 2011. Photo by Nicole Bulled.

Reflecting what was occurring on a national level regarding MMC, the modern enterprise of education was abandoning its support for traditional Basotho customs, creating not only a generational rift between parents and children, but also economic and geographic rifts between those who could afford schooling and engage in the formal economy in modern urban centers and those reliant on subsistence agriculture in rural areas. The traditional healers offered me their perspectives, concerns, and proposed solutions to the dichotomy that was developing between traditional and medical male circumcision. The challenge has been in translating those dialogic exchanges into a clear voice that broader communities and more powerful global entities are willing to hear and acknowledge. The traditional healers had provided me access to their perspectives in the hope that in being a highly educated, white, modern, young woman, I would be able to translate their concerns to institutions that could ensure that Basotho customs were still valued in society, perhaps integrating the modern with the traditional rather than operating each in parallel.

Thus, as we discuss making contacts in the field, we must recognize that access largely depends on the generosity of others and effectively translate our intentions such that we do not forget what is at stake, and for whom.


MacNeill, Fraser G. 2011. AIDS, Politics, and Music in South Africa. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sterk, Claire E. 1999. Tricking and Tripping: Prostitution in the Era of AIDS. Putnam Valley, N.Y.: Social Change Press.

Vincent, Louise. 2008a. "'Boys will be boys': Traditional Xhosa Male Circumcision, HIV, and Sexual Socialization in Contemporary South Africa." Culture, Health, and Sexuality 10, no. 5: 431–46.

_____. 2008ab. "Cutting Tradition: the Political Regulation of Traditional Circumcision Rites in South Africa's Liberal Democratic Order." Journal of Southern African Studies 34, no. 1: 78–91.