In my early years of elementary school we would periodically troop down to a classroom full of “big kids” in order to meet with our “big buddies.” Ostensibly, they were to provide guidance to us young whippersnappers. I of course learned when I became a big buddy myself that being in Grade 6 rather than Grade 2 did not provide one with a bounty of additional life wisdom. Later, in high school, this process of exchange was known as peer counselling. Peer counselling gave us opportunities to socialize with older students who, whether they had reams of additional life experience to gloat about or not, did an admirable job of seeming worldly and experienced. If the peer counsellor was of the opposite sex, the process was further complicated by the gravitational pull of their aura of matured pubescence. It turns out that in other cultures and other times this process of peer exchange yields more fruitful interactions.
In the small South African country of Lesotho, young women in the 1950s began to participate in what became an institutionalized peer counselling system. Girls in their early teens were appointed or selected a “mummy” who was about five years older. The “mummy” would guide her “child” through a process of initiation into womanhood.
Rather than a hazing or day-camp experience, however, this initiatory experience took the form of an emotional and intimate bond that in many cases lasted a lifetime. Importantly, the “mummy” would provide much-needed “advice on sex and protection from aggressively courting young men.”
The mummy-baby relationship resembled what we might term puppy love in that, from an adult perspective, the participants are practicing for later adult relations. “The couple treat the friendship like an affair, or romance; hugging, kissing and sexual relations are part of it.” From the perspective of Lesotho society, these relationships were considered harmless. They were merely “part of the romantic drama of growing up and learning the pleasures and responsibilities of relationships.”
The mummy-baby institution also provided a valuable educational purpose because in Lesotho it was taboo for mothers to talk to their daughters about sex. Without their “mummy” to learn from, young women would have to learn valuable life skills by trial and error. When the time came for marriage, the mummy-baby relationship often continued and was seen as “neither an alternative nor a threat” to the man-woman relationship. This fact is interesting in comparison to the beliefs of our culture, where a person is expected to only have one intimate relationship, normally of the heterosexual variety.
The term for mummy-baby participants was “motsoalle” or “special friend,” an apt title considering the level of intimacy involved. The participants shared a deep level of heartfelt understanding which they would not necessarily find in later marriages to men. One woman described her motsoalle experience as follows:
“It’s like when a man chooses you for a wife, except when a man chooses, It’s because he wants to share the blankets with you. The woman chooses you the same way, but she doesn’t want to share the blankets. She wants love only. When a woman loves another woman, you see, she can love her with a whole heart.”
The game of life, acted out for the audience of others, can be seen as something that we learn to play from childhood onward. In Lesotho the mummy-baby relationship resembled puppy love between North American teenagers. During our teenage years we “play at love” with the common result that parents tell us that we aren’t “really” in love because we “don’t know what love is.” The fact that being in love is something that the community decides is explained by the sociologist George Herbert Mead’s theory of the “generalized other.” A self is only accepted by others when s/he acts according to the generalized other, meaning “directed by the attitudes common to the community.” In this way coercive socialization prevents young lovers in our society from being taken seriously. Their incipient love happens prior to economic independence and/or arrival at an arbitrary age of maturity and therefore is not acceptable to the generalized other.
The way our selves form depends on the norms of our society. For Mead, our mind is “an inner conversation with one’s self” wherein we hear “the community as a whole.” Our sense of self, the “me,” involves an ability to ?take oneself as an object.?
This process is arrived at in two stages: the play stage, during which we “play at being someone else” in order to learn how others see our behaviour, and the game stage, during which we “take the role of everyone else involved in the game.” In many ways the mummy-baby relationship was like the play stage. Young women played at being in an adult relationship as preparation for the game stage when they would marry men and become accepted as adults.
In Lesotho, the motsoalles were able to play at love within a context acceptable to the Generalized Other. They learned from one another’s shared experiences as young women, with the older one taking the lead. Unlike in our society, where heterosexuality is the prescribed norm, a degree of homosexuality is tolerated in this setup. A parallel exists in our society’s homosociality endemic to most people’s teenage social tendencies: boys and girls hang out in separate groups.
As Mead noted, there are many generalized others to correspond to the many types of people. “Each self receives unique biographical articulation . . . People therefore have multiple generalized others and, as a result, multiple selves.” (Gilles Deleuze’s theory of “multiplicity” also reflects this creatively fragmented definition of what it is to be a “me.”)
The fact that mummy-baby relationships continued past marriage is a manifestation of this many-selved reality. Rather than causing conflict with one another, parallel fluid selves coexist peacefully. Young women in Lesotho benefited from a relationship based on a shared subject position; they were both young women. It gave them a strong groundwork of solidarity which they maintained in contrast to the opposite subject-object reality of marriage between people socialized according to different gender norms.
Probably the most important aspect of peer relationships is the way they provide guidance. Whereas my experience of having, or being, a “buddy” was not especially useful, it seems that young women in Lesotho had positive experiences with their motsoalles. From these formative experiences they went on to experience average lives illustrated with a positive backdrop of shared closeness with their special friend.