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					Author: Shanti A. Parikh (Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Washington University,
USA)

Email Address: sparikh@artsci.wustl.edu



Title: Private Acts, Public Shame: Reading Youth Love Letters as National Romance in
Uganda



The urgency of HIV/AIDS has necessitated that once private matters of sexuality become
part of public discourse. The AIDS epidemic is just one in a series of sexual realities that
in recent years has transitioned the sexual from private to public. This shift, largely
motivated by the public health sectors and the accompanying rationalizations of medico-
moral rhetorics, is accessed and reworked in the daily lives of individuals. This talk
examines youth love letters from rural Eastern Uganda as representative of ways that
sexual relations transition from private interactions to public scrutiny. Love letters have
become standard courtship convention among sexually curious youth in Uganda. Highly
stylized and carefully crafted letters clandestinely pass through go-betweens before
finding the anxiously awaiting recipient. This is illustrative of how secrecy and sneaking as
central realities in youth relationships. While amatory epistles are written to convey
intimate emotions between two young lovers and firmly request confidentiality, they
implicitly demonstrate an awareness of a larger audience. This audience typically includes
from peers who judge their romantic prowess based on popular culture notions of modernity
to adults who seek to intervene and delimit youth access to sexual liaisons.

The proliferation of sex talk in Uganda generated by public health campaigns and popular
culture provides youth in Uganda with condensed codes for negotiating sexual relationships
and for managing the relationship's public face. My central question regarding public
discourses is not how the circulation of sex talk is used to enforce morality or create new
ideas about sexual relationships. Rather, I am interested in how love letters are homemade
responses to local, national, and global flows of sexual imagery, romance, and shame that
circulate with increasing ease around Uganda.

An analysis of over 250 love letters and 2 ½ years of ethnographic research reveals that
young males and females traverse the pubic in very different ways. Boys are highly
performative in their letters and use emotional display to establish relationships and initiate
sex. Girls, conversely, use letters to maintain and negotiate the terms of the relationship,
often by expressing disappointment over the actions of their love interest. To understand
these differences is to gain access to the way class, gender and age converge around the
access to and management of public reputation. Implicit in any discussion of the way youth
mediate intimacy and their public reputation is the notion of shame, which motivates the
need for secrecy. Because of HIV/AIDS and other reproductive concerns there are
heightened stakes for secrecy around youth sexual exploration and a widened gap between
authoritative adults and sexually maturing young people. The entire process of love
letters—from the conditions under which they are written, to the way in which they are
circulated to their response from their intended recipient and the community at large—
provides an ideal window into of the dialectic between regulation and romance of youth
sexuality.

				
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