Friday, June 21, 2024

Have you heard the one about Peggy? – the joke is on us, say social scientists

The Minister of Investment, Trade and Industry, Peggy Serame has become the butt of most jokes by hundreds of Batswana youths who are floodingsocial media platforms with funny memes, jokes and videos.

The Minister whose portfolio responsibilities include regulating the sale of alcohol presented an irresistible target as she alternated between being beer drinkers’ worst enemy to being their favorite minister with her back and forth decisions to ban and unban the sale of alcohol in a bid to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

While Peggy jokes revealed the extent to which alcohol is socially accepted in Botswana, social scientists warned this week that this is no laughing matter.

Dr Poloko Ntshwarang, senior Social Work lecturer at the University of Botswana told Sunday Standard Lifestyle that, “Alcohol unfortunately really is socially acceptable, for everyone but especially for young people. For a lot of young people, the weekend will pass in an alcoholic blur. They’ll toss down drink after drink as fast as they can then they will throw up, pass out, revive themselves and reach for more booze. I think we need to understand that a lot of young people are more social and tend to want to fit in certain particular groups. Young adults are especially likely to drink heavily, they explore their own identities and how they fit in the world. The roles of parents weaken and the influences of peers gain greater strength. Young adults are on their own for the first time, free to make their own decisions, including the decision to drink alcohol. This isn’t to say only young people abuse alcohol but also grown-ups, any individual who engages in regular drinking will most likely fall into the heavy drinking category.”

In Botswana no social occasion is complete without alcohol. From parties, chill sessions and marriage celebrations to after tears’ sessions, alcohol is the oil that keeps the social machine running.

Drinking has become a social norm and does not carry the same stigma associated with other drugs. In fact, it is so socially accepted that teetotallers are seen as socially awkward. Anyone who doesn’t want to drink is considered a misfit. Questions such as “Are you driving? Are you sick? Are you on antibiotics? Are you pregnant?” Often follow. An answer of none of the above would raise eyebrows, a puzzled expression and possibly even anger or dislike. It is no secret that people who have chosen abstain, or rarely drink, have been subjected to intense peer pressure. Wowsers become isolated – not out of preference, but because Botswana’s social life has been entirely organized around alcohol.

With alcohol so prevalent in our lives, we normalize it into our daily behavior. We might even mistakenly think that alcohol abuse is a term left for extreme circumstances. Studies have however revealed that alcohol abuse is a national crisis.

A recent national study: “Prevalence and predictors of alcohol and drug use among secondary school students in Botswana: a cross-sectional study” by Katherine Riva, Lynne Allen-Taylor, Will D. Schupmann, Seipone Mphele, Neo Moshashane & Elizabeth D. Lowenthal found that, “of the 1936 students surveyed, 816 (42.1%) reported alcohol use, and 434 (22.4%) met criteria for hazardous alcohol use.”

The study further revealed that, “risk factors more strongly associated with alcohol and drug use were reported alcohol availability, individual and social vulnerability factors, and poor peer modeling. Individual and social controls protections appear to mitigate risk of student alcohol and drug use.”

Terms such as “alcohol abuse” or “alcohol misuse” reinforce the idea that risky drinking is something that happens to others – to a small number of people. Alcohol is so widely and socially accepted; it is often forgotten how dangerous it is compared to other more stigmatized drugs.

Dr Kgomotso Jongman of Jo’Speaks says, “Society’s relaxed views on the substance can contribute to a casual, almost indifferent attitude towards alcohol abuse. Because casual drinking is tolerated in society and isn’t frowned upon, it can be difficult to accept that drinking is more than just a harmless form of recreation and can have serious health consequences if one doesn’t moderate their alcohol intake. Batswana have a somewhat cavalier attitude toward alcohol. However, drinking doesn’t give everyone the same happy experiences. Whenever alcohol is present in a culture, someone somewhere is bound to be struggling with addiction. As long as drinking remains an important part of our culture, individuals struggling with addiction will have to save themselves by stepping outside the norm.

Because of the overall public acceptance of alcohol, addicts often hide their dependency for a very long time. With an “everybody enjoys alcohol” mentality, they can even hide it from themselves for a while and from others for an even longer time. Eventually, alcohol addiction shows itself for “everyone” to see, often leaving the person suffering with the addiction as the last one to fully recognize. Alcohol is the easiest chemical substance to obtain even for those under the legal drinking age of 21. Alcoholism attacks and destroys just about every area of life, and the consequences are often devastating. For the severely addicted individual there is the pain of physical dependency, and they have to use alcohol even when not wanting to in order to feel well, and to prevent distressing withdrawal symptoms. Addiction subtly builds up over time and the addict is often unaware or in denial that there is a problem but will desperately try to control their drinking.


Read this week's paper