Africa: A Queer History
In 2015, in response to Obama addressing legal discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community in Kenya, President Uhuru Kenyatta replied by saying “…there are some things that we must admit we don’t share. Our culture, our societies don’t accept.” Kenyatta implies that the Kenyan culture does not accept homosexuality, and even that homosexuality is un-Kenyan in itself. Although this was in 2015, today the vast majority of Africa — all countries excluding South Africa — have not legalized gay marriage. The Gambia’s president, Yahya Jammeh, called for homosexuals to have their throats slit in 2015, and other countries including Somalia, Sudan, and parts of Nigeria still impose the death penalty for homosexuality. Clearly Kenyatta is not the only African leader who is unwilling to accept homosexuality; homosexuality is not just viewed as un-Kenyan but as un-African. The Guardian even published an article titled “Why Africa is the Most Homophobic Continent,” and in it outlined the intense homophobia present throughout many African countries. Yet when we delve into the history of pre-colonial Africa, it becomes clear that the notion of homosexuality being un-African is blatantly false. There is much research that shows Africans were not always hostile towards homosexuality, and often even embraced it. Through an analysis of queer history in pre-colonial Africa, this paper argues that the modern notion that homosexuality is immoral and un-African is a concept that was introduced by white colonizers.
First, before truly delving into the queer history of Africa, it is important to note that Africa — both the pre-colonial and the modern — consists of a wide range of peoples and cultures. Many of the statements and examples in this paper do not serve to prove that every corner of the continent was once completely accepting of queerness and is now completely absent of this acceptance, but rather that queerness was widely accepted and now is not, at least by the vast majority. Thus, when referring to Africa, Africans, or the continent, the statements made are generalizations that apply to the majority and are not absolute truths, as attempting to make any definitive conclusions regarding a large and diverse group of people is difficult, if not completely impossible. Now, let us return to the study of queerness in Africa.
The myth that homosexuality is un-African and largely not present in Africa is indeed one of many notions that European colonizers imposed on the African continent. Early European visitors viewed Africans as primitive and thus close to nature. Because of this, many Africanists believed that Africans must “be heterosexual, [their] sexual energies and outlets devoted exclusively to their “natural” purpose: biological reproduction.” Anthropologists have denied the mere existence of homosexuality in Africa for centuries, and visitors or scholars who did acknowledge its existence still claimed it to be un-African, explaining its presence by believing it to be introduced by non-Africans, such as Arab slave traders or even Europeans. Furthermore, it was often deemed to be circumstantial. For example, Melville Herskovitz, a well-known Africanist, in a study of Dahomey children in modern-day Benin, explains that when “the boys no longer have the opportunity for companionship with the girls, and the sex drive finds satisfaction in close friendship between boys in the same group…A boy may take the other ‘as a woman,’ this being called gaglgo, homosexuality.” Thus, homosexuality becomes temporary and only due to a lack of female partners. Yet he later admits that these relationships may persist “during the entire life of the pair.”
It is not only the white Africanists who deny and refuse to acknowledge the presence of homosexuality on the continent. Africans themselves, specifically post-colonial Africans, deny its queer history perhaps even more vehemently. After more or less being indoctrinated into white European standards of morality, many Africans are “…defensive in the face of stereotypes of black hypersexuality, and resentful of sexual exploitation in colonial institutions.” Certainly, many Africans were more than willing to promote the colonizers’ idea that the sinfulness of homosexuality was absent from the continent. David Tatchell, a human rights activist who has campaigned extensively in Africa, emphasizes: “It’s one of the great tragedies of Africa that so many people have internalised the homophobia of that colonial oppression and now proclaim it as their own African tradition.” Of course, this tragedy is not the fault of the African people but the colonizers who imposed these values. Regardless of its origin, it is now fact, and the falsehood of the belief that homosexuality is un-African must be brought to light through Africa’s true history.
Now, let us dive into the true pre-colonial history of queer Africa. A collection of examples, by no means exhaustive, may in itself show the widespread acceptance that homosexuality once experienced on the continent. To begin in central Uganda, once called Buganda, the King himself, known as Kabaka, would “have sexual intercourse with young men in his court. These young men would eventually grow up and become chiefs and would play a very significant political role in the kingdom.” Although it was used as a means of showing the Kabaka’s power — he was “the husband of all the chiefs and men” — neither he nor the men he engaged with experienced homophobia from the community due to these acts; they were treated with indifference. However, as Christian missions began to invade these communities, they used the Bible and their interpretations of its teachings to portray homosexuality and acts of homosexuality as evil. Furthermore, translations of the Bible into local languages often condemned homosexuality much more harshly than the standard English texts did. Thus, at the Kabaka’s court, many of his pages began to “refuse homosexuality and face death” rather than engage in these acts. King Mwanga was perhaps the most famous of these kings, and he began to persecute his pages when they denied him sex; he eventually found it difficult to find anyone to partake in homosexual acts with him. Over time, the entire community adopted a “cultural ideology that was contemptuous of homosexual acts.” This ideology survives even today in Uganda, where acts of homosexuality can be punished with imprisonment. These laws were put in place under British colonial rule in 1950 but are still in effect, only being updated being to criminalize same-sex acts between women in addition to men.
Another group in which homosexuality was regularly practiced was the Azande of what is now southwestern Sudan, the Central African Republic, and northeastern Congo. Evans-Pritchard, who has published extensive writings on the Azande, remarks that the conclusion that “homosexuality is indigenous” is undoubtedly correct, as opposed to being due to Arab or European influence as often supposed. He explains, “Azande do not regard it as at all improper, indeed as very sensible, for a man to sleep with boys when women are not available or are taboo…in the past this was a regular practice at court. Some princes may have even preferred boys to women, when both were available…just because they like them.” Similarly to the Baganda, Azande kings often had intimate relationships with their pages, as explained by Kuagbiaru, a Zande. These pages could be summoned by the king “at any time of the day or night…they were at his side wherever he went…they knew a good deal about his private affairs, both domestic and political.” These observations make it quite clear that these homosexual relationships were not solely based on availability, and may have been more than just sexual in nature. The description of pages being constantly by the king’s side and being extremely knowledgeable about his affairs is quite reminiscent of the classical role a wife could play.
Indeed, Evans-Pritchard later discusses the actual marriages that occurred between Azade men, in which young warriors may marry boy-wives. He explains how these warriors paid the equivalent of a brideprice to his boy-wife’s family, as well as attending to them as though they were his own parents. He may give the boy “pretty ornaments; and he and the boy addressed one another as badiare, ‘my love’ and ‘my lover’…The two slept together at nights, the husband satisfying his desires between the boy’s thighs.” Eventually, these boy-wives would grow up and become warriors themselves, meaning that they would take their own boy-wife. Evans-Pritchard notes that “boy marriage has in post-European times entirely disappeared.” Although he does not go into detail about how or why, it is safe to assume that this dissipation may be due to similar reasons as those of the Baganda.
Evans-Pritchard also touches upon lesbianism in the Azande, a much less widely discussed (or perhaps less present) practice in pre-colonial Africa. He says that he was told “by males only, though women admitted that some women practiced it” that in polygamous families, wives would use vegetables or fruit “in the shape of a male organ…[They] would shut themselves in a hut and one would…play the female role while the other…the male.” Lesbianism, however, was much less accepted than male homosexuality. Zande men, in the words of Evans-Pritchard, “have a horror of lesbianism, and they regard it as highly dangerous.” Men were more dominant in the Zande society, and Evans-Pritchard suggests that perhaps the condemnation of lesbianism versus male homosexuality was due to male control and the fear of women gaining power and autonomy.
The two prior examples focused on regions of central Africa. Now, to move west, we will begin to see that homosexuality was spread throughout the entire continent. The Hausa are the largest ethnic group in Africa, and although they are concentrated in southern Niger and northern Nigeria, there are over ten African countries with significant Hausa populations, mostly concentrated in western Africa. In one predominantly Hausa city, a type of homosexual relationship exists between “k’wazo — older, well-to-do men, generally masculine in behavior — and their younger partners, called baja, who are generally sexually receptive…and receive presents as would female lovers.” Gaudio, an anthropologist who studied Hausa societies, heard members of the gay male community speak of “homosexuality and homosexual marriage as practices that are indigenous to Hausa Muslim culture [even] as they are marginal within it,” implying that these practices have long existed in Hausa culture. In the bori cult, a possession religion commonly believed to be pre-Islamic in which many Hausa participate in, has a prominent population of homosexual men referred to as ‘yan daudu. This name has a positive connotation within the community, translating to son of Daudu (Daudu being a praise name for any ranked title).
Interestingly, these Hausa men often “do not see homosexuality as incompatible with or excluding heterosexuality, including marriage and parenthood. This observation is key for understanding African patterns of sexuality.” While it is easy to impose the Western idea of voluntary, monogamous marriage onto other cultures, many other societies do not view marriage in this light. Thus, there is often no reason to suppress or condemn what Eurocentric beliefs often view as sexually deviant. Indeed, Gaudio found that many gay Hausa men “regard their homosexual desires as real and intrinsic to their nature, but they also regard their reproductive obligations as real and, ultimately more important than their homosexual affairs…” Although approached differently, homosexuality is still clearly present in Hausa communities.
However, many Hausa people deny or simply gossip “in disparaging terms” regarding the presence of homosexuality in their societies. So, although homosexuality has survived more publicly in the Hausa community than in most other African regions, it is still not widely accepted. In the case of ‘yan daudu specifically, they are believed to have survived through colonialism because the bori cult itself survived. This is likely due to “the feminine nature of the cult, its control and domination by women and its provision of freedom for women, unequalled by both Islam and Christianity…bori provides an avenue for socio-cultural performance, festivals, and other types of interaction, and offers traditional medical and health care services…factors that have endeared the cult to both members and non-members.” Thus, with the survival of bori through colonialism and the religion it imposed came the survival of ‘yan daudu, allowing homosexuality to publicly exist alongside it although often derided.
One final example comes from southern Africa, where “same-sex relations among peers and among men of different ages were common...” In the late 1800s, the Basotho (now Lesotho and parts of Southern Africa) Chief Moshesh testified that “there were no punishments under customary law for ‘unnatural crimes.’” When European colonizers gained control in southern Africa, they criminalized and attempted to repress homosexual relations as they did throughout the rest of the continent. However, they actually fostered these relations in an unintentional way. In gender-segregated work settings, specifically in mining, homosexual relationships became commonplace. Henri Junod, a Swiss Presbyterian missionary who traveled to the Tsonga of southern Mozambique, described the relationships among minors, explaining how the “nkhonsthana, or boy-wife, was ‘used to satisfy the lust’ of the nima, husband. He received a wedding feast, and his elder brother received brideprice…some of the ‘boys’ were older than twenty.” These boy-wives were often expected to perform domestic chores, while in the evening “The husband would make love with him…Fidelity was expected and jealousy on occasion led to violence.” A member of the Tsonga people even said that some men enjoyed homosexual intercourse over heterosexual.
Some of the weddings between two men could last a whole weekend, with the ‘brides’ wearing “Zulu dress; some wore Western bridal white and had bridesmaids in attendance.” Women and elders at home generally accepted these marriages, and the men might even interact with each other’s families, although most did not last beyond the working period. However, these homosexual relationships in mining communities have recently declined with “the breakdown of rural society, wives accompany or follow their husbands and live as squatters near the work sites.”
Clearly, there have been extensive and intricate homosexual relationships throughout the entire continent of Africa. The examples above only portray a few instances of queerness in pre-colonial Africa, and many more — both recorded and unrecorded — exist, some even to today. From many of these examples we can observe the direct impact that European colonialism has had on queer practices and relationships, while others we can only guess. Many modern Africans are unaware of or unwilling to discuss sensitive and often illegal matters such as homosexuality, especially in their own communities. Regardless, the statement that homosexuality is un-African is clearly false, as evidenced by the multitude of examples discussed in this paper.
What is important now is making this relevant. While a few queer African communities have persisted throughout the continent, many have not. Furthermore, the individuals and groups who have persisted face intense discrimination today, both socially and legally. While South Africa has decriminalized homosexuality and has even legally protected the gay community, the rest of the continent has much progress to be made. Yet queer communities throughout Africa are speaking up: in 2014, Uganda held their first official public pride parade. The Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya, formed in 2006, actively advocates for LGBTQ+ rights and provides resources for the community. Similar organizations have formed in Uganda, Botswana, and Zimbabwe, to name a few. Clearly, queer activism has risen significantly in the past two decades, despite governmental attempts to repress the community. Yet even as recently as May 2019, Kenya’s high court has upheld laws that criminalize gay sex that were initially imposed by the British during colonial rule. The effects of colonialism are far from gone, and maybe never truly will be. Perhaps, over time, African communities will accept and even embrace homosexuality as they once did many years ago. All we do know is that the fight for LGBTQ+ liberation in Africa has just begun and advocates refuse to be silenced, despite the violence that they face. The future of queer Africa is largely unknown, but it will be one full of discussion, challenges, and perseverance.
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