Rose Jaji (PhD), University of Zimbabwe, Harare, Zimbabwe
Many anti-homosexual Africans claim that homosexuality is “unAfrican” and view advocacy by Western governments for homosexuals’ rights in Africa as cultural imperialism. The crisis of attribution regarding homosexuality has created confusion manifest in its westernization. Juxtaposed with traditional accommodation of non-conformity and diversity in African cultures, the prevailing intolerance and homophobia among many Africans was in fact introduced by missionaries who condemned traditional practices on the continent as pagan, primitive, and evil. It is puzzling how African Christians question the “Africanness” of homosexuality without questioning the “Africanness” of Christianity which was brought to Africa by Western missionaries. If homosexuality is “unAfrican” and “Western” for the reason that Western governments advocate homosexuals’ rights, why have the same Africans embraced Christianity which came to Africa through Western missionaries and is thriving in Africa decades after the continent shook off the colonial yoke?
This piece critiques the claim that homosexuality is “unAfrican” arguing that anthropologists recorded it in various societies in pre-colonial Africa which renders questionable its categorical characterization as “unAfrican”. It also critiques Western interventions on homosexuality in Africa, arguing that these interventions have only served to make homosexuals in Africa more vulnerable to harassment, discrimination, and violence. Debates on homosexuality in Africa are largely uninformed because they overlook or are unfamiliar with historical and anthropological evidence which shows its practice before colonization. Historical and anthropological literature even by African scholars shows that homosexuality existed in Africa prior to the colonial encounter. Africans who describe homosexuality as “Western” are unaware of its historical demonization, pathologization, and medicalization, which rendered it a subject of psychiatry in Western societies. Homosexuals in Western societies have not always enjoyed the rights that they currently enjoy. To cite just a couple of examples, homosexuals were among the groups that were targeted for extermination by the Nazis in Germany less than a century ago. In the United States of America, it was through lobbying that homosexuality was deleted from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-II). Historical and sociological sources show religious condemnation and pathologization of homosexuality in Western societies taking place at a time when it was accommodated in traditional African cultures.
Anthropological sources document the practice of homosexuality in traditional African societies where it had varying meanings. Contrary to the orthodoxy that portrays African cultures as discriminatory, most of these cultures tolerated diversity and treated gender, sexuality, and sexual orientation as continuums rather than binaries in which one was either a man or a woman and heterosexual or homosexual. Flexibility in gender, sexuality, and sexual orientation as socio-cultural constructions enabled people to move back and forth between masculinity and femininity depending on the requirements of specific situations or circumstances. In cultures such as the Igbo of Nigeria, a biologically female person could become socially male through the phenomenon of male daughters and female husbands. Among the Shona of Zimbabwe, a lineage daughter has a higher social status in the patrilineage in relation to lineage daughters-in-law, and can represent her brother as a female father to his children.
Anthropological evidence shows that African cultures were heteronormative but accommodated deviant sexualities and sexual orientations by giving them meanings beyond sexual identity, pleasure, expression, and procreation. For example, homosexuality, apart from being accepted as an age-structured and erotic sexual pleasure in many African cultures, was also a ritual with healing, mystical, and magical powers as well as medicinal and economic purposes. What mattered about homosexuality was not the act itself but its rationale. Homosexuality existed in the military Azande state of South Sudan in the form of age-differentiated sexual relations among warriors. Visual evidence of homosexuality in Zimbabwe is provided by an explicit Khoisan painting of homosexual intimacy in addition to “oral traditions” or customary “cures” and “punishments”. Married men of the Pangwe ethnic group in Cameroon engaged in mutual sodomy not for sexual pleasure but for “wealth medicine”. Women to women relations in Dahomey (present day Benin) were sexual and erotic. Lesbian relations were also practiced, though disapproved of, in polygynous households in the Azande kingdom. Literature documents homosexuality in Angola, Ethiopia, Zaire, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Nigeria, Nubia, Rhodesia, Senegal, South Africa, Sudan, and Uganda. There was also situational homosexuality in the mines in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and South Africa due to the absence of women. Whether it is in the mines or prisons where inmates do not have conjugal visits, situational homosexuality blurs the boundary between heterosexuality and homosexuality and challenges the dichotomous view among some Africans that people are either heterosexual or homosexual. Bisexuality in polygynous marriage among the Nuba of South Sudan involved a male wife in addition to the normative male husband and female wife. Male wives and other people with non-normative sexualities would subsequently graduate into heterosexual marriage without being ostracized. Bisexual relations were documented in African countries such as Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, formerly Zaire), and Cameroon. Coming to 19th century Africa, historical sources portray Tshaka, the great warrior and King of the Zulu of South Africa, and Kabaka (King) Mwanga of the Buganda Kingdom in Uganda as homosexuals. If traditional African cultures were intolerant of homosexuality or homophobic, how did these two men rise to become such important figures in their respective kingdoms and in African history? President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, a country that has featured in international headlines because of its anti-homosexual stance, which prompted former British Prime Minister David Cameron to threaten to withdraw aid, noted that the debate on homosexuality had been distorted leading to the wrong debate. He acknowledged the historical practice of homosexuality in Uganda when he said, “In our society, there were a few homosexuals. There was no persecution, no killings and no marginalization of these people but they were regarded as deviants.”
Why then has homosexuality become a hot issue in contemporary Africa? The historical suspicion of agendas that are pushed by Western governments partly explains Westernization of homosexuality. Not many Africans look at Western interventions without seeing ulterior motives. They look at Africa’s tortured history with Western countries manifest in slavery and colonization and want to know, “Why is the West now affected by Africa’s ailments?” Some cynically wonder, “Where were human rights when Africans were being enslaved and colonized?” The double standard of focusing on homosexuals and not saying much about other vulnerable groups such as albinos does not help matters. “Why homosexuals and not anyone else?” They further ask. Western intervention on homosexuality in Africa has highly politicized an issue that traditionally existed under the political radar in African societies where anthropologists encountered it. Whereas anthropological literature shows that homosexuality in traditional African societies was more than sexual identity per se as it had other meanings beyond sexual pleasure and expression, Western rhetoric on homosexuality in Africa focuses on its sexual identity dimension to the chagrin of Africans most of whom value heteronormativity and give primacy to heterosexual and procreative sex.
Based on the conjecture that human rights are an alien concept to Africa, and notwithstanding anthropological and historical evidence on tolerance of homosexuality in traditional African cultures, Western governments such as the American and British governments that have openly voiced their concern on violation of homosexuals’ rights in Africa have done so in condescending tones that make Africans feel that they are being talked down to and hectored. The loud and strident calls for Africa to respect homosexuals’ rights accompanied by threats of punitive measures such as withdrawal of aid have ironically rendered homosexuals more vulnerable to stigma, discrimination, and violence. Homosexuals in Africa have paid the price for this patronizing approach. The advocacy, which ironically should have secured their rights and safety, addresses homosexuality in Africa out of the broader socio-cultural contexts that also govern heterosexual expression. If homosexuals cannot openly display public affection, so is the case with heterosexual couples in many parts of Africa. In Zimbabwe, it is not uncommon for heterosexual couples who display affection in public spaces to be asked whether they do not have a house to which they can confine their intimacy. President Museveni of Uganda once again captures this confinement of sexual expression to intimate physical spaces thus,
Sex among Africans including heterosexuals is confidential, […] If I am to kiss my wife in public, I would lose an election in Uganda. Western people exhibit sexual acts in public which we don’t do here. […] You have a lot of room in your house, why don’t you go there? Sex is a bilateral issue, not a multilateral one. On protection of homosexuals, it is prudent for the West to either maintain silence on this subject or change strategy so that its strong rhetoric does not create a backlash and expose homosexuals to more discrimination, persecution, and violence. If celebration of homosexuality embodied in gay parades in Western capitals can only place African homosexuals’ lives in danger, then advocacy for this expression of tolerance becomes counterproductive. Homosexuals in Africa have graver concerns than parades to celebrate their sexual orientation; what should matter is that they feel safe on the continent and not whether this sexuality is given a Western meaning and expression. If African cultures deal with deviant sexualities and sexual orientations by mystifying them, would de-mystifying them offer security to those who express them? Rendering homosexuals visible is not exactly the best way to protect them as conspicuousness often leads to vulnerability rather than safety. It is important to let Africans themselves take the lead on the discourse on homosexuals’ rights instead of outsiders giving the impression that they are in charge of it which has led to knee jerk and usually uniformed reactions that treat homosexuals as purveyors of Western cultural imperialism. Western leaders who speak on homosexuals’ rights in Africa need to consider the irony of rendering homosexuals vulnerable in trying to protect them on a continent where bringing their sexual orientation into the public sphere can get them killed. What would happen if Africans stopped treating homosexuality as “unAfrican” and Western?
 This piece specifically focuses on homosexuality which has drawn much attention in Africa compared to the other sexual orientations and sexualities encompassed in the LGBTQI spectrum. I use anti-homosexual instead of homophobic in order to capture the legislative dimension of negative attitudes towards homosexuality.
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