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Is Homosexuality "Un-African"?

Aarti Divani argues that homophobic legislation is a product of colonialism.
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David Kato, murdered Ugandan teacher and LGBT rights activist (left), and the South African Constitution used as an LGBT campaigning tool.

The topic of homosexuality has often excited extreme reactions in many African countries. Homophobic rhetoric claims that same-sex relations are new to the continent, while homosexuals are being stigmatised as "un-African". However, the history of colonialism in Africa reveals that it was anti-homosexual legislation, rather than homosexuality, which was introduced by external forces.

A homophobic present

Last month, Nolbert Kuninga, the former Bishop of Harare, dismissed the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’ visit to the country, saying that Williams was coming to “represent neo-colonialism” and “lobby for homosexuality”.

In July 1995, Robert Mugabe shut down a book exhibition organised by the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe at the prestigious Harare International Book Fair. “[Homosexuality] degrades human dignity. It’s unnatural, and there is no question ever of allowing these people to behave worse than dogs and pigs,” Mugabe said to explain the decision. “If dogs and pigs do not do it, why must human beings? We have our own culture, and we must rededicate ourselves to our traditional values that make us human beings…What we are being persuaded to accept is a sub-animal behaviour and we will never allow it here.”

Aside from the arguable inaccuracies of any “sub-animal” claims, a key part of Mugabe's objection is the idea that homosexuality is not part of African culture and that it has been perniciously imported into Zimbabwe. Many Zimbabwean politicians supported the president’s campaign. The now deceased Border Gezi, a close ally of Mugabe, pronounced homosexuality to be completely alien to Zimbabwean culture, claiming that “they have no right to practice homosexuality in our country, and if they don’t like it they can leave”.

Similarly, the Ugandan MP David Bahati has been the main force behind the proposed Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill, submitted in October 2009. The bill has also been connected with Bahati’s membership to The Family, a secretive fellowship of powerful Christian politicians based in the US, who are using influential congressman to promote their anti-homosexual ideas. Bahati reportedly first floated the idea of executing homosexuals at The Family’s Uganda National Prayer Breakfast.

“It is un-African because it is inconsistent with African values, of procreation and of the belief in the continuity of family and clan,” Bahati says. He has also expressed the argument that same-sex relationships compromise population growth on the continent.

However, there is an example of where the law has been used to catalyse political change in Africa. In South Africa a court case launched in 2005 led to the ruling that the lack of same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, leading to the passage of the Civil Union Act in 2006. Many attitudes to same-sex relationships have, however, pervaded.

“When I was growing up an ungqingili (a homosexual) would not have stood in front of me. I would knock him out,” said President Jacob Zuma, who said same-sex marriages were a “disgrace to the nation and to God” before later “apologising unreservedly” for his comments. Since 2006, some 30 lesbians have been killed because of their sexuality, while gay rights organisation Triangle says it deals with ten “corrective rape” – forced sex with a man to “cure” sexuality - claims each week. In April this year, gay rights activist Noxolo Nogwaza was tortured and raped, before her body was dumped in a public area in the KwaThema Township in East Rand, Guateng. “Rapes and other violence against lesbians and gender non-conforming people have reached epidemic proportions in South Africa,” Human Rights Watch warned. The following month, a 13-year-old girl said to be openly gay was raped in Pretoria.

A more liberal past?

The “Africaness” of homosexuality is an increasingly engaged in and consistently controversial topic. While it is continually claimed that homosexuality is un-African, studies by historians and anthropologists have found same-sex relationships to have been in existence in pre-colonial Africa. What has also become apparent in research is that the social meaning of same-sex relationships has changed since the 1800s, with the onset of colonialism transforming it along rigid Western ideas of sexuality and gender, and formulating the idea of same-sex relationships as foreign to Africa.

In pre-colonial African societies same-sex relationships were often constituted through informal rites of passage. Roscoe and Murray’s Boy Wives and Female Husbands reports that the Yan Daudu societies of the Hausa described such relations in terms connoting frivolity and irresponsibility, such as wasa (to play), thus allowing same-sex relations to be ignored or surrounded with a sense of invisibility.

The importance placed upon procreation denied same-sex relations the degree of social significance to threaten hetrosexuality. The Yan Daudu saw their same-sex relations as compatible with procreative roles, with men often marrying women and having children while maintaining their “playfulness” with other men. They saw the importance of reproduction, forbidding same-sex relations to overrule communitarian obligations and inheriting no social meaning. Nonetheless same-sex relations were present. Similarly, in Lesotho, relationships between married mpho women were often not hidden by their husbands. They saw these relations as un-sexual, conceiving them as differently constructed and thus not threatening, but rather compatible with heterosexuality.

What has become evident is that heterosexual compositions remained intact within same-sex relationships. The Nigerian anthropologist Ifi Amadiume’s study of Nigerian Igbo society shows how the fluidity of gender construction meant that females could become “female husbands” as long as they had acquired the same amount of status and wealth as a male. Abiding by fulfilling the gender norms associated with being male, same-sex relationships resembled the composition of both the male and female gender norms of a heterosexual relationship. This in turn would have led to the inability for same-sex relationships to adhere a secular identity and therefore a social meaning even though they were extant.

Furthermore, spiritual leaders in Zimbabwe believed sexuality to be related to spiritual powers and possession. Men involved within same-sex relationships were left alone, as they could return as an “ngozi”, an avenging spirit, which could cause greater havoc to the community’s procreation. In many cases in Zimbabwean traditional healers regarded same-sex relationships as respectable if caused by certain types of spirit possession, rather than the offence and usurpation of natural order they are deemed to be today.

The change in social meaning 

With the onset of colonialism the social meaning of same-sex relationships gradually began to change and constitute an explicit identity. With the emergence of the compound system for regulating labour in South African goldmines, men began leaving their wives for long periods. In order to fulfil their sexual desires they engaged in “mine marriages”, whereby older men would use younger men to release sexual desires. Colonial officials encountered such behaviour against the backdrop of a perception of colonial subjects as racially inferior and epitomising primitive man, with sexual desires devoted exclusively to reproduction. To rationalise the behaviour within their own sex and gender norms, neglecting any African social meanings, the behaviour was stigmatised as foreign and un-African, and deriving from the Portuguese or the Arab trading community. Consequently, the social meaning of same-sex relations transformed into a rigid identity of “otherness” as the homosexual. Those involved in such acts were seen as others as they had adopted mine marriages through what was perceived as foreign contact. Through the dislocation of these men from their traditional societies in which the social meanings of such relations were fluid, to the colonial product of the compound system, this new same-sex, definitive, “un-African” relationship was born. The inculcation of this discourse led to the re-evaluation of African same-sex relationships, with missionary work and Islamic influences embedding within Africans the foreign and thus negative element of such behaviour. Same-sex relationships became stigmatised as un-African.

This notion of “othering” was then used among decolonising governments in constructing nations, contributing to the feelings of homophobia expressed in many African states today. Benedict Anderson argues that “nationalisms are built on homo-social bonding and since nationalisms require specific heterosexual gender relations, man to protect and provide and women to mother and care, homosexuality is not representable for the idea of a nation”. It is reported that Shona-speaking Zimbabweans consider that the term ngochani (homosexual) does not sound Shona but instead has a foreign sound, thus implicitly negating homosexual’s claims to Zimbabwean citizenship and rights. These feelings of hostility towards same-sex relationships are of course further evident through Mugabe’s numerous diatribes against homosexuals and his reiteration of the “un-Africanness” of same-sex relationships.

Sexual behaviour and the law

Colonialism did not introduce same-sex relationships to Africa. Pre-colonial Africa contained a range of approaches to sexual behaviour, including many which permitted same-sex relationships to exist without violating social norms. What colonialism introduced was a binary model of sexuality, and systems of jurisprudence that identified and regulated sexual behaviour to conform to the norms of the coloniser.

The current conception of homosexuality as something to be defined and regulated by a national legal system is a product of colonial government which was imposed upon the African population. Anti-homosexual legislation, which was often a product of colonial legal codes, is now being defended as specifically African and attempts to challenge such legislation are delegitimised by being labelled as Western and neo-colonial.


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What's the purpose of this article? To promote homosexuality in Africa or to instigate the downplay of the shamefullness of homosexuality?You western backed goats will not succeed. First, The Westerners colonized us, forced us into slavery and Killed millions that did not conform(Google search King Leopold of Belgium, he killed more than 12 million africans in the late 1800s). Now these western Devils wanna use our own people to downplay the sinfullness of homo...It shall not work. We Africans Say no to colonialism. Leave us to practice whatever we believe.

The purpose of the article, I believe, is to put ideas of sexuality in a historical context, and think about who are most vocal in asserting the sinfulness of sexual minorities in both the West and in Africa: the Church. Now, is this an institution that is African, or was it imposed on Africa by the west?

Rom 1:21-2721 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator — who is forever praised. Amen.26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.NIV

I am like the wind, even though you don’t see me and pretend you don’t feel me, I blow through your thoughts and your neatly packed culture and picture perfect life. I challenge what you deem hetero-norm. I have a voice. I cannot be ignored. I will not be ignored. I am in every family. I am born of every African womb. I suckle every African breast. I am born gay and ever beautiful in every way known to man. I Am African… and I Am Gay. Frank Malaba™ © 2010

Quoting the NIV is a good sign that you don't know anything about textual criticism, and is enough reason to dismiss your point, aside from the fact that the Bible was written by men at a time when scientific understanding was pitiful.

This is the most ridiclous article i have ever read. The writer not only knows little about the continents past but also talks as if colonization did not try to influence the African culture. I say the homosexual way of life is brought to Africa, it did not emerge there. Using colonization first as a weapon to weaken the strong cultural and social norm and now using this type of ideologies they are robbing the soul and knowledge of the African youth. The writer needs to read more on why there is a culture defying this movement right now. She should get to the base of the continent and make a real journalism job instead of making this unresearched and biased claims. 

I'm sorry but that's completely ridiculous it's been proven time and again that homosexuality is not something that's chosen. It's inherent, people are born with a pre-disposition to homosexuality. It happens in nature, there are tons of animals that exhibit homosexual behaviour. Especially among mammals (as humans are). As an african the first thing we need to do is recognize that not everyone in the outside world is trying to destroy Africa. Also we need to look forward to our own progress as a society and not repeat the mistakes that have been made by the western and eastern worlds. We have the benefit of a relatively blank state.

When you go against the grain expect resistance, and Africa is unlike The West it will chew and spit you out, this is the reality.While I may not have the historic facts I can safely say cross dressing lesbians and gays, are more prevalent today than say in the 80's. So as the saying goes When in Rome!! We all have opinions and though we may not always agree, let's us be cognicent of where we are and the nature of our people. When they say In Africa only the strong survive let's add smart as well. We can change all the legislation we want but that will not change people's attitudes and sadly Actions too.

It's important to recognize that many societies in Africa, at least my own, the Baganda of Uganda, are quite prudish. Sex and sexuality are rarely openly discussed.Growing up as a teen in the 1970s, we recognized the existence of homosexuality and whilst there were negative connotations towards it, it was nothing like the hatemongering that is evident today. Of course, the firebrand churches, who are today's leading cheerleaders, were also not around then.However, I am surprised that the emergence of AIDS in the 1980s, and it's outsized influence to the current anti-homosexual zealotry, is often overlooked. At least in Uganda. When the AIDS pandemic first emerged, Uganda was quickly identified as having the biggest concentration of AIDS victims. The link between AIDS and homosexuality was quickly established in America but this link was anathema to our prudish sensibilities. And we reacted by descending into a long dark self-destructive period where it became unofficial policy to deny of the existence of AIDS, punctuated with screams of; "It's not AIDS, we don't have homosexuality in Africa". To this day, even with our renown openness in the fight against AIDS, the disease is still largely spoken of in euphemisms. For example, people understand, "John is ill" to mean John is suffering from an AIDS related illness, unless the initial statement is qualified.    Given how deep and painful AIDS has been throughout our societies, it is not difficult to imagine the magnitude of its influence to the growth of the anti-homosexuality lobby.

AIDS is the manifestation of God's displeasure with the sin....yes it affects others too. Predominately it is the recompense for perversion and immorality, regardless of your opinion that whatever you feel like doing is ok.

I always laugh at the argument that homosexuality is unAfrican. I counter this argument thusly:Africans are human beings, they can suffer every human ailment and feeling.... love, anger, disappointment.... they can suffer heart disease, cancer, glaucoma, HIV, diabeties, malaria, typhoid etc etc etc.....Yet homosexuality is not African.....What the proponants of this argument do not understand is that they themselves - the politicians, the religious leaders and the people who blindly follow this logic - are saying is that Africans are not human beings... we are something different to human beings.... so they are stating that Africas are some sort of sub species of the human race. A sub species who share every aspect of being human, but one.....Now the only sub species of the human race I am aware of is Neanderthal Man.... so African politicians and religious leaders are OPENLY stating to the world at large that they believe the African people they govern, and lead in spirituality are sub human!!!! Now.... this usually ends up in a tirade of abuse from "brainwashed" Africans.... but I ask them to think about their argument logically, and answer this... How can Africans be part of the human race, but for one area????? 

You may be interested in visiting the following link :  --- it is a transcript of some pages (more coming) of the Diaries of the White Fathers at Mutesa's Court. So many references to homosexuality (How Mutesa used to have sex with his male pages - how the catechists and early baptised would dayly sodomise the young slaves redeemed and educated by the Fathers- how someone would indicate that Male sex was said then to be introduced by Arab traders, but also was widespread in the whole country, villages ibncluded, etc.... Genuine documents. Please have a look and tell me your reactions - and spread the link, in the present context of "Gayness is a Western recent import".