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.
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.
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.
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.
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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