Recently, anti-gay bills have passed through the governments in Nigeria and Uganda, sparking debate across the continent. While African LGBT groups have held safety meetings, President Jammeh of Gambia referred to homosexuals in his country as ‘mosquitoes’ and ‘vermin.’ And in Nigeria men merely suspected of being homosexual were marched through the streets of Abuja naked and beaten with wires, metal rods and clubs. Though many deplored the direct violence in Abuja, a majority of opinions applaud the incarceration of homosexuals.
Popular logic here often decries homosexuality as a ‘western concept’ and just another import from colonial days. Pressure from the West to give LGBT citizens equal rights is often seen as further coercion from former colonialists, trying once again to control the African agenda. Recently, Uganda’s President Museveni sharply rebuffed Obama for his comment that Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill could “complicate” relations, asking for him to respect the differences in African culture. This delighted numerous Ugandans, who saw their president as standing up for the sovereign rights of an African state. Yet the history of homosexuality in Africa is far more nuanced than the current debate lets on,with numerous studies showing homosexuality is, in fact, as African as the soil itself.
In the Buganda Kingdom of Uganda, Mwanga II, the Kabaka (king) of the region was openly gay. Mwanga actually battled the attitudes of early missionaries towards homosexuality, sometimes even killing Christians who dared question his sexuality. And although Ugandan children are rarely taught this when they learn the history of Buganda, it has been an open secret for years. In Northern Uganda, Nilotico Lango tribes allowed men to shift their gender status, rendering them free to marry other men.
In South Africa, the Lobedu Kingdom had the Rain Queen Modjadji who took up to 15 young wives as she saw fit. Prominent families would send their daughters to her to increase tribal loyalties and ensure wealth through rainfall. She enjoyed such prominence that during a meeting with Mandela, he was only allowed to speak to her when spoken to. In fact, many healers throughout broader Southern Africa were thought to have been comprised of homosexual or asexual women. Part of this reasoning involved the healer being closer to women and therefore, closer to nature’s fundamental source of sustenance.
In the book “Heterosexual Africa?” By Marc Epprecht, he takes on the assumption that same-sex relations were nonexistant in Africa prior to western influence. Epprecht cites evidence to suggest that sexuality, in terms of how we think about it today as being an identity, did not exist in pre-colonial classifications. Homosexuality didn’t function as the antithesis to heterosexuality, rather sexuality was part of an innate spectrum. Because of this, soldiers bedding and even living with male companions were simply considered part of a natural sexual occurrence in certain areas, notably in Southern Africa.
In the book “Boy-Wives and Female-Husbands” edited by Stephen Murray and Will Roscoe, a study of the Bafia people in Cameroon, notes homosexuality being quite normal when women had reached puberty. Out of fear of impregnating girls before full maturity could take place, boys often took up boyfriends, and it was suspected the women did likewise. Those that never married and stayed within their own sex were simply termed as those ‘without children.’
In Lesotho, lesbian behavior was well known, yet existed without the social construction of what ‘lesbian’ means. Because traditionally, the African family always needed to produce offspring, lesbian relationships rarely formed with the intention of a permanent pairing. Rather, affections or sexuality existed side by side with the concept of marriage to a man. This is later echoed in the Hausa tribes of West Africa, where, “There was not a necessary connection between marriage and heterosexual desire.”
It is worth noting that the African continent is incredibly large and diverse, with thousands of languages and cultures. So when we discuss homosexuality in pre-colonial Africa, we must take into consideration oral histories and cultural concepts, which shift over time. Yet there is a very clear divide between pre-colonial attitudes on sexuality and post-colonial law.
Current popular opinion may prefer the erasure of Africa’s homosexual past, deeming it a sin, an abnormality, or simply unAfrican. But the reality is Africa has always had a gay community, and regardless of current discriminatory measures, it always will.