Fake history, misunderstanding colonial legacies, and the demonization of homosexuality in Africa

The Supreme Court of Kenya:CREDIT: Kriddl
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On 24 February 2023, the Supreme Court of Kenya affirmed the right of association for the queer community. The backlash against this ruling was swift and immediate as countless Kenyans decried the ruling. Some for its, alleged, incompatibility with Kenya’s status as a Christian nation; even though Kenya is a secular state, as per our constitution. Some criticized the Supreme Court for overstepping its bounds by ruling on a matter of “public morality;” even though they declined to justify why their conception of public morality is preferrable to public law. Whereas some condemned the Court for legitimizing queerness; which it did not.

Underpinning many of these arguments is a feeling that that queerness – used here to describe non-heteronormative sexualities which involve physical, emotional or sexual intimacy with a member of the same sex – is ‘unAfrican.’ They argue that queerness is a “Western” import designed to ‘destroy’ the African family unit.

This is not true.

Pre-colonial African societies, while not a monolith, engaged with queerness in different ways. Some rejected it, while others embraced their queer community members in varying degrees and contexts. Queerness, described in different terms and concepts throughout pre-colonial Africa, is a historical fact. To argue that we should reject it in the present, is to be ignorant of our history. In fact, and rather ironically, it is to accept a white and colonized version of history. One that ignores the extent to which our colonizers overwrote, mediated and changed our history, the perception of our cultures and what it means to be ‘African.’ Therefore, let us deconstruct their argument. How was queerness understood in the past? And what are people trying to say when they denounce queer expression in the present?

To be, or not to be, ‘unAfrican’

First, for something to be ‘unAfrican,’ there must be some, essential, and static ‘African’ standard to aspire to. A standard that stands diametrically opposed to the ‘Western’ moniker. Therefore, we must consider what it means to be African and ‘unAfrican;’ who gets to define it, and the purpose for which that definition was rendered.

As Achille Mbembe argues: “What is called Africa is first and foremost a geographical accident. It is this accident that we subsequently invest with a multitude of significations, diverse imaginary contents, or even fantasies, which by force of repetition, end up becoming authoritative narratives.” This is to say that what constitutes ‘Africanness’ is neither inherent, nor static nor monolithic. In fact, the treatment of Africa as a monolith is a by-product of Western discourse that did not bother to concern itself with the continents’ vast socio-political and cultural differences. As a result, is incredibly ironic that we include values that were imposed upon us in our conceptualization of ‘Africanness;’ Rather than examine the ways in which these colonial impositions augmented pre-colonial nuances and realities. Such an examination reveals ‘Africanness’ to be dynamic; encompassing the totality and diversity of the Continent. This diversity renders it ridiculous to characterise queerness as ‘unAfrican.’  

As soon as we recognize this we must ask, who said queerness was ‘unAfrican’? Why did they say it? Were they speaking a historical fact, projecting their discomfort onto society or attempting toWhat were they trying to say about what it means to be African, and experience and explore sexuality within this cultural space? For, by our own terms and history, sexual fluidity and non-heteronormativity are incredibly African because they are fantastically human; and fundamentally, to be African is, first and foremost, to be human.  Therefore, one cannot conclude that something is ‘unAfrican’ without observing and reflecting upon this conversation; going back into our history to figure out what was in order to identify what could be.

Sexuality in pre-colonial Africa was quite complex. The organization of gender and sexuality are incomparable to the rigid structures that permeate our current understanding. Unfortunately, much of the documentation pre-colonial African sexualities occurred at the behest of European, and therefore colonial, hands. As a result, this history, much like the exploration of ‘Africanness,’ is coloured by how our colonizers perceived, understood and responded to our sexual fluidity, rather than a ‘neutral’ reflection of our mores (to the extent that such documentation is possible).

Queerness in pre-Colonial Africa

As recorded by Stephen O Murray and Will Roscoe in Boy-Wives and Female Husbands, queerness is not alien to Africa. Prior to European colonization, a variety of pre-colonial African societies expressed far more relaxed attitudes towards sexual expression and gender identity. As far back as 2400 BC, tombs have been excavated in Ancient Egypt with two men’s bodies, Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, embracing each other as lovers.

This was not unique to Egypt. Sir Richard Burton, who once proclaimed queerness as exogenous to sub-Saharan Africa to the point of literally excising such practices from his map ironically, acknowledged 16th Century Portuguese sources which observed instances of male homosexuality among the Kongo tribe. These sources, penned by European travellers, spoke of men who refused to wear traditionally masculine clothes and who “[served] as passive women in the ‘abominable sin’” (Murray & Roscoe, p.142). Interestingly, the writer takes no care to justify his characterisation of this act or whether it was seen as ‘abominable’ in the society in which it existed. This lack of context allows the traveller to make presumptions on behalf of the Kongo Kingdom; projecting and universalising their disdain for homosexuality unto the Kongolese.  

Generally, one must consider sexual expression and fluidity, not in isolation but always, in the context of the society’s material and spiritual domains. Deciphering and understanding this context is the only way to develop a uniquely African narrative of queer expression. For example, among the Bafia of Cameroon homosexuality was encouraged as part of ones’ sexual development, as described by Günther Tessmann (p.147-48). Same-sex male relationships were encouraged in order to preserve and protect the sexualities of young girls. Boys found to be engaging in these relationships would not be punished.

Meanwhile, long-standing, erotic female-centred relationships were a staple among the Basotho of Lesotho. These relationships – termed matsaolle – existed outside and alongside heteronormative relationships. As a result, they ought to be understood outside Western, inherently exclusive and sexualised, conceptualisations of lesbianism due to the Sotho conceptualisation of sex. The Sotho believed, as reflected by Limakatso K Kendall, an anthropologist studying lesbian expression in Lesotho, that “you can’t have sex unless somebody has a koai [penis]” (p.226). The fact that these relationships were not perceived as sexual does not make them any less transgressive to the heteronormative order. Rather, it suggests a lack of imagination on the part of Western queer theory; one which necessarily sexualises queer sexual expression.

Similarly, female husbandry demonstrates the fluidity of gender relations and queerness in traditional Africa, as documented among the Agikuyu by Wairimũ Ngarũiya Njambi and William E. O’Brien. In a 2000 study on “Woman-Woman marriage among Gikuyu women”, Njambi and O’Brien examined the dynamics of these relationships. They found one of their defining characteristics to be age where older women, or widows, married younger girls so that they could raise children for inheritance purposes. These relationships are complex and dynamic and multifaceted. But at their core, each of the marriages surveyed were marriages, in the commonunderstanding of the word. Marriages filled with compassion, and love for the other person that were, according to Njambi and O’Brien, “clearly not ‘underground’” in any way.

Furthermore, one of the elements to attest the presence of same-sex sexual practices in Africa before the colonial period is also the vocabulary used to address them. Matsoaolle is a great example of this. Another comes from the Yoruba. As Bisi Almi, a Nigerian gay rights activist writing for the Guardian explains, “In my local language (Yoruba), the word for “homosexual” is adofuro, a colloquialism for someone who has anal sex. It might sound insulting and derogatory; however, the point is there is a word for the behaviour. Moreover, this is not a new word; it is as old as the Yoruba culture itself.”

Indeed, the dominance and expectation of heteronormativity does not overwrite the existence and acceptance of queer sexual expression in pre-colonial Africa. Yet, this sexual fluidity was left absent, at best, or overwritten, at worst, by the Europeans who codified and mediate African History. This imposed historical silence gives credence to the notion that queerness is a Western import. Thus, animating an investigation into how Europeans wrote about pre-colonial African sexual expression.

Silencing queerness – the creation of a heterosexual Africa

As noted by Binta Bajaha, European ‘historians’ preferred one of two discourses regarding pre-colonial African sexuality. These discourses, often, operated in a misguided binary. Either; (1) pre-colonial Africa was untouched by the, alleged, ‘repugnance’ that is queerness or; (2) pre-colonial Africa was characterized by a sexual freedom that, when compared to the sexual repression of the Europeans, was a sin that needed to be exorcised from the continent.

Regarding the latter, it was used as a justification to colonize Africa. The image of the ‘uncontrollable’ and ‘insatiable’ African was juxtaposed against the ‘prim’ and ‘morally superior’ European. This moral superiority was enough reason to colonise Africa in the hopes of transforming its people into “noble savages.” Conversely, and regarding the former, it appeared as early as 1890 in the works of Sir Richard Burton. It reflected a deep desire to build, rather than reflect, a ‘virgin Africa’ as such a mission had failed in Europe. Travelling between 1821 and 1890 in Asia, America, the Middle East and Africa, Burton describes from his point of view what he calls the “sotadic zone.” That is, places where acts of ‘sexual inversion’ like pederasty or homosexual relationships could be practiced.

Burton identified these places as Southern France, Iberian Peninsula, Italy, Greece, North Africa, the Middle East, South East Asia, Asia and the Americas. This ideal carried forward into the 1930s, as is reflected in the words of Sir Frederick Jackson, the former Governor for Uganda. He argued that the practices were absent because of the “‘good sense of the natives and their disgust’ toward the bestial vices practiced by Orientals” (p.5). Jackson’s statement denies pre-colonial African societies agency; as if they could not have adopted queerness and queer individuals without external interference. It furthers and nuances the ‘noble savage’ myth that animated the colonial mission; adding anti-Asian rhetoric. Relevantly, it lays the intellectual groundwork for today’s argument attempting to displace and delegitimise queerness as an expression of sexual identity in Africa. It foreshadows an attempt to deny the endogenous existence of queerness in pre-colonial Africa.

Nevertheless, both discourses reflect a desperate attempt by colonisers to invent Africa as a homogenous and, critically, heterosexual continent. Thus, begging the question: cui bono? Who benefits from the reconstruction of the African continent and its contexts?

Colonialism and its emissaries

Remember that the driving force behind colonialism was resource and wealth extraction. Such extraction is eased when control centralised at the lowest levels – i.e. the home. As colonial historians overwrote and dismissed queerness in Africa and the contexts in which it operated, they replaced it with a universalised heterosexual nuclear family. It was against this vision of social organisation that queer modalities were held to be ‘abominable’, ‘savage’ or ‘immoral.’ It was through the nuclear heterosexual family, that queerness was othered.

Simply because it did not serve colonial extraction by acting as a signifier of African agency outside imperial parameters. As Sandy O’Sullivan argues, “this denial of anything not in service to the state was then, upon invasion and incursion of Indigenous lands, extended to controlling the behaviour, relationships, and the actual embodiment of Indigenous peoples.” This explains why, even though France had decriminalised queer conduct in 1791, legal restrictions were, hypocritically, imported into the French colonies as a means of social control. This problem was far worse for British colonies, as evinced by the longevity of anti-queer/homophobic legislation and policies on the continent.

In a report by Leah Buckle on African Sexuality and the Legacy of Imported Homophobia, Buckle draws an unmistakable correlation between British colonialism and countries that still have homophobic / biphobic or transphobic legislature in their Constitutions. As concluded by Buckle, of the 54 full Francophonie nations, “only 33 per cent of these criminalise homosexuality, in comparison to 66 per cent of Commonwealth nations to date.” This suggests that not only was homophobia/queerphobia a Western import, it was a uniquely British import that continues to assault and subjugate the sexualities of Africans today. A reality left unacknowledged as the British, rightfully, disparage the consequences of such importation. These imports erected a barrier between the constructed and colonial African identity, and the true African identity informed by unencumbered agency. A barrier which attempts to excise queerness from Africa, on the basis of its alleged incompatibility with our history, cultures and norms.

We need to do better

The truth is that, yes. Right now, in an Africa reeling from the trauma of colonialism whilst navigating Judeo-Christian beliefs, queerness is unAfrican. Simply because we have conflated what it means to be African, with what it means to survive and endure colonialism. Simply because we have refused decolonise our minds, and look deep into our own history. A history that reveals a rich tapestry of sexual expression that was inclusive of and embraced queerness.

Therefore, we need to decide for and amongst ourselves if queerphobia is a colonial legacy we wish to preserve. If we wish to oppress and reject others because they do not fit our uncritically parroted standards. We must decide if we want to renege on the vision that birthed our struggles for independence and freedom; the desire to be who we want to be, and to feel valued and respected. A vision that justifies the very existences of our nations.

Put simply, we need to decide if we want to be like our colonisers, or, if we could, and should…

Be better.

Aileen Kimuhu is a writer, consultant and podcast host (@utajuahujui.pod) interested in the intersection between history, identity and politics. 


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