Friday, 13 March 2009

The Truth About Homosexuality in Africa (part 1)

The common belief among Africans is that homosexuality is primarily a story of seduction by Europeans and/or Americans, in which the Africans acquiesced out of fear or from a desire for money. . . But we know that this is a lie, and this is an attempt to shed some light on our true history, that which our colonial masters had ensured was kept hidden from us. In the black/white relationships that did develop into homosexual unions, the white partner appears to have been the aggressor. No doubt the abuse of African people by European/American people has included sexual abuse. What is untrue, the lie, is that such abuse was the origin of African homosexuality.

There are two false assumptions in anthropology. The first false assumption is that savage or primitive people know nothing about homosexuality; the second false assumption is that Africans were savage or primitive. Where there was clear and indisputable evidence of African homosexuality, anthropologists had to invent excuses in order to save these false assumptions, and that is what they did.

The first excuse was that Africans learned homosexuality from the Arabs. Then the excuse was that Africans learned homosexuality by hustling Europeans. Anthropologists said homosexuality was only a corruption practiced by the overly rich chiefs. Then they said that poor people practiced homosexuality because the overly rich chiefs had monopolised all of the women in harems. They said it was only youthful high spirits: the African was not really homosexual; he was just real drunk last night. Every excuse you are likely to hear from a deep closet case was used by Euro-American academics in the attempt to explain away the facts. The facts were: homosexuality was found in almost every major African ethnic group that we know of, through all of the history we know of. Few of the societies of Africa could be called savage or primitive, but all over the world, those people who might fairly be called savage or primitive are perfectly familiar with homosexuality. Homosexuality is not the white man's way. It is the way of gay people of all colours and nations, of all places and times.

African Homosexuality

One common mistake made, is that of confusing the popularity of homosexual activity with what gay people are doing and how they are treated. In Azandeland, in modern day northern Congo and the Central African Republic, most men, or at least very many men, had homosexual affairs. However, most men were still expected to marry women, father children, and so forth. The Azande knew very well that some men preferred to have sex with other men. Although every man was expected to marry a women, Azande customs provided a man with an excuse to have sex with another man whenever he wanted, throughout life. Marriage between warriors and recruits was only a part of the Azande accommodation to male homosexuality. The Azande were not a liberal people. They were the rare example of a society that punished female homosexuality while imposing no penalty on males. Because it was thought fatal to any man who witnessed it, female homosexuality could, in theory, entail the death penalty. But in fact female homosexuality was common and the public knew about it. In an Azande folktale two women conspire to fool a husband in order to get together. The most common sexual activity between men was intercourse between the thighs. This sort of adaptation is common in cultures where homosexual affairs become fashionable among non-gay men. We do not know what the gay, or preferentially homosexual Azande did. We only know the Azande knew there were such men.

In societies where homosexuality becomes popular across the board, it is usual to find that older men choose unmarried young men and that the older men assume the role of top in these relationships. So it is perhaps instructive to look at two groups in Africa that went counter to that tendency. A good example of an African people with a tradition of male homosexuality between lovers of the same age was the Nyakyusa who lived north of Lake Malawi (aka Lake Nyasa). However important the family was in Africa, you cannot form strong states and vast empires such as Africa had, on the basis of family alone. Intermarriage helps some. But to build a strong state you must have forces that run across family lines, that hold the various families together, and that keep feuds and rivalries from tearing society apart. Various African societies have used various institutions to paste society together. There might be secret societies, like fraternities and sororities, especially in West Africa. There might be trade organisations or craft guilds. There may be dance associations or religious institutions. Very commonly, people are organised in age groups. The Nyakyusa of what is now southwestern Tanzania and northern Zambia carried organisation by age group to the extreme. They organised their villages by age group. One of the first things young Nyakyusa boys did, to show they were becoming responsible, was to herd cattle. Generally a boy and his best friend would herd their families' cattle together. Pasturing the cattle gave the boys plenty of time to play around. And, of course, what they did was to have sex. They danced together, engaged in mutual masturbation, anal sex, and intercourse between the thighs.

Oral sex, whether heterosexual or homosexual, was not very popular in traditional African societies. Most of them thought it was very bad. Oral sex or rape were considered serious crimes which might entail a cattle fine. All of the other things the boys did might get them a tongue lashing or a minor whipping if they were caught by the adults. But everyone knew what was going on and no serious attempt was made to stop the boys. At a fairly young age Nyakyusa boys had to move out of their fathers' homes. At first they were likely to sleep with other boys in abandoned huts or other bachelors' quarters in their fathers' villages. Boys slept together, and naturally had sex with each other at night. So long as force was not used, no crime was reckoned to have occurred when the boys had sex. For the boys, homosexuality was considered a perfectly normal, if not completely desirable, sexual outlet that required no explanation, supernatural or otherwise.
Eventually boys of the same age, perhaps from several parent villages, got together and began to form a village of their own. At first this was a boys' village. The girls remained in the parent villages until the boys reached a marriageable age. In a sense, Nyakyusa villages have a life cycle from boyhood through manhood to old age. A village is child to some other villages, parent to some villages, and brother to yet others.

Now, what do I mean by boys? In Africa you are a child until you become a boy. You remain a boy until you of an age to have a house, a female wife, and children of your own. Nyakyusa began having homosexual relations at 10 to 14 years of age. They seldom married before they were 25. So for ten to fifteen years of the most sexually active part of life, Nyakyusa men practiced homosexuality. Once they got married to women, and virtually all of them did, Nyakyusa men were supposed to stop having homosexual relations. Nonetheless, a few cases of relations between men and boys came to light. This was punishable by a cattle fine. It is said, however, that the men were not afraid of the fine, but of the shame of being caught in activity associated with witchcraft. In any event, Nyakyusa men did not believe it sacrificed their masculinity to perform anal sex in either position. They did not believe they were castrated in the middle of their burning skulls just because they had sex with their friends. Certainly the Nyakyusa public thought it peculiar if a man with a wife at home preferred to have sex with a man or boy, but that only raised questions of witchcraft, not questions of manhood. (To be continued. References will be provided on completion).

Author's NoteThe Truth About Homosexuality in Africa is in five parts on this blog. Click on the links below to see all five. Thanks.

The Truth About Homosexuality in Africa (Part 2)
The Truth About Homosexuality in Africa (Part 3)
The Truth About Homosexuality in Africa (Part 4)
The Truth About Homosexuality in Africa (Part 5) 


(im)perfect_black ☥☥☥ said...

Nice post. I have looking into this informally for a bit now. I think the challenge is to get beyond European sources or at least corroborate sources with elders currently residing in the communities you highlight.

Azandeland is actually in southern Sudan not Congo/CAR. GI

Anengiyefa said...

@(im)perfect_black ☥☥☥, greetings to you and thanks a lot for your comment.

Azande land as you rightly said is located predominantly in Southern Sudan, but the international borders in Africa are artificial boundaries drawn in the sand by the Europeans, as they carved up our continent among themselves.

Azande land predominantly lies in the south of the nation we now know as Sudan, but their traditional land does extend across the border between Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as across the border into the Central African Republic.

This division of traditional ethnic groupings by the colonialists is to be found right across Africa. For instance, the Ewe of Togo are found in Ghana too and the Egun of Dahomey (Benin) are also in Nigeria, just as the Yoruba people predominantly of Nigeria are also to be found in the Republic of Benin. The Hausa of northern Nigeria are spread across several different nations..

(im)perfect_black ☥☥☥ said...

yes, i am aware of the many bogus borders. i teach african studies. GI

(im)perfect_black ☥☥☥ said...

am sending folks over to your posts on this topic. when having this discussion with africans who are anti-gay i have found it necessary to toss out all european sourced evidence as unreliable. this puts me at a disadvantage but this is what i have come up with. its a cross post from my Facebook thread. the hypothesis turns on the fact that many african languages has words for effeminate men [eg.kojo besia (akan), gor jigan (man woman in wolof), dan daudu (hausa)]

Part 1-

Comrade- It has never been my claim that same sex intercourse was widely accepted in Africa. I am anthropologists by training. As I am sure you know, during the course of my research I have had countless wide ranging informal conversions with Ghanaians and Africans from all over the continent. Sometimes that conversations include discussions of homosexuality. Clearly there is a strong increasingly bellicose bias against homosexuality in much of Africa today.

In my assessment much of the animus is driven by Christians and Muslims. The intolerance has pushed Ghanaians and other Africans into silence for fear of being attacked. Thus I have gotten a fair number of off the record comments from Africans who believe, based on conversations with their elders or their own independent inquiries, that same sex relations existed in Africa prior to the introduction of Islam and Christianity. Over the years I have gotten these informal assessments from Ghanaians, Kenyans, Southern Sudan, South Africa, Congo, Senegal and perhaps a few more that I can't recall. A few have even indicated this on my Facebook threads so its a matter of public record for those who want to dig through my threads.

The difficulty with "proving" precolonial same sex intercourse is that sex is a private act. Unlike the examples you cite--genital cutting, human sacrifice, etc--there is no observer of actual sex acts. All we have is official contemporary declarations:

"We Africans don't believe in homosexuality!"

"Its satanic (obviously Christian influenced)!"

"Its an abomination"

(im)perfect_black ☥☥☥ said...

Part 2

I know from experience as a scholar and researcher that official statements can vary vastly from what people actually do. This is particular so with sex acts coupled with the dissemination of foreign religions--Christianity and Islam--in Africa. The deck is doubly stacked against against proving pre-colonial same sex intercourse because:

1) Christians and Muslims generally oppose homosexuality

2) Sex acts are private.

"Proving" pre-colonial same sex relations is a double bind that is difficult to get around. Think for a moment brother Jonas. Are you in the habit of describing your sex acts? Does your mate put her mouth on your penis? Does you put your mouth on her vagina? Do you favor the missionary position? If so who is on top? I think you get the picture.

So how to proceed? First, we should recall that a sizable minority of Africans do believe that same sex intercourse was not foreign to their particular regions. These people have just been pushed to silence. But this is still promising nonetheless. It lets me know that there is likely evidence out there.

***Also, there is evidence from your region discussed in detail by Malidome Some, who is a Dagara. As you know their land borders Ghana and Burkina Faso. You can google his discussions on homosexual among his people online****

Ok, so back the double bind. One way of getting around it are all of these terms for effeminate males. As brother Marvin suggests, none of the words seem to be about sex. My hypothesis is that

1) some unknown percentage of these men engage(d) in same gender sex.

2) That African societies generally have strong cultural norms toward reproduction.

3) My experience in west Africa indicates that the people of that region lack religious dogma and were thus likely more tolerant of individuals who did not fit the cultural norm for adults (reproduction).

4) Some of these men likely married and had children but maintained informal sex relations with another male. This would have been sort of like a public secret--don't ask don't tell, if you will.

Can I prove any of this conclusively? I think so. It would take a bit of archival work and some detailed ethnography. But I don't really have a burning desire to research sexuality. I have several other projects in my head.

Whatever the historical evidence there are now currently gay Black people in our communities. I have grown increasingly concerned with the harsh and bigoted language of some members of the Afrocentric/Black Nationalist community. My intervention is more about the here and now. kzs

Anengiyefa said...

@(im)perfect_black ☥☥☥,

As always, thanks for these comments. They are deeply appreciated. I am wondering if with your permission I can create an entirely new blog post on this blog, throwing this discussion open to everyone who visits, in the hope that others too may contribute. Please let me know what you think of this..

Moving on to the question that you have raised concerning the possibility or likelihood of obtaining authentic information from African elders currently living. Having been born and bred in Africa myself, I know for a fact that our parents' generation, were far more influenced by Western ideas and attitudes (even as their own parents' generation was), than we are in our generation. When one thinks about it, their views did not have the benefit of the advances in scientific knowledge and understanding that we enjoy, neither was information freely and readily available to them, as it is available to us in our time. What they knew and believed, was what was taught to them by their own elders, who in turn had received this [dis]information from the colonialists.

Let me give you an example. As an 8 year old schoolboy in Nigeria, I was taught at school that the source of the River Niger, (which as you know is Nigeria's main inland waterway from which the country itself derives it name), was discovered by an Englishman called Mungo Park. The story went on to add that Mr Park had some African guides who showed him the way. Now tell me, is it not clear that if I was taught this as recently as in the 1970s, several generations before me must have been told the same thing? The Africa that I grew up in was one where it was genuinely believed that all things Western were superior. It is unfortunate, but true, that in much of post-colonial Africa, the vestiges of colonialism are still firmly in place and only now is the truth slowly being revealed.

For this reason, one will find that African elders living today, who as you suggested ought to be repositories of the kind of historical information that we seek, will unfortunately supply us only with information that was acquired from the colonialists and passed down through the generations. The colonialists did not only take over our land and our wealth, they distorted our culture and traditional beliefs and rewrote our history too. It is sad, but true, that much of our true history has been lost. What recorded history that there is, is that which was written by Westerners. And our people have been brainwashed so successfully that more than a hundred years on, we are still upholding archaic ideas that have long since lost favour in the homelands of those who introduced the ideas to us in the first place.

(im)perfect_black ☥☥☥ said...

yes, feel free to use the post in any way that you find useful. as to your question. yes, your point is well taken. i have no romantic notions about what our elders should know. this would no doubt require detail and broad-ranging ethnographic work.

the idea stems from what i posted i part 1. i have gotten several informal, off the record, remarks from folks all of the continent on this topic. a few of them indicated to me that their elders told them that the whites were the source of hard feelings towards homosexuality. that tells me that the data is out there. it just hasn't been captured yet. GI

Anonymous said...

very interesting article.
would love to see your references.
cannot wait for the rest of it.

Anengiyefa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anengiyefa said...

The references that you mention can be found here. Just paste the link into your browser. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the update

Will link this to my blog with your permission

Rudi said...

Posted on FB and Twitter - see @CoenieKukkuk @mgworg

Student of African Studies said...

Interesting blog. Do you have sources (books, articles, old pictures depicting sexual intercourse among 2 men/2 women)?