[Image source: https://www.them.us/story/themstory-ancient-egypt]
During his visit to Africa in the summer of 2016, the U.S president, Barack Obama, addressed legal discrimination against LGBT individuals. Meeting the Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta, Obama said: “When you start treating people differently not because of any harm they are doing to anybody, but because they are different, that’s the path whereby freedoms begin to erode.”
Unfortunately, the response from Kenyatta was that “there are some things that we must admit we don’t share [with the US]. Our culture, our societies don’t accept.“ This is in total disregard of what LGBTQI persons go through in the country, denial of their basic human rights, brutal murders, torture and even imprisonment.
This is the same argument that Robert Mugabe used to suppress the human rights of LGBT people in Zimbabwe; that the former president of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, used when he signed the most dangerous law against LGBT people in the modern world; and that President Yoweri Museveni used in a ceremonial signing of the anti-gay bill in Uganda regardless of the numerous calls from activists across the globe on refraining on the signing. Not forgetting Gambia’s president Yahya Jammeh called for gay people’s throats to be slit in addition to the life imprisonment, vigilante torture, beatings and death which are already experienced by LGBTQI persons in the country.
In Zambia, 2 LGBTQI people were arrested in the year 2019 and faced up to 15 years in prison for having consensual sex in the privacy of their hotel room. In Nigeria, around 47 men were charged for public display of affection with same sex. This happened after they had been detained for over a year. Due to the numerous arrests across Africa concerns have been raised and heated debates around gay rights on the African continent have risen.
Sadly, out of the 72 countries worldwide that criminalize homosexuality, 32 of them are African nations. Punishments range from imprisonment and in worst cases death penalty in countries such as Sudan and Mauritania. The degree of punishment varies from country to country. This injustice provokes our minds to ask what were the scenes before colonialism? Was there acts of homosexuality before introduction of Christianity in Africa? Is there justification for such cases in the country’s pre-colonial era? Was the punishment as aggravated as they are today or was it legal to engage in such activities?
In digging up facts, I found that while many Africans say that homosexuality is un-African, African culture is no stranger to homosexual behaviors and acts. There is extensive evidence of homosexual activity in Pre- and post-colonial sexual orientation and sexual identity in Africa. This can be justified by the evidence collected by anthropologists and scholars that show that same sex practices and diverse sexualities can be found all over the continent and predate colonization.
For instance, the ancient Zimbabwe’s San rock painting in Guruve which dates back 2000 years exhibits explicit scenes between copulating males. For example, in a Nigerian 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 that there is a word for the behavior. Moreover, this is not a new word; it is as old as the Yoruba culture itself.
In the northern part of Nigeria, yan daudu is a Hausa term to describe effeminate men who are considered to be wives to men. While the Yoruba word might be more about behavior than identity, this Hausa term is more about identity. You have to look and act like a yan daudu to be called one. It is not an identity you can just carry. These words are neutral; they are not infused with hate or disgust. In the Buganda Kingdom, part of modern-day Uganda, King Mwanga II was openly gay and faced no hate from his subjects until white men brought the Christian church and its condemnation. Though King Mwanga is the most prominent African recorded as being openly gay, he was not alone.
In Boy-Wives and Female Husbands, a book examining homosexuality and feminism in Africa, the researchers found ‘‘explicit” Bushman artwork that depicts men engaging in same-sex sexual activity. There have been other indicators that the transition from boyhood to adulthood within many African ethnic groups involved same-sex sexual activities. So, what accounts for the current dismissal of homosexuality on the continent? One factor is the increased popularity of fundamental Christianity, by way of American televangelists, since the 1980s. While Africans argued that homosexuality was a western import, they in turn used a western religion as the basis for their argument. When I have challenged people who are anti-gay, many have said that it is not our culture. However, when you probe further, they argue that homosexuality is not in the Bible. But the Bible is not our historical culture. This shows there is real confusion about Africa’s past. Reinforcing this populist homophobia has kept many politicians in power. Across Africa, if you hate gay people, you get votes.
As a Kenyan gay man, these myths about homosexuality create a dark cloud over my head. They leave me trying to navigate my way through self-denial, rejection, love and the burden of guilt. While to many people the assertion “homosexuality is un-African” might just be words, it puts the lives of all African LGBT people in imminent danger. It is used in South Africa to rape lesbians. It is used to pass laws and to jail, threaten or kill gay rights activists. It is used to dehumanize LGBT people across Africa and legitimize the hate that we face.
As long as the notion that homosexuality is un-African persists, Kenyatta will receive applause, Mugabe will win elections, and parliaments across the continent will reintroduce harmful laws.
To stop all this, we need to start by re-telling our history and remembering our true African culture, one that celebrates diversity, promotes equality and acceptance, and recognizes the contribution of everyone, whatever their sexuality.
Kelvin Mutugi Wangari (he/him/his) is a writer, blogger and human rights activist. He provides writing, coaching and editing services. His educational background in areas of research and statistics has given him a broad base from which to approach many topics.