Sunday, 23 February 2014
Sexualities and Homophobia in Contemporary Africa
I decided to write this article after coming across a thought-provoking piece written by Michael Mumisa for the Guardian (19 February 2014), entitled "It is homophobia, not homosexuality, that is alien to traditional African culture" (the piece can be accessed here: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/19/homophobia-homosexuality-traditional-african-culture).
The central premise of Mumisa's piece is his claim that homosexuality has always existed in Africa and is not, contrary to African belief, a "Western imposition". He argues that: "the history of sexuality in traditional African societies has always been characterised by diversity in sexual practices and traditions". Homosexuality itself is not new - rather, what is new is the campaign for LGBT rights in Africa. This occurs, of course, in context of increasingly repressive measures against LGBT individuals. In Uganda, not only is homosexuality illegal, but President Museveni recently decided to sign the Anti-Homosexuality Bill introduced by Parliament - which would make homosexual acts punishable by life imprisonment. Nigeria's Archbishop Peter Akinola is at the forefront of campaigns against gay rights, and has enlisted the support of US churches opposed to the ordination of gay bishops.
Above: Archbishop Peter Akinola opposes gay rights.
Beliefs in Africa that homosexuality is unnatural, offensive to God, and perhaps most notorious of all, a Western "disease" or "evil", seem fairly widespread. The president of Ghana, John Atta Mills, claimed in November 2011, for example, that homosexuality would never be legalised in Ghana and condemned the UK for reportedly seeking to legalise it in Ghana. He argued that homosexuality would "destroy the moral fibre of society".
In South Africa, gruesome stories of lesbians facing corrective rape have scandalised and horrified the world for years. Although South Africa has been deemed "the Rainbow Nation" in regards to its progressive constitution and support of LGBT rights, the reality for lesbians in particular has in modern times been overwhelmingly negative. The brutal rape and murder of footballer Eudy Simelane in 2008 is perhaps the most famous example of the appalling possibilities lesbians in South Africa face today.
Above: Footballer Eudy Simelane was murdered for her sexuality in 2008.
But Mumisa has a good case in claiming that alternative sexualities, whether homosexual, bisexual, or lesbianism, have always existed in Africa. Marc Epprecht, in his article 'The 'Unsaying of Indigenous Homosexualities in Zimbabwe: Mapping a Blindspot in an African Masculinity' (1998), convincingly argued that sexual relations have always existed between men in Zimbabwe, as attested to by material culture (e.g. Bushmen paintings). Homosexual relations between men flourished during the colonial era. Mumisa, perhaps controversially, concludes his article by suggesting that "the language of "othering" now used to discuss and describe gay communities in Africa is a remnant of colonialism"; and in view of Epprecht's suggestion that homosexual behaviours flourished in Zimbabwe before and up to the colonial era, he may have a strong case.
Whatever happens, it is likely that Africans, dwelling in pious and religious societies (whether Islam, Christianity, or indigenous religions), will continue to regard homosexuality with suspicion and intolerance, perceiving it to be a "Western" imposition that threatens to weaken the societies in which they live. But one can hope that, one day at least, LGBT individuals in African countries will experience and enjoy the legal rights and social freedoms and equalities they deserve.