I’m sticking my neck out like a giraffe here, but in my opinion, there is a resounding silence on aspects to which I shall refer. Forgive me if I appear to generalise about Africa as a whole (a dangerous thing to do): my personal knowledge comes from East Africa, Uganda in particular, though I also refer to elsewhere on the continent. I use the term “Euro-American” as a coverall for what others call “the West”, “the North”, “the (more) developed world” – I find all of these more confusing than the one I have chosen, though this still fails to cover Australia and New Zealand (and Japan, though I am referring principally to cultures with majority European origins).
When we hear about gay rights in Africa the reports we receive are mostly from the big cities, and sometimes from smaller towns. Many Men who have Sex with Men (MSMs) and Women who have Sex with Women (WSWs) who live in the cities, have embraced the Euro-American approach to homosexual rights, ie the gay movement and all or most of that which goes with it. I suggest there is a relationship here between urban cultures which are tending to become more ‘westernised’ (ie Euro-American), and the embrace of the gay sub-cultures from the same sources. I believe (and have observed to some extent) that MSMs and WSWs in African towns and villages may know nothing about Euro-american ‘gay’ sub-culture and, if they do, would find it unattractive and that it has too many attitudes and practices which do not ‘rhyme’ with their own cultures. This would hold true of some in the cities too. Ask some MSMs or WSWs if they are ‘gay’ and they will deny it, even to someone whom they know is aware of their activities.
Whilst it is nonsense to suggest that homosexual activity was imported into Africa by Europeans (or anyone else – some of the Indians building the East African railway were no strangers to it from some accounts), a case could be made that the modern gay movement has been imported and may not always fit well into African cultures, particularly in rural areas. Given the tendency of large cities around the world to become homogenised, this is probably inevitable.
Despite the denials, there is significant evidence to show that homosexual practices existed in pre-colonial Africa, though not always accepted; often a kindly blind eye was turned while some cultures did have a tradition of accepting different behaviours and some found a special place for it. The classic work on this is Boy-Wives and Female-Husbands: Studies in African Homosexualities by Will Roscoe and Stephen Murray.
I am not saying the situations were ideal; but we could try to understand the fact that people-groups fighting for survival against outsiders, disease, etc. would push extremely hard for reproductive relationships. Less than a hundred years ago in sub-Saharan Africa, it was very common for half the children in a family to die before reaching adulthood; since then at times such a state of affairs has continued. So to not make babies at all would be seen as threatening the survival of the tribe/nation, and construed as the equivalent of treason in such situations, and such attitudes continue in the psyche of some people-groups today. Therefore, exclusive homosexual behaviour would be unusual.
It is in more recent times that rural African peoples have tended to oppose any homosexual behaviour whatsoever; as noted elsewhere homophobia was imported during European colonialism and, sadly, has taken root. I mention this here partly to give some credence to and explanation of the notion expressed in a recent article by a BBC journalist that it is not a simple matter to start talking about the Bahati “kill the gays” bill in rural areas of Uganda. See http://bbc.in/aNRZo6. Homophobia has taken root in ignorance (no insult intended) in my opinion, and has now been stirred up by the likes of Pastor Sempa, supported by right-wing, often Christian homophobes (principally from USA) into an un-African hatred. I fear that the ease with which this has been done is partly because of the concept of ‘modern’ (read Euro-American) homosexuality, as illustrated in the gay movement. It is going to take a lot of persuasion to bring people around – a genuine change of hearts and minds is needed, after a century of the wrong kind of persuasion. The gay movement will have to work hard to show that many of the excesses attributed to it are in fact either not true, not mainstream ‘gay’ or by no means exclusively gay; this as well as standing and working for freedom of behaviour, privacy – human rights in fact.
I have noticed at times a tendency in the modern gay movement to fail to recognise the wealth of diversity within people’s lives, to recognise that ‘gay’ life will be lived differently in different cultures, in different times, by different people. Cultures are, after all, works in progress, just as individuals are. Categorisation of MSMs and WSWs as ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, ‘bi-sexual’ etc.when they may not identify with those categories can also lead to individuals suffering greatly in feeling that they are different and rejected by the very people to whom they should be able to turn, just as any person attracted to the same sex may feel in any less tolerant society.
One African said that … being called gay is very silly and he hates the categorising that we as people put ourselves through. And he went on by saying that asking him about his sexual orientation, is like asking him how big his dick is; and who does he sleeps with, and how he does it in bed? This is from an interesting article published by “Behind the Mask”, a South African LGBT organisation, sparked by a review of a book about teenage boys in Swaziland looking after their cattle and engaging in sexual activity with each other; some of them continued with it later though married to women. This was all regarded as normal, there is a word for it in the Swazi language, siSwati. But when western influences became stronger and gave different names, meanings and categories to these practices, the practice was gradually stopped (at least openly) as it came to be regarded as something related to outside influences. Available at http://www.mask.org.za/article.php?cat=&id=579.
Obviously, good laws are part of the necessary change. But in Europe, North America and doubtless other places of which I know less, we know that changing the law is just a beginning, albeit essential; changing the law does not change the attitudes of most people. In Euro-american cultures we have moved on, for better or worse, from the traditional ways and have some understanding of what individual human rights are about and how it is wrong to withhold these from certain sections of society; but I am sure that the average, community-based, rural African will not understand the plea for gay rights in these terms for some years to come, even if the best of laws were to be in place. And they cannot be forced to change: they need to be persuaded and be able to see the situation elsewhere – not easy given the poor communications and hand-to-mouth existence in which many of them live. Clearly we need to do all we can to stop proposed laws, like the Bahati bill in Uganda, from coming to the statute books as well as working to get existing anti-homosexual bills removed. But to expect to quickly change understanding and prejudice in Africa when we are still struggling to do so in our own countries may be a bridge too far. But of course we must still work towards the fulfilment of those goals world-wide.
Constructive comments in the spirit of a common struggle to understand the world are welcome. In particular I would be very happy to hear from Africans – MSMs, WSWs and others.
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