What traditional African homosexuality learned from West

Patrick Awondo

Patrick Awondo (Photo by Eric Lembembe)

Homosexuality has a long history in Africa, says anthropologist Patrick Awondo, contrary to the claims of politicians who consider it a recent Western import.

But Awondo acknowledged in an interview last month that two key elements in the debate over homosexuality in Africa did come from the West — first, colonial-era laws against homosexual activities and, more recently, the establishment of groups opposing discrimination against gays, lesbians and transgender people.

“Homosexuality has always existed, but some of the current forms of gay self-identification and gay activism originated elsewhere,” he said.

Awondo was in Cameroon last month to help lead a training session on HIV/AIDS.

Citing historical records of homosexual practices in Africa, Awondo mentioned evidence of same-sex sexual relationships in Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso and Benin.

It is helpful for Africans to know about ancient practices such as Mossi kings’ sexual relations with their pages and marriages between women in Dahomey, he said.

“Knowing historical truths lets us avoid unhistorical lies,” he said.

Awondo has a doctorate in political sociology and medical anthropology from the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris. A translation of his interview with Cameroonian journalist Eric O. Lembembe appears below.

Lembembe is a leader of the Cameroonian Foundation For AIDS (CAMFAIDS), an association with the goal of promoting and protecting human rights.

How long have you worked with the African Network for Training on HIV / AIDS?

Training session in Cameroon run by the African Network for Training on HIV / AIDS

Training session in Cameroon run by the African Network for Training on HIV / AIDS. (Photo by Eric Lembembe)

I have been associated as an expert anthropologist for this group since March 2011 beginning in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, working with Dr. Jean-Baptiste Guiard-Schmid and Dr. Steave Nemande. I coordinate two sessions.

One focuses on socio-anthropological questions about “MSM” (men who have sex with men), specifically the question of sexual identity and sexual behavior of this group, its history on this continent and people’s perceptions of it. Basically, why is it so difficult for people in Africa (as elsewhere) to accept a homosexual group?

In the second session, I help trace various groups’ involvement in the fight against AIDS in Africa. How did people rally around these challenges, and how did that affect the fight against AIDS for populations most at risk? We train health professionals to distinguish between sexual identity and sexual behavior — a distinction that is very important for public health.

More and more these days, debates about homosexuality in Africa include the assertion that the practice comes from elsewhere — it never existed here, so it should be rejected totally. Can we say that homosexuality in Africa is a “Westernization” of African customs?

Given the work of historians, anthropologists and some archaeologists, it is difficult to say that homosexuality is a Western influence, since it seems increasingly clear that there is a history of homosexual practices throughout the continent. That is well documented, but it is also clear that human societies everywhere have often put up strong resistance to “normalization” of homosexuality. All societies tend to look on homosexuality and homosexual practices as a threat to their survival or to their stability, even though the validity of that idea has never been verified.

From my point of view, what can be considered “Westernization” is not only the criminalization of homosexuality by post-colonial states — since, as we know, most of the laws introduced against homosexuality are modeled after those of colonial powers — but also the emergence of a social and political group that claims its homosexual identity as a political identity. By demanding rights based on sexual practices, they make homosexuality a political issue. This emergence of a homosexual identity is marked by a social lifestyle and identification with the “gay culture” that developed first in the United States in the late 1960’s and then in Western Europe.

Yes, identification with this lifestyle to some extent may be “Westernization.” But, let us be clear, this is a “Westernization” as one might say that democracy is “Western,” since its present form emerged from a specific location is the West, or at least part of what we call the West. But the principle of the pursuit of liberty is universal.

Simply put, homosexuality has always existed, but some of the current forms of gay self-identification and gay activism originated elsewhere, then inspired similar developments in other countries, including countries in Africa.

Does the practice of homosexuality play a role in the histories of African customs? Please give examples, if possible.

As a social scientist, I will refer you to others’ work in this field. First, the short, very fine work of Murray and Roscoe, published in 1998 under the title “Boy Wives and Female Husbands: Studies of African Homosexualities.” It tells of the early work of anthropologists and exploreBoy Wives and Female Husbands coverrs throughout the continent, sometimes even during their initial contact with Africans, who described what was said about homosexuality by the people who at that time were called the “natives.”

Also worth mentioning is the work of historian Marc Epprecht, including his fine book “Hungoschani. A Story of a Dissident Sexuality in Southern Africa,” which traces the history of homosexual practices in the area now known as Zimbabwe.

I used some of these works in my Ph.D. thesis and I devoted a chapter to homosexuality among the Beti of Cameroon, as seen in pre-colonial traditions such as the “mevungu” ritual of a secret society for women. Analysis of “indigenous” speech, first collected by ethnologists, sheds light on what homosexuality represented in those cultures, along with their discussions about it, which indicates that both homosexuality and debate about it have always existed.

How did African gays live before the era of globalization (or colonization)?

Mossi mask (Photo courtesy of University of Iowa)

Mossi mask (Photo courtesy of University of Iowa)

It is difficult to answer such a question because, as I have said, the category “homosexual” was not really recognized as it is today. The situations for those people were very different depending on where they lived in the region, their class, their age, and other sociological characteristics. Specifically, homosexual practices were not the same for a king, as among the Mossi of Burkina Faso today, and for a page in the king’s service in the same region and in the same group. Pages, including young men sometimes disguised as women, could play the role of a woman for the king in certain circumstances where it was forbidden to touch women. When he had homosexual relations with his pages, it was more or less recognized and “institutionalized.”

Melville Herkovits also described “marriages” between women in the ancient kingdom of Dahomey, now Benin. In this case women — often wealthy older women — sometimes married women in the absence of men. These wives could have lovers, and their children were recognized as those of the “husband-wife.” There are all sorts of configurations on the continent. Historians’ work must continue, not as propaganda, but because it is good to know our history — even the history that some people wish weren’t true. Knowing historical truths lets us avoid unhistorical lies.

Why are same-sex relations so despised in Africa? Why are people afraid of homosexuals?

I’ll mention some factors, including the recent history of colonization of the African continent, and the heterosexual norm of human societies. In addition, new meanings are placed on old practices — for example, what went on in ancient rituals is considered to be something that contributes to modern homosexual identity.

There are many causes, not one. One set of causes can be summarized as “postcolonial tensions.” These tensions arise between the former colonial powers like France and African countries like Cameroon. Some of these former colonial powers are now seen as “moral leaders” in defense of sexual minorities, even though that is debatable. Ongoing advocacy by these “moral leaders” in favor of universal decriminalization of homosexuality causes conservative reactions in many countries.

A concrete example?

For example, increased funding from the European Union to Cameroonian groups serving homosexuals provoked outrage from some in the news media and in politics in 2011.

This situation revives memories of colonialism, putting homosexuality at the heart of a postcolonial controversy. Africans are led to regard homosexuality as an expression of the decadence of the West.

Saskia Weiringa (Photo courtesy of Jakarta Post)

Saskia Weiringa (Photo courtesy of Jakarta Post)

The other current issue on the African continent is political leaders’ reliance on criticizing society in order to build public support. The anthropologist Saskia Weiringa called this politicians’ “moral sexual

strategy. A variety of political actors use such strategies to make themselves known. This is true of all these groups of young people on the continent that publish texts “against homosexuality” even though, in reality, they are trying to make their voices heard on other issues, like corruption, nepotism, incompetent leadership, etc.

Besides all this, heterosexism is a universal fact, even though some analyses of “African homophobia” depict it as applying to Africa alone. The effects of the “norm of heterosexuality” and its macho partner — “phallocracy” — must also be considered seriously. All these facts and others may explain the negative perception of homosexuality on the continent.

About Eric O. Lembembe

Eric O. Lembembe, a journalist in Cameroon, is a leader of the Cameroonian Foundation For AIDS (CAMFAIDS), an association that seeks to promote and protect all human rights.
This entry was posted in Africa (Sub Saharan) and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

46 Responses to What traditional African homosexuality learned from West

  1. ceomarps says:

    Great work. Also visit http://www.marpsinuganda.org to see what others in East Africa are doing. CAMFAIDS team please keep up the work.


  2. Pingback: STUDY: Majority Of Latinos Say Homosexuality ‘Should Be Accepted’ « My Spanish Translator

  3. Pingback: Zimbabwe official’s plan: Expel gays, seize their land | 76 CRIMES

  4. Pingback: Jean-Blaise Kenmogne: The Challenge of African Homophobia: | Queering the Church

  5. Pingback: Expanding the fight against AIDS among LGBTs in Cameroon | 76 CRIMES

  6. Pingback: Homosexuality: It’s time to accept reality « Dokowe Samuel's Blog

  7. Pingback: Catholic lawyers push Cameroon to keep anti-gay law | 76 CRIMES

  8. Pingback: In Cameroon, anti-gay voices grow louder | 76 CRIMES

  9. Pingback: African hypocrisy about sport, church, beds and gays | 76 CRIMES

  10. Pingback: colouredraysofgrey

  11. MB123 says:

    Patrick Awonda is confused. He’s no different from the homophobic politicians, only he wants to blame the West for homophobia. Oh those horrible white people again! What about Human Rights? What about secularism? There is nothing uniquely “white” about homosexuality OR homophobia. And whatever level of acceptance for homosexuals existed in small pockets here and there, homophobia lived and thrived in Africa long before “the white man” ever showed up.


    • Dear MB123,
      In this article, I don’t see where Patrick Awonda blames the West for homophobia.
      — Colin Stewart, editor of this blog


    • stephen Mwinuka says:

      MB123, that is not the point. The lasting discourse is that deadly, secretively and anti-reproductive behaviours should be discouraged by this poor humankind who is not even sure why certain things are being brought back from the deep past for RE-TRIAL in pretext of human rights and democracy.


  12. John Lautenschlager says:

    This is the most balanced discussion of a complex yet controversial topic that I have seen yet. It parallels my experience as an American primary care physician working in Nigeria and Sierra Leone in two rural traditional societies from 1970 to 1989, before the AIDS epidemic had hit those communities. I became fluent in one African language. I asked discrete questions about traditions and current customs because I cared about medical implications, and came to similar conclusions.


  13. Pingback: Beating death of LGBT activist Eric Lembembe in Cameroon | 76 CRIMES

  14. Pingback: Beating death of LGBT activist Eric Lembembe in Cameroon - CALBiA Foundation

  15. Pingback: Sad news from Cameroon | Political Side of Life

  16. JAWIWA says:

    The fact that in the various answers to the question of why African countries remain so anti-gay the words Christianity and Islam are never once spoken gives me doubts about all participants in this discussion.


  17. Pingback: Murdered gay rights/HIV advocate and journalist documented deadly conditions | Science Speaks: HIV & TB News

  18. Pingback: Murdered gay rights/HIV advocate and journalist documented deadly conditions | Rainbow-Ethiopia Daily (RED) News

  19. Pingback: Hundreds mourn murdered LGBT activist in Cameroon | 76 CRIMES

  20. Pingback: Les obsèques d’un militant LGBT au Cameroun | 76 CRIMES

  21. Bahati Mwakasole says:

    all abnormal sexual acts are un natural


  22. Pingback: Anti-gay rage: Sign of progress toward gay rights? | 76 CRIMES

  23. Pingback: 21 varieties of traditional African homosexuality | 76 CRIMES

  24. guest says:

    This is a war between God and Satan!!! Remember God is Mighty and Powerful!!! Victory To Jesus!!!!


  25. guest says:

    Your time is short in this earth!!! All the sinful act you engaged in will be gone soon!!!!


  26. Pingback: 21 varieties of traditional African homosexuality (76 crimes) | Uma (in)certa antropologia

  27. Pingback: The rotten roots of Uganda’s anti-gay celebration | 76 CRIMES

  28. Pingback: The rotten roots of Uganda’s anti-gay celebration | MasterAdrian's Weblog

  29. Allen Akili says:

    Thanks for the article you have written. I have a question to ask, “Should Christians be more accepting of Homosexuality?”


  30. Pingback: 21 varieties of traditional African homosexuality | MasterAdrian's Weblog

  31. Pingback: Ugandan priest: 10 reasons to repeal anti-gay law | 76 CRIMES

  32. Pingback: Ugandan priest: 10 reasons to repeal anti-gay law | Peterson Ssendi

  33. Pingback: Ugandan priest: 10 reasons to repeal anti-gay law | MasterAdrian's Weblog

  34. stephen Mwinuka says:

    All in all, let not this mankind justify current malices such as WSW & MSM using past errors as committed by our grandgas. Any one around in parliaments of nations that propose these sexual relations stand up and declare to join one?
    Proponents remember:-
    >>>>>True, a hell lot of malpractices were committed in the past including eating human meat, do you legalize this simple because the extinct ZIMBA PEOPLE of Mozambique did this?
    >>>>> Sexual sensations and organs have nener been part of our bodies by mere actident.
    >>>>> We are currently noting that humans have started forgeting the thruth that there is free frredom in this fragile planet. Or else……………
    >>>>>Lets we forget that you cannot mend broken hearts of the 7bn plus people on our SOLE planet by using a ticker tape.


  35. Pingback: Vox Publica | Homofobiens rike hjelpere

  36. Pingback: Homohaat is een westers exportproduct | homoverhaal

  37. Pingback: Homohaat is een westers exportproduct - Homoverhaal

  38. Pingback: Homosexuality and African history: the roots of the criminalisation of homosexuality - This Is Africa

  39. Ferdinand Mbecha says:

    Many factors have been conflated here. It is good to differentiate which situations were erotic and which were not. In the case of Dahomey for example, the relationship between the female wife and the female husband were not erotic. It was an arrangement to ensure continuity. The most important issue in contemporary homosexual debates in Africa has got to do with the erotic expression of that sexuality. In places in Africa where the relationship was erotic it did not stand in the way of procreation. In Southern Africa what would be termed lesbian relationships were tolerated because it involved the absence of the phallus. In this case the people permitted it. The homophobia has come in as a result of the change in the nature of homosexual practice which “threatens” to change the social structure as was.


  40. Sidney Davis says:

    Allen Akili asks on April 6, 2014 at 9:09 pm
    “Should Christians be more accepting of Homosexuality?” Perhaps the greater question should be, “Should Christians be more accepting of Human Rights?”


  41. Pingback: Homosexuality and African history: the roots of the criminalisation of homosexuality | udumakalu

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s