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.


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