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.

Written by Eric O. Lembembe


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  1. 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.

    • 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.

    • Every one is a homophobe because they don’t agree with homosexuality. Every one should just bow down and give them what they want. People talk about religious people pushing things on them but now look at the LGBT trying to force every country to their ideas and beliefs. Regardless of why homosexuality is unnatural. Even though it was on a smaller scale and different from today no one with any common sense can say MSM increases the risk risk of STDS and and other health problems. Woman and man were made to be together and forcefully trying to change that especially with all the other things the west is trying to force people to accept it will cause huge problems which we are already seeing but the government is to willing to accept these problems and just make taxpayers flip the bill.

      • nobody is forcing anybody to be gay,you homophobes makes me really angry,no heterosexual can be forced to be homosexual and no homosexual can be forced to be heterosexual,when a man loves a woman,nothing can change that,homosexuality is not a game,keep ur stupid thoughts to yourself antonio.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

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

    • Christians cannot accept homosexuality because the Bible forbids homosexuality.

      Romans 1:26,27. 1 Corinthians 6:9,10. 1 Timothy 1:9,10. Jude vs.7.

      For 2,000 years the Christian church has taught that homosexuality is a sin based upon its understanding of these scriptures.

      For hundreds of years nations with a Christian heritage have had laws prohibiting homosexuality also based upon the Bible.

      Homosexuality is an unhealthy and anti-social lifestyle.

      Homosexuals have more mental health issues, a higher rate of HIV/AIDS, and a higher rate of alcoholism. Without a natural flesh and blood family of their own homosexuals have a greater problem in their senior years with loneliness. Homosexuals have a higher suicide rate and a shorter life span.

      Once people have crossed the line into the dark world of same sex relationships they have a tendency to seek greater “thrills” by experimenting with even grosser forms of sexuality. Bondage and discipline, and macho-sadism are part of the gay subculture.

      In 1992 the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy reported “Homosexual men are three times more likely to engage in pedophilia.” Sex researcher Alfred Kinsey found in 1948
      that 37% of gay men admitted to having sex with children. Between 1% to 5% of the
      population is homosexual. These account for around a third of child molesters, between a third to two thirds of child rapes, and may be involved in up to half of all murders.

      It has been found that homosexuals have a greater tendency to become involved in crimes of violence, especially in crimes so gruesome and horrific the media will sometimes not publish the details. A random sampling of 59 US serial killers after 1960 was collected and studied. Of these 39 were gay, 66%. In my own research I have found this percentage is consistent with other studies of serial killers.

      Sincerely, Rev. Donald Hill, D.D., Evangelist.

      • All of the people of “the book” or all of “the book” religions are homophobic. Are there other religions outside the Abrahamic religions that are also homophobic?

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

    • The people who practice any form of homosexuality – men with men or women with women – do it because they enjoy doing it. Whether it is said to be erotic, sensual, social, or cultural it makes no difference. If they did not enjoy it thy would not do it. There would be no attraction, no arousal, and no climax.

      You can say it is not erotic but if it is sexual the same anatomy is involved otherwise it would not be sexual. If it is between two men or two women it is homo. It makes no difference how the couple THINK of it or how you DESCRIBE it. It is what the partners DO that makes it sinful. This is homosexuality AKA sodomy. It is behavior that God forbids. The Bible says they who do these things “…shall (not) inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9,10)

      Sincerely, Rev. Donald Hill. D.D., Evangelist.

      • I think heterosexuals do it because they enjoy doing it along with the attendant reasons you give. But their isn’t anything that homosexuals do sexually that heterosexuals do not do sexuality yet only homosexuals will be punished for it?

  7. 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?”

    • Almighty God the Creator forbids homosexuality in the New Testament. For example in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 where He says those who practice this sin will not “inherit the kingdom of God.” There are other passages of scripture saying basically the same thing.

      Homosexuality is an especially wicked act for two reasons:

      (1) It is a sin against nature according to Romans 1:26,27.

      (2) It is a sin that strikes at the one and only model or blueprint God has given us for marriage in Matthew 19:4-6, which is one man with one woman. This is what marriage is. No human government has the authority to redefine marriage.

      Marriage was instituted by God. It is NOT the product of societies that more or less “discovered” that it was the best domestic relationship through a process of trial and error. It is sacred. In the New Testament all sex outside marriage is called “fornication” which means illicit sex. Please read 1 Corinthians 6:18-20 where God also forbids fornication which includes homosexuality.

      Homosexuality is not a “human rights” issue. No human being has a “right” to violate any
      one of God’s laws. It is the responsibility of Christians to bear witness to this. Church leaders have a duty to teach God’s moral code as it is found in the scriptures. But thanks be to God it does not end there. It is also our responsibility to tell you that God loves ALL sinners including homosexuals and fornicators! He gave His Son to die on the cross by the shedding of His precious blood for every one of us that “… … WHOSOEVER believeth on him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.” ( John 3:16,17)

      Sincerely, Rev. Donald Hill. D.D., Evangelist.


      • Do you believe that miscegenation is against god’s laws. Many Christians still believe this. What about slavery, is slavery against god’s law too? Why would god punish me for doing to a woman sexually what she enjoys what two men do with each other for the same reason?

  8. A more plausible question would be,
    “why do people so quickly get tired of following the normal? Why do same sex couple adopt children born by parents not of their type? Why?
    Stephen Mwinuka

  9. Backward ignorant people you are and backward ignorant people you will remain. I don’t give a stuff about the nonsense espoused in the Bible, a book full of fairytales. You might as well believe in Easter Bunny. But for all of those ignoramuses who actually believe in the Bible nonsense consider this. Jesus’ words on homosexuality were between these two brackets ( ). In short nothing! So the most authoritve parts of the bible have nothing to say whatsover. Instead you so called religious people have to go to the rantings of St Paul or the fire and brimstone of the Old testamant. In fact your obsession with the so called sin of homosexuality diminishes your religion as Jesus obviously thought at the very least there were far more important to consider, or perhaps homosexuality was no problem at all. Your African unhealthy obsession with this issue puts your continent to shame. Oh and please do not try to migrate to the west as so many of you are trying to do. Stay in your own homophobic African shit holes

    • you are just the same as the homophobes in Africa,homophobia is on the same level as racism.how you could declare war on the whole Africa is naive and discredited your comments.its like blaming the whole white race for apathy.a lot of white people were involved in abolishing apathy too,so is slave trade,dont mean you should condemn the whole of europe and its people….homosexuality all over the world is an issue,not just africa alone,ok some or most european countries have accepted homosexuality but its not always been the case,human beings by nature are terrified of the unknown and it’ll take a lot of education and new generations with modern attitude to life to change peoples attitude towards homosexuality.if there are still homophobes in the western world,then you should understand in Africa,it’ll take time and making the case for why its really lack of education to be homophobic,not condemning the whole of africa,thats not the way forward….reply marylize….

      • Homophobia is a religious Western import, not same gender relations which have always existed in Africa. Same gender relationships exists in nature, in all animal species and among all human societies from antiquity without exception. It is not unnatural unless you say nature itself is unnatural. It is not immoral unless you say nature itself is immoral.

  10. Because each of us has been given a free will, the nature of mankind is to do what it wills. Thus, issues relative to right and wrong do not matter to most. People who believe in biblical teachings have been admonished to not contend with heretics or fools. This being said, every person will be judged according to his ways–as everyone must eventually give an account for the deeds done within their bodies. And the old adage is correct when it says that everything comes out in the wash.

    • Heterosexuality and homosexuality both suffered when so many other aspects which make up the contexts of sexuality were given over to colonial penal frames. First of all the times and propensity to drop it all and embrace the colonial infrastructure affected the way Africans interpreted for instance same gender intimacy. It was interpreted to fit in the colonial penal codes and this restrictive frame replaced or created a different fashion. Africans gave up so much that even the sex they always had, was reduced/modernised to fit the colonial lens. When one talks about sex, one should not forget the courtship and foreplay patterns among African tribes included an extensive rigmarole,verbal and nonverbal. Psychology and child-play at marriage (even when both may be of same gender) bear us out. But, in Africa all that is being suppressed to the point of having to measure anuses to prove a homosexual act. Medical measuring of anuses to prove homosexuality is the “Tuskegee” of Africa!

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