Botswana chiefs: 'Homosexuality has always been here'

Location of Botswana in Africa
Location of Botswana in Africa

Activists in Botswana have met with some success in their attempts to build tolerance and understanding about issues faced by sexual minorities in that south African country.

A recent success was a day-long meeting for 25 local chiefs (dikgosi), hosted by the anti-AIDS human rights organization BONELA (the Botswana Network on Ethics, Law and HIV/AIDS). At the meeting, gay men and chiefs shared their understandings and experiences.

Contrary to anti-gay claims that homosexuality is imported from the West, the chiefs said that homosexuality has always been part of local society, as is clear from the existence of a word for it — “matanyola” — in the local Setswana language, which is spoken by about 4.5 million people in Botswana and South Africa.

These are excerpts from one man’s account of the meeting:

The meeting started off cordially and ended cordially. My anticipation was that there might be tension, resistance and some form of backlash by reservoirs of our culture and tradition. Little did I know!

One of my colleagues, a gay person, talked to the chiefs about his experiences as a gay person. You should have seen the faces in the room. The dikgosi were visibly touched. They showed remorse and wanted to hear more. I remember one saying next time bring on board a lesbian women as well.

The testimony was:

“I long discovered that I am gay at Junior Secondary School. I was not attracted to women at all. I felt like a man trapped in a woman’s body and I confessed to my friend about my situation. Incidentally my friend told me that he was in the same situation and sought counseling. I underwent counseling too. I thought counseling would help me to understand what I am going through, unfortunately it didn’t work. I went to see a doctor. He advised me that there was no medical solution to my problem.

“I then, later on in my life, approached my family about my situation. First I spoke to my sister. Her response was, “ke sale ke go bone.” (I could tell that you are gay) My mother was in shock. She didn’t know how to deal with the situation. She prayed for me and her prayers are yet to work. My brother was the unkind. He told me that I am a disgrace and possessed with demons. That hurt. I at times feel like committing suicide because I am forced to be who I am not. The society is not welcoming. I live a lie.”

The testimony gave birth to most kind words I have ever heard. The chiefs said we know that homosexuality has always been here and that we have a Setswana word for it — ‘matanyola’.

In fact, an interesting argument ensued between the dikgosi. Some argued that no culture prohibits homosexuality and that no books record such prohibition if it is there. In the end [they] said such prohibition emanate from the Bible. They said that the Bible is against many things that are happening today, for instance, the Bible says the man should be the head of the house but our laws have changed that. … Some pointed out that adultery or polygamy is allowed in our laws but prohibited by the Bible.

In the end the dikgosi resolved that we should have more dialogue on this issue and have encouraged us to visit [them and to] talk to Botswana about the issue. They said the kgotla (local meeting place) is a safe space and we should not worry about society backlash.

The chiefs were thankful for BONELA to approach them on these issues. Some were saying that they never thought they would listen to a gay person or even talk to them but they are leaving as changed people. In their words, “we are grateful for the opportunity.”


Written by Colin Stewart

Colin Stewart is a 45-year journalism veteran living in Southern California. He is the president of the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, which supports LGBTQ+ rights advocacy journalism, Erasing 76 Crimes. Contact him at [email protected]


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