Remarks the President of Ghana, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, made during an interview on Al-Jazeera recently on the lack of gay rights in Ghana, has set the whole country into a frenzied discussion about the issue.
Both sides of the debate have legitimate concerns but one argument from the anti-gay crowd piqued my interest.
It is the point that homosexuality is un-African.
With my curiosity tickled, and in the spirit of the acquisition of knowledge and myth-busting, I decided to do some searching.
This was an Interesting search, but worth all the effort.
“Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” Chinua Achebe
It is a fact that there is not one single, all-encompassing African culture. The continent reputedly has 3000 tribes! It is culturally as diverse as it is big so talk of “an African culture” is fallacious.
Moreover, those who make the “homosexuality-is-un-African” argument fall back on the Bible for support. Is the Bible African?
Which makes one wonder if the criminalization of homosexuality began with the arrival of the white missionaries and colonizers? Most historians trace the criminalization of homesexuality in Africa to the British who introduced the Buggery Act of 1533 along with the British Common Law to its colonies.
There were lots of customs the early European colonizers and missionaries found “barbaric and uncivilized” and moved to ban. Some like human sacrifices were truly barbaric. However, compared to the Transatlantic slave trade, doesn’t that practice lose some of its brutality? Anyway, back to the matter at hand.
Other customs like breast-feeding were not and now we see it being touted highly in the West.
Then, they tried but could never uproot polygamy.
So, were homosexual practices among those uncivilized customs the colonizers moved to widely ban? For instance, homosexuality was criminalized in 1860 in the then Gold Coast which is present-day Ghana.
Would it not be interesting then that the West has now accepted what they criminalized in Africa ages ago? If so, would it not be poignant that we are as a continent are now so rabidly homophobic?
Anyway, below are some examples of gay behavior and language among different African groups from the past:
- The Shangaan of southern Africa referred to same-sex relations as “inkotshane” (male-wife).
- Basotho women in present-day Lesotho engage in socially sanctioned erotic relationships called “motsoalle” (special friend).
- In the Wolof language of Senegal, homosexual men are known as “gor-digen” (men-women).
- In the Yoruba language, the word for “homosexual” is adofuro, a colloquialism for someone who has anal sex.
- In the northern part of Nigeria, yan daudu is a Hausa term to described effeminate men who are considered to be wives to men.
- Among the Fantes of Ghana, an effeminate man is called “Kojo Besia”
- In the Buganda Kingdom, part of modern-day Uganda, King Mwanga II (1868 – 8 May 1903) was openly gay and faced no hate from his subjects until white men brought the Christian church and its condemnation.
- In Angola and Namibia, for instance, a caste of male diviners — known as “zvibanda,” “chibados,” “quimbanda,” gangas” and “kibambaa” — were believed to carry powerful female spirits that they would pass on to fellow men through anal sex.
- Even today, marriages between women for reproductive, economic and diplomatic reasons still exist among the Nandi and Kisii of Kenya, the Igbo of Nigeria, the Nuer of Sudan and the Kuria of Tanzania
- Among various communities in South Africa, sex education among adolescent peers allowed them to experiment through acts such as “thigh sex” (“hlobonga” among the Zulu, “ukumetsha” among the Xhosa and “gangisa” among the Shangaan).
- In the late 1640s, a Dutch military attaché documented Nzinga, a warrior woman in the Ndongo kingdom of the Mbundu, who ruled as ‘‘king” rather than ‘‘queen”, dressed as a man and surrounded herself with a harem of young men who dressed as women and who were her ‘’wives”.
- The Azande of the Northern Congo ‘‘routinely married” younger men who functioned as temporary wives – a practice that was institutionalised to such an extent that warriors would pay ‘‘bride price” to the young man”s parents.
- Amongst Bantu-speaking Pouhain farmers (Bene, Bulu, Fang, Jaunde, Mokuk, Mwele, Ntum and Pangwe) in present-day Gabon and Cameroon, homosexual intercourse was known as bian nkû”ma – a medicine for wealth which was transmitted through sexual activity between men.
- Similarly in Uganda, amongst the Nilotico Lango, men who assumed ‘‘alternative gender status” were known as mukodo dako. They were treated as women and were permitted to marry other men.
- Among Cape Bantu, lesbianism was ascribed to women who were in the process of becoming chief diviners, known as isanuses.
- Rock art by the bushmen tribe of the San near Guruve in Zimbabwe depict men having anal sex. These drawings date back centuries.
- It is cited in some writings that in the 18th and 19th century Asante courts (modern day Ghana) male slaves served as concubines. They dressed like women and were killed when their master died.
- In the kingdom of Dahomey, eunuchs were known as royal wives and played an important part at court.
- Anal intercourse between married opposite-sex partners to avoid pregnancy was historically practiced by many Africans before the invention of modern contraceptive methods.
Reading through this list, may make one wonder if the pre-colonial African society was less homophobic and more accepting? Maybe we gave away some of our individual freedoms when we bought into the Anglo-Saxon narrative.
I hope we would do better as Africans today and accept our brothers and sisters for who they are. We must stop judging our own people based on who they want to enjoy their God given sexuality with.
Dr. Nana Dadzie Ghansah is an anesthesiologist who practices in Lexington, Kentucky
Gay rock art photo courtesy of Hungochani: The History of a Dissident Sexuality in Southern Africa, by Marc Epprecht
Feature photo – LGBT activists at a Gay Pride Parade in Durban, South Africa, courtesy of Rajesh Jantilal/AFP/Getty Images