Revisiting the essay ‘Homosexuality is ‘unafrican’ in pre-colonial history’

By Cosmic Yoruba

I wrote the essay, “Homosexuality is “unAfrican” in pre-colonial history” a couple of years ago. Thanks to HOLAA!, this essay has gained a lot of views and comments, people reaching out to me on Twitter and via email wanting to learn more or just thanking me. I’ll always be grateful for these connections.

I recently read through the article again (it was very hard for me as I usually have difficulty reading things I write) and realised that some of my views have changed. Don’t panic though, I remain unconvinced that Africans had no idea of the diversity of sexuality before Arab or European colonialism. What I’ve found is that we in trying to understand the sexuality of Africans past, may be looking at things the wrong way.

Let’s go back to my first essay for a minute. I wrote,

“Oloruntoba-Oju is Yoruba, in the paper they argue that Yoruba people have no words, sayings or proverbs that indicate that they knew what homosexuality was.”

I then went on to give examples and instances in which some African cultures may have referred to people who were not straight. I’ve revisited this argument of mine again and again since reading, The Politics of Passion: Women’s Sexual Culture in the Afro-Surinamese Diaspora by Gloria Wekker.

The importance of Wekker’s hypothesis

In The Politics of Passion (links to pdf), Wekker links same-sex sexuality among women of African descent in Suriname back to the “motherland”. According to Wekker, the open sexuality and acceptance of women who form relationships with other women (ditto men) in Suriname can be traced to West Africa.

Wekker’s research, and her insistence on linking it to West Africa, is of particular interest to me as a Nigerian feminist, as a number of prominent African feminists have vocally rejected Wekker’s assertion. I noticed as well that Nigerian feminists who I consider inspiration —and who have written groundbreaking work on gender and its fluidity in Nigerian history— just did not extend the same curiosity/understanding to sexuality.

So we have women who argue that in Nigeria’s past, different ethnicities placed allowed women to marry other women or “become” men, or that historically we placed more emphasis on age than on gender. These same feminists object to the suggestion our West African ancestors could have had any other sexuality other than hetero.

Wekker’s research has been labelled as disruptive and used as an example of how feminists from the African Diaspora wrongly impose their “Western” understanding of sexuality on African cultures. I don’t agree and I think it’s important to state this, as an African feminist. Wekker’s assertion the way Afro-Surinamese (and other African Diasporic communities in the Caribbean) understand sexuality is part of their West African cultural heritage blew my mind.

Why Suriname?: Links in sexuality between Africa and the Diaspora

Suriname is an important example of strong Diasporic links to the African continent as slaves in Surinamese history were more or less left to themselves. Wekker writes that the Africans enslaved and brought to Suriname were “allowed to develop their own ways of being in the world, their own languages, cultures, and relational arrangements.” This means that the West African heritage(s) was well-preserved.

You have people who will argue that West African religions have survived in their “truest” form in the Diasporic practices such as Candomble and Vodou. Others have even said that the African languages that have survived in the Americas are truer to the original because they have not been heavily washed down by colonial languages as in the sourceland. Yet, to have Wekker put it, “the mere possibility of cultural continuity in the domain of sexual subjectivity is not welcomed by some vocal constituencies”.

There are just so many similarities, the importance of virginity (to women, more so than tied to man’s honour). In Afro-Surinamese society, fertility is considered important for both men and women, again similar to many West African cultures. Wekker also lists as part of West African heritage; the fact that sex is viewed as an enjoyable part of life (see: Osunality). In many West African cultures pre-colonial influence, regular sex is necessary for the inner well-being regardless of gender.

This point is poignant to me because today I was schooled by a woman who sells traditional aphrodisiacs. This woman advised me that as a woman, it’s not okay to “just be there”. From her point of view, a woman should take these herbs that will make her wet, tight and taste nice (there were different varieties for each effect) so that she enjoys sex more with her partner. That Wekker notes this and that a woman who remains connected with centuries-old West African recipes for aphrodisiacs is backing her up, cements the truth of Osunality to me.

Moving on, consider that same-sex sexuality is understood through the prism of Winti spirituality. This is similar to some African cultures where women-loving-women are understood as having a “masculine” soul. From the working-class Afro-Surinamese culture, there’s an Apuku, a strong God who is “jealous of his “child,” the woman, engaging in permanent sexual relationships” with human men.

Wekker points out research available on Ashanti and Zimbabwean women but I think of Nkunzi Zandile Nkabinde’s interviews with lesbian sangoma who have male ancestors. I also think of Nkabinde when Wekker writes that it’s usually older women who express interest in younger girls while understanding that eventually the young woman will form a relationship with her peer.

Furthermore, Wekker mentions Melville Herskovits and his data on Dahomey where apparently thirteen different kinds of relationships were known including same-sex relationships between women and women (and apparently moreso among women).

Wekker puts forth that same-sex sexuality has firm roots in African heritage and that despite changes across time and space, the core has held. “If it is speculation, as some undoubtedly will call it, at least it is informed speculation”, she writes.

The naming process

Let’s revisit the quote from Oloruntoba-Oju above. What if there was no word for homosexuality in African cultures? On the surface, I’m agreeing with the scholar who said Yoruba people have no words, sayings or proverbs that refer to homosexuality. However, I’m coming from the point of view that this is because people just did not understand things the way we now do.

Wekker writes;

“In an Afro-Surinamese working-class universe it is sexual activity and sexual fulfillment per se that is significant; it is not the sex of one’s sexual counterpart that carries the most meaningful information. I understand this principle as expressive of the West African cultural heritage.”

To break that down, in this way of thinking, sexuality is not who you were but what you do. It’s an activity rather an an identity. So perhaps, if you’re looking for the “who” in the history of sexuality in African cultures, maybe you should start looking for the “what”.

This is of course arguable as I’ve been told that there are several words that describe women-loving-women in different African cultures, including the Yoruba. Yet the idea that in this apparently African context, sexuality referred to what you do and not who you do it with remains very fascinating to me.

This is the opposite of how we view it today, where one’s sexuality is one’s identity. This may ruffle some feathers but, Wekker associates the latter with a Western/Euro-American understanding of sexuality.

She writes,

“One of my central understandings is precisely that the particular distinction entailing the carving up of sexual identities in hetero- , homo- , and bisexuality, which appears to be so “natural,” precultural, in many Euro-American contexts, has historically and emically not been salient.”

These labels came about in the late nineteenth century in Europe. This means the “carving up of sexual identities” is quite young in the grand scheme of things. For older Afro-Surinamese women-loving-women, sexuality is work. Wekker notes different descriptors including, mati work, mati life and the women’s work.

The women who engage in mati work are working-class women, they mostly have children and engage in sexual relationships with men and with women, either consecutively or simultaneously. However, not all of them have relationships with both men and women, others exclusively with women. Mati work consists of different obligations; mutual help, emotional support and sexual obligations.

Women in mati work are set apart from the current, accepted notion of a homosexual identity. Sexual behaviour is varying and versatile and no fixed homosexual identity is claimed outside the understanding of a “masculine self” who prefers to lie down with women.

When Wekker gathered women’s expressions for their girlfriends, she found that terms were mostly ambiguous. They were their “friends”, often without any sexual connotation. The term “mati” itself is ambiguous as it can mean a friend, with or without sexual connotations. Imagine if this was how West African women of the past understood their sexuality.

Linking back to Oloruntoba-Ojo’s quote above, Wekker mentions that Sranan Tongo (the language of Afro-Surinamese) is “so rich in odo, riddles, and narratives, not to name matters directly”. I find this to be another West African similarity, the richness of our language and the idea that sexuality is not an identity may be the reason why there’s apparently no word indicating that pre-colonial Yoruba did not know what homosexuality was.

There was no need to come out as sexual behaviour was not conceived or talked about in that way even when others saw and heard.

Disconnection between the past and the present

Wekker devotes a chapter to the present and the younger Afro-Surinamese women who accept a lesbian identity as fixed and true. According to Wekker, these women view mati work as untrustworthy. Dismissing it as inauthentic because women in mati work did sleep with men, usually to have children.

Wekker states,

“…The dismissal of mati on the grounds that they do it with men speaks of the internalization of a dominant Euro-American narrative in which one should be either hetero or homosexual, not both.”

She calls it a new “global lesbian identity”. If you attempt a search on lesbian, woman-loving-woman, LGBT or homosexuality in Suriname, you won’t find information on mati work in the top results. Homosexuality has been legalised in Suriname since 1869 yet they have to deal with homophobic politicians and the struggle for LGBT rights is real there.

Yet there is this amazing history of women loving women in Afro-Surinamese culture. After reading The Politics of Passion I can’t help but wonder if the exact same thing doesn’t apply to the West African context.

  • A historical heritage where sexuality was understood as behaviour and as part of a person’s dynamic complexity. Where people saw no need to “come out” as who they had sex with was behaviour and not an identity,
  • The appearance of colonialism disrupting not only ideas of spirituality and the transmission of knowledge, but also of sexuality,
  • The distancing of ideas, philosophies and practices associated with “backward” pre-colonial Africa in favour of “forward” European thought by middle-class, colonial and post-colonial Africans,
  • The adoption of a “global” LGBT identity by queer Africans accompanied by the rejection of this identity by post-colonial Africans, both disconnected from the historical understanding of sexuality.

Basically, this is why we need research as opposed to the outright rejection and outrage that same-sex sexuality existed in Africa’s history. One of Wekker’s concluding points is identifying, “…Similar constructions of sexual subjecthood in West Africa, the Caribbean, and black America as a most fruitful field for further exploration.”

Would we know the complexities of mati work and the long history of women-loving-women in this part of the African Diaspora if not for Gloria Wekker’s research? I wouldn’t know of the existence of lesbian sangoma if not for Nkabinde’s research. Can we truly know if woman-woman marriages involved absolutely no erotic contact between women if not for research?

It’ll be nice to see more research on this topic. After reading The Politics of Passion, I believe that research will be more fruitful if whoever was doing it considered that in the West African understanding of sex, sexuality may have been about behaviour and not identity.

Check out the original essay here and also check out this piece about modern day expression of sexuality on the continent.

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