Homosexuality is “unAfrican” in pre-colonial history (Essay)
By Cosmic Yoruba
Such a thing did not exist in the African jungle…or not
When I read a paper by an African researcher that insinuates that Africans learnt homosexuality from Europeans (and/or Arabs), I do not go to my happy place where only thoughts of first love and first kisses rule. Rather I think about waking up in the dead of the night to a ghostly white female figure hovering over my bed. The white woman that all African lesbians, bisexual women and women who sex with women know intimately, because after all we learnt this from Europeans. In this cult of gayness that the Europeans started, we are taught our colonial heritage and to venerate Margherita dos Santos, the first very bored, very gay Portuguese colonist wife who successfully seduced a young African woman in the 16th century thereby making homosexuality an African identity.
The above sound ridiculous? Well ridiculous is what I find Africans who go out of their way to argue how “unAfrican” homosexuality is. Africans who write lengthy “logical” papers, disputing various sources and references, all while ignoring the real lives of LGBTIQ Africans today. Their efforts are not only silly but dangerous to me and I probably wouldn’t spit on them if they were on fire. I recently read one such paper, but this one left me totally disheartened because I initially thought it was pro-African queers. The paper in question is “A name my mother did not call me: Queer contestations in African Sexualities” by Taiwo Oloruntoba-Oju. Perhaps when I saw this title I zoned in on the “queer contestations in African sexualities” part and for some reason believed that it was arguing for the presence of homosexuality in pre-colonial African history. Little did I know that the paper was written by someone who finds it “agonising that disputation about the status of homosexuality in Africa is often equated with “homophobia” even when some of the disputants have close and friendly relations with known homosexuals” and who believes that “the imputation of homosexuality as an African identity must of necessity generate [antagonism]”.
I happily settled down to read the paper, and it started innocently enough but the more I read the paper, the more my face fell and now days after reading it, I find that I am still angry with it. But I can’t stop thinking about it and need to let my jumbled thoughts out in this post.This paper evoked all sorts of feelings in me so this post may be lengthy, I’ve broken it down to sections based on what I found problematic in the paper, so you can leave and return easily. If I sound angry, I most likely am.
Africa as a monolith
Africa is such a big country, and what happens in one part of Africa happens in the other part. So you come from an ethnic group that has apparently never known what homosexuality is yet manages to somehow consider it an abomination, this must be the same all across the village that is Africa. It does not matter that your ethnic group numbers in the millions, and that different regions have always had different customs in spite of sharing a similar language (which turns out is not so similar considering dialects). In one corner of the continent, homosexuality is considered a deviance so this must be the same across the African continent. This ignores the diversity in which disparate African philosophies viewed homosexuality, while in some societies gays, lesbians and transgendered people were key to society’s psychic balance (as among the Dagara of Burkina Faso), in others there were witches who were exiled (see Izugbara O. Chimaraoke, “Sexuality and the supernatural in Africa”, pp. 533-558, in African Sexualities: A Reader, ed. Sylvia Tamale).
The antagonists towards homosexuality as an African identity will do well in remembering this.
Western terms and African sexualities
Truth is many Africans today are disconnected from the sexuality our ancestors knew. We do not know our philosophies, or argue that African philosophies do not exist.
When the antagonists argue that homosexuality did not exist on the African continent before the advent of the Europeans and/or Arabs, do they mean same-sex love or same-sex sex. Were Africans waiting to learn how to develop feelings for a member of the same sex from the European and/or Arab gay bogeyman? Or did queer Africans never practice any form of sexual activity before the foreigners taught them to? Then again the Europeans and/or Arabs supposedly taught our ancestors a lot, they civilised us, they brought complex religious systems and the One True God, they taught us manners, they taught us how to wear clothes, they taught us how to build civilisations, they taught us how to maintain personal hygiene, they taught us medicine…and they taught us how to develop feelings for the same sex and how to sexually act on these feelings.
Truth is many Africans today are disconnected from the sexuality our ancestors knew. We do not know our philosophies, or argue that African philosophies do not exist. In the paper, the issue of “woman-to-woman marriage” is brought up, and Oloruntoba-Oju argues (rightly so) that this institution was not necessarily proof that the pre-colonial African societies that practiced them accepted homosexuality and lesbian marriage. The institution was probably not created to facilitate lesbian marriage, although it did develop for varied reasons depending on region. Western scholars and researchers have no right to impose their ideas of gay marriage on a society where a woman marrying another woman was a show of wealth. But who is to say that one lone African woman did not use this institution to her advantage and to be with a woman she loved? Maybe the antagonists have the ability to read through the minds and memories, and look into the houses and bedrooms of the female husbands and their wives. Apparently no researcher is yet to have asked women married to other women if there had ever been a sexual component to their “social” arrangement (see Amory P. Deborah, ‘“Homosexuality” in Africa: Issues and Debates’).
There is still not enough research into African history outside of Egypt
The majority of African history remains shrouded, under-researched, in the shadows or honestly ignored. Majority of us do not know history outside the racist colonial lens and are surprised to read that our ancestors engaged in complex medical procedures or even wrote in indigenous script. Without this knowledge of pre-colonial African history, along with the reality that there is even less research on African sexuality in history, how can someone know for sure that “homosexuality” was not practiced before the Europeans and/or Arabs introduced it? That it wasn’t an identity?
Linking to the point below, the fact that most of African histories are oral as opposed to written makes no difference. How many Arabs, for example, would argue that homosexuality is a “Western deviation” today despite the fact that there is written evidence to the contrary. The activities of medieval Arab lesbians were well documented in studies from the 9th century by philosopher al-Kindi and physician Yuhanna ibn Masawayh. Written history can be destroyed and silenced just as oral histories can.
The role of colonialism
Africans tend to dismiss the ways in which colonialism (both European and Arab) damaged institutions and our view of self and history. Most of what we insist today as “tradition” is in most cases not, and I sometimes imagine our ancestors being shocked at some of the things we claim as tradition. For example, views on marriage, years ago I read a paper that argued that homosexuality would be strange to Africans because we have always placed a high value on marriage. I am sure I cannot find that paper now, in my recent readings on Igboland I’ve seen that there were actually several people in this pre-colonial African society who never married. The sex workers, the priests and priestesses (all wives of Gods and Goddesses), the slaves. I will not be surprised if there were more societies like the pre-colonial Igbo in this respect, it may be more accurate to say that high value was placed on children or that emphasis on marriage was reserved for certain classes of people.
There is no way one can discuss pre-colonial Africa, or in fact pre-colonial Asia, the Americas, Australia, while belittling the role of colonialism. One cannot ignore that colonialism drastically changed mindsets, as people adopted Victorian mindsets and mannerisms eschewing the “barbaric” ways of their ancestors.
The role of language
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. Yoruba is a colourful language, and can be quite explicit in detailing heterosexual sex emphasising the penis and the vagina, so Oloruntoba-Oju believes that it should have been the same for homosexual sex. At the same time, a saying “apparently” hidden deep within the Yoruba divination cult was produced by a Nigerian scholar and says obinrin dun ba sun ju okunrin lo (“it is easier to sleep [have sex] with a woman than with a man”). This saying is dismissed as an isolated example, Oloruntoba-Oju drives home their point by demonstrating how metaphorical Yoruba is, something that all Yoruba speakers know. In praising twins, one says “twins, kindred of Isokun, born of an ape” however this clearly doesn’t mean twins are apes or monkeys. Perhaps this “isolated” saying refers to something else entirely, yet somehow the sayings which reference penises and vaginas are not metaphorical. Not to mention this widely popular saying, okunrin o se ba sun bi obinrin (“you cannot sleep with a man as with a woman”) which is to be taken at face value because it is “more established”.
Context is ignored, the former saying seems to be coming from the perspective of a woman, while the latter from a man. If a Yoruba woman who has sex with other women, says “okunrin o se ba sun bi obinrin” is it not impossible that her next sentence would be “obinrin dun ba sun ju okunrin lo”.
It seems the antagonists prefer to find a term that directly translates to “lesbian” in Yoruba language. However what happens if this term is vague or unrecognisable, it could have been simply “witch” as in a recent Yoruba film I watched, Enisoko Soja, in which a man’s mother was branded a “witch” after his wife dreamt she “made love” to her. Most terms associated with lesbians in other languages are from the action of tribadism. In Arabic, the roots of words linked to “lesbianism” and “lesbian” (s-h-q) means “to pound” or “to rub” (see Amer Sahar (2009), “Medieval Arab Lesbians and Lesbian-Like Women”, Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 18, No. 2). And in Urdu words which refer to female homosexual activity are rooted in words like chapta which means “flat”, chapatna “to be pressed flat” and chipatna “to cling to” (see Vanita Ruth (2004), “Married Among Their Companions”: Female Homoerotic Relations in Nineteenth-Century Urdu RekhtiPoetry in India, Journal of Women’s History, Vol. 16, No. 1). African languages may be unique and different, or they may be similar, some antagonists may be searching for words they expect to clearly spell out L-E-S-B-I-A-N while ignoring words other words like “pounders” or “clingers” or even “witches”.
In addressing the difficulties of investigating lesbian women in history Judith Bennett introduces the term “lesbian-like” to cover those women who in the past lived lives that may have offered opportunities for same-sex love, or lived in circumstances where they could nurture and support other women. Rather than referring to such women outrightly as lesbian, Bennett suggests “lesbian-like” to extend over those women in the past who felt emotions towards other women, even if they never acted sexually on this; women who never married; women who cross-dressed or assumed masculine roles and mannerisms; as well as women who resisted established cultural norms of sexual propriety (see Bennett M. Judith, “Lesbian-Like” and the Social History of Lesbianisms). “Lesbian-like” recognises that not all societies had constructed terms for women who had feelings for or had sex with other women.
Oloruntoba-Oju mentions ‘yan ludu, a term that means sodomy in Hausa and is derived from Arabic. ‘Yan ludu literally means “people of Lot” and apparently the fact that Hausa people refer to sodomy with this term “exposes its modern and post-contact origin”. But what exactly does it expose? That the word is not indigenous to the Hausa, or that sodomy isn’t? Considering the tone of the paper, I’ll go with the latter. Notice the assumption that all gay men engage in anal sex, there is also no mention of language appropriation. Today some Yoruba people call milk, miliki, a term that clearly has roots in English, so I guess Yoruba people did not know what milk was before Europeans introduced it. Moving farther yet closer to the topic on hand, in Japan today, lesbians are referred to as レズ (rezu) fromレズビアン (rezubian) which of course comes from English, lesbian. レズビアン is a foreign word in every way, even down to the characters that form it, this must mean that that there were no lesbians in Japan before European intervention, an estimation that is laughable considering how well documented same-sex relations are in Japanese literature and art history (although the bulk is on men loving and sexing men because this is HIStory).
What constitutes “gay behaviour”?
When I was growing up, it was a common to see two men holding hands while walking down the street in parts of Nigeria. Now, maybe a decade later, this scene has become rare because two men holding hands is “gay”.
Oloruntoba-Oju states “it is true that even in contemporary times, a good number of Africans go through an entire lifetime without coming into contact with gay behaviour either in the rural areas or even after having passed through such “high risk” urban locales”…with nothing to back his claim except for this footnote; “A colleague reading this article recently drew my attention to a forum observation by an apparently gay white fellow who had been in Nigeria and had noticed that straight Nigerians apparently do not have what he called a “gaydar”, hence a lot of gay sex does take place without them being aware. If this observation is true it may well be a further curiosity that these Africans seem not to have developed a gay sensitivity over the centuries”. This falls back to several of my points above, especially the one on imposing Western definitions on Africans. Oloruntoba-Oju argues elsewhere in the paper against Western hegemony but fails to see how contradictory it is to then attach relevance to this “white fellow” who believes that Nigerians do not have a gaydar. There is no consideration that what constitutes gay behaviour in Nigeria and how gay Nigerians single each other out may be different from what this white man is used to. I mean how many straight people in the country this white person comes from possess a gaydar? Does this suggest further curiosity that these white people seem not to have developed a gay sensitivity over the centuries?
Oloruntoba-Oju then continues, “many may have “heard stories” but these are mostly about gayness being a “foreign import” and occurring in proximal geographical locations where foreign contact has occurred over the centuries”…again with no references. Oloruntoba-Oju mentions “logical” reasons in being an antagonist to this preposterous idea that homosexual identity is African but it is really debatable whether their paper exhibits logic.
Oloruntoba-Oju argues that it is speculative to debate that there was “homosexuality” in pre-colonial Africa. In my humble opinion, it is just as speculative to argue that there was no “homosexuality” in pre-colonial Africa. While majority of these African researchers do not like stating whether they are talking about same-sex emotions, or same-sex sexual activity, I am referring to both. I am not speculating when I state that some of my African female ancestors must have developed feelings of attraction to other women. Whether my female ancestors acted on these feelings may be speculation, yet in societies were initiation ceremonies and sexuality training schools involved women touching, massaging and pulling breasts and vulvas, usually under the guise of “training” in order to please future male partners, it is not inconceivable that my female ancestors physically loved the women they adored. Maybe they did this secretly, maybe they were in the open and society did not mind because it recognised that these things happen (getting speculative here).
Albeit confusing, the paper was at times well written and even convincing, I can agree that Western hegemony should not be imposed on queer African identities but every other point was like someone inserting needles in my skin. I suggest that heterosexual African researchers leave criticisms of homosexual labels and identities to African queers themselves. We are not as close-minded as you, and this is not an insult, a privileged heterosexual worldview is limiting.
Homophobic African antagonists, yes homophobic, fail to realise that part of their antagonism is attempting to wipe the thousands of Africans who engaged in same-sex relationships, whether sexual or not, from history. Oloruntoba-Oju positions as being largely for queer Africans stating that “a synchronic focus on today’s sexuality realities in Africa may well offer safer grounds of analysis of queer representation…” but then rounds up with “…than the frequently strained colonial imaginaries on pre-contact African sexualities”! This is someone who finds the pain of being labelled as a homophobe (because, homosexual friends!) greater than the pain of LGBTIQ Africans who have to face homophobia daily. Oloruntoba-Oju, in this paper, completely ignores and, pardon the colourful language, shits upon the feelings, thoughts and experiences of queer Africans. It could be that the paper is addressed to the West and Western scholars, hence the mention of “colonial imaginaries”, but this further emphasises my point on Oloruntoba-Oju completely ignoring that queer Africans will find their presented historic picture problematic.
I would like to end with a call to the queer African women reading this, especially if you have a link to histories in some way, even if it is access to the elders or ancestors. We need to gather the stories and voices, keep them in a safe space where people can access this information. Perhaps now or in the future, one woman will appreciate that there was a woman who loved another woman in 13th century West Africa.
*Amer Sahar (2009), “Medieval Arab Lesbians and Lesbian-Like Women”, Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 18, No. 2 Vanita Ruth (2004),
*“Married Among Their Companions”: Female Homoerotic Relations in Nineteenth- Century Urdu Rekhti Poetry in India, Journal of Women’s History, Vol. 16, No. 1
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