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Homosexuality is “unAfrican” in pre-colonial history (Essay) - HOLAAfrica!

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.

HOLAA, IDAHOT, LGBT Africa, Lesotho
Photo Cred: Meri Hyöky

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

Read More by Cosmic Yoruba

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  • avatar
    7th December 2012 - 4:51 pm

    i really think people need to stop saying homosexuality is un African…

    homosexuality has always been there, only that some people have chosen to see it as taboo and unnaturally..

    we grew up thinking and being taught by the bible and church that sex was only between a man and woman..
    but to think being a homosexual is something that was imported from somewhere is kinda lame…and ridiculous.

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  • […] This article was first published on HOLAAfrica! by Cosmic Yoruba […]

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  • avatar
    12th December 2012 - 3:28 pm

    forgive me but how exactly does one import or learn real emotions and feeling?
    (that’s crazy)

    how did we learn to love and crave for the same sex from Europeans and Arabs most of our parent never met(except the really really old ones) through out their life time ?
    (that’s ridiculous)

    most children i know today(age 5 to 9) here in Nigeria already exhibit their sexuality and preference even before the can even spell the word HOMOSEXUAL properly, so how exactly were the taught by European to cuddle each other, kiss each other, play hide and seek in the dark just to get and opportunity to touch each others penis to erection……… they Europeans must be time travelers

    the typical gay guy or lesbian anyway in the world starts from self isolation because the feel there is some thing different about them, but in a continent were they soon find out that that which makes them different is a sin, taboo or abomination leave them helpless so how are the Europeans or Arabs to blame for teaching them their uniqueness ?

    homosexuality is something that has its roots in a person begin irrespective of his or her believes, culture, location, parental upbringing and morals… stating this i will like to draw your attention to the word ‘learn’ how does one learn something that is not taught ?
    no one teaches you to be GLBT especially not not here in Africa we we believe in moral, doctrines, religion, retribution for sin etc……..
    which i could say more but in conclusion……we may have learnt the words, they freedom, culture and attitude of homosexuality from anywhere but its impossible to say we learnthow to love, live and express our sexuality from the Europeans or Arabs

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    • avatar
      13th December 2012 - 10:22 am

      Completely agree. The idea that we learned this takes away agency from people.Like we cannot know and experience things for our selves.

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      • avatar
        13th December 2012 - 1:50 pm

        Like we cannot know and experience things for our selves.

        But don’t you know, Africans have always been incapable of doing anything for themselves, if it was not for outside influence we’d be nowhere */sarcasm*

        On a serious note, I feel that we as Africans have internalised a bit of this. There are so many of us who believe that our ancestors were “uncivilised” before the Europeans came, it is disturbing.

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    • avatar
      13th December 2012 - 1:46 pm

      THANK YOU VERY MUCH FOR THIS COMMENT! *standing ovation*

      What you have outlined is basically my Nigerian childhood. I was exhibiting my sexual preference freely as a child until I learnt what a lesbian was and was told implicitly and explicitly that a lesbian is not something I should be. I think if we ‘learn’ anything, it is how to be straight, how to hide who we really are because society finds us offensive. The amount of things modern-day Africans credit to Europeans and/or Arabs is truly nonsensical.

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  • avatar
    13th December 2012 - 12:21 pm

    I wanted to comment in private, but couldn’t find your email address. Please correct your opening argument that suggest Africa as a country- it is a continent. Just FYI.

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    • avatar
      13th December 2012 - 1:33 pm

      Hello, you seem to be the same person who is leaving similar comments anywhere this post has appeared on the internet. While I thank you for your concern, I have nothing to correct here. I assure you that I am aware that Africa is a continent.

      I tend to write sarcastically when I am upset, and while sarcasm does not travel well over the internet in written pieces, most people tend to see through this except for one or two people. The exception will be you in this case, I suggest that you reread my essay with this in mind; that I was being sarcastic and actually calling out those (like the author of the paper I found so offending) who would suggest that there is an “African culture” and that what one ethnic group finds morally reprehensible is suddenly a model for the whole of the continent.

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  • avatar
    14th December 2012 - 3:01 am

    First, I can assure you that I am not the person leaving comments on your article elsewhere. Sadly, you’ve taken offense to my comment. I apologize and will forego any future comments related to your writing. I’ve actually reposted your article- save the observation, I find it to be a very thoughtful analysis.

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  • avatar
    Mabusha Dumisa Masekela
    14th December 2012 - 10:39 am

    (Saw your article posted on the BUWA fb page and had a spontaneous rant – these colonialists are fucking crazy and have really messed with our minds – but only as much as we allow them to. “Free yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.” – Bob Marley)
    Of course “homosexuality” is not “unAfrican” – what an absolute load of shit – I don’t even have to read the attached article (but I will) – “homosexuality” is a human condition. And I keep putting it in quotes because all these false binaries are just as much bullshit – male/female, black/white, homosexual/heterosexual – all simplistic, false binaries that hardly speak to the reality of the human condition, which is spectral, just as rainbows are a physically manifested representation of the color spectrum, so do individual humans represent the infinite spectrum of humanity. Being born is the only justification for our existence, just being born. Everything afterwards, the labels, the bad science, the twisted societal approach to gender, sexuality, and humanity is all stuff we humans are making up. Within the human condition there is no abnormality – only infinite variation and difference. Another reason I hate all this labeling bullshit is because we will NEVER have enough labels to fit the infinite variation of humanity, NEVER. Besides which once we accept these labels as being valid we spend the rest of time of our time justifying the labels and the groups that we are assigned to. NONSENSE – it makes no sense, no sense at all. Humanity is infinite and varied and LOVE is what binds us all together. The idea that our differences require borders, definition and conflict is simply a useful notion of the “divide and conquer” bunch to keep us apart from one another. Our humanity, our mere existence, in all its infinite variety, is what allows me to relate to my fellow humans, all 7 billion of them – not because someone creates some club that I’m meant to join before I can speak in, and then only in approved language of the club. Fuck all that!!!! Humanity, in all its existing and expanding reality, is not only my, but anyone who chooses to’s communication device. Open to anyone, available to anyone to communicate to/through the variety of humanity on this big, round planet of ours. The color of my skin (it’s just a biochemical dye), my gender orientation, my sexual orientation, the growth of my hair have nothing to do with my willingness to relate (even, dare I say it, love) my fellow humans. Nothing at all. No one can choose for me what is “normal” or “allowed” – I choose for myself, and I choose all humanity as my family and infinite love as my path. Of course, in pre-colonial Africa, there were people deemed, in our limiting modern language as “homosexual”. The thing to remember is that “homosexuality” has always been, is now and will always be a part of our humanity, an integral part. That’s what we all are humans “being” – and that’s the only definition necessary – these labels and acronyms are all part of a process of dehumanization and denial, that favor the “divide and conquer” types and I, for one, reject them all without reservation, in favor of being/sharing with any and all of my human family – all 7 billion of us. To paraphrase, “We’re here, we’re human, get used to us!!!”

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  • […] Marc Epprecht states that it is a dangerous myth to think that Africans are heterosexual by nature. […]

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  • […] women. One asked me why and before waiting for my explanation went on to lecture me on how it was “unAfrican”, against God’s teachings, and that I should only keep women around as friends and nothing more. […]

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  • avatar
    2nd May 2013 - 2:52 pm

    i had to read the oloruntoba-oju article myself. very complex but i m not sure its antagonistic. it says don’t speculate wrongly about the past; concentrate on the present, which she calls “contemporary reality”; it says Africans maybe were wrong but say only what you know.

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  • Dare to Call Me Lesbian | HOLAAfrica!
    6th May 2013 - 8:13 am

    […] a more serious note, for several years, African LBGTQI communities have adopted foreign labels and identified with those labels in an attempt to put a […]

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  • […] Achebe writes that “woman-to-woman marriage in Africa has absolutely nothing to do with homosexuality” (emphasis, hers)…and I actually agree with this…kind of. While I strongly believe […]

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  • avatar
    african safari
    30th April 2014 - 12:40 am

    I’m at work browsing your blog from my iphone!
    Just wanted to say I love reading through your blog and look forward to all your posts!

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  • avatar
    how to stop biting your nails
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    • avatar
      4th May 2014 - 8:18 pm

      Cool go for it

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  • […] more on Africa and being gay check out Homosexuality is ‘Un-African’ In pre-colonial Africa and Pre-colonial Igboland: Woman on Woman […]

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    17th May 2020 - 3:21 pm


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