While the Sochi Olympics have understandably brought much needed attention to the prevalence of homophobia in Russia, the crisis for LGBT communities in African countries has only been given footnote status by comparison. Homosexuality is a crime in 38 of 54 sub-Saharan countriesbut even as tougher laws are being enacted in Uganda that would, for example, make it a crime not to report gay people to the police, there is a strain of cultural relativism often evident in debates on LGBT rights in Africa. This has allowed the apparent misconception among some people, both in Africa and the west, that homosexuality is an imperial import and that those opposed to the human rights of gay communities are simply reclaiming their pre-colonial cultural values.
The problem with using terms such as “pre-colonial” and “post-colonial” is that they obscure African history or culture prior to its encounter with Europe. In many cases, this is how some intellectually colonised “Africanists” approach Africa, by reducing everything to colonialism. Nowhere is this more evident than in discussions on LGBT rights in Africa. It has become something of a catechism to proclaim that homosexuality was introduced to Africans by European colonisers.
Any person with the time to study the history of sexuality in traditional African cultures will discover that this claim is baseless. Indeed, the history of sexuality in traditional African societies has always been characterised by diversity in sexual practices and identities. Homosexual practices and identities are not new to Africa. What is new is the campaign for LGBT rights that has arisen in reaction to the revival of a homophobic legal and religious tradition inherited from European colonialism.
In the past few years, the movement against LGBT rights in Africa has brought together very strange bedfellows, African Muslim and Christian preachers with strong backing from rightwing American Christian organisations. This has culminated in the steps taken recently by the governments of Uganda and Nigeria, for example, to pass laws that criminalise same-sex relationships and impose very stiff penalties for anyone found guilty under such laws.
The dehumanisation of members of the gay community across Africa has been justified by invoking both God and traditional African culture. However, for over a century the same religious groups now claiming to be the custodians of traditional African cultures have been at the centre of programmes to systematically efface Africa’s traditional cultures on grounds that, in their view, such cultures are un-Christian and un-Islamic. Thus, the position adopted by many of Africa’s political and religious elites on issues relating to LGBT rights owes more to their colonial religious education than it does to their traditional African roots.
The very existence of “sodomy laws” imposed on many African cultures by British colonial rulers in an attempt to stem what they thought of as the sexual immorality of African cultures point to the presence of diversity in sexual practices among Africans prior to their encounter with Europeans. Some opponents of gay rights in Africa have consistently tried to argue that since there is no word for homosexuality in their African languages it must mean that gays did not exist in African societies until recently.
This claim would first have to be proved through a kind of “linguistic archaeology” on all such languages. This has not yet been done. It is also unlikely to work on languages and meanings that evolved as they were passed down from one generation to another through oral means.
I venture to suggest that indeed the absence of words for homosexuality in some African languages, if this is true, is in itself proof that gay people were never considered as existing outside of the norm in such traditional African societies. Thus, it is more likely that the language of “othering” now used to discuss and describe gay communities in Africa is a remnant of colonialism.