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History shows that same-sex relationships have always existed in Africa, as elsewhere
Imagine your neighbours standing outside your bedroom window, their ears pinned to the wall to hear whether you’re having sex.
Having confirmed their suspicions, they order you to move out. Otherwise, they say, they will kill you.
It sounds pretty crazy but that was what happened to a middle-aged gay Ugandan man I met last month.
He lost his home and his job because of other people’s prejudices. His life rapidly spiralled out of control and he ended up sleeping rough on the streets of Nairobi.
“I was thinking of ways to kill myself because I just saw my life was ended,” he said.
Such persecution occurs across Africa. In Kenya, 98 percent of people believe that homosexuality is unacceptable.
“Homosexuality is satanic,” was one of the comments written by “Esther” on the website of a leading Kenyan newspaper, The Standard.
“I hope and pray that this sickness will not be imported to Africa.”
Esther’s attitude is typical.
She uses her Christian faith to justify her intolerance. “The Bible calls it an abomination,” she wrote.
And she implies that homosexuality is a Western import.
The irony is that it is such homophobic attitudes – and the colonial-era laws that support them – that are the Western imports.
“What Western colonialisation brought into African colonies was homophobia and not homosexuality,” Cameroonian academic Basile Ndjio said in a report released by Amnesty International on Tuesday.
History shows that same-sex relationships have always existed in Africa, as elsewhere.
There is a 2,000 year-old Khoisan rock painting in Zimbabwe depicting men having sex with each other.
In Uganda, the Langi people recognised “mudoko dako” men, who were treated as women and could marry men. The Bagandan king who ruled in Uganda during the 1880s, Kabaka Mwanga, is widely acknowledged to have been gay.
JUDGE AND CONDEMN
So where did this homophobia come from?
It was Victorian colonialists who introduced much of the legislation criminalising same-sex conduct to Africa, along with the Bible.
“The colonial administration ... perceived same-sex relationships as an expression of cultural primitivism and then encouraged African natives to move towards the so-called modern sexuality; that is, exclusive heterosexuality,” Ndjio said.
Under its “offences against morality” section, Kenya’s penal code of 1930 forbids “carnal knowledge against the order of nature”, punishable by up to 14 years in prison.
Britain dropped the law almost 50 years ago. But it still lives on in its former colony.
Other comments that The Standard chose to publish on its website include: “If I were near you [I] would have castrated you, tie[d] your legs and hands and throw[n] you into the ocean” and “Beat the mzungu [white man] to death”.
(The story is about an Australian man facing criminal charges for having sex with men.)
A sense of outrage is noticeably absent when it comes to wife-beating. Some Kenyan communities have a saying that beating your wife is a sign that you love her.
A Kenya Demographic Health Survey, carried out in 2008 and 2009, found that a third of women said they had experienced some form of physical or sexual violence by their husband or partner in the previous year.
Africa’s homophobes would do well to think about Ugandan academic Sylvia Tamale’s argument that their vilification of same-sex relations reflects a greater fear – that “homosexuality threatens to undermine male power bases” in the home and to shatter prevailing myths about what it means to be a man or a woman.
The Ugandan man is now living in a Nairobi shelter, hoping to get resettled in the West as a refugee. If he’s lucky, he may be able to start a new life overseas.
But at what cost?
Like many African homosexuals, he got married and had children due to family pressure. When his wife found out that he had a gay lover, she kicked him out. He has no hope of seeing his daughters, aged 15 and 18, ever again.
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