Despite evidence of homosexual customs pre-dating the colonial era, intolerant laws are flourishing across Africa.
Abuja, Nigeria – Fourteen years ago, at the age of 19, Ifeanyi Orazulike could no longer ignore his affections for men.
“I had these funny feelings that I could not explain,” he says.
As the feelings evolved into a full-fledged attraction for the same sex, Orazulike, for the first time in his life, began exploring his sexuality, as a student in a university in south-east Nigeria.
“I sexually experimented,” he says. “But I wasn’t sure if I wanted to live as a homosexual.”
Today, 33-year-old Orazulike is confident in his orientation. But here in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, Orazulike knows that his identity as a gay Nigerian is under attack.
After news broke that President Goodluck Jonathan had on January 7 signed the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition bill, unanimously approved by lawmakers in May 2013, Orazulike joined activists in Abuja to develop strategies to protect the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, Queer) community.
They conducted a series of meetings to discuss the law – that Human Rights Watch described as a “sweeping and dangerous piece of legislation” – which recommends penalties of up to 10 years imprisonment for same-sex couples who publicly show affection, and for members of organisations who assist gay people. Same sex unions are punishable by a 14-year prison sentence.
While condemned by the likes of the United Nations and the European Union, the law is praised by a majority of Nigerians, who have united under a banner of patriotism and what many perceive as a fight against Western imperialism. The president’s spokesperson reportedly stated that the law “reflects the religious and cultural preferences of the Nigerian people”.
The scorn that Orazulike now faces from Nigerians assaults his identity as a Nigerian. “People say I’ve been bewitched by the Western world,” he says. “I will not denounce my nationality because of my sexuality.”
The public debate on homosexuality goes beyond nationality. It has now become a controversial argument on Africa versus the Western world, with people such as Orazulike caught in the middle.
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s well-publicised rejection of gay people being “worse than pigs or dogs” and homosexuality as an import from Western societies has been coupled with similar assertions from the Ugandan MP David Bahati who brought forward a 2009 bill in Kampala. The Ugandan proposal was reportedly inspired by Christian conservatives from the United States, most notably the embattled pastor Scott Lively – who is facing a lawsuit for his alleged involvement in “Kill the Gays” campaigns in Uganda.
They argue that homosexuality had no history in pre-colonial Africa and goes against African traditions.
|People say I’ve been bewitched by the Western world… I will not denounce my nationality because of my sexuality.- Ifeanyi Orazulike, gay activist|
Stories of homophobia in Uganda regularly feature in news headlines. President Yoweri Museveni has not yet endorsed a bill passed by lawmakers last month that would further criminalise homosexuality with life imprisonment sentences – and punishments for those who fail to “report” homosexuals.
“He has rejected the bill, but will reinforce the hate – saying that gays are abnormal,” says Patience Akumu, a Ugandan journalist.
“He says these are abnormalities from the Western world, so he is saying things that Ugandans want to hear.”
In Nigeria, where a man was reportedly lashed 20 times earlier this month after confessing to homosexual acts committed seven years ago, 26-year-old Yinka – who requested her last name not be published – reacted with outrage to being labelled “un-African” on account of her lesbianism.
“It’s something that is on the inside. It’s not like a 2014 thing. It’s something that’s on the inside. So it’s not going to ever go away,” she says. Yinka lives with her partner in the country’s commercial hub, Lagos.
She had always admired her female schoolmates – but was “too afraid to come out to tell them”, she said, revealing that she discovered lesbian pornography around the age of 13, while attending boarding school.
“I am who I am. This is me,” she says.
A 2013 Pew survey that interviewed adult Nigerians found that 98 percent of respondents agreed that homosexuality “should not be accepted into society”.
Amnesty International reported that 16 African countries do not have criminal laws against homosexuality, whereas 38 have made it illegal.
In Cameroon, anti-gay panic broke out in 2006 when three newspapers, La Météo, L’Anecdote and Le Soleil d’Afrique, began publishing names of people believed to be gay.
Meanwhile, Senegal was once touted as one of the most tolerant countries in Africa. But the rhetoric coming from national politicians here too, speaks of preserving “the national integrity” as a way of excluding same-sex relationships from “accepted cultural practices”.
“We don’t ask the Europeans to be polygamists,” President Macky Sall told US President Barack Obama in 2013. “We like polygamy in our country, but we can’t impose it in yours. Because the people won’t understand it. They won’t accept it. It’s the same thing.”
Corpses of gay people have been exhumed from graveyards across Senegal, with anti-gay activists stating the dead bodies were desecrating cemeteries.
|We don’t ask the Europeans to be polygamists. We like polygamy in our country, but we can’t impose it in yours. Because the people won’t understand it. They won’t accept it. It’s the same thing.- Senegal’s President Macky Sall, addressing US President Barack Obama|
Back in Uganda, the outspoken pastor, Martin Ssempa, re-emphasised the “un-African” stance: “For us, it’s a human vice. For them, it’s a human right.”
Expressions of African homosexuality
But scholars such as Marc Epprecht, a professor of history and cultural studies at Queen’s University in Canada, denounce the idea of homosexuality being “un-African”.
“Who gets to say who is an African? All these things have been politicised,” Epprecht told Al Jazeera.
His field work in Zimbabwe, which culminated in an oft-cited book, Hungochani: The History Of A Dissident Sexuality In Southern Africa, led him to conclude that homosexuality in southern Africa had been demonstrated in varying forms over the centuries, and often held mystical connotations.
“Some people say they have the spirit of an ancestor of the opposite sex, so they cannot marry,” he said.
Nkunzi Zandile Nkabinde, a South African sangoma (traditional healer) told her story in a 2009 autobiography – in which she describes being possessed by the spirit of a deceased male ancestor. A lesbian, she attributes both her sexual orientation and healing powers to the personality of the spirit that lives inside her.
Historically, the expression of homosexuality varied throughout Africa.
“Being gay in South Africa is not the same as being gay in Cameroon,” says Patrick Awondo, a Cameroonian scholar at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.
For example, a pre-colonial tradition named the mevengu, carried out by the Beti people in Cameroon led women to gather and perform erotic behaviour together.
“This is why the ritual was stopped by French colonialists and Christian missionaries,” says Awondo, who studied the custom for his doctoral dissertation. “One very important part of the ritual was the celebration of the clitoris. It was a kind of inversion of the male power, with women celebrating their sexuality.”
Though customs like the mevengu are disappearing in Africa, remnants of such long-held homosexual patterns linger.
In northern Nigeria, the yan daudu – men who often appear dressed as women – are famed for their playfulness and sexual ambiguity.
“It’s my belief that many of them are in fact gay or bisexual somehow, but they do not come out about it,” says Rudolf Gaudio, who interacted with the yan daudu between the early 1990s and the early 2000s, while conducting research for his acclaimed book, Allah Made Us: Sexual Outlaws In An Islamic African City.
Further west, Ivory Coast’s Abidjan and Senegal’s Dakar were once known as gay hotspots, attracting large crowds to their nightclubs and parties, said Awondo. In Senegal, a minority group of men – known as gor digen, meaning “man-woman” in Wolof – sometimes dressed as women and worked as prostitutes.
“They were very famous and were used by politicians in public events,” he says, noting the gor digen were around before and during the colonial era, and have only recently begun going into hiding.
Rock paintings by the Khoisan Bushmen, reportedly dating back at least 2,000 years, which illustrate same-sex sexual acts have also been noted.
Politics of gay identity
With such evidence of same-sex customs in Africa, scholars strongly refute the “un-African” argument of homosexuality, but often admit that the political identification of homosexuality is fairly new in Africa. Epprecht says gay people in Africa today are making their sexual orientation “a political statement”, which may indeed be a more Western influence.
Historically, sexuality tended to be a private matter here. Now, African societies are grappling with the openness of sexuality in contemporary culture. These contemporary trends contribute to the rising criminalisation of same-sex relationships, paving the path for bills such as Nigeria’s latest.
Activists say the new legislation threatens the human rights of many Nigerians, and could result in cases of blackmail, extortion, and Nigerians pretending to be gay in order to seek asylum in foreign countries on grounds of persecution.
“Nigerians are opportunists,” Orazulike says. “They were filing for asylum before. How much now?”
Even Yinka’s partner suggested that they file for asylum, but Yinka decided to stay to see how things play out – hoping that, maybe someday, Nigeria would tolerate people like her. She stands by her identity as an African, lesbian woman.
“I enjoy being with females,” she says. “I enjoy being with my partner. I can’t live without her.”
By Chika Oduah | Published in Al Jazeera on January 26, 2014