In November this year (2023), Cardinal Peter Turkson got tackled by conservative Ghanaians for sounding, in their view, ‘too liberal’ on the LGBTQIA+ issue when he spoke to the BBC’s HARDtalk programme. He had told the international media house that homosexuality should not be a criminal offence and people should be helped to understand the issue better – a view completely at odds with his country’s lawmakers, some of whom are sponsoring a private member’s bill to have all sexuality on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum explicitly circumscribed and criminalised.
Turkson, the first-ever Ghanaian cardinal appointed in 2003 by Pope John Paul II, is now chancellor of the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and is seen as likely to become the first-ever black Pope in the history of the Catholic Church. In his HARDtalk interview, Cardinal Turkson said: “LGBT people may not be criminalised because they’ve committed no crime”, adding: “It’s time to begin education, to help people understand what this reality, this phenomenon is”.
“We need a lot of education to get people to… make a distinction between what is a crime and what is not a crime”, explained Cardinal Turkson, who referred to the fact that in one of Ghana’s languages, Akan, there is an expression known as ‘Kojo Besia’, which refers to “men who act like women and women who act like men”.
To him, ‘Kojo Besia’ was indicative that homosexuality was not an imposition from Western cultures. “If culturally we had expressions [like that] … it just means that it’s not completely alien to the Ghanaian society.” Nevertheless, Cardinal Turkson said he thought that what had led to the current efforts to pass strict anti-gay measures in several African countries were “attempts to link some foreign donations and grants to certain positions… in the name of freedom, in the name of respect for rights”.
“Neither should this position also become… something to be imposed on cultures which are not yet ready to accept stuff like that”, he cautioned.
The Big Debate
Is Cardinal Turkson right in saying merely having local expressions that refer to effeminate males and masculine women (Kojo Besia) is proof enough that homosexuality is not alien to African culture? That is an issue that has been widely debated in cultural and academic circles. Just like in Ghana, anti-LGBTQIA+ sentiments hold sway in many African countries, primarily due to the conservative cultural and religious values of the continent and some African leaders, past and present, have been at the forefront of the continent’s anti-gay movement.
“Gays are worse than pigs and dogs,” Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe is on record to have said while alive. He is in good company with Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, who also, at a point in time, described the anti-LGBTQIA+ community as “disgusting” people; and Mr Yahyah Jammeh of The Gambia, while president, also said gays were “mosquitoes” and “vermin”.
They are homophobes per liberal judgement, perhaps, but bastions of African values – puritans in the eyes of the conservative African. They hold the view that homosexuality is un-African. A man fellating another couldn’t be more grotesque – culturally, morally, and, in their view, naturally. It is a taboo; insufferably sepulchral.
Even worse, to the conservatives, is the idea of a man penetrating a fellow man’s anus with his phallus. Abominably un-African, they would condemn. Such ‘abnormal debauchery’ and ‘unnatural sexual craving’ could only be a post-colonial relic. It must be a Whiteman’s contagion. Africa’s palpable anti-LGBTQIA+ environment is reinforced by stern anti-gay laws. Uganda and Nigeria passed separate anti-gay laws about six years ago, which prescribe harsh custodial sentences for homosexuals and their collaborators.
The LGBTQIA+ community in Africa are the target of instant (in)justice – depending on where you stand. They are, either stoned to death or burnt alive by anti-LGBT+ vigilantes with beastly abandon. In a society struggling to find a dialectical balance between its ancient values and the modern-day Afro-acquiesced invasion of Western culture, homosexuality would be a hard sell. It is simply irreconcilable with what is African, the conservatives and moralists will insist. Anything “un-African” must be intolerable to Africans, and must be purged by ‘any means necessary’ – even by lynching.
But Africa’s LGBTQIA+ community is fighting back.
“Who defines what is un-African?” they ask. They are falling on a mountain of ‘alleged’ ancient traditional practices documented by mostly white-Western anthropologists, to counter what, in their view, is a misinformed perception about homosexuality being an imported contagion.
A report titled ‘Expanded Criminalisation of Homosexuality in Uganda: A Flawed Narrative/Empirical Evidence and Strategic Alternatives from an African Perspective’, prepared by Uganda’s sexual minorities, claims anthropologists Stephen Murray and Will Roscoe (An American gay activist who helped found the Lambda Alliance at the University of Montana, the state’s first LGBT organisation in 1975), have, in their view, clearly shown that homosexuality has been a “consistent and logical feature of African societies and belief systems,” throughout the continent’s history.
Other anthropologists like Thabo Msibi of the University of Kwazulu-Natal, Marc Epprecht, E. Evans-Pritchard and Deborah P. Amory, have reached similar conclusions.
To begin with, it is worth noting that the first ‘alleged’ documentation of homosexuality (as understood in the modern-day sense) has been traced to Egypt (Africa) in 2400 BCE. Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, two male “overseers and manicurists of the Palace of the King”, according to the dossier, whether contrived, misinterpreted or genuine, were depicted in a nose-kissing position in Egyptian art. However, not all anthropologists agree the two were homosexuals. Some argue they could have been twin brothers.
Further, among the alleged documented evidence is a 2000-year-old “explicit” San Bushman painting, which depicts men having sex with each other through the anus. To the apologists who insist homosexuality has never, historically and culturally, been alien to Africa, such archaeological evidence cannot be wished away.
Certainly, they would push forth: the Bushman of old would not have found it necessary to document such a practice through paintings if nothing of the sort was happening at the time. Or would they? But could both the Egyptian and the Bushman artworks be hoaxes? After all, it is not at all uncommon in the world of archaeology to fake such evidence. History is replete with such examples.
Furthermore, the document adduces other cultural and spiritual evidence to prove the African-ness of homosexuality. It says the Nzinga – a warrior woman in the Ndongo Kingdom of the Mbundu – who ruled as ‘‘King” rather than “Queen”, was documented by a Dutch military attaché in the late 1640s, dressed as a man surrounded in her harem by young men dressed as women she called “wives”.
Could that be a clear manifestation of early transgenderism and transvestitism in Africa? Or are purely traditional African rituals such as that – if, indeed, anything of the sort ever happened – being stretched beyond their limits to clothe what, perhaps, could be a modern-day construct with ex-post facto historical and cultural circumstance to rationalise what may not even have been? Or is the evidence too substantial to ignore?
- Evans-Pritchard is also reported to have recorded that the Azande or Zande of Northern Congo, practised an institutionalised traditional custom, which allowed older warriors to marry younger men who were between 12 and 20 years old. They served them as “wives”. The warriors, according to the anthropologists, paid a “bride price” to the family of the young men they married, just as happens in heterosexual marriage contracts within the same traditional setting.
The “boy-wives” served their “warrior husbands” sexually and domestically. Once married, the warrior-husband referred to his boy-wife’s parents as “gbiore” (father-in-law) and “negbiore” (mother-in-law).
A precursor of gay marriage in Africa? Or are the continent’s sexual minorities clutching at straw to justify their sexual ‘abnormality’? Or did this alleged practice – if proven – wield spiritual and mystical essence rather than a sexual one? And should mystical rituals and cultural practices bearing semblances of homosexuality, necessarily be deemed homosexual, in nature, in both the historical and modern-day contexts of the construct?
Eighteenth-century anthropologist, Father J-B. Labat is thought to have documented the Ganga-Ya-Chibanda, the presiding priest of the Giagues – a group within the Congo Kingdom, as routinely cross-dressing and being referred to as “grandmother”. Is this another anthropological evidence of primordial transvestitism in Africa?
And there are a plethora of them. The “Chibadi”, found in Southern Africa, for instance, were thought to have practised transvestitism. They were documented by a Jesuit in 1606 to have expressed aversion to, and embarrassment at, being called men.
Also, effeminate transvestites in 17th century Angola were documented by Portuguese priests Gaspar Azevereduc and Antonius Sequerius, to have been married by men. Such marriages were purportedly “honoured and even prized”.
Similarly, men who dressed and behaved like women in northwest Kenya and Uganda’s Iteso society had sexual relations with other men. The document also claims same-sex practices were also recorded among the Banyoro and Langi. At the same time, in pre-colonial Benin, homosexuality was an apparent natural phase for growing boys.
The Nandi and Kisii of Kenya; and parts of Eastern Africa, are also recorded to have practised female-to-female marriages while among the Cape Bantus, lesbianism was ascribed to women who were in the process of becoming chief diviners known as ‘isanuses’.
Generally, in Southern Africa, many female diviners were thought to have been either homosexual or asexual because the divine healer is thought to be closer to women and, by extension, had spiritual proximity to nature’s fundamental source of sustenance.
Also, the rain queen of the Lobedu Kingdom in South Africa, Modjadji, is said to have taken up to 15 young wives as she saw fit. Primordial lesbianism in African history, it may seem.
Anthropologists also claim gay sex amongst Bantu-speaking Pouhain farmers (Bene, Bulu, Fang, Jaunde, Mokuk, Mwele, Ntum and Pangwe), in present-day Gabon and Cameroon, was seen as mystical medicine for transmitting wealth. It was known as “bian nkû ma”. Similarly, among the Nilotico Lango of Uganda, men who assumed “alternative gender status”, known traditionally as “mukodo”, could marry other men and be treated as women.
Other Ugandan tribes such as the Bahima, Banyoro and Buganda, have also been documented to practise same-sex relationships. Buganda monarch King Mwanga II, who was known as the Kabaka, is documented by anthropologists to have had sex with his male subjects. Mwanga, apparently fought Christian missionaries who attempted to get him to stop sodomising his male subjects.
He is said to have even executed Christians who dared question his sexuality. Could same-sex activities or semblances of it have been mere channels for reaching out to the divine realm? Or were they meant for pleasure, for their mere sake? Could they have been part of necessary spiritual rituals that may have inured to the benefit of communal dwelling at the time, if these documented claims, indeed, were real and true events? Or did the warriors, priests, and priestesses at the time abuse their socio-cultural standing and privileges to pursue a deviant sexual desire using spiritism and mysticism as cover-ups for their debauchery?
The Igbo of Nigeria, the Nuer of Sudan and the Kuria of Tanzania also had homosexual practices in their cultures per the document. Murray and Roscoe documented in their book ‘Boy-Wives and Female-Husbands that the Bafia people in Cameroon saw homosexuality among young men as a normal resort to avoiding impregnating young girls during puberty. They found that boys had sex with boys as a precautionary measure for fear of impregnating girls before full maturity.
Sexual affection between girls was also common in Lesotho.
LGBT+ groups in Africa and the world are relying on these alleged anthropological facts to fight the strong anti-gay culture in Africa. To them, the heap of evidence clearly eliminates the perception that Westerners influenced Africa’s gay culture.
As far as they are concerned, homosexuality is intricately interwoven into many African traditions and customs and, therefore, cannot be labelled as un-African. It predates the coming of the Whiteman, as far as they are concerned, so, logically, in their view, the West cannot be deemed to have influenced a culture that pervaded before its forays into the continent. And besides, the West did not choose Africa’s traditions for her.
But the big question is: whether we could apply, retrospectively, the modern-day concept and construct of homosexuality to what pertained in these African societies in ancient times, if, indeed, these practices occurred as documented.
Anthropologist Marc Epprecht, in his book ‘Heterosexual Africa?’ cites evidence to suggest that sexuality, in terms of how we think about it today as being an identity, did not exist in pre-colonial classifications.
He says: “Homosexuality didn’t function as the antithesis to heterosexuality; rather sexuality was part of an innate spectrum. Because of this, soldiers bedding and even living with male companions were simply considered part of a natural sexual occurrence in certain areas, notably in Southern Africa.”
Will it, therefore, be fair to argue, based on the alleged bunch of anthropological evidence that homosexuality, in all its forms, is not un-African? If so, not necessarily saying it is, then why is it that the entire continent has such avid aversion to it? Should it not rather be easier for a continent with such a homosexual history and culture to accept the practice easily than fight it? Or did the present generation of Africans lose touch with the continent’s homosexual history millennia or centuries ago? Or is the bundle of evidence trumped up? Are Africa’s sexual minorities clutching at straw to justify deviant sexual behaviour? Or is Africa simply running away from its homosexual past?
Objectively Sexual Normality v. Subjective Abnormality
I detest the idea of one man fellating another. I could tolerate two women fondling each other’s nether parts or bosoms. The man in me wouldn’t find that nauseating in the least. But stretching such fantasy beyond fantasy gives me a bit of a headache. I have no problem with two consenting adults of the same sex choosing to derive sexual pleasure from each other through whatever means. After all, they may – obversely – consider those of us who say we are “straight” as “abnormal”. One’s sexual orientation, therefore, is either “normal” or “abnormal” depending on where you stand. So, despite my disgust for gay sex, I can’t say I’m any more normal than a gay person. Nor can I say a gay person is any more abnormal than me. So, is there normal or abnormal sexual orientation at the end of the day? Is it what society defines it to be? And if so, must it be? Or is it what makes people who consider themselves “normal” – whatever that is – feel comfortable about? Or is it what makes anybody at all – whether normal or abnormal – get the “normal” tinge in their bone? Will heterosexual intercourse be seen as normal were human societies largely homosexual? And could humankind have perpetuated itself through homosexuality? Or must the end purpose, if any, of both, justify their normality or otherwise? Or better still, do, and must, social behaviours in and of themselves, exude normality or otherwise, independent of the phalanx of values that swirl around and shape them; in whatever society they are enmeshed? Or can two opposing aspects of the same thing be right, at the same time, within the same society, irrespective of what social values pervade or swing in favour of one rather than the other? Can what is considered “right” in the sight of the majority in any society be wrong? And can what is “wrong” in the same society be right? Heterosexuals see their sexual orientation or preference as normal. I have heard some homosexuals argue that they were born that way, thus, seeming to ascribe normality to their orientation. The world is prominently heterosexual.
Homosexuals are considered a minority – or are they? Perhaps, there are more homosexuals in the world than we suspect. Maybe they are still in the closet because they fear what society will say about them once they come out. Maybe they are faking heterosexuality when, in fact, they are homosexuals. Or maybe, the spectrum is more fluid than we think. It is an undeniable fact that heterosexuality, besides its pleasure-giving purpose, also has a procreative function. Homosexuality, on the other hand, naturally, serves no procreative purpose. Procreation is important for human perpetuity. Save through reproductive technology, homosexuals can’t satisfy that purpose. But even with that, homosexuals must, grudgingly, I imagine, bend over to borrow a limb from heterosexuals. A lesbian couple can’t conceive without a sperm donor. Nor can transvestites or shemales or gay couples. Is it then fair to say the tenser one must stretch technology for assistance in replicating a process that effortlessly, and “naturally” happens in nature – as in the case of procreation through heterosexual copulation by both humans and animals – the more abnormally inclined that process is? Is homosexuality, by this argument, therefore, abnormal? Or are homosexuals a perfectly “normal” minority group in an imperfectly “abnormal” society of heterosexuals? Or is humankind experiencing the world upside down? Or has humankind normalised abnormality and simultaneously abnormalised normality? Or did heterosexual orientation gain prevalence over homosexuality through a Darwinian evolutionary process which humankind has yet to come to terms with? And if so, must the fittest survivor then be seen as the normal candidate? Or, perhaps, have we humans got it all wrong by pigeon-holing social behaviour as either right or wrong, when, in reality, both shades could comfortably exist side-by-side in a smudgy continuum without all the socio-religious fuss?
Heterosexuals could be the matter of the sexual universe or multiverse – if it exists as predicted by M Theory – while homosexuals could be the Universe’s anti-matter. Both have their separate roles to play while complementing each other at the same time to ensure some unknown balance. Heterosexuals may exist to perpetuate humankind on earth. That could be their sole purpose. Homosexuals could just be one of Nature’s numerous ways of controlling heterosexuals’ progeny. Imagine if all humans desired progenies. Perhaps, the earth can’t bear that burden. Similarly, I can’t imagine the world being full of homosexuals. Humankind would have gone extinct before it even existed.
Source: Patrick Ayumu