. Re-Thinking Sexualities in Africa: Introduction
which parts Christian, which parts not? The major reason for such endeavour in the context of this volume, is to broaden the vision, to keep alert a notion of possible alternatives, and to maintain a perpetual awareness regarding what otherwise might very easily pass as implicit assumptions. The fact that virtually all African ‘traditions’ and ‘customs’ have been conceptualized by men and women (mostly men) with Western/Christian educational backgrounds, have made some aspects less visible than others. Three aspects of Christian assumptions regarding sexuality show how such implicit assumptions have led to misinterpretations on the part of Western observers (missionaries, anthropologists, colonial administrators) if not to outright failures to see certain parts of the societies in question.
First the assumption of heterosexuality. Heteronormativity being taken for granted has made any kind of same-sex relations invisible. As noted by Blackwood and Wieringa: “For many ethnographers, travellers and colonial authorities the possibility of married women engaging in non-heterosexual practices was unthinkable” (1999:41). And to their respondents, same-sex relations between women were not classified as ‘sex’ since no penis was involved: “No penis, no sex”. As Blackwood and Wieringa correctly point out a major reason for the invisibility of same-sex practices was more likely due to the limitations of the observers than to the conditions of women’s lives (Blackwood and Wieringa 1999:41). Ways of understanding and not understanding same-sex relations will be further discussed below, in the section on Pleasure and Desire.
As for the second aspect of Christian assumptions regarding gender and sexuality, note the case of the German missionary quoted in Becker’s chapter. It is 1913 and the Reverend August Wulfhorst angrily corrects a young colleague who does not see that local women, in their lascivious sexual conduct, and being as sinful as men, are not and cannot be subordinate. The social group in question is mat – rilineal, and the Reverend sensibly makes a connection between this fact and the (in his eyes) disrespectful, improper behaviour of the women. What is important here, however, is that with this statement the Reverend implies a connection between organized and reasonable social structures and male/female double standards. In his eyes the problem in Owamboland is not that women are oppressed, but rather that they are subject to too little male control. The very same line of thinking in fact, as Caldwell’s regarding female chastity as emblem of civilization (cf. above). In this line of thinking male control of female sexuality—in practice often equal to male/female double standards—is a pivotal issue, a sine qua non for social development.
The third aspect has to do with sexuality in Christian contexts being conceived as an issue of morality and sin (primordial sin, nothing less), obscuring insight in the importance in many (most?) African pre-colonial societies (and to some extent even today) of a division between sexuality and fertility—or between sex for pleasure and sex for procreation. In Western contexts, with Western lines of thinking—which, as correctly pointed out by Oyewumi, are firmly rooted in biology, body-reasoning or bio-logic as she calls it (Oyewumi 1997:5, ix)—sex-as-linked-to – procreation is perceived as the ‘natural’ state of affairs, only brought under hu-
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