Amazingly, until recently, same-sex relations have been understood as (largely) non-existent in Africa, the official (and widespread) opinion being that same-sex is decadence, imposed on Africa from the outside. Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe made that very clear in his (in)famous speech at the opening of the Zimbabwe International Book Fair in 1995: “I find it extremely outrageous and repugnant to my human conscience,” he said, “that such immoral and repulsive or-
Re-Thinking Sexualities in Africa: Introduction
ganizations, like those of homosexuals, who offend both against the law of nature and the morals of religious beliefs espoused by our society, should have any advocates in our midst and even elsewhere in the world” (quoted in Dunton and Palmberg 1996:9). Kenyan president Danial Arap Moi was of the same opinion, claiming that “words like lesbianism and homosexuality do not exist in African languages” (Mail & Guardian, Sept 1995, quoted in Dunton and Palmberg 1996:24).
Incidentally Moi may have a point, but the point is different from what he thinks: same-sex practices did and do exist in Africa, in remarkable quantity and diversity (Murray and Roscoe 1998:267), but not necessarily as identities. Murray and Roscoe have done an admirable job of collecting data material from old anthropological pieces and writings by travellers, as far back as 1732, supplemented with new research. The evidence is overwhelming. The bulk of documented same-sex behaviour takes place either at particular times during a lifetime, or concurrently with heterosexual behaviour. This points to a remarkably different social code, compared to social codes espoused by Christianity and Islam: “This social code does not require that an individual suppresses same-sex desires or behaviour, but that she or he never allows such desires to overshadow or supplant procreation” (Murray and Roscoe 1998:273). Compare again the distinction between ‘sex for pleasure’ and ‘sex for procreation’: as long as it does not interfere with procreation, there is a certain scope for sexual enjoyment.
Kurt Falk, a German traveller/anthropologist writing in the 1920s from Namibia and Angola, reports on woman/woman relations:
One might guess that the tribades [as he calls these women] were old women, no longer visited by men, or women without husbands, but almost the opposite is the case: only the newly married, younger wifes, who could not complain over the lack of heterosexual intercourse, practice same-sex intercourse with each other almost insatiably (Falk 1925—26, in Murray and Roscoe 1998:193).
There is also evidence of ‘thigh-sex’ between men and boys, and between young men and women before marriage. Similar data are provided by Dunbar Moodie writing about all-male life in the gold mines of the Rand: before going to the mines the young men would be herdboys, and in the bush they would be visited by girls, and thigh-sex would be practiced; thigh-sex was also the reported form of older men’s sex with younger men in the mines (Moodie 2001). The young ‘lovers’ also perform domestic duties, for which they are remunerated by the older men. Thus “men became ‘wives’ on the mines in order to become husbands and therefore full ‘men’ more rapidly at home” (Moodie 2001:305).
Also regarding female same-sex relations evidence abounds. Kendall (1999) reports from Lesotho how close and intimate relationships between married women, locally called mho-relationships, were not conceived as ‘sexual’ since no penis was involved (once again, “no penis, no sex”). Husbands, according to Kendall, would often know about the «pho-relationship, the wife’s female lover sometimes having a status as a family friend. Woman-woman and woman-man relationships were conceived as differently constructed and thus not mutually threatening. Gloria Wekker (quoted in Machera’s chapter) reports very similar
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