In 2014, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni made international headlines by claiming that homosexuality was a ‘Western import’ and that homosexuals were ‘disgusting.’ Museveni is not alone in his views, with several other prominent African figures such as former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, former Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, and the late Ethiopian religious leader Abune Paulos, among others, echoing Museveni’s sentiment. As of 2018, homosexuality is outlawed in 34 African countries, and same-sex marriage is only legal in 1 (South Africa). In the African context, claims around same-sex relationships are often based on colonial reference points. Though it is difficult to make definitive conclusions prior to the 16th century due to lack of written sources, European missionary notes from the 1500s onwards and other research seem to indicate that same-sex relationships may perhaps have been prevalent and more culturally accepted in many African societies prior to colonization.
The San people of Zimbabwe seem to have depicted male-male sodomy in rock paintings from thousands of years ago, and paintings from 2400 BCE Egypt portray men engaging in the cultural equivalent of kissing. In the 18th and 19th century Ashanti Kingdom (present-day Ghana), it wasn’t uncommon for male concubines to act as women and serve male patrons. In northern Nigeria (where today the punishment for homosexuality is death), the Hausa people had a special word (‘dan daudu’) for males who were encouraged to embrace their gender and sexuality regardless of biology. In Museveni’s own Uganda, the Bunyoro, Teso, and Langi people all had cultural practices that accepted transvestite, homosexual, and/or third-gender behavior. Among the Basotho women of Lesotho, young girls often entered into sexual relationships with older women, so as to better prepare for womanhood. As late as the 1920s, anthropologists studying the Azande people of present-day Democratic Republic of Congo and Fang people of present-day Gabon found cases of teenage boys serving as ‘boy wives’ to older men.
It is difficult to make claims for certain, but some pre-colonial historical context referenced above would make it seem that homosexuality and non-heterosexual relationships may not have been introduced to Africa by Western colonialists, but that legalized homophobia may have been.
By Tre Hunt