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Diverse sexuality isn’t alien to Africa – homophobia is

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Contrary to current stereotypes, Africa has a rich history of same sex relations that was buried by colonialism, writes Ken Olende
Issue 2390
The court of King Mwanga II
The court of King Mwanga II

King Mwanga ll of Buganda in east Africa led a violent campaign to defend traditional values in the 1880s. He executed 22 Christians for opposing same sex relationships. 

If he hadn’t taken this extreme action it’s likely that traditional Bugandan sexual practices would have been written out of history. Buganda still exists as part of modern Uganda, a state currently identified with anti-LGBT bigotry and laws—against what are supposedly alien LGBT practices brought in from the West. 

In the late 19th century Mwanga was worried by the spread of Western influence. Missionaries were making inroads into the kingdom and demanding rights for their converts. They were the vanguard of imperial occupation by the powers that backed them. 

The imperial imposition of new sexual morals on indigenous people was part of a wider process of asserting control. This also saw new laws to control sexual practices in Britain.

The issue came to a head when pages in Mwanga’s own court turned down his request for sex because they were converts. This caused a confrontation that led to his decision to execute them all.

Mwanga was the head of an autocratic class-divided society. Later he would capitulate to the British Empire and convert to Christianity himself. He was no hero of LGBT rights.

But in Buganda the idea of sleeping with people of the same sex had been considered normal for hundreds of years, a reality that is almost forgotten. Pre-colonial Africa was made up of a wide array of different forms of society. Many of them tolerated or celebrated same sex relations of one sort or another. Hundreds of African societies record same-sex sexual activity between men and more than 50 have records of it between women. 

But these societies did not have the concept of a separate LGBT identity. More than 30 African societies sometimes permitted “female husbands”—where two women marry.

These included the Igbo in modern Nigeria and the Zulu people in South Africa.In the case of the Igbo it was primarily an economic relationship to keep a family’s wealth if it had no sons. 

Ethiopian Nuer people questioned in the 1960s said there were no homosexual men among their people. But there were people born as men who had changed their gender status and were considered to be women.

Stephen Murray and Will Roscoe’s book Boy Wives and Female Husbands brought together anthropological research that had been ignored for decades. 

Among the Azande in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo male warriors would often take “boy wives”. They would pay a bride price to the boy’s family and live as a couple.

Again it was not about LGBT people as such. This was considered to be something that men did before marriage to a woman. It was not an equal relationship—the boys were aged between 12 and 20. 

This was a stratified society where most men could not afford the bride price when they were young. Rich men would often have several wives, including young men. The anthropologist EE Evans-Pritchard did his field research on the Azande in the 1930s, but most of his findings on same sex relationships were not published until the 1970s. 

The kinds of relationship described here show how much richer the history of human sexuality is than what “traditionalists” choose to regard as normal. 

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