My sister on Twitter, always sends me thought-provoking links and has a blog that is well worth reading.  She sent me an interesting article on homosexuality prompting me to think again about who is defining our understanding of the world and creating the yardstick by which we judge ourselves. I also thought it would be interesting to explore the implications of the article and be a bit provocative in the process!

For shorthand I’m going to use the term “West” and the equally problematic “homosexuality” (shorthand for same-sex desire) when discussing the African experience and Gay when talking about the Western cultural expression of this desire.

I feel disappointment when African leaders immediately submit to a foreign concept in order to be assimilated into an “International Community” whose definition of international is decidedly limited! I am waiting for the day when an African worldview can be confidently asserted in an international forum as perfectly normal and to have the expectation that the West should also think in the same way or, if not, would see the common sense of that view and reconsider their own understanding. We need, in the words of Nietzsche, a revaluation of values to reverse a revaluation that has already occurred from the West to Africa.

How is it that a relatively recent understanding of homosexuality has predominated over one which existed in Africa hundreds of years before?

In her book The Spirit of Intimacy: Ancient African Teachings in the Ways of Relationships, Sobonfu Somé, claims that homosexuals (probably referring to the Dagara of southern Burkina Faso) have a specific role in some African villages due to their sexual energy. They are responsible for opening and closing the doors to other dimensions and are also the bridge between genders, able to resolve conflicts and bring peacekeeping perspectives. The author asks a pertinent question – what happens in a culture that does not care about these gateways? What happens to the homosexual’s sense of purpose once their spiritual role has been removed and is no longer seen as important within a culture?

As, she claims, all sexuality is spiritual, once you remove the spirituality, sexuality can be exploited, flaunted or commented on, causing controversy. One example might be the way men are commoditised by those businesses marketing to the gay community and to the discussions, intrusive or hateful, that result from someone’s homosexuality.

Interestingly, the author notes that although many Western gays are spiritual, the spiritual role they should play has been denied them in those cultures. The result is that they deny their unique role and wish to assimilate into the mainstream by calling for same-sex marriage, for example. One might also comment on a resulting lack of focus leading to the development of a lifestyle (for some) which revolves around clubs, drugs, sex and consumerism.

Perhaps it is no accident that gays predominate in professions that are creative, that care for people, or gravitate towards being psychics or New Age healers. Could they unconsciously be trying to reconnect with the roles of their African ancestors?

The language we use to describe something influences the way we understand it. It is ironic that both sides of the debate, including those who claim to defend traditional African culture against an imposed homosexuality are all using the models and definitions of the West. How did our understanding of this become corrupted in this way?

Rather than allow western models of sexual identity to predominate in Africa, perhaps we should reassert the traditional roles given to people whose uniqueness allows access to a spiritual world. We must challenge western concepts of identity politics originating as they did in North America during a specific historical period for reasons which were valid for that time.

Undoubtedly, the dominance of Judeo-Christian values, themselves a rather curious expression of a particular world view from another culture and historical period, has radically changed our model of the world. In their literal demonising of traditional African religion and culture there has, in turn, been a modification and a redefining of African culture in an attempt to answer the challenges posed. This corrupting world view was reinforced by colonial laws and the colonial discourse regarding this matter.

It’s interesting to note that the recent attempt to legislate against same-sex marriage in Nigeria, influenced by imposed Judeo-Christian values, may prevent its traditional practise amongst the ’yan daudu (not in themselves necessarily homosexual).

Additionally, our view of African homosexuality is informed by the writings of Christian and Muslim colonisers who had themselves disrupted African culture affecting the aural histories. Undoubtedly, the internet and the availability of American films present models relevant within those cultures and because of the symbol of American-as-prosperity, leads other cultures to adopt them.

Will Africa’s homosexuals be able to reclaim their lost histories and reassign themselves their traditional roles? Will their predominantly Christian or Muslim cultures allow them to?

Or will homosexuals blindly follow a Western model by following alien cultural expressions of their desire based around American divas and obsession with self? Will cultures continue to import the discriminatory and hateful language that only arose when ritual and tradition surrounding those that had same-sex desire was transgressed?

What is needed is for Africa to find African ways to discuss this issue and not take the language, emotive feelings and religiously defined values from elsewhere and attempt to apply them in a very different cultural context – a problem too common when discussing African development.

Further Reading

Homosexuality in “Traditional” Sub-Saharan Africa and Contemporary South Africa
Saint Aelred the Queer