Historical evidence dispels the notion that LGBT people as well as alternative gender expressions and identities are alien to African culture, writes Gerbrandt van Heerden.
Tanzania's recent intensified efforts to clamp down on the country's queer community highlights the risk of statements by Africa's political, business and social elites normalising hate and discriminatory actions against sexual minorities.
In the latest development, regional commissioner of Dar es Salaam, Paul Makonda, announced that he had set up a 17-member task team to target and arrest LGBTQ people in the region.
Makonda's announcement aligns with Tanzania's reputation as one of the most homophobic countries on the continent, with a study by Afrobarometer indicating that only 21% of Tanzanians would strongly like, somewhat like, or not care to have gay neighbours. Still, the establishment of the task team is a major setback for LGBTQ rights and has led to widespread panic and fear within the community which fears it could lead to an escalation in violence, invasion of privacy, discrimination and stigma.
Discriminatory language has also been used by other key figures in Tanzania's political elite; President John Magufuli has condemned homosexuality, saying it is being "spread" in Tanzania with the support of the West, while Minister of Home Affairs Mwigulu Nchemba has promised to arrest people involved in organisations and institutions that campaign for the protection of homosexual interests.
Magufuli's claim is by no means the first time that political elites in Africa have used the argument that LGBTQ rights are a Western phenomenon which are being forced on African states at the expense of traditional values and beliefs on the continent.
Among other political and business leaders in Africa who have pushed the "homosexuality is unAfrican" narrative are:
• Rebecca Kagada, Speaker of Parliament in Uganda, who said of the efforts of some countries to include LGBT people in a declaration on migrants and refugees at the International Parliamentary Union (IPU): "We told you that if you insist, we are withdrawing…So if you are insisting on smuggling this issue, the Ugandan delegation… shall withdraw from the IPU."
• Ezekial Mutua, CEO of the Kenyan Film Classification Board (KFCB), who justified clamping down on social media platforms with LGBTQ content by saying: "The bulk of these platforms are being run by foreigners bent on spreading vices such as homosexuality and promoting radicalisation among the youth."
• Commissioner Petunia Chiriseri, who said during a sermon in Zimbabwe: "As a church, you (Robert Mugabe) took a firm stand against unbiblical, un-cultural, unacceptable practices which foreigners…seek to impose on Africa." This line of reasoning was even taken up by The Ghanaian Times newspaper, which wrote that "…we are equally against LGBT rights and we at the Ghanaian Times will strongly support moves to reject the imposition of any foreign values on our country".
Such sentiments among Africa's political, business and social elites can trickle down to grassroots level and normalise hate and discriminatory actions against sexual minorities. A study by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) shows that more than half of people polled in Uganda and Nigeria believe that same-sex attraction was an imported phenomenon from the West.
Labelling same-sex attraction and different types of gender expressions as a foreign concept that threatens traditional African cultures and values has given governments in Uganda and Nigeria, for example, justification to violently crack down on the LGBTQ community.
In Nigeria, over a 100 people attending a birthday celebration were arrested on suspicion of being gays and lesbians. Some of them were beaten by police and were reportedly facing homosexuality-related charges. The situation is no different in Tanzania. Following Makonda's call on the public to name or turn in people suspected of homosexuality to a task team, ten men have been arrested in Zanzibar due to a "tip-off" from members of the public about a same-sex wedding taking place.
Many factors contribute to the marginalisation of the LGBTQ community, but categorising same-sex attraction as a foreign concept and a form of neo-colonialism has proven to be a powerful tool in oppressing this vulnerable group.
Historical evidence, however, dispels the notion that LGBT people as well as alternative gender expressions and identities are alien to African culture. An early researcher in Africa, John Weeks, reported in 1909 that sodomy between men was quite common among the Bangala of the Congo and was "regarded without shame".
Homosexuality was commonplace among unmarried Tutsi and Hutu men in Rwanda, while lesbian relationships were common among the Nandi of Kenya, and basically universal among unmarried Akan women of Ghana. In the Langi tribe of northern Uganda, people who were born intersex or who were regarded as impotent would be labelled as a third gender known as mudoko dako. Mudoko dako people were legally and socially allowed to marry a man or woman and acquired either traditional male or female roles.
Studies and observations in Tanzania also warrant the view that homosexuality is not foreign to Africa or to Tanzania in particular. It has been recorded that same-sex practices were said to be common among Nyakyusa men prior to marriage in the mid-1930s.
These are just a few examples of same-sex practices that predate the influences of European colonialism. It is therefore ludicrous to suggest that same-sex attraction and the presence of LGBTQ people are the result of foreign influences from the West.
In fact, in some cases the opposite is true. It was the European countries that colonised Africa which, in many instances, introduced draconian and oppressive laws to subjugate people who identified as part of the LGBTQ community.
British Prime Minister Theresa May used the occasion of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting to apologise for Britain's role in the criminalisation of homosexuality in its former colonies. May said in her speech: "Across the world, discriminatory laws made many years ago continue to affect the lives of many people, criminalising same-sex relations and failing to protect women and girls. I am all too aware that these laws were often put in place by my own country. They were wrong then and they are wrong now."
The majority of the 53 Commonwealth member countries still criminalise same-sex relations. Tanzania, too, still suffers from the continuation of colonial-era legislation as sex between people of the same sex is illegal and carries a prison sentence of 30 years.
Some individuals and groups in the West would like this situation to continue and actively promote the idea of the 'importation' of homophobia to Africa. For many years, some Conservative Christian organisations from the United States, for example, have spoken out against homosexuality and are actively encouraging anti-gay legislation across Africa.
The Institute of Race Relations (IRR) has determined that tolerance of gay people is highest among educated Africans. In view of this, the IRR stresses the importance of expanding quality education as well as accurately depicting the continent's social history as a way of safeguarding LGBTQ rights and providing a powerful tool to counter the anti-gay rhetoric that is still highly prevalent in modern-day Africa.
- Gerbrandt van Heerden is an analyst at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823.
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