Homosexuality And African Discontents. Part 2.

by Adebowale Oriku    

No one exemplifies the common African attitude towards homosexuality than the president of the Gambia, a man who once bragged about his ability to cure AIDS with a mixed broth of Afro-Islamic shamanism. The swashbuckling small-time dictator had once threatened that he would cut off balls of any man practising

 homosexuality in his country – he later decided to throw them in jail. The irony of it all is that since a good number of tourists visit his country every year, the chieftainlike head of state could not have been unaware that a good many of them would be gay and that there are Gambian young men (and women) only too willing to play escort. But then he dares not tamper with the economic mainstay of his country: tourism. The germ of the satire of a German man unable to find a gay man in Africa sprung from the experience of a gay Englishman who was very surprised that he could have his pick of gay men from a cross-section of West African countries in that small country.

For a country like Nigeria, with aspirations of global reckoning, coming out with laws discriminating against its citizens because of their sexual orientation is not a good way of achieving this. Interdictions against our gay fellow compatriots are tantamount to curtailing their right to be human. While I am not saying we must kowtow to every whim of the dominant countries of the West, there is simply no point in being unnecessarily blinkered and lumpen, especially in a country with a population of diverse people like Nigeria.

Although South Africa has its problems and its citizens harbour their own prejudices, this is one country in Africa where homosexuals are statutorily free to live as they please, and a couple of years ago, civil partnerships between gay couples were duly recognised. But Nigeria, in spite of its grandiose pretensions and ambitions, still relegates itself as a rearguard enemy of the modern, open society which it craves to become part of.

Despite what seems to be the obvious – that there are many gay people in Africa as in anywhere – you still see people humbugging about how homosexuality is un-African. As if Africans are different species from other humans. As if homosexuality is something cultural and topotypal. Of course Africans are part of the human family, together with the gay people amongst us. It would be a rather involved and minutely algorithmic thing to begin to list individual cases of homosexuality in Africa, one might as well begin to sieve sand-grains from gari.

While I am not saying we all display the traits of gayness, there is no denying the truth that our society is as prone to producing as many homosexuals as any, and even if we do not all display the traits of gayness, who can really say whether the strain may be latent in more people than we can even begin to count. It’s been proved that sometimes extreme or even mild homophobia is no more than a psychodramatic cover for a repression of homosexual promptings – the case of Pastor Ted Haggard is too recent to have been forgotten. We know of ordinary Nigerian citizens and men of renown practicing homosexuality on the sly. In the early 1990s, a friend went to Abuja with a letter of introduction from someone in Lagos. The minister he was sent to see – from Southern Nigeria – had propositioned him, the man had tried to sweeten him up with heavenly promises, he’d expressed the wish to make him his keptman. The guy had fled back to Lagos, perturbed.

Up till today my friend still baulks at telling me the name of the prominent Nigerian. He believes I would write something about it one day and that I would, willy-nilly, reveal the name of the man. But more than all, he was shocked at the unexpectedness and the hypocrisy of it all, how the pictures of this man were printed in the newspapers, sharing conjugal limelight with his missus. But I was not exactly shocked. Even in those days I’d for some time got myself psyched to the multifarious funny-peculiarities of humans. And as it happens, it was just a couple of years after the Orkar coup when the young graduate friend was wooed by the eminent Nigerian. Didn’t homophobic Orkar – if memory serves – say something about ‘homosexually-minded’ officers?

No amount of hush-hushing and huffy hypocrisy can detract from the fact that there are gay people in the country. There are gay clubs. There are gay guvs. There are rent-boys. There are guys even merely indulging in gay-for-pay. There are gay nags, or gay old dogs, apparently respectable patriarchs frolicking with boys young enough to be their sons – the sort of boys Plato might call ephebi. The sort of boys that had grabbed the attention of the epicene King Mwanga of Buganda in the 19th century. And Chaka the Zulu.

When it came to his taste for the male of the species, the Buganda king’s ravening appetite was said to be huge enough to dwarf Caligula’s. If Europeans had not been around to record the antics of these two rulers from Africa, I know some of us would be saying that the King of Buganda was a legendary priapic Pan chasing winsome nymphs through the thick East African forest. Well what he was chasing through in the woods were little fauns, helpless goatlings, his pageboys. More than just being a mere homosexual, Mwanga was a depraved pederast, which of course does not make him any worse than heterosexual paedophiles whom Africa, just like any other continent, has in some number.

Now since Ugandans know quite well that Europeans had not introduced Mwanga to homosexuality, they have been heard to blame it on the Arabs. Arabs had arrived on the coast of East Africa several hundred years before the arrival of Europeans, and it’s been in a number of books that some of the Arab invaders and slavers were partial to homosexual sex. I remember reading scenes of Arab same-sex boisterousness in Ayi Kwei Armah’s tendentiously Afrocentric Two Thousand Seasons. Well, how could anyone say what was going on among Africans before the Arabs came? And after – even in places where Arabs never reached? By the way, Arabs had only peripheral contact with Mwanga, he was only believed to have acquired homosexuality by centuries-long osmosis, an aberration introduced into Bugandan life by Arabs.

Does anyone believe that if Arabs and Europeans had not gone to Africa, we would all be straight men and women, and that no two people of the same sex would be attracted to each other? I don’t think so, unless we want to push the notion of evolutionary particularism, or the rather scriptural exceptionalism, that we are a special race whose DNA is 100 percent different from that of other races.

And something we always overlook is that what the Europeans brought to us, far more than homosexuality, was a religion that sought to demonize it. Christianity. Since it was unrecorded, who can tell the attitude of our medieval ancestors, for instance, towards homosexuality? I guess one of the reasons Ugandans are blaming Nwanga’s homosexuality on Arabs is because it was white missionaries and their African converts who stood firmly against the Buganda king’s pederasty, the missionaries had risked their lives to save some of the young pages he held as sex slaves and serviceable amoretti in his palace. 

Whenever the Anglican Archbishop of Nigeria, Peter Akinola, gets into passional overdrive over the issue of gays in Nigerians and Africa, I do indeed wonder whether he knows the role white missionaries played in keeping Nwanga’s elephantine craving for boys in check. The archbishop’s homophobia is rather scary. He pours imprecations on gays and those who campaign for gay rights with more brimstony fire than ever breathed by the more biliously draconian of the Old Testament prophets. He rages and rails against homosexuals, and against white people who, in his mind, introduced homosexuality to us. So far as the senior cleric is concerned homosexuality is un-African and only a union between a man and a woman is African – a risible oversimplification, a tired and flawed effort at making a clean-cut taxonomy of the complex human condition.  

The archbishop’s opposition to the more liberal ‘Mother See’ is common knowledge. Although I am a long-lapsed Anglican (really I would say that I only belonged to the church by parental proxy), I do not care whether the Church of England shivers into many pieces, really. Archbishop Akinola of Nigeria has often been credited with unsubtly orchestrating the break-up of the church, and basically the central cause of war is the issue of homosexuality.

During the Anglican conference in Tanzania a couple of years ago, the brashly adversarial attitude and petulance the archbishop displayed in front of TV cameras when he was being politely questioned about his views on homosexuality did not suggest to me the sort of response Jesus Christ might give if asked a similar question – at least Christ might say something about the folly of throwing the stones of sin or something even more parabolic. Just as someone had pointed out, I think the Archbishop’s time would have been better spent telling off and playing heavy father over Nigerian amoral politicos and rulers.

The thrust of this article is not so much to ‘push’ gay rights in Nigeria, as to say something about the hypocrisy which inheres in Nigerian – and to a larger extent African – gay-bashing. To a degree, this is understandable. Apart from blind appeals to the wall-eyed verities of religion and blurry tradition, we are yet to grasp, in a concrete way, the concepts of rights, liberty, freedom and even humanism in their modern, more flexible, forms. We seem to have taken Kant’s categorical imperative – ‘act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law’ – to an illogical, unilateral conclusion.

Unreconstructed religioneering has not helped really. I have heard the Adam-and-Eve argument being offered by Muslims and Christians to support the absoluteness of heterosexuality. But the problem is, the Adam and Eve story is simply that: a story, a yarn, a Semitic myth which the majority of Anglicans and Catholics in the West have accepted for what it is. To argue against homosexuality with the Genesis’ opening tale is tantamount to using any pre-Socratic fallacy as a premise for the argument.

And to further pursue the line of devil’s advocacy, I daresay the way gay people feel when they are described as beasts, monsters and nonhumans may not have been far from the way most of Africans felt when Dr Watson reduced the whole of the black race to intelligence-challenged subhumans.

You think the comparison is too far-fetched, a stretch? Well, even now some Western – and Eastern – scientists are still busy searching for that genetic grail that would clinch Watson’s argument. In his recently-shown three-part documentary on Darwin, BBC’s resident public intellectual, Andrew Marr, goes to interview a Eurasian scientist who says he has discovered that some 6,000 years ago or so the common European’s DNA had achieved a mutational graduation, leaving that of Africans in the rather ‘natural’ state it still is today, a tacit way of explaining away the sorry state Africa is in today.

I had begun to say to myself, here we go again (another Dr Watson?), when the result of the test carried out on Andrew Marr’s DNA is announced. His genetic sequence is the ‘older African’ one, not the more developed European type. The very British and ‘white’ Marr grins almost childishly and says, ‘how about sharing this with my African brothers,’ or something to that effect. The import of which is that Marr has accepted the evolutionary biologist’s findings about the low-grade status of Africans’ DNA.

Whatever the results of any evolutionary biologist might say about African DNA, few, indeed very few Africans, would be willing to accept that the generic European DNA is better-turned than that of Africans, but then most of us would easily put the differentia of Africanness forward when speaking about the monopoly of heterosexuality. It is curious how a lot of people do not realise that this is a slightly refracted racial profiling, a sort of inverted racial snobbery. And even if we are to pause for a second over the submission of the scientist in Marr’s documentary, doesn’t it say something about the hollowness of easy pigeonholing that the doubtless intelligent Marr discovers that he shares something with his ‘African brothers?’

Experiments that are being carried out on whether there is anything like ‘gay gene’ or ‘gay brain’ have nothing to do with race. And is there a lot going on in backrooms. Nothing is conclusive yet, but sociobiologists, molecular geneticists, researchers behind the Human Genome Project are busy trying to sort out the gay question, mapping chromosomes, stringing and unstringing DNA sequences, putting forward the Xq28 sequence match, measuring the average size of the INAH3 region of the hypothalamus in homosexual men and women.

Who knows, one day, science – certainly not religion – will finally give our gay brothers and sisters the true proof that they are ‘normal,’ that contrary to what bigots and hypocrites may say, they are human. 

I remember a classmate in secondary school. Even in the early pre-pubescent years, there was something patently feminine about the boy. He loved the company of girls, not as a rooster with a mission, but as a fellow hen. He loved using mascara, lipstick, brightening up his face with rouge. He did not walk with schoolboyish swagger, but he vogued, minced, stilettoing like a girl-model on a catwalk. Well, I am not saying every homosexual is necessarily camp or girlish, but a considerable number do evince certain femininities, which, by the way, may even also be perceived in some of those who wear their heterosexuality on their sleeve.  However, the chances are high that my former classmate may be living a lie today in Nigeria, a closet gay; possibly, he was one of those who marched on the Abuja parliament. Or he might as well be living an undivided (or divided) heterosexual life, parlaying his closeness with girls into a talent for romance which had led to a union with a woman. Who knows?