( 7 ) Central and West Africa
The many different tribal cultures of sub-Saharan Africa have accommodated homosexuality and transgender behavior in a variety of ways since time immemorial. Although no indigenous system of writing existed in this region prior to the nineteenth century, early European explorers and colonists were quick to record the numerous examples of gender diversity they observed among African natives.
The ancient city of Timbuktu in what is now Mali was once one of the continent’s most prosperous and affluent trading centers. Prior to widespread maritime shipping, West Africa’s riches were sent up the Niger River to Timbuktu where Berber and Arab traders carried the merchandise across the Sahara Desert to ports along the Mediterranean. Among the precious cargo were African slaves, the most popular of which were women and effeminate boys. The boy slaves were often castrated by the Arabs, sold as domestic servants or homosexual concubines, and thus distributed throughout the ancient world. In the sixteenth century, Portugal and Spain circumvented the Saharan trading routes by establishing shipping ports along Africa’s West Coast. The slave trade was especially lucrative and African Negros were in high demand with White and Hispanic landholders in the New World. One of the earliest accounts of homosexuality in sub-Saharan Africa comes from Denunciations of Bahia (1591-1593), a series of court records kept during the Portuguese Inquisitions of Brazil. The account was used to convict a Congolese slave, Francisco Manicongo, of sodomy and reads as follows: “In Angola and the Congo…it is customary among the pagan negros to wear a loincloth with the ends in front which leaves an opening in the rear…this custom being adopted by the sodomitic negros who serve as passive women in the abominable sin. These passives are called jimbandaa in the language of Angola and the Congo, which means passive sodomite. The accuser claimed to have seen Francisco Manicongo ‘wearing a loincloth such as passive sodomites wear in his land of the Congo and immediately rebuked him.’”
From the seventeenth century forward, a growing number of reports from European colonialists documented sodomy and crossdressing among African natives. In 1687, Italian missionary Giovanni Cavazzi wrote a slanderous account of an unusual but locally venerated priest of the Nquiti (Kongo) Kingdom known as Ganga-Ya-Chibado. The Kongo priest wore women’s clothing and was referred to as “Grandmother.” French clergyman Jean-Baptiste Labat, in his early eighteenth-century observations of African slaves living in the Caribbean, similarly mentioned funeral rites performed by a Kongo priest that involved homosexual acts.
In the language of the Upper Congo, effeminate men are called uzeze while among the Mbala they are known as kitesha. A kitesha lives and dresses differently from the other men—he walks and acts like a woman, wears women’s clothing (although not their kerchiefs) and is considered lucky. There are also kitesha women that are similarly androgynous by nature. In 1938, Belgian missionary Gustave Hulstaert observed lesbian relationships among the Nkundo wives of Congolese polygamists. Within the Mbo tribes of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), homosexual and transgender men are called mangaiko or akengike and play leading roles in the tribe’s initiation dance, wearing both male and female attire. American anthropologist Joseph Towles witnessed the ceremony in the late twentieth century and was told that a crossdressing mangaiko he saw leading the dance “had no wife and disregarded all manly behavior.” In remote regions of the Central Congo, British anthropologist John Weeks observed homosexuality among the Bangala and Loanga tribes in 1909 and heard reports of homosexuality among the Hutu and Tutsi tribes in what is now Rwanda. Five years earlier, Dutch missionary Jan Van der Burgt reported crossdressing “hermaphrodite” priests in Burundi known as ikihindu and ikimaze. In the Urundi dialect of Central Africa, no less than five words are used to describe the various types of homosexual and transgender tribesmen found in the Rwanda-Burundi region, west of Lake Victoria.
The royal kings of early Uganda are well known for their harems containing both women and men. Prior to the British takeover in 1886, King Mwanga’s persecution of Christian pages was said to be largely motivated by their rejection of his amorous advances. The king found it increasingly difficult to staff his harem of pageboys and became enraged when his favorite, Mwafu, also refused him. In 1957, crossdressing transgenders were reported as common in Uganda’s Iteso and Gisu tribes, and among the Nyoro, an initiation ceremony still practiced today requires new initiates to demonstrate spirit possession by “transforming” themselves into women. In the Bantu languages of Central Africa, lesbians are called misago (“to grind”), which describes their sexual acts. The misago women of Uganda resist marriage to men, are interested in careers and engage in loving affairs between themselves.
Among the Bantu-speaking tribes north of the Congo River in what is now Gabon and Cameroon, homosexual intercourse was considered bian nku’ma or “a medicine for wealth,” according to German ethnographer Gunther Tessman in 1904. The natives believed that homosexual behavior could bestow the power of riches, especially upon the dominant male. On a later expedition in 1921, Tessman described homosexuality among adolescent boys in Bafia of central Cameroon. Gustave Hulstaert, on his own travels through the region, similarly reported young boys playing a game called gembankango in which they chased each other through the trees like monkeys, finishing in “reprehensible scenes.”
Nigeria and many other countries in West Africa are well known for their indigenous tribal religions such as Voudon, Sango and Bori. These religious cults worship various nature spirits and perform possession ceremonies officiated by women and homosexual men. Among the Hausa tribes of Nigeria, homosexual transvestites are commonly known as ‘dan daudu or “son of Daudu” (a popular, mischievous Bori spirit they are believed to represent) while masculine-type homosexuals are referred to as k’wazo. A ‘dan daudu acts as an intermediate between women and men, is friendly with the presiding priestess and often engages in prostitution. Some are homosexually married and consider it a traditional practice. The Bori cult of Nigeria was spread to other parts of Africa such as Kenya, Tunisia, Egypt, and even as far as Syria and Arabia.
Sango traditions among the Yoruba tribes of Nigeria also involve spirit possession ceremonies led by female priestesses and crossdressing priests. Practitioners attribute magical properties to homosexuality and believe that a ‘dan daudu can impart good luck into a dominant male partner. They also believe that homosexuality causes impotence in normal or bisexual men. Both the Sango and Voudon traditions were spread to the Americas via the slave trade and combined with various aspects of Catholicism.
Female homosexuality was reported in Nigeria among the Hausa, Nupe and Efik-Ibibio tribes. One Efik-Ibibio woman who grew up during the nineteenth century recalled how she had a deep, marital relationship with another female. Both of their husbands knew about the relationship and the village affectionately nicknamed them “twin sisters.”
On his journey through Dahomey (Benin) in the late 1780s, Robert Norris, an English slave trader, reported seeing “eunuchs” known as lagredis that acted as wives to the tribal kings. On his own expedition into the region in 1864, Captain Sir Richard F. Burton stated: “It is difficult to obtain information in Dahomey concerning eunuchs, who are special slaves of the king, and bear the dignified title of royal wives.” In 1938, American anthropologist Melville Herskovitz reported homosexuality among the Fon tribes of Dahomey. The Fon told him that homosexual behavior was common among tribal adolescents but rare for adults, and some claimed that homosexuality was even more prevalent between women.
Although Burton was unable to find eunuchs in Dahomey, he did manage to locate the mysterious, so-called Amazon women of the Fon and Ashanti tribes. In 1864, Burton documented over two thousand masculine tribeswomen serving as warriors and reported how two-thirds of them were maidens with passions and love between each other. He also mentioned “a corps of prostitutes” kept for the Amazons’ use. Several years earlier, in 1850, English naval officer Frederick Forbes wrote down his own observations: “The Amazons are not supposed to marry, and, by their own statement, they have changed their sex. ‘We are men,’ they say, ‘not women.’ All dress alike, diet alike, and male and female emulate each other: what the males do, the Amazons will endeavour to surpass.” One Amazon chief asserted her gender transformation as follows: “As the blacksmith takes an iron bar and by fire changes its fashion, so we have changed our nature. We are no longer women, we are men.” The Amazon she-warriors assured victory to an entire line of Dahomey kings for nearly three centuries from the 1600s onward. At their peak in the early nineteenth century, Amazon women numbered as high as six thousand and comprised nearly a third of the Dahomey army.
In 1861, Englishman Robert Hutchinson reported male slaves among the Ashanti in Ghana that were treated as lovers and wore pearl necklaces with gold pendants. The homosexual slaves were killed when their masters died. Ethnologist Eva Meyerowitz, stationed in Ghana during the 1920s-1940s, observed that among the Ashanti and Akan, “men who dressed as women and engaged in homosexual relations with other men were not stigmatized, but accepted.” She added that the situation might have changed later on as a result of missionary activity. Transgender Ghanaians are sometimes referred to as kojobesia (“man-woman”) and among the Fanti of Ghana, James Christensen recounted the tribe’s belief, in 1954, that people with heavy souls desired women while those with light souls desired men. In 1971, Italian anthropologist Italo Signorini studied the agyale or friendship marriages among the Nzema tribes of southwestern Ghana. In this tradition men married younger boys, shared a bed with them, and observed all the social equivalents of a normal marriage—a bride price was paid, a wedding ceremony held and divorce required if the couple parted. Age differences were typical and both men appeared conventionally masculine. Signorini noted that most of the men insisted their marriages were nonsexual, but he added that homosexuality in Ghana had become highly stigmatized in recent years. Agyale marriages also occurred between women although more rarely. Lesbian relations were observed among the young, unmarried Akan tribeswomen and sometimes continued after their marriage to men.
In Burkina Faso of the Upper Volta River, Frenchman Louis Tauxier reported sorone within the Mossi tribes during an expedition in 1912. The sorone were beautiful boys, aged seven to fifteen, that dressed like women and served as pages and sexual partners to the village chiefs. They were often entrusted with state secrets and forbidden to be sexually intimate with women. Among the Dagara tribes of southern Burkina Faso, homosexual and transgender people served as shamans and were considered special gatekeepers who straddled both worlds in order to help sustain the universe.
In 1886, German explorer Friedrich von Hellwald noted a group of effeminate natives within the Liberian Kru tribes whose domestic services to the other men included sodomy. Wilhelm Hammer also reported homosexual relations among Kru youths in 1909 and pointed out they were not at all rare. American anthropologist Wilfrid Hambly, in 1937, wrote down his own observations of homosexual behavior in the region while traveling through both Liberia and Sierra Leone.
In Senegal (then Saint Louis), French ethnographer A. Corre, in 1894, encountered dark-skinned tribesmen of feminine dress and demeanor, who, he was told, made their living from prostitution. In Boke (Guinea) he saw a native prince’s dancer miming his own sexually receptive role in a tribal ceremony. In 1935, English anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer reported that among the Wolof tribes of Senegal, transvestite men were common sights and effeminate in their mannerisms, dress, hairdos and makeup. Known as gordigen (man-woman), they did not suffer in any way socially although the Muslims refused them burial. English historian Michael Crowder, while stationed in West Africa during the 1950s, also confirmed that the gordigen were largely tolerated among the Wolof tribes.
In the nineteenth century, European powers divided the land and resources of Africa among themselves. In West Africa, Portugal controlled Port Guinea (now Guinea-Bissau) in the north and Portuguese West Africa (the southern Congo and Angola) in the south. Spain controlled the Western Sahara, Canary Islands and Equatorial Guinea while France held the largest amount of territory that included the northern French Congo, Gabon, Chad, Dahomey, the Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger and Senegal. The Belgians held the interior Congo while the Germans claimed Liberia, Togo and Cameroon. Great Britain controlled the highly lucrative and densely populated regions of Nigeria, Uganda, Gambia, Sierra Leone and Ghana (the Gold Coast). All of these countries achieved their independence from European colonialism in the second half of the twentieth century.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Central and West Africa was mixed in terms of its distribution of Christian, Islamic and indigenous tribal beliefs. Christianity was practiced more in the south, Islam in the north, and indigenous tribal religions maintained strongholds throughout. A majority of Central and West African nations had no sodomy laws including Burkina Faso, Burundi, Chad, Central African Republic, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Republic of the Congo and Rwanda. Several nations did have laws against homosexuality and punished it with three years of prison (Guinea, Togo), five years (Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Senegal) or fourteen (Gambia). Benin, Equatorial Guinea and Sierra Leone offered nonspecific penalties while the most draconian punishments were meted out in predominantly Christian Uganda, which prescribed life imprisonment, and Islamic Mauritania, which prescribed the death penalty. Nigeria’s strict anti-sodomy laws punished homosexuality with fourteen years of prison in the Christian south and a death penalty in the Islamic north. Despite the laws, homosexual subcultures continued throughout the region and small, underground gay communities and organizations persisted in cities such as Lagos, Accra and Dakar.
[Continued in Part 8...]