( 8 ) South and East Africa
The indigenous cultures of South and East Africa have a long history of homosexuality, transgender behavior, and even same-sex marriage between both men and women. In early seventeenth-century Luanda (the capital of Portuguese Angola), Catholic priests Gaspar Azevereduc and Antonius Sequerius documented third-gender natives known as chibados. The chibados dressed like women, spoke effeminately and married other men “to unite in wrongful lust with them.” More shocking to the priests was the fact that such marriages were honored and even prized among the tribesmen. In a similar record, Portuguese Jesuit Joao dos Santos wrote in 1625 that the chibados of southwestern Africa were “attyred like women, and behave themselves womanly, ashamed to be called men; are also married to men, and esteeme that unnaturale damnation an honor.” In his writings about seventeenth-century Angola, historian Antonio Cardonega mentioned that sodomy was “rampant among the people of Angola. They pursue their impudent and filthy practices dressed as women.” He also stated that the sodomites often served as powerful shamans, were highly esteemed among most Angolan tribes and commonly called quimbanda.
In the Kalahari Desert of what is now Botswana, German ethnologist Peter Kolb reported in 1719 that certain men among the Khoi-Khoin tribes were sexually receptive to other males and known as koetsire. In 1801, German traveler Christian Frederick Damberger reported being propositioned and sexually assaulted by the son-in-law of a Muhotian king. After listening to Damberger’s complaint, the ruler laughed and saw nothing uncommon about the incident. In 1857, Scottish explorer David Livingstone noticed crossdressing shamans among the Ambo tribes of South-West Africa and in 1906, missionary Johann Irle condemned the homosexual behavior he witnessed among the Herero tribes. When Irle told the natives such behavior was declared unnatural in the Bible, the Herero replied that since childhood they knew it as nothing but natural.
In the 1920s, anthropologist Kurt Falk, a longtime resident of German South-West Africa (now Namibia), reported homosexuality as well as various types of same-sex marriage among the Wawihe, Ovambo, Ovashimba, Ondonga, Herero, Naman (Hottentots) and Klippkaffir (Nguni or Xhosa). Natives taking the passive role in homosexual relationships were known as eshengi or kimbanda and often served as shamans. The Naman formed friendship marriages called soregus, which often involved homosexual relations, and the Herero formed distinct erotic friendships, both male and female, which were called oupanga. In the 1970s, Portuguese ethnographer Carlos Estermann observed a large number of the highest order of Ambo that dressed like women, did women’s work, and married other men. Such men were called esenge and the Ambo considered them possessed by female spirits, which slowly took away their manhood.
The earliest recordings of homosexuality in Africa come to us from the ancient San rock paintings of Zimbabwe. Dated back many thousands of years, some of the images depict “egregious sexual practices” such as male-to-male copulation. In what is now southwestern Zimbabwe, Livingstone noticed “immorality” among the younger natives and asserted, in 1865, that the elderly chief’s polygamous monopolization of women was responsible for the sin. Among the Shona tribes of Zimbabwe, no words exist for genital or orgasm but there is a word for homosexual—ngochane. In northwestern Zambia, Victor Turner reported boy circumcision ceremonies in which the young initiates mimed oral copulation with older males, and in 1920, Edwin Smith and Andrew Dale documented an Ila tribesman who crossdressed, worked and slept with the women but did not have sexual relations with them. The Ila tribes called such men mwaami or “prophet.”
In the nineteenth century, Great Britain controlled the interior regions of southern Africa and granted exclusive mining rights to British magnate Cecil Rhodes in the 1880s. The region was subsequently divided into Southern and Northern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia), and the British South Africa Company was established. The lucrative mining industry attracted migrant workers from all over southern Africa and crowded, all-male camps fostered an increase in homosexual relationships that were modified according to various tribal customs. The British noticed the homosexual behavior at the camps and from 1892 to 1923 Southern Rhodesia tried over 250 sodomy cases. During the trials, the most common defense put forward was that sodomy had been a longstanding “custom” among African natives. Black Rhodesians were typically punished with less than a year in prison for the crime while Whites often received longer sentences. By the 1920s, however, court magistrates began dismissing all sodomy cases deemed consensual.
In southeastern Africa, Bori cults—along with their crossdressing shamans and possession rituals—are still quite common among the Zulu. Shamans are known as inkosi ygbatfazi (“chief of the women”) while ordinary transgenders are called skesana and their masculine partners, iqgenge. Zulu warriors traditionally asserted their manhood by substituting boys for women and in the 1890s, Zulu chief Nongoloza Mathebula ordered his bandit-warriors to abstain from women and take on boy-wives instead. After his capture, Nongoloza insisted that the practice had been a longstanding custom among South Africans. Indeed, homosexual marriage was documented among the Zulu, Tsonga and Mpondo migrant workers of South Africa at least since the early nineteenth century. Boy-wives were known by various names such as inkotshane (Zulu), nkhonsthana (Tsonga), tinkonkana (Mpondo), etc. and were procured by paying a bride price to the boy’s older brother. Wedding ceremonies involved a traditional dance in which the male brides crossdressed and wore false breasts. The celebrations lasted an entire weekend with some of the boys dressed in traditional tribal garb and others in Western-style white gowns. After the weddings, the boy-wives would serve their new husbands in domestic chores, just like ordinary wives, and the male partners in turn would provide them with presents, clothes, blankets and so on. Fidelity was expected and the young inkotshane were not allowed to grow beards. In many cases, the boy-wives were known to outgrow such marital arrangements and either move on to women or marry their own inkotshane. Homosexual marriage peaked among the Zulu during the 1950s, when weddings were held every month, but the tradition had disappeared by the end of the twentieth century.
In the Soweto townships of South Africa, people commonly use the Sesotho term, sitabane, to address homosexuals, effeminates, and men without girlfriends. The word actually refers to someone with both male and female genitals but is nonetheless applied to gay or transgender men. Family members treat their sitabane relatives as women and believe, in one sense, that they are actually female. Another word used for effeminate men throughout South Africa is moffie. The term is derogatory and taken from the English word, hermaphrodite.
The continent of Africa has a long history of bold-spirited matriarchs, priestesses and queens—particularly in the south. In the seventeenth century, Dongo queen Anna Nzinga dressed as a man and maintained more than fifty crossdressing chibados in Angola. She insisted that both she and the crossdressing couriers were all men and boldly led her people to victory in war against the Portuguese. In Lesotho, Queen Mujaji I, a prestigious Lovedu queen of the nineteenth century, kept a large harem of wives and legitimized the practice for many neighboring tribes such as the Khaha, Mamaila, Letswalo and Mahlo. In many African cultures, queens could legally assume the royal throne and marry their co-wives after their husbands died. Indeed, the practice of female marriage was previously common throughout Africa, even among non-royals, and has been documented in over thirty populations including the Lovedu, Zulu and Sotho of South Africa; the Kikuyu, Nuer and Nandi of East Africa, and the Fon, Yoruba and Ibo of West Africa. Female husbands were typically older, childless, strong in demeanor, and sufficiently endowed in terms of cattle and wealth. They purchased their wives as close companions and became the legal father to any offspring. They often performed men’s tasks and dressed partially in male clothing, but were not considered fully male or female. The wives, for their part, typically disliked men and appreciated the greater freedom and companionship they achieved through their female husbands. Most of the couples denied any sexual dimension to their relationship, considering it an entirely private matter. In Lesotho, similar but less formal “friendship marriages” between women with male husbands are still quite common today. The unions are christened with a family celebration and each partner is called motsoalle or “special friend.”
In the nineteenth century, Portugal controlled Angola in the southwest and what is now Mozambique and southern Tanzania in the southeast (Portuguese East Africa). The French controlled the island of Madagascar while the Germans held what is now Namibia and aligned themselves with the sovereign Transvaal and Orange Free State of the Boers (ethnic Dutch). The British governed the southern tip of Africa along with the central territories now known as Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, many South Africans considered homosexuality a foreign import and sodomy was illegal in nearly every nation. Zambia prescribed a punishment of up to fourteen years in prison, Zimbabwe with ten years, and Botswana, seven. Mozambique punished homosexuality with three years of imprisonment while Angola, Malawi, Namibia and Swaziland were nonspecific in their penalties. Only Lesotho, Madagascar and South Africa had no sodomy laws. South Africa in particular stood out as a shining example of homosexual and transgender acceptance, mostly due to its recent experience with apartheid and racial oppression. In 1996, the country became the first in Africa to guarantee in its Constitution equal rights and protections on the basis of sexual orientation. This led to the abolition of all sodomy laws two years later. In 2006, South Africa became the first country in Africa to legalize same-sex marriage (the fifth worldwide) and modern gay communities thrived in large cities such as Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban.
East Africa was strongly influenced by Islam for many centuries prior to the arrival of European colonists, but homosexuality and other forms of gender diversity were nonetheless observed among most indigenous tribes in the region. In the nineteenth century, Europeans reported homosexual and transgender behavior on Africa’s East Coast from Tanzania in the south to Nubia (the Sudan) in the north. Bori cults imported from West Africa were also common in the region along with their spirit possession rituals, head priestesses and crossdressing priests.
Arabs first settled in the Tanzanian islands of Zanzibar and Pemba in the early twelfth century A.D., bringing along with them traditional third-gender types such as the xanith. In 1860, an American consular officer stationed in Zanzibar reported that “numbers of sodomites have come from Muscat (Oman), and these degraded wretches openly walk about dressed in female attire, with veils on their faces.” In 1899, German ethnologist Michael Haberlandt studied “sexual contrariness” among Zanzibar natives. He reported homosexual men that he believed were born with “contrary” desires and which the natives described as amri ya muungu or “the will of God.” In Zanzibar, homosexuals are referred to as mke-si-mume (woman, not man) and also mzebe or hanisi (impotent). Haberlandt noticed their presence at festivals and dances wherein some dressed up as women and others as men, often with special headdresses. Most earned their livings through prostitution. Lesbians were also reported in Zanzibar that dressed as men, undertook masculine endeavors, and utilized dildos to satisfy one another. On mainland Tanzania in the 1930s, British researcher Monica Wilson reported homosexuality among young Nyakyusa males during her fieldwork near Lake Nyasa. She was told that lesbian practices existed as well but saw no direct evidence of it. Among the Kaguru women of central Tanzania, Thomas Beidelman mentioned female initiation ceremonies wherein older women demonstrated sexual acts before young initiates.
In the 1920s, American anthropologist Felix Bryk noted homosexual bachelors among the Bagishu and Maragoli tribes of Tanzania and western Kenya. He claimed that such “hermaphrodites” were numerous and called inzili by the Bagishu and kiziri among the Maragoli. In 1909, British anthropologist Sir Claud Hollis observed Nandi circumcision ceremonies in Kenya wherein the boys wore female clothes for eight weeks prior to the ritual. A similar crossdressing rite was found within Maasai initiation ceremonies. The Meru tribes of Kenya have a religious leadership role known as mugawe, which involves priests wearing female clothing and hairstyles. In 1973, British ethnologist Rodney Needham noted that the mugawe were often homosexual and sometimes married to other men. Traditional Bori practices were also observed among the Mabasha tribes of Kenya.
In 1987, anthropologist Gill Shepherd reported that homosexuality was relatively common in Kenya, even among Muslims (both male and female). Most Kenyans initially discourage transgender behavior among their children but gradually come to accept it as an inherent part of the child’s spirit (roho) or nature (umbo). Shepherd observed third-gender men, known in Swahili as shoga, who served as passive male prostitutes and wore female clothing, makeup, and flowers at social events such as weddings, where they typically mingled with the “other” women. At more serious events such as funerals and prayer meetings, the shoga would stay with the men and wear men’s attire. Other Swahili terms for homosexual men include basha (dominant male), hanithi (young male partner) and mumemke (man-woman). Lesbians are known as msagaji or msago (“grinders”). They appear as ordinary women in public but are bold with men and frequently go out of the house alone. Shepherd noted that dominant women in Kenyan lesbian relationships are typically older and wealthier.
The Somali tribes recognized two categories of men—waranleh (warriors) and waddado (men of God). The latter were considered physically weak but mystically powerful. Among the Semitic Harari people of Ethiopia, German researchers such as Friedrich J. Bieber encountered “Uranism” (a nineteenth-century term for homosexuality and transgender identity) in the early twentieth century. Bieber noted, “Sodomy is not foreign to the Harari,” and also found it among the Galla and Somali “albeit not as commonly.”
The Konso of southern Ethiopia have no less than four words for effeminate men, one of which is sagoda and refers to men who never marry, are weak, or who wear skirts. In the mid-1960s, Canadian anthropologist Christopher Hallpike observed one Ethiopian Konso that lived by curing skins (a female occupation) and liked to play the passive role in homosexual relations. In 1957, American anthropologist Simon Messing found male transvestites among the Amhara tribes that were known as wandarwarad (male-female). They lived alone and were considered like brothers to the tribeswomen. The husbands of the women were not at all jealous of the close friendship between their wives and the wandarwarad. Messing reported that the wandarwarad were unusually sensitive and intense in their personal likings. He also found “mannish women” among the Amhara known as wandawande.
In 1969, Frederic Gamst reported homosexual relations among the shepherd boys of Kemant tribes in central Ethiopia and in 1975, Donald Donham observed a class of effeminate men among the Maale of southern Ethiopia known as ashtime. The ashtime “dressed like women, performed female tasks, cared for their own houses, and apparently had sexual relations with men.” Also called wobo or “crooked,” one ashtime complained to Donham of being “neither man nor woman.” Ashtime men were traditionally gathered and protected by the Maale kings. On the night preceding any royal ritual, kings were forbidden to have sexual relations with their wives but could share their beds with the ashtime. In neighboring Eritrea, Paolo Ambrogetti of Italy reported homosexual behavior between youths and older men at the turn of the twentieth century that often involved payment. The youth’s fathers didn’t seem to mind and most of the boys turned to women once they grew older.
In the Sudan, traditional Zande culture is well known for its homosexual marriages, even into the 1970s, as reported by British anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard in 1971. Some Zande princes preferred men over women and could purchase a desired boy for the price of one spearhead. They would then become husbands to the young man, provide him with beautiful ornaments and address him as badiare (beloved). The boy-wife in turn would fetch water, firewood, and carry the prince’s shield. Zande princes often took their boy-wives to war but kept them behind at camp. They were strictly off limits to the other soldiers and if any man had relations with them he could be sued for adultery. If a prince died in battle, the boy-wife would be killed since he had eaten the prince’s “oil.” Unmarried boys, known as ndongo-techi-la, also accompanied the Zande men to battle and served as women to the common soldiers. By the end of the twentieth century, the Zande tradition of homosexual marriage had largely disappeared from the Sudan.
In 1947, British anthropologist Siegfried Nadel reported masculine-type homosexuals among the Heiban tribes of Sudan and transgender types among the Otoro, Moro, Nyima and Tira. Korongo tribes called effeminate men londo whereas the Mesakin referred to them as tubele. Homosexual marriage was observed in both tribes and a man could marry a younger boy for the bride price of one goat. In 1963, Dr. Jean Buxton complained about the great amount of homosexual behavior he found among the Mandari tribes, and in 1977, Pamela Constantinides described homosexual and effeminate male priests in a healing cult known as Zaar. The Zaar cult was similar to the Bori and served as a refuge for women and effeminate men in conservative, Muslim-dominated Sudan. Indeed, Islamic influence in East Africa caused many native tribes to deny their traditional acceptance of homosexuality, thus relinquishing it to the underground. In his 1972 study of the Nuer tribes of Sudan, for instance, Brian MacDermott was repeatedly told that no homosexuality existed; nevertheless, he inevitably spotted it from time to time and in one case found a tribesman who identified and lived as a woman. The third-gender native was discreetly accepted by the Nuer as female and allowed to marry a man. Lesbianism was also practiced in polygamous Zande households, as reported by British anthropologists Charles and Brenda Seligman in 1930. Marital friendships between females were known as bagburu and often involved intimate sexual relations. The practice is viewed more suspiciously nowadays and considered by some Zande husbands as a type of witchcraft.
In the nineteenth century, Germany controlled Tanzania and most of Ethiopia while the Italians governed Eritrea and much of Somalia. The French ruled Djibouti while the British claimed Kenya, the Sudan, northern Somalia and Zanzibar. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, homosexual and transgender behavior was illegal in all East African nations with draconian penalties meted out in many. This was mainly due to the strong Islamic fundamentalism found in the region. Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia prescribed less than ten years of imprisonment for sodomy while Djibouti was nonspecific. Kenya and Tanzania prescribed fourteen years; Zanzibar, twenty-five, and Sudan was the most draconian, punishing homosexuality with either one hundred lashes or the death penalty. Despite the harsh laws, homosexual subcultures and traditions persisted, albeit underground, in most rural areas and large cities of East Africa such as Nairobi, Mombasa, Addis Ababa and Khartoum.
[Continued in Part 9...]