This is a review of an article titled African homophobia has complex roots which appeared in the Guardian newspaper of 21st May 2010 penned by Madeleine Bunting. Before proceeding, let me state at the outset that I have no problem with what people do in the private confines of their bedrooms because this is simply a review of the said article in light of the reality that obtains on the ground in Africa.
In beginning her article, Madeleine rightly points out, that homophobia is rife in Africa. In Uganda, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2009 is still being debated where, if passed, the minimum punishment for homosexuality will be life imprisonment and the death penalty for spreading HIV through aggravated homosexual and pedophile rape. In Rwanda, parliament is debating the revision of the penal code that will criminalize any person who practices, encourages or sensitizes people of the same sex, to sexual relation or any sexual practice. In Burundi the National Assembly officially legislated against homosexuality in April 2009. In Kenya, after the same-sex marriage of two Kenyan men in London, the team writing a new Constitution ruled out enshrining the rights of homosexuals. In the Gambia, the President is on the offensive against homosexuality, describing the practice as an act of ‘indecency’ which has no place in the country. In South Africa, where same sex relations were legalized, LGBT people face daily homophobia, hate crimes, and the fear of violence. In Malawi, two gay men were convicted for getting engaged in preparation for gay marriage. The list goes on and on across the continent. It is a given, as she states, that there has been a lot of vitriol from the west pertaining to the treatment of homosexuals in Africa, citing Malawi’s conviction of a gay couple and Uganda’s proposed new anti-homosexuality bill. However, in the case of Uganda, where I come from, the said bill was tabled privately by a member of parliament and it is still democratically being thrashed out in parliament before it becomes law. The Ugandan government has taken a lot of flak for simply allowing the democratic process to take its own course. The available permutations are that it could be rejected, softened, toughened or accepted as is. The only worry of the complainants should be that the majority of the Ugandans appear to overwhelmingly support the proposed law.
The reasons the writer advances for this Afro-homophobia include religion, history and gender politics of Africa. In my view, she puts less emphasis on an aspect which I consider to be the core of this state of affairs which is the cultural or anthropological perspective which I consider the real root cause of the homophobia. She does touch on it slightly when she says “a phenomenon of rapid and chaotic African urbanisation, a response to tumultuous social and economic change in which traditions of family and village life are being strained to breaking point.” She also states that “in most parts of Africa, fertility is intimately bound up with your identity as a woman or man.” To prove to the society that they are ‘Total Men’, the males must exhibit their virility by fathering of children. The ‘Total Man’ concept is also linked to the age old practice of polygamy because the polygamist was portrayed as more than a man.
Madeleine is also spot-on in observing that, to most Africans, the subject of homosexuality has become toxic because they think it is wrong and un-African. I would add that this has always been so and equally agree that this is a subject on which Africans from a range of backgrounds and countries concur on. But her observation that the more articulate opponents of homosexuality are often the most educated, those most exposed to western culture is subject to debate. The most virulent opponents of homosexuality are those who reside in the rural areas, the uneducated and those with no access to platforms to articulate their dislike for homosexuality. It is in rural areas that undiluted mores, customs and ways of life reside. It, therefore, follows, although not fully documented, that the uneducated people residing in villages are more opposed to homosexuality although they lack a platform to say so. From my long observation, homosexuality is discussed in whispers and anyone suspected to engage in it is ridiculed and ostracized with the extreme being lynching. However, this is not to say there is no homosexuality in Africa. The practice has existed on the continent for eons but is frowned upon by the society. One of the most prominent examples of this, as Butler & Burns, (2003: 257), Briggs, (2007: 177) and many others write, was Kabaka (King) Mwanga who ruled Buganda in the late 1800s and was a homosexual and paedophile. He ruled for no more than six years and died at the tender age of 35.
The educated professionals she talks about were nurtured through the strict observance the said cultural mores and customs. Education and urbanization only made them more open minded and slightly tolerant in comparison to their rural kindred but the core of their African upbringing remains embedded within them. The real issues at the center of this debate are culture, the family and marriage institutions. To paraphrase Malinowski  and Ayisi (1972: 2) culture includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, customs, and habits acquired by man as a member of society and individuals are expected to behave in prescribed ways to live peacefully in society. The prescribed behaviour is acquired through socialization, education and experience. Ayisi observed that in Ghana, like elsewhere in Africa, when a man behaves in a feminine way, they are considered to be impotent. In some parts of Africa, homosexuals are considered to be cursed or bewitched people. John Beattie (2004: 117) argued that in small scale pre-industrial societies, the group aspect of social organization is very important. This means that individuals have to toe the line of unwritten ways of expected behavior lest they be ostracized. The expectations in industrialized countries are different due to lack of strong kinship relationships and too much individualism. This is the core of why Madeleine was left in wonderment and could not digest the homophobia in Africa. Until she understands the ‘invisible’ strength of culture, kinship relationships and the Africans’ desire to remain linked to them and through them to their ancestors, she will remain in puzzlement. That, I hope, suffices for the anthropological or sociological perspective.
Next, I dig into the reasons she highlights as being responsible for the homophobia. In discussing religion, the author refers to the viral near-obscene YouTube video  showing Pastor Martin Sempa graphically haranguing an audience about how bad homosexuality is. Her assertion that Pastor Sempa is simply stewarding homophobia and is not responsible for creating the antipathy also holds water. After all, he did have a very attentive audience in the video. However, I am not so sure if this is a recruiting tool to increase church membership as she puts it. Africans are generally very religious people compared to their western counterparts. The Christians among them are fond of referring to the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah to justify their homophobia.
Madeleine goes on to discuss the historical complexity of Africa’s relationship with the west alluding to slavery, colonization and exploitation. This, however, in my view, has no direct bearing to the homophobia. It appears she is trying to suggest that Africans are being homophobic simply to show their resentment for the outrageous way the west treated them in the past centuries. Is she trying to validate the thinking that homosexuality is being imposed on Africa by the west? President Museveni of Uganda said that there were a few homosexuals traditionally who were not persecuted and not encouraged either because that is not how God arranged things to be.  African politicians do prove her right in her statement that “Anything that smacks of westerners telling Africans what to do prompts instant bridling; it evokes a bitter history of colonialisation and exploitation, which still reaps a terrible legacy of unstable states.” She further refers to the emasculation of African men through defeat and slaughter during slave trade and colonial eras which she says created a crisis of masculinity and “..underlies much of the hysterical rhetoric around homosexuality.” This reasoning appears to be obscurantist because I do not believe this has anything to do with homophobia. The same goes for her digression to HIV and the wearing of condoms.
Like Madeleine gleaned from a conversation with friends in Africa, it appears that it will take a long time for homosexuality to be accepted on the continent. Her conclusion referring to the pursuit of gay and lesbian rights in Africa as ‘a toxic brew’ and ‘a long, thankless slog and much personal danger’ for activists, reflects the true picture on the ground. All in all, she is not wrong at all.
Ayisi, E. (1972). An introduction to the study of African culture. Narobi: East African Educational Publishers Ltd.
Beattie, J. (2004). Other Cultures: Aims, Methods and Achievements in Social Anthropology . London: Routledge.
Briggs, P. (2007). Uganda, 5th: The Bradt Travel Guide. London: Brandt Travel Guide Ltd.
Bunting, M. (2010). African homophobia has complex roots. The Guardian .
Butler, A., & Burns, P. (2003). Butler’s lives of the saints. Collegeville: Liturgical Press.
Firth, R. (1957). Man and Culture: An Evaluation of the Work of Bronislaw Malinowski. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Gyezaho, E. (2009). Museveni Warns Against Homosexuality. The Monitor Newspaper , 1.
 Malinowski in Firth. R (ed) (1957, p16)
 The Monitor News | November 16, 2009