By Munyaradzi B. Munochiveyi
As in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, until recently, there was no sustained, popular debate about homosexuality in Zimbabwe.
It seems to me that, historically speaking, the issue of homosexuality was/is a non-issue for most Africans because of the general assumption that homosexuality never existed in African societies. Indeed, I only got to know that there was such a thing as homosexuality when I got to college!
And quite immediately, the moment I learned about homosexuality it was cast as a deviant sexuality that was un- or anti-African. And this is the most pervasive attitude that most Africans have towards homosexuality. They see homosexuality not as a bad thing for other foreign or non-African people to embrace, but as culturally or “traditionally” un-African behavior.
I remember that in the 1990s in Zimbabwe, when a small group of gay activists openly protested against laws that criminalized homosexuality, literally the majority of the Zimbabwean populace closed ranks in opposition to homosexuality (in similar fashion to what is happening now in Kenya, Malawi, and other countries).
I regret it now, but when President Robert Mugabe issued his now infamous 1995 aspersion against gays as “worse than pigs and dogs”, I enthusiastically endorsed that sentiment, despite my own general revulsion with Mugabe’s dictatorial tendencies.
The argument then was, and has always been, that homosexuality is un-African and that it never existed in any prominent way in African societies. Most Africans today actually argue that Western nations, whilst they denigrate certain African sexualities like polygamy, are the ones responsible for past and current attempts to foist/impose acceptance of homosexuality on African countries and their peoples, a practice many believe to be “western” or “European”. And I also suspect that the obsession has been mostly with male-to-male sexualities because of the general presumption and fear that homosexuality is an attack on African masculinity.
But of course, as historians of Africa are beginning to learn, we now know that the basic assumptions underlying these African attitudes towards homosexuality are wrong and quite clearly ahistorical. At the very dawn of history in Southern Africa, when there was a transition from the hunting-gathering economy of the Khoisan to the cattle-based economy of Bantu-speaking people that brought more male control over the sexuality of women, dissident sexualities such as hungochani (homosexuality) began to emerge or were already known.
The Shona of Zimbabwe, for example, like other societies, observed a culture of discretion around sexual matters, and actually recognized various forms of queer sexualities. Examples of pre-colonial gender variance and sexual inversion included ritual incest and celibacy, such as the mbonga, a female guardian whose celibacy protected the Shona chief, and the chibanda, a caste of male diviners possessed by female spirits and referred to in early European sources as “passive sodomites”.
Among the Lovedu people, the gender inversion involved women. The “rain queen” kept her virginity but married girls. In the nineteenth century, Ndebele and Ngoni warriors introduced the practice of ritual male-male sexuality as part of war preparations.
The argument here being, therefore, that in pre-modern Zimbabwe, as in other pre-modern African states, Africans did not conform to the idealized heterosexuality that contemporary African leaders like Mugabe prefer to claim as “African tradition” (see especially Marc Epprecht, Hungochani: The History of a Dissident Sexuality in Southern Africa).
Sexuality in Zimbabwe on the eve of European conquest was more diverse than so far recognized. This is a critical point to acknowledge if we are to honestly confront and debunk the ahistorical view of homosexuality as something “foreign” and un-African.
Secondly, it is important to appreciate the real roots of our current homophobia. There is little connection between the revulsion we have as Zimbabweans towards homosexuality with our pre-colonial ancestors who, despite having strict rules that governed all sexualities, did not really see homosexuality as “evil” or deride gays as “worse than dogs and pigs”.
In fact, the roots of our homophobia can actually be traced, paradoxically, to the influence of European colonial rule! If we want to argue that homosexuality is “un-African”, it is better not to use “tradition” as a justification for our homophobia because it was actually European colonists who introduced homophobic sentiments in colonial Zimbabwe.
With regards to new sexualized ideas, for example, we know that it was colonization that brought, among other things, the taboo of nudity, new forms of clothing that eroticized the naked female body, and the fetishization of body odor, which led to the notion of African uncleaniliness. Informed by antiquated Victorian and patriarchal Christian gender norms, colonialism also brought narrow definitions of sex and sexuality, which Christian missionaries and colonial officials foisted down the throats of Africans.
In Rhodesia, for example, homosexuality was actually criminalized through such laws as the Immigration Act of 1914 that prohibited anybody practicing prostitution and homosexuality from entering the colony – a clause kept on the statute books until 1980. Colonialism was single-handedly responsible for the evolution of new sexual ideas among Africans, including homophobia. In fact, the extreme homophobia of Zimbabwean nationalist leaders during the 1960s and beyond had its origins in their colonial Christian schooling and middle-class aspirations of seeking bourgeois respectability.
It is fallacious, therefore, for present-day Zimbabweans to claim that “tradition” dictates that homosexuality is “un-African”. That homophobia is very modern and it has colonial roots. And so it is very wrong, actually, to blame colonialism for introducing homosexuality in Africa because, to the contrary, European colonists were notoriously homophobic.
We learned that homophobia from them and today we espouse it with more zeal than the colonists themselves! I really hope that the majority of the Zimbabwean people can take moments to reflect on this critical issue and begin to embrace tolerance towards queer sexualities and abandon the destructive and vituperative homophobic rhetoric we currently espouse.
As a heterosexual person myself, I see no reason why I must dictate that my sexual orientation is better than other queer sexualities. I did not choose to be heterosexual – I was born heterosexual, just as someone else was born homosexual.