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Un-African | The World Weekly

Bisi Alimi was 29-years-old when he came out. An aspiring actor ready to make waves in Nigeria’s entertainment industry, Mr. Alimi revealed his sexuality on television in 2004 to a nation in which LGBT rights are non-existent and violence against homosexuals is commonplace.

Now a prominent LGBT rights activist, Mr. Alimi tells The World Weekly his decision to come out was not a selfless act, but rather a compulsion to free himself from the torment of living a lie. “I was coming out to save myself,” he says. The discrimination and hostility he faced reflects that of many across what may be the world’s most homophobic continent.

Homosexuality as un-African

“People say I've been bewitched by the Western world,” Ifeanyi Orazulike tells Al Jazeera. What he is referring to is the notion that homosexuality is ‘un-African’, that same-sex practices originated in the West and were imported during the colonial era.

Recent years have seen a wave of discriminatory laws against homosexuals, promulgated by leaders who use the ‘un-African’ argument to dismiss and condemn homosexuality. Often, critics argue, such measures have been used to bolster leaders’ political standing and divert attention from pressing issues such as corruption and unemployment.

Uganda and Nigeria possess some of the harshest laws against homosexuality on the continent. Ugandan President Kaguta Yoweri Museveni attempted to make them more stringent still in 2013, seeking to impose life sentences on anyone found guilty of same-sex relations, but this was rejected in court as unconstitutional. In May 2014, a Sexual Minorities Uganda survey revealed a dramatic increase in violence against homosexuals since the law was passed the previous December, reporting 162 incidents in comparison with eight in the rest of 2013 and 19 in the whole of 2012. Nigerian secular law, meanwhile, stipulates that those found guilty of same-sex sexual activity can receive 14 years in prison. For those to whom shariah law applies in the north, the maximum penalty for such activity is death by stoning. And in Gambia, where homosexual relations are also illegal, President Yahya Jammeh went so far as to say he would “slit the throats” of anyone engaging in same-sex activities.

Such discriminatory legislation has drawn the ire of the international community, with the EU and the US both threatening to cut aid to several African nations unless greater steps are taken to improve gay rights. “If you look at the history of countries around the world, when you start treating people differently, not because of any harm they’re doing anybody but because they’re different, that’s the path whereby freedoms begin to erode,” US President Barack Obama said on a visit to Nairobi in 2015.

In response to President Obama’s remarks, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta spoke of the cultural divide between the West and Africa. “There are some things that we must admit we don’t share. Our culture, our societies don’t accept. So it’s very difficult for us to be able to impose that which they themselves do not accept.”

Many Africans support anti-gay laws, proclaiming that homosexuality is a sin against nature. In an interview with the Guardian, Simon Lokodo, Ugandan state minister of ethics and integrity, justifies this way of thinking by saying homosexuality is solely a choice. "It is a social style of life that is acquired," he said.

"They chose to be homosexual and are trying to recruit others,” he added. “The commercialisation of homosexuality is unacceptable. If they were doing it in their own rooms we wouldn't mind, but when they go for children, that's not fair. They are beasts of the forest."

For us, heterosexuality is normal. Homosexuality is a deviation. Then western diplomats come up to me and say: as long as you do not take our way of thinking, you are the evil. My answer is: go to hell. Leave us with our option.” - President Museveni, speaking to Der Spiegel

A Western import

The relative openness of modern western society to same-sex practices and LGBT rights might, prima facie, lend itself to the myth held by many Africans that homosexuality was something imported to the continent, but in actual fact what the West and foreign religions brought with them was homophobia.

The rejection of homosexuality in Africa has at its roots social norms that have been instilled in African societies as a result of colonisation. The idea that homosexuality is something alien, perverse and punishable is, in actuality, a colonial attitude that has become embedded within African culture to such a degree that many mistake it as indigenous.

In 2008, for example, Human Rights Watch found that “more than half of the world's remaining sodomy laws - criminalising consensual homosexual conduct - are relics of British colonial rule”. Meanwhile, the influence of foreign religions, in particular Christianity and Islam, on attitudes to sexuality is pervasive.

Sylvia Tamale, professor of law at the University of Makerere, writes for Al Jazeera, that through the imposition of these religions, homosexuality became demonised as an abhorrent sexual practice. “With the new religions, many sexual practices that were acceptable in pre-colonial, pre-Islamic and pre-Christian Africa were encoded with tags of ‘deviant’, ‘illegitimate’ and ‘criminal’ through the process of proselytisation and acculturation.”

In particular, Christianity imposed the view of western family values, that such units should comprise a man, a woman and their children, leaving no space for same-sex relationships.

Generationally these ideas perpetuated and were eventually assimilated into the African subconscious. “What pains me is that it was this story which has been used to suppress and enslave my father and mother,” Mr. Alimi says. “We have lost our subconscious. We as a people need to revoke this vehicle of oppression.”

He says that modern Africans have embodied these colonial attitudes and in turn reuse them to oppress and dominate others, in particular members of the LGBT community. But it is because he understands the nature of this influence that he no longer resents those who shun him.  

It's one of the great tragedies of Africa that so many people have internalised the homophobia of that colonial oppression and now proclaim it as their own authentic African tradition.” - Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner

Africa is the most religious continent on Earth and it is among the fervent that socially conservative interpretations of faith have found a willing audience. Even while Western leaders decry the oppression of homosexuals in Africa, their religious movements continue to export discriminatory ideas. Talking to the Guardian, Julius Kaggwa, a 46-year old Ugandan who was born intersex, speaks of the rising influence of US evangelical churches in African countries, pushing anti-gay legislation that has led some to accuse the churches of pursuing a neo-colonialist agenda. “Ugandans are the most hospitable people I’ve ever met, but I blame the hatred we face on the US church groups who have been pushing an agenda against us,” he said. “They say we are ‘against God’. Others say that we are being paid by western LGBT groups to destroy the social fabric of Uganda and corrupt children.”

For Mr. Alimi, the answer to changing attitudes lies in integration and education. “We need to start by re-telling our history and remembering our true African culture, one that celebrates diversity, promotes equality and acceptance, and recognises the contribution of everyone, whatever their sexuality.”

Debunking the myth

The Un-African notion hinges on the idea that homosexuality did not exist on the African continent prior to European colonisation. But it was homophobia, not homosexuality that was imported. In actual fact African societies have had a long history of homosexual practices.

Bernardine Evaristo, writing for the Guardian, asserts that the idea of homosexuality as a western import is a “myth”, saying that “throughout history people everywhere have explored and experimented with their sexuality. The desire to do so has never been confined to particular geographical locations. Its reach is universal.”

Evidence pertaining to the presence and acceptance of homosexuality has been noted in several tribes across the continent. In Ethiopia, certain ethnic groups tolerated sexual minorities as a ‘mistake’ of nature - they were not persecuted or condemned for their same-sex practices.

Even in Nigeria and Uganda, anthropologists have discovered instances where homosexuality was accepted prior to colonisation. The Igbo, a tribe situated in what is now southern Nigeria, had many same-sex practices. Igbo women would take on many wives with marriage acting as a means to unite and strengthen bonds within the community.

Meanwhile the Langi, an ethnic group situated in northern Uganda, had a term they would refer to for men who crossed dressed as women, mudoko dako - they were tolerated and allowed to marry other men despite their original gender. In the early 17th century in what is now Angola, Portuguese priests Gaspar Azevereduc and Antonius Sequerius documented the sexual activities of a group of men called the chibados, who behaved and dressed like women and entered into marriages with men.  

In pre-colonial Benin, homosexuality was seen as a sexual phase that boys underwent as they passed through puberty, though it was expected that these homosexual urges would cease as they grew older.

And among the Cape Bantu people, women who were in the process of becoming chief diviners engaged in lesbian practices as part of their training.

The Nandi and Kisii of Kenya, the Nuer of Sudan and Kuria of Tanzania, were all known to have practiced female same-sex marriages well before the arrival of colonialism.

We shouldn’t be fighting with people. We need to educate people about sexuality, show them that we are here, that we deserve rights, access to health care and respect.” - Haute Haiku, former Global Voices writer speaking to The World Weekly

Science tells us that far from the idea espoused by the likes of Mr. Lokodo that homosexuality is a merely choice, there is a strong genetic element to an individual’s sexual preferences. A recent study in the journal Psychological Medicine, for example, showed how over 800 gay participants shared notable patterns in two genomic regions. And last year, a report released by the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAF) found substantial biological evidence that same-sex preferences are a natural aspect of human sexuality. The study also noted various sexual orientations across the globe, thus conceding that homosexuality would have existed throughout African history.

“We are saying people are born with something that we are calling a predisposition, and that social upbringing, parenting etc, may impact on the expression of that predisposition, but does not cause it, nor can it do much to contain it, and we note that containment is not needed, because this is a natural variation… that causes no harm,” Professor Harry Dugmore, who wrote the report, is quoted by the Daily Maverick.

Widespread evidence of homosexual practices in the animal kingdom, from chimpanzees to birds and fish, only adds further weight to the idea that homosexuality is a naturally occurring phenomena and not a western cultural import or a lifestyle choice. “No species has been found in which homosexual behaviour has not been shown to exist, with the exception of species that never have sex at all, such as sea urchins and aphis,” Norwegian Zoologist Petter Boeckman contends. “Moreover, a part of the animal kingdom is hermaphroditic, truly bisexual. For them, homosexuality is not an issue.”

For many humans, especially in Africa, however, homosexuality remains a ‘fault’ not in our stars but in ourselves. Yet there are signs of change.?

Ubuntu

Described as one of the most progressive nations in the world when it comes to LGBT rights, South Africa was the first country in the world to outlaw discrimination based on an individual’s sexual orientation and is the only African country to date that has legalised same-sex marriage. There are many challenges still to overcome on this front, discrimination persists in society and incidences of homophobic violence, such as ‘corrective rape’ used to ‘cure’ lesbians of their sexuality have been documented, but the country’s promotion of gay rights points to an African nation overcoming the imposition of colonial practices in the name of equality.

“Being African is about societal togetherness, so discrimination and segregation is not African,” Frank Mugisha, executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) tells The World Weekly. “LGBT rights are not just western norms.”

Indeed such values can be found within Ubuntu, a southern African philosophy that reflects an African conception of what it means to be human. While the term has different names, its ethos is pervasive and elements of its philosophy can be found across the African continent.

Sylvia Tamale, a Ugandan academic, tells Al Jazeera the philosophy “rejects selfish, paternalistic and restrictive regulations issued by rulers riding high moral horses in complete disregard of the interests of their neighbours, their community and their fellow human beings”. She argues that such philosophies within Africa are necessary to dispel homophobia from the continent.

Ubuntu focuses on the idea that your identity is informed by how you treat others, commonly summed up by the phrase – “I am what you are”. Ubuntu promotes notions of interdependence, solidarity, kindness and mutual respect. Mr. Alimi says this is reflected in the communal culture that is commonly found in African society. “We are a people that promote a communal sense of living. If you live in Nigeria, you will never go hungry. Because if you don’t have food, your neighbour has food you can eat. We are human. We have a saying in our culture that says one person will give birth to a child, a thousand people will train that child.”

In the face of violent discrimination and the demonisation of their sexual orientation, LGBT communities are rising all over Africa. And support for their cause is mounting, even in countries that are known to be hostile to homosexuality.

Recently Botswana, a country that has been noted for his anti-gay stance in the past, prohibited US pastor Steven Anderson from entering the country after he made several anti-gay statements in a radio interview. Surveys being conducted on how Africans perceive homosexuality are showing a decrease in the number of people who would discriminate against a member of the LGBT community.

The Bisi Alimi foundation found that 30% of Nigerians would not discriminate against someone based on sexual orientation. And support for the anti-same sex marriage law fell from 96% in 2010 to 87% in 2015.

Slowly it appears that Africans are starting to recognise the influence of colonial and foreign-swayed history and how imported values have been shaping their perceptions of sexuality.

But it will take time.

Mr. Alimi concedes that by the time LGBT rights are accepted in his country, he will be long gone. But, he says, “we are closer to the finishing line than we are from it. That is why I do what I do with so much energy and so much optimism.”

“I’m not going to finish the race. But I know there is a generation that is coming behind me.”

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