Tales of taboo: Homosexuality in Africa
In East Africa, Homosexuality and lesbianism is totally taboo. At best the  the attitude is to ignore homosexuality, at worst, there are deaths, “corrective rape” of lesbians in South Africa, and communities vilifying and occasionally killing gay citizens. ‘We’ve been together for 15 years,’ says Amina*, 35, married with two children, adjusting her burkhah and […]
08 Dec 11

In East Africa, Homosexuality and lesbianism is totally taboo. At best the  the attitude is to ignore homosexuality, at worst, there are deaths, “corrective rape” of lesbians in South Africa, and communities vilifying and occasionally killing gay citizens.

‘We’ve been together for 15 years,’ says Amina*, 35, married with two children, adjusting her burkhah and niquab.  She is fully veiled; only her mobile phone, customised with trinkets and baubles, hint at individuality. ‘We knew each other from school,’ says Amina. ‘I courted her slowly,  watched her, gave her clues with my eyes, sent her SMS (text) messages, brought her gifts, oud (perfume, usually jasmine or frankinsense). It was, and is, really important it’s secret; we meet only in my bedroom, I would bring shame on my family if they knew.’

Although lesbianism is not actually illegal on Zanzibar, it’s taken over six months of Chinese whispers to set this interview up. The deal is that it has to be done in private, in a place far from any interviewees neighbourhoods, and in the middle of the day, with no real names or photos. And yet, ironically, anyone with an interest in lesbianism will happily tell you it’s everywhere here in Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania in East Africa.

At  Raju; the only gay and lesbian bar on the island, the atmosphere is staid. Everyone is seated, the atmosphere quiet and the women older, some in burkahs, many dressed to the nines in glittering dresses and low necklines. There are couples, some women in matching clothes, but no outward displays of affection. There are no exclusively lesbian clubs, bars, cafés, no social or political associations offering support, counselling and social networks for lesbians, nor gays at all in Zanzibar or Tanzania. Women and men rely on secrecy and  international internet sites for information and support. Tanzania is slightly more accommodating than our neighbour Uganda, where gay citizens risk death or imprisonment if a recently-revived Bill becomes law.

Across the African continent homophobia seems to be burgeoning: both ideologically, and violently. Barak Obama said this week he is deeply alarmed by the treatment of lesbian, gays and transgender people, and will be looking at linking aid with the treatment of  lesbian and gay citizens. This is important as many NGO’s here ignore homophobia and are actively conservative, preaching against the use of condoms in a bizarre leap of logic between abstinence and heterosexuality. Condoms, for many here. gives permission to people to sleep around, including having gay (male) sex. The reaction of the Ugandan Presidential Advisor, John Nagenda —  “If the Americans think the can tell us what to do, they can go to hell” —  is not, sadly, unique, or unusual (though Malawi did announce today that it will review it’s anti-gay laws).

And David Cameron’s sentiments, whilst worthy, do not really bear scrutiny — there are no Lesbian, Gay or Transgender projects supported by DFID here on the continent anyway.

In Nigeria, where homosexuality is already illegal,  a new bill has been approved that will imprison for 10 years “Any person who registers, operates or participates in gay clubs, societies and organisation, or directly or indirectly make public show of same sex amorous relationship in Nigeria”. Nigerian Lesbian activist Osazeme O speaks for many when she says “ The bill is a distraction. There are so many other things our government could be doing right now Nigeria, people here are concerned with, ‘Will I have light when I get home? Will I have running water?’ Things like that. If we open this gate to this kind of discrimination, what next?”

A common perception here is that it’s illegal under Islam or that gay people are indoctrinated or “Westernised”. Homosexuality is “unnatural” and a threat to social, moral and cultural values. With the exception of South Africa, where lesbians and gays are the cultural emblem of liberal, party-loving Cape Town, and global ambassadors for all kinds of radical HIV activism and arts work, much of Africa has a long way to go. South Africa is the only country on the continent that has a group of active, out HIV positive gay men, who do much to uncover the hypocrisy of the homophobia present.

The rise of Pentacostal and Evangelical churches, (with active strong  links to the USA) here in East Africa has seen a growing intolerance of gays and lesbians, which is associated with Westernism, paedophilia, sodomy, insanity and colonialism. The Muslim mosques and Christian churches in East Africa are vociferously, and often violently, against gays and lesbians. Workshops are held to “make people straight”. It’s even regarded as a mental illness. Variously associated with witchcraft, “shetani” (evil spirits), being “Kafir” (a non-believer, an infidel) or anti-culture, homosexuality is not just a sexual preference, it’s a lifestyle that can cost your life.

Anecdotally, many men and  women in Tanzania and Zanzibar are killed by the Askari Jamani (a vigilante community police force) for having same sex affairs: This is not even considered newsworthy, so accepted is it.

When a local Zanzibar radio phone-in recently tackled this thorny issue of lesbianism, only one caller over five hours had anything positive to say, and she was a Kenyan lesbian. In South Africa the “corrective rape” of lesbian women has received media attention.

But the evidence of lesbianism and gays in Africa is centuries old. The chronicles of the Ibo in Nigeria, the Kouria in Tanzania, members of the Sudanese elite — all feature lesbians. And in Zanzibar, where strict segregation of men and women is the norm, there are plenty of places where people meet illicitly for sex: hair salons, each other’s homes, after the mosque. Massage in hair salons is very common here, and one thing often leads to another…

One completely culturally specific perk of being gay on Zanzibar, Lamu and other Tanzanian coastal areas, is that an older lesbian lover brings status, security and respect.

According to Fatima*, “Older, strong women, with good jobs, salaries and status, often take younger lesbian ‘wives’. They support the younger woman with food, social connections and help getting work, and in return, there’s sex involved. But we would NEVER call it lesbianism; it’s just one of those things in Zanzibar. We were colonised by the Persians and the Omanis; lesbianism is in these Arab cultures — look at the poems — but it’s behind closed doors. Behind the veil, if you like! We are socially isolated, we are teased, talked about, but I don’t care, I am strong.”

Maryam* is a prominent artist and civil servant. She says she’s happy to be seen as lesbian when she travels abroad to America and Europe, but would never dream of being out in Zanzibar. She organises the women’s football team that plays in Zanzibar’s main football ground. It’s a place where lesbian women meet. The team are a collection of women playing football in full hijab. Only “Father” is dressed like a man: she’s an out transgender woman, and has relationships with women. “I am able to marry women because really I am a man. I know I am, they know I am, so it’s ok. It’s not wasagaji,” she explains, using the local perjorative slang term for lesbianism — it means grinding. So here’s the rub; anything goes, as long as you keep up heterosexual appearances.

Women’s sexual pleasure is a completely taboo subject, although it wasn’t in the 50s and 60s, when Zanzibar was “the Paris of Africa”. Older Zanzibari women recall the “kibuki” and “kidumbak” – highly secretive nocturnal rituals from which men are excluded. The kabuki is a spiritual invocation for sexual power and attractiveness. Over copious cups of konyagi (the local gin), women harness the mystical power of female sexuality. The kidumbak is a night-long event of overtly sexual music, seduction techniques and dances, where women mimic  explicit sexual positions with each other.

Through the grapevine, I speak to a lesbian Taarab singer, Khadija Buruma*. She tries to explain the contradiction to me. “We live in an intensely private and secretive society, where gossip is everything. If you are public about being a lesbian then you bring shame on yourself and all your family and neighbours, it’s completely un-Zanzibari. But if you do it in private, or at a Taarab, no-one really cares. You need to keep your reputation  and ‘face’ in order to function in society – deal with the government, do business. The only other people who know if you are lesbian are at the Taarab or kibuki too, and they won’t talk. They can’t take the risk of being called lesbians too.”

Uganda’s outrageous Anti-Homosexuality Bill was rejected last year in parliament, and with the death of activist David  Kato in January 2011, for a brief moment the issue hit the global press. However since October 2011 there are moves to reinvigorate it: in Uganda gay citizens repeatedly caught having sex face execution, while people “who touch each other in a gay way” could be jailed. The death penalty will apply automatically if one partner is under 18, has a disability or is HIV-positive. This punitive and regressive law seems to reflect the feelings of many in Uganda and the surrounding countries; there’s a shocking disconnect between what people in this part of the world do behind closed doors and what they will admit to in public.