By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
Both men live in Mombasa, on the Kenyan coast, a city with a long association of trade with the Arabic-speaking world and a greater tolerance of sex between men than the capital, Nairobi. Not only do there appear to be more gay couples in Mombasa, but there is a tradition of "marriage" between men. As older women, known as mkungus, educate young girls in the duties of marriage, young homosexual men learn from male mkungus. Ahmed, 36, gives his pupils cooking lessons, advises them on perfumes that will please the "husband," and demonstrates how to wear a khanga (flowered cloth) in the house. At the end of the month's training he receives cloth and kitchen utensils as payment.
Three hundred miles away, in Nairobi, men come to a bar in a well-known public building for their "sun-downer" the drink at the end of the day. Some are flamboyant, wearing makeup and jewelry. Jack, almost seven feet tall, is a 23-year-old hairstylist who has been blackmailed and arrested several times by the police. Others are more discreet, such as Odongo, 42, a gas station attendant from near the Ugandan border who left his wife in his hometown and regularly pays for the company of young men.
On the other side of the continent, in front of the Intercontinental Hotel in Abidjan, the capital of the Ivory Coast, two figures in skirts sit on a concrete block, pulling wigs and scarves and assorted makeup out of bulky handbags. It is the early evening and they have an hour or so to get ready before the competition and first customers come. Olivia is thin and handsome; Tina, more talkative, has a blouse cut so low that it reveals the shadow between his chest and his padded bra. Business is not bad, says Tina, despite interminable problems with the police. The customers, Ivorians and other Africans, pay whatever the market will bear. Meanwhile, on the other side of the road, hustlers arrive and wait for customers who prefer their men dressed as men.
Kenya and the Ivory Coast are but two countries in a continent three times the size of the United States, and these scenes are only the most visible and recognizably Western of a broad spectrum of situations in which men reveal or act on their attraction to other men. Despite a century of colonization and three decades of Americanization through film, satellite, and Internet, the continent remains home to many varied cultures and many ways of allowing men and some women to establish short or long relationships with others of the same sex.
As Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe note in Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies of African Homosexualities, for centuries African cultures have tolerated sexual play between young men or women, or actively supported some same-sex relations. Thus warriors among the Azande in what is now the Central African Republic bought boys to act as their wives, and among the Shona of what is now Zimbabwe, sbikiro were men blessed by the possession of women's spirit. In northern Nigeria 'yan daudu (sons of [the spirit] Daudu) still dress effeminately and live among women, preparing food for festivals and celebrations, procuring clients for women sex workers, and sometimes acting as prostitutes themselves. (Yet, despite the phenomenon of men dressing as women being accepted in many African societies, sex changes are almost unknown, forbidden by the belief that God specifically created some women in men's bodies. And similarly confounding many Westerners' expectations, 'yan daudu may be married and have children while living as women and having male sexual partners.)
In some African cultures, in particular the Muslim north, women's lives are heavily restricted. Yet even where they have greater freedom, there is seldom social space for them to form long-term relationships with people of their own sex. In African history there are many stories of women who, by accident or choice, have acted as men, but it is unclear whether they sought or were allowed to have sexual or emotional relationships with other women. The warrior Nzinga, who kept the Portuguese colonizers at bay for 40 years in what is now Angola, dressed as a man and was addressed as king; her harem comprised young men dressed as women and referred to as "wives." Less ambiguous, perhaps, was the 19th-century army of Dahomey women on the West Coast who were considered men and forbidden to marry, and who formed bonds of passion with each other.