Karim, a travel agent in his early thirties, is enamored of the man who is married to his cousin. Six years ago the cousin caught them in bed. To prevent the scandal of either man being identified as shoga (the swahili word for a receptive partner in male sex), karim married his lover’s adopted daughter. It is a good arrangement, at least for karim, since it offers both the respectability of a wife and continued access to his lover. It is, however, an arrangement that Rocky, 23, rejects. A tall, handsome language student who hopes to become a tour guide, he is not currently in a relationship with another man. And despite the pressure of family and tradition, he is not seeking a relationship with a woman. “Marriage is not an option for me,” he insists. “God made me and understands me.”
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.
Marriages between women have been reported from over 30 ethnic groups across the continent, though some Africans warn against imposing a Western, sexual interpretation on what they argue is a series of social rather than sexual constructs. Today, in the north of Africa, it is unusual for women to live on their own. In most of the rest of the continent, women have greater freedom, but only in South Africa is it not unknown for two women to set up a household together. (Even there, it is usually only after they have had children and separated from their partners.)
While Westerners insist that all desire be defined as homosexual, heterosexual, or bisexual, African cultures allow for a variety of emotional bonds, as long as the traditions of family life are maintained. Thus, many African men see no contradiction between marriage to a woman and sex or love with men— while many studies show that women in Africa, as elsewhere, are often dissatisfied with the roles they must play. “In the West you have a particular line you have to follow until you come out as a happy homosexual,” says Graeme Hendricks of the Triangle Project in Cape Town, South Africa. “Are we saying that any community where same-sex behavior is happening is underdeveloped because it doesn’t identify as homosexual?”
Increasingly, however, there is a movement toward gay identification, expressed by the formation of gay organizations in the south of the continent. South Africa has the greatest visibility, with 74 voluntary organizations forming the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality. To the outside world, however, GALZ (Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe) is perhaps the best known. Following public pronouncements by the country’s president, Robert Mugabe, many of its members have been physically attacked and blackmailed with the threat of prosecution under the sodomy laws. Yet Chesterfield Samba, who has worked for GALZ since 1992, is optimistic. “Mugabe will never be here for the rest of his life,” he notes. In August 1998, LEGATRA (Lesbians, Gays and Transgendered Persons Association) was formed in neighboring Zambia. Chairperson Charles Phiri claims that Zambian society is tolerant of gay men and violence is almost unknown, yet he admits that his name is a pseudonym, and he is reluctant to identify the tribes in which same-sex relations were recognized before colonialism, for fear of causing an uproar. Furthermore, the organization has been denied legal registration on the grounds that it supports criminal activities. In a country where the concept of a gay bar does not exist, LEGATRA, like GALZ, has the informal agenda of inventing such places, going as a group to one bar or another until they find one that welcomes them.
Despite the title of his organization, Phiri denies any Western influence. “We are not white,” he says. “We are indigenous Zambians, fighting without funds and without support for our rights.” Certainly the American input is minimal. Asked if he has heard about Stonewall, Phiri, a college lecturer, says the story of the riot is new to him.
Back in Harare, Chesterfield Samba says his compatriots “don’t know about Stonewall. They don’t even know what the word gay means.‘‘ No doubt, that will change. More and more African men will become “gay,” with their sisters taking a longer, more difficult path to achieve acceptance as lesbians. Much will be gained— and much tradition lost.
Additional research by Wanjira Kiama. Martin Foreman is director of the AIDS Programme of the Panos Institute in London. His latest book is AIDS and Men.