Our knowledge of homosexuality in prehistoric African cultures is limited by the late-Middle Age European views of Africans, of homosexuality, and of course, the European reason for being in sub-Saharan Africa in the first place – the slave trade. Among the earliest references to it are some of the records of the Inquisition in Brazil. From theDenunciations of Bahia, (1591-1593) comes this thoroughly racist reference to it:
“Francisco Manicongo, a cobbler’s apprentice known among the slaves as a sodomite for ‘performing the duties of a female’ and for ‘refusing to wear the men’s clothes which the master gave him.’ Francisco’s accuser added that in Angola and the Congo in which he had wandered much and of which he had much experience, it is customary among the pagan negros to wear a loincloth with the ends in front which leaves an opening in the rear… this custom being adopted by the sodomitic negros who serve as passive women in the abominable sin. These passives are called jimbandaa in the language of Angola and the Congo, which means passive sodomite. The accuser claimed to have seen Francisco Manicongo “wearing a loincloth such as passive sodomites wear in his land of the Congo and immediately rebuked him.” (quoted by J. Treveisan, Perverts in Paradise, London, 1986. Elipses are his.)
We can see from such references, that homosexuality was present in Africa from at least the earliest of European contact, and without much doubt, from long before. It wasn’t just central Africa, either. While European proprieties made such graphic description of African homosexualities uncommon in their descriptions of Africa, there are enough references to it to know that it was indeed present, and even used as a justification for considering African cultures primitive enough to justify slavery.
Among the last African cultures to be subjugated by Europeans, the Hausa peoples of northern Nigeria and the surrounding countries offer interesting examples of homosexuality among Islmaized peoples of Africa. Conquered by the British only in 1904, they were studied extensively by British ethnographers within a decade and a half of the arrival of the British – having experienced very limited contact with Europeans in the meantime. These ethnographers included sexual practices, including homosexuality, in their survey. Thus, they give us a unique glimpse into a nearly pristine African Islamic culture.
The Hausa people have terms in their language that are used to describe homosexuals. Two terms are common,‘yan dauda, which is usually translated as “homosexual” or “transvestite” and‘dan dauda, which translates as a homosexual “wife.” The ‘yan dauda in Hausaland engange in stereotypical professions, much as marginalized gay men in the west often do. In Hausaland, they are often engaged in the sex trade – both as male prostitutes and as ‘procurers’ for female prostitutes. In the latter role, they do not behave as ‘pimps’ do in the west, maintaining ‘stables’ of female prostitutes under their subjugation, but rather simply as go-betweens, arranging, for a fee, liasons for men seeking the commercial charms of female prostitutes. In this role, they often engage as male prostitutes themselves when the opportunity arises.
Among other African tribes, homosexual behaviors among premarriage adolescents is common and is not even considered to be sex, since it does not involve procreative potential. In Camaroon, for example, homosexual acts as late as age 17 are considered innocent, not being “true” sexual relations. Such youth consider themselves virgins at marriage, even though they may have considerable homosexual experience in both roles. There are many stories among the Pangwe of Camaroon of men who hate women and prefer the company of men even when offered a large brideprice, of men who court other men, etc. That these behaviors existed within this tribe prior to European contact is evidenced by the richness and number of these stories.
In Zimbabwe, a nation racked by recent homophobic pogroms instituted by its viciously homophobic dictator, Robert Mugabe, there has historically been little known about homosexual behavior among peoples present prior to European contact. Some ethnographers have dishonestly attempted to show that homosexual behavior is a recent innovation encouraged by Europeans to serve their capital interests, in housing large numbers of male Africans together in barracks to serve as labor in the mines.
The reality is that homosexuality existed in Zimbabwe long prior to European contact, just like it did anywhere else in Africa. We know this because the San people had the indiscretion to record their group anal sexual intercourse on rock paintings that date back thousands of years.
The Bantu-speaking peoples of the plateau country were more circumspect, but have admitted to ethnographers that homosexual contact did occur, and was expected of pre-marriage adolescent males.
Court documents from the colonial era from Zimbabwe and South Africa (1920 and 1917 respectively) indicate that among both the Mazoe and Ndebele peoples of Zimbabwe and South Africa respectively, a fine of one beast was levied against persons attempting to engage in sodomy by traditional rulers in pre-colonial times from both tribes. This fine equates to a misdemeanor – evidence that it was not heavily frowned upon, nor particularly uncommon.
Colonial court records also show that prosecution for male homosexuality at the onset of colonial rule amounted to 1.5 percent of criminal cases in Zimbabwe, eventually declining to near zero, while prosecutions for heterosexual crimes, such as indecent assault, rape, etc., rose from almost nothing to significant portions of the criminal dockets. It must be noted that because the 1.5 percent represented unwilling participants in the criminal process, the actual extent of homosexual behavior was certainly much greater, since only those caught in flagrante delicto, those prosecuted with amicus, or those accused by jilted lovers or others with an axe to grind, represent the criminal numbers we see in the records. The actual numbers were certainly much higher. In more than 90 percent of cases, the defendant was an African male accused of assualting another African male or boy. Cases involving Europeans were much more rare.
The notion that this is “a white-man’s disease of recent origin” is made laughable by an even cursory examination of the criminal records of colonial Zimbabwe and South Africa. A close qualitative analysis of the early colonial trial transcripts shows that there was often shared property resulting from long-standing cohabitation by the defendant and his accusor. That the courts had to sort out the property details shows that these men had often considered themselves in a de facto marriage prior to their dispute.
Contrary to Mugabe’s and other Afrocentrists’ assertions, analysis of the colonial court cases show that the rates of prosecution for homosexual behaviors was highest among the more indigenous peoples (Shona, 17% and Ndebele, 16%), and least among the “industrialized migrants” from elsewhere (about 3% each for Xhosa, Basotho and Zulu). Presumably the latter had simply learned better how to avoid the white man’s justice.