Middle Passages: Gendered Diasporas
Queering History, Queering Africa
The presence of lesbian practices in Africa has been hotly contested for centuries, largely due to imported colonial values and ambiguity as to what constitutes gender bending and homosexuality. Incidents of female same-sex relationships in traditional African cultures, however, are noted in numerous historical, critical, and theoretical texts, and the case study of Queen Njinga illustrates historical grounding for the ‘queering’ of gender and sexuality in Africa.
Njinga Mbande was born in 1582 to the rulers of the Mbundu people in what is now Angola. She rose to power over the Ndongo kingdom in 1624, when Portuguese colonial pressure was imminent, and led a four decade military resistance effort against Portuguese dominion. Understandings of her sexual identity are dubious, as different accounts and interpretations of her life point to a heterosexual marriage, to female wives, and to a harem of males that Njinga had dress as women. Whether or not Njinga was a “female-husband,” she doubtless transgressed gender binaries in ruling her people, answering only to “King,” leading her troops into battle, and dressing in both men’s and women’s clothing. Her ability to perform a ‘queer’ identity can be attributed in part to her royal status and the economic, social, and symbolic prestige of ruling power.
Female-husbandry is not relegated solely to the pre-colonial period or Queen Njinga’s time, as anthropologists Robin Morgan and Saskia Wieringa have identified same-sex relationships among women in more than forty contemporary African cultures (2005). This practice has prevailed throughout ancient and contemporary Africa, but understanding the contemporary resistance to it requires an understanding of the religious repercussions of colonization.
The influence of Western colonialism initially conceptualized Africans as having a primitive, bestial sexuality in order to exploit Africans as breeders of slave labor; in fact, observations of same-sex pairings in various African cultures were considered by the colonizers to be further proof of African inferiority. As imperialist exploitation spread, imported Christian dogma demonized queerness in African cultures and concretized Western philosophy so efficiently that the myth of heterosexuality, rooted in a racialized and sexualized perspective of Africa, became unquestioned. Belief in the myth of heterosexuality further led to the belief that homosexuality is purely a Western phenomenon, introduced to Africa through the repercussions of Western imperialism (Morgan and Wieringa 2005). In truth, homophobia, not homosexuality, was the Western import through missionary and colonial exploitation.
Religion – more specifically, religious colonization – serves as a commonality between the lives of contemporary female-husbands and Queen Njinga. Njinga converted to Christianity initially as a political maneuver to establish rapport with the Portuguese, but soon renounced Christianity when she took her sovereign seat (Fraser 1989). Christianity would have restricted Njinga to Western notions of gender norms and female sexuality, all of which she challenged – or ‘queered’ – with her transgender presentation and ambiguous sexual identity. However, Njinga embraced Christianity in her later life; in this way, we can consider Queen Njinga’s life a map of colonial repercussions: with her life came a gradual acceptance of Christianity, and with her death came the erosion of Ndongo resistance to Portuguese colonization.
In contemporary Africa, there are still cases in various regions where women use their status to attain wives, thereby challenging gender norms. In Kenya, women who are wealthy are permitted to attain wives in the Gikuyu ethnic groups. In Njambi's and O’Brien’s interviews with female-husbands among the Kikuyu in Kenya, all of the women shared the commonality of owning land, allowing them to use their economic privilege to acquire wives (2000). Likewise, Musanda Joyce Gumani Rammbuda married a woman, Matodzi, when she was installed as Chief of Vondwe in 1976 (Buijs 2002). Female husbandry is practiced in Benin, West Africa. where the female-husband is expected to take economic responsibility for her wife and her wife’s children (Zabus 2008). The Igbo ethnic group in Nigeria allows female-husband practices with the understanding that the ‘wives’ in the relationship will render any male children they bear to the female-husband in order to provide a male heir (Zabus 2008).
It is clear that status among female husbands plays a key role in contemporary African society and in the case of Njinga, but it is possible that historical and contemporary knowledge of such relationships only exist because of how class-bias interacts with research interests. More importantly, assumptions that status alone allows for female-husband practices delegitimizes the potential reality of relationships between women based on love and desire. For example, Njambi and Obrien’s interview of a Kikuyu female husband couple reveals a monogamous relationship based on an emotional bond (O’Brien and Njambi 2000). Female-husbandry varies with the diverse range of women who practice this marital structure.
Queerness is not a foreign concept in African tradition, although a Western lens attempting to define what constitutes queerness – whether to call it blasphemous or proof of Africa’s legacy of queer experience – is always already a colonialist lens. Given this legacy, attempting to extract an authentic queer African experience untainted by colonial implications may be impossible. It may also be unnecessary; rather, a focus should not be on extracting queerness from colonialism, but understanding the implications of Njinga’s and contemporary female-husband’s experiences given their historical and contemporary circumstances. In other words, it is important to reclaim Njinga’s history and the connection of female-husbands in contemporary Africa to bridge pre- and post-colonial understandings of women’s strength, resistance, and self-determination within a colonized space.
Amadiume, Ifi. Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society. London: Zed Books Ltd., 1987.
Desai, Guarav. “Out in Africa.” From Post-Colonial, Queer: Theoretical Intersections. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.
Epprecht, Marc. Hungochani: The History of Dissident Sexuality in Southern Africa. Quebec: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2004.
Fraser, Antoinia. The Warrior Queens. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989.
Morgan, Ruth and Saskia Wieringa. Tommy Boys, Lesbian Men and Ancestral Wives: Female Same-Sex Practices in Africa. Johannesburg: Jaccana Media, 2005.
Murray, Stephen and Will Roscoe. Boy-wives and female Husbands: Studies in African Homosexualities. New York: Palgrave, 1998.
O'Brien, William and Wairimu, Njambi N. “Revisiting Woman – Woman marriage: Notes on Gikuyu Women.” NWSA Journal Vol 12, No 1 2000. Accessed on Project Muse.
Zabus, Chantal. “Of Female Husbands and Boarding and Boarding School Girls: Gender bending Unoma Azuah's Fiction.” Research in African Literatures Vol. 35, No 2 Summer 2008. Accessed on Project Muse.
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