Gay Sexuality and African Writers

On Barack Obama’s recent visit to Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta schooled him on what’s relevant to Kenyans. Despite Obama’s lecture on “bad things” happening “when people are treated differently under the law,” Kenyatta insisted that gay rights “is not really an issue on the foremost mind of Kenyans”. Kenyatta must have felt pretty smug about his response. But as Kari Mugo wrote yesterday in AIAC, “These proud proclamations of bigotry as a Kenyan way of being would be comical, except that they have real lived consequences for Kenyans like me”.

Policing sexuality and ensuring that heteronormativity is drilled into us has long been a part of post-colonial culture, and back in the day some prominent African writers jumped on that bandwagon. In fact, African novelists have always been intrigued by same-sex relationships, but Soyinka’s 1965 novel has become the critics’ go-to place for old-school representation of same-sex love. In The Interpreters, Soyinka’s treatment of homosexuality is cringe-worthy and extremely unsympathetic. Same-sex desire is caricatured and vilified through the figure of a mixed-race African-American gay man playing out the classic stereotype of the non-African homosexual outsider whom everyone treats with mild indifference or open revulsion. Soyinka was not alone in depicting the sexual other as a figure to be vilified: Yambo Ouloguem, Armah, and Aidoo have all written novels where same-sex desire is short hand for western or colonial perversion.

Thankfully, African writers have moved on from resorting to such ridiculous, caricatured depictions of gay people – who appear here and there only as props that aid in shoring up the masculinity and African-ness of the novels’ protagonists. Within the past five years, we’ve seen a sea change in attitudes towards homosexuality by writers, in part a response to virulent anti-homosexual legislation in key locations. Writers such as Chimamanda Adichie and Binyavanga Wainaina have been very open about their personal views on homosexuality and have gone on to challenge and chage how homosexuality and same-sex desire is represented in fiction.

We single out Adichie and the Somali-British writer Diriye Osman because of the subtlety and emotional complexity with which they handle same-sex desire, but also, and more importantly, because of their attempt to enact same-sex desire in the household — a space that has “traditionally” (we want to emphasize those scare quotes) been the location of heterosexual desire. Even more interesting is the fact that the figure of the male domestic laborer is employed by both writers to reconstitute the African household as a space where same-sex love can be imagined and even acted upon. In both stories, the laboring body of the “help,” the “houseboy,” or the “garden-boy” serves as the instrument through which the male protagonist awakens to his desire for another man. The houseboy is the embodiment of an intimate stranger: he comes from outside to inhabit and the share the intimate life of the household. And in so doing, he clears out a space where the male child can discover and experiment with desire.

We see this play out in Adichie’s recent New Yorker story titled “Apollo.” Raphael is little more than a houseboy to Okenwa, and would have remained so if not for Bruce Lee. One day, Raphael catches Okenwa trying to mime Bruce Lee, but doing it very badly, so her offers to give him lessons. During their practice sessions, 12 year-old Okenwa is captivated by Raphael’s “leaping,” “kicking,” “taut,” and graceful body. In the everyday space of the domestic, Raphael was the servant. But in the few moments during which they practiced, their roles are reversed. Raphael becomes the Kung Fu master and he the eager student. Okenwa’s homo-erotic desire for Raphael intensifies but remains largely unspoken. His admiration for Raphael’s body and his tortured longing for companionship betrays an underlying attraction that Adichie never openly terms as being homosexual. But Raphael’s body, associated with that of Bruce Lee, does go from being an object of admiration and awe to an object of a desire. Breaking the rules of the household, Okenwa pays Raphael, who is down with conjunctivitis, a visit in the boy’s quarters where he lives. Okenwa offers to apply the medication into Raphael’s eyes, and their bodies touch. It is a small, barely perceptible moment of intimacy, but Adichie expertly invests it with desire. But any chance for Okenwa to put a name to his feelings is cut short when Raphael is unjustly relieved of his employment and sent away from the house. Decades later, the adult Onkenwa is still not married, and it is made decidedly clear that “problematic” marital status has everything to do with what he felt for Raphael many years before.

Diriye’s Osman’s story, “Shoga”, in which a young boy similarly desires the male domestic labourer, is part of Fairytales for Lost Children, Osman’s first book-length collection of short stories. The story takes place in Nairobi, where Somali refugees arrive in numbers, hoping for a more peaceful life. “Shoga” ​begins with the narrator, Waryaa, getting his hair done by his grandmother, Ayeeyo. He wants to get braids but, his grandmother will not allow it. “And furthermore, this business of me braiding your hair has to stop! You’re a boy not a lady­boy!” she admonishes. Waryaa is aware that he does not fit in with how society might want for boys to be, but does not care. He is happy being gay. The story takes a turn when his grandmother, fearful about corrupt police, hires a Burundian refugee, Boniface, to be a general househelp, and to watch over Waryaa when he gets home from school. The narrator forms a quick bond with this beautiful man – after all, he is not only physically attractive, but nurturing and maternal, preparing Spanish omelettes and tea. Like Adichie’s characters, Waryaa and Boniface spar verbally and physically, and threaten each other playfully.

But in this story, Waryaa knows that all that he wants “is to feel [Boniface’s] body against mine and if it took a wrestling match to achieve this, I was game.” Waryaa and Boniface become intimate that night, the passage into sex smoothed over by weed, Papa Wemba and Koffi Olomide. Waryaa is already somewhat sexually experienced, and is a willing instigator-participant. And Osman does not make Boniface into a mere side character who’s relegated to the role of sexual awakener, solely present to build the main character’s agency. Boniface has his dreams and hopes, which are very much like those of Waryaa; Boniface, too, escaped war; he was studying engineering when he had to flee; he dreams of going to “Somewhere exotic like England” to complete his education and work. Waryaa and Boniface are, in fact, mirror image characters — but only one of them gets to live the “dream”, only it is a dream with a bitter and lonely edge.

Of course, a couple of nights after the boys’ first intimate night, his grandmother has proof for her suspicions, and the next day, whilst the narrator is at school, she fires Boniface. She and Waryaa confront each other. Waryaa screams at her, “Go on, Ayeeyo, you can say it, I will not become a khaniis? A shoga? A faggot? Well tough luck! My ass is a khaniis. I am shoga, a faggot.” Their relationship deteriorates, and when he goes to London, they barely communicate. When we meet Waryaa again, he is in England, and he confirms that his grandmother dies, as he predicted, a lonely and embittered old woman – she suffers that fate for having driven out his youthful sexuality; he, too suffers the unbearable loneliness of exile. England, too, is a location of terror, but not because of the fear of literal death. Waryaa finds out that the cities of England, and their immigrant enclaves, are the sites of social death: here, young second-generation women and men come out — albeit tentatively to a trusted sister, a much beloved mother — only to face rejection, and even threats to their lives. He does not fear for his life, but struggles to feel that he exists when there is no life-long love — a love with a long history that recognizes and remembers him — to confirm his existence or to accompany him in life.

In both Osman and Adichie’s stories, the protagonist is the young son of the family, left in the care of the domestic labourer. And in both cases, the body of the labourer is dispensable. He is summarily dismissed from the domestic sphere, once his work in awakening the protagonist’s awareness of his “other” sexuality is done, and is seen as a threat to the domesticity of heterosexuality that the elders of the family seek to protect. But this exclusion leaves behind a trauma, which continues to haunt the protagonist. For Adichie’s main character, the instrumental presence of the domestic labourer and the role this man played in his sexual awakening has been pushed to the recesses of memory; but for Osman’s character, the presence of his first sexual attraction and attachment is noisily palpable throughout his adult life as an orphaned exile in Britain.

Unlike Osman, Adichie stops at the moment of awakening. Her characters never get to the point of consummating their desire in a sexual act. In both Adichie’s and Osman’s stories, the protagonist does not arrive at sexuality outside the home — for example, the stereotypical boarding school scene (that location of both discipline and freedom where many coming-of-age sexual moments take place). But in both stories, though the moment of awakening happens within domestic, familiar spaces, technically, they actually take place in an extra-territorial, unfamiliar space — in the laborer’s quarters in the back, not in the protagonist’s home. When Okenwa enters that space, the narrator notes that moment by accentuating the uneasiness and the unbelonging that the protagonist feels in the foreignness of the domestic labourer’s quarters. Okenwa is “struck by how bare it was — the bed pushed against the wall, a spindly table, a gray metal box in the corner, which… contained all that [Raphael] owned.”

The allure of the “houseboy” as the bearer of sexual difference in the household resides in the contradictions inherent in the figure. He is a man who performs traditionally feminine roles, including that of an ersatz mother. Concurrently, he is also an avuncular figure who is portrayed as virile, muscled, and stereotypically masculine. The protagonist is both attached to this figure as a nurturer, and admires him as a man. Being from the outside, the domestic labourer is worldly and knows much, hence capable of dangerous sexuality that might disrupt the household order. Spatially, he belongs in the house where he works, but is excluded to that outpost called the “boys quarters” where he lives — a liminal space that is both inside and outside the perimeter of the household, where same-sex desire is awakened or where that love is actually consummated.

For Adichie and Osman, the point of bringing same-sex desire into the house isn’t to domesticate or normalize it. In “Apollo,” the desire continues unnamed even after it is awakened and forecloses the possibility of a heterosexual union. In “Shoga,” the consummation of the desire wrecks the household. Neither protagonist is blighted with trauma for trauma’s sake. The idea is not that we simply replace the traditional conception of household with a queer version of itself; rather, it is that we destabilize our conceptions of the domestic, the tame, and the socially acceptable so that something truly new can be imagined. However, that “new” thing remains unrealized and out of reach in both Okenwa’s and Waryaa’s adult lives.

If we accept that novels or short stories centred around the household are fundamentally political, the importance of this kinds of fiction becomes apparent against the backdrop of President Kenyatta’s statement. When he tells Obama that the conditions of progress for the Kenyan state excludes the rights of the LGBT community, he shows that he is subscribing to the good old historicist move whereby a certain group of people are banished to “the waiting room of history.” Their rights are put on hold, or sacrificed so that the nation can attain progress. When they re-imagine the household from the standpoint of same-sex desire, Adichie, Diriye, and a host of contemporary African writers invested in this question invite a us to imagine the nation as a different kind of home space — a home that needs to make room for those who were all too expediently excluded.

Neelika Jayawardane and Ainehi Edoro

Ainehi Edoro is the editor of Brittle Paper; Neelika Jayawardane is Senior Editor at AIAC.

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