African indigenous religions and queer dignity

Colonialism should take a lot of blame for anti-queer attitudes in Africa. But missing is a frank engagement with how African indigenous cultures also fuel anti-queer attitudes.

Praying by the waters at Bar Beach, Lagos. Image credit Ethan Zuckerman via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0.

Introduced in 2021 and currently being pushed through the Ghanaian parliament, the “Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Bill,” has led to justified global outcry. The outcry is prompted by the fact that the bill is explicitly intended to “proscribe LGBTQ+ activities,” thus criminalizing queer people in the country. Ghana has become just the latest African country to confirm the fact that there are widespread anti-queer attitudes on the continent. Crucial to debates about this widespread anti-queer attitude is the question, what could be the source? In other words, why does the continent appear to be so anti-queer?

The claim that being queer is un-African, un-Christian, or un-Islamic, has been met with strenuous arguments that show the contrary. Those who argue that being queer is not un-African often point to how queer life has existed in many African indigenous societies. Those who argue that being queer is not un-Christian or un-Islamic, meanwhile, draw from theological ideas that enjoin nondiscriminatory ways of encountering the other. Moreover, it is often argued that colonialism is a main source of anti-queer attitudes in Africa, as evidenced by colonial laws which are still being used to persecute nonbinary people in the continent.

What seems missing in these debates, however, is a frank engagement with how some dynamics of African indigenous cultures may be an important culprit in such anti-queer attitudes.

The reticence to engage African indigenous cultures is quite understandable. Modernity has hardly had a good word to say about African cultures. As a result, the study of Africa now seems to be, in a sense, a mission to salvage the battered images of African cultures. This mission seems to enjoin that nothing should be said that portrays African cultures in a bad light. The question of how to speak critically about African indigenous cultures without continuing the racist and colonial baggage that has informed the study of Africa in the past—of how, as Achille Mbembe puts it, to speak rationally about Africa—is still dicey. Hence the reticence in assessing how indigenous cultures may promote anti-queer attitudes.

Mercy Amba Oduyoye, a Ghanaian feminist scholar of African religions, was among the first to see a connection between some dynamics of indigenous cultures and anti-queer attitudes in the continent. According to Oduyoye, Africa’s homophobia may be rooted in the desire for children, a desire that often leads to the stigmatization of childless women—especially married, childless women—in many African societies. Before Oduyoye, some male African scholars of religion, such as the late John Mbiti from Kenya and Bénézet Bujo from the Democratic Republic of Congo, had read this desire for children as only normal. Mbiti argued that the desire for children was linked to the hope of becoming an ancestor, while Bujo argued that this desire for children could be seen as foundational to the African notion of community. For Bujo, because community is prized in Africa, there is an unavoidable need for the triad of man, woman, and child(ren). The childless and the homosexual, the argument goes, are threats to this salutary vision of life centered on the growth of community.

These men saw in this narrative a way of life that was salutary, but Oduyoye saw a way of life that was hellish, not only to the childless woman but also to queer Africans. In the hands of Oduyoye, therefore, patriarchy joins with homophobia to sap the life out of those who do not conform to societal expectations. Because they are seen as threats to the well-being of society, they are hounded. Here, the hounding of women and the hounding of queer people are linked, and one cannot be addressed without the other.

While Oduyoye has traced anti-queer attitudes in African indigenous cultures,  Nigerian American Harvard Divinity School professor Jacob Olupona has recently argued that these African indigenous religious cultures are foundational to the continent’s major religions, including Christianity and Islam. If this is true, then it is important to take seriously the proposal that an African indigenous philosophy may underlie how practitioners of these religions think about queer people. Even though colonialism created laws that are used against queer people today, and despite the fact that most devotees of Christianity and Islam in the continent are considerably anti-queer, this attitude may not have originated only with forces that came to Africa from elsewhere. Perhaps we should think of outside forces such as Christianity, Islam, and colonialism as building on a latent dynamic in indigenous cultures. Thinking about anti-queer attitudes in this way may alert us to the fact that the struggle for queer dignity is not just an activist one or one that should focus on Christianity, Islam, or colonialism alone. This struggle should also engage dynamics of indigenous religious cultures and bend them towards the humanistic visions that are believed to be at their core.

Further Reading