The water oriented away from normativity

What if our starting place is to claim that Africa has always been queer?, writes Johannesburg-based scholar Hugo kaCanham.

Image credit Adam Cohn via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

There is an argument—made most recently on this site by religious studies scholar David Tonghou Ngong—that the roots of African homophobia might be found in African indigenous religions rather than in the religions that followed later. I don’t necessarily want to offer a counter argument, but I do want to think alongside, and perhaps to trouble and extend, some of these contentions.

What if our starting place is to claim that Africa has always been queer? This would be to claim a queer Africa that is simultaneously homophobic, drawing on a reading of queer that both includes alternative and fluid sexualities and exceeds them. To be queer is to be oriented away from the norm. To live askance. Borrowing from Sarah Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology, I cast Africans as queerly oriented to normative codes of being. Because to be normal is to be Western European, North American, male, white, middle class, able bodied, and heterosexual, all our attempts at normativity fail. We live in queer failure. We are oddities to the Global North. We are barely human. We drown in boatloads while crossing the Mediterranean and the world carries on without missing a beat. So no, we are not normal. We do not aspire to normalcy.

If we narrow the gaze and focus on sexuality, on this score, too, we are queer. To claim a queer orientation would require us to accept the proposition that a spiritual life of ancestral reverence can’t have been—and is not intrinsically—homophobic. Modern coupling is not a natural state but a social artifact popularized and propagated by organized global religion and modernity. To assume one partner of an opposite sex as default would be to think of history too narrowly and from a presentist lens. To suggest that indigenous African spirituality sowed the seeds of today’s homophobia is to unsee how pervasively queer we are. It is to turn away from our flow that eschews straight lines. Indigenous African spirituality is steeped in queerness. It defies centuries of derision. African spirituality carries across oceans on slave ships and digs roots in Brazil and Haiti. These roots are centuries deep. Indigenous spirituality resists a single god even when that god brings aid, gold, and plagues. It embraces queer ecstasy, touchings, laying of hands, shaking, collapse, charms, and magics that resist rules and recipes. Jayna Brown’s Black Utopias cogently captures black spiritual utopias and their world-making potentialities in the United States. These utopias are grafted onto an African ethic of worship and being. African spirituality centers feeling. It is as queer as fuck. It cannot be bothered with who sleeps with who.

To think of desire as unmoored is to refuse to use modern, binary categories of naming such as gay, lesbian, or trans, but it is not a denial of homopoetics. These categories do not translate well in rural spaces. Instead, we have multiple ways of being that operate along local registers and are often incommensurate with global discourses of rights and identity. For every homophobe, there are hundreds of Africans who live in varying levels of relation with queer sociality. We who are cast as belated or trailing the West do not all want equality on terms such as those based on the rights or recognition which characterize the Global North. We see how one might be recognized as gay and able to marry while impoverished and murdered for their blackness. Perhaps a different architecture is needed in queer Africa. Heteronormative bliss is not the model of our personhood. We desire something more complicated and liberated than the rainbow. To paraphrase Rinaldo Walcott: we want rights, but we are cautious of their stultifying potentialities—e.g., that all queer men are gay and women necessarily always rigidly lesbian—and their legitimation of the state as the arbiter of desire. We trouble the assumption that all covet marriage, a sexual contract with the state and capital. More fundamentally, we want to own our desire and live unbeholden to others.

I demur: African indigenous spirituality cannot plant the seeds of homophobia. For African homophobia, we have to look elsewhere. Homophobia is pervasive and it pushes against African queerness. African homophobia is harmful and it kills. Keguro Macharia correctly reminds us not to give African patriarchs a free pass by attributing all homophobia to external sources. Africans can be homophobic. I have nothing to gain by protecting homophobes; this piece is not in their defense. The postcolony embraced homophobia, and African nations that draw their identity from Christianity are generally directly opposed to queer ways of being. “We are a Christian nation” or “we are an Islamic people” is often code for “no queers.” But since we are a fundamentally queer continent and people, homophobia often fails spectacularly here. Being queer is an undying spirit. It is always evading capture—fugitive from big men and people that police desire. Queerness is a practice of renewal and invention. Our very capacity to live in this place is a queer ethic. African homophobes are on the losing side. Imported religion, colonial regimes, and a heterosexual capitalist order have failed to vanquish the queer spirit of Africans. We bob like corks on choppy water. When the tide turns in, we are still there: clinging, gliding, touching, and erupting. We are hidden in plain sight. We genuflect to homophobic governments and churches and then we turn around to furtively love and rub.

I do not trace the genealogy of this argument to John Mbiti and others who have theorized African culture by propping up patriarchy. Instead, I read Neo Sinoxolo Musangi, Zethu Matebeni, and Keguro Macharia. I look to what I see and know. When I can, I run along the shoreline or the length of rivers. In almost every southern African country I have been to, I see groups of people in white, blue, green, or yellow flowing robes. I watch them as they wade in the water to commune with ancestors and ancient gods. These practices are feeling-based. Hierarchies, sexual categories, and gendered orders do not survive the water. So no, as a queer African, I disagree that indigenous practices are our undoing. That is not the direction from which the hate blows. The hate comes from organized spaces of religion and politics. These are spaces with something to gain from hate. These spaces discipline feeling and eruption and propagate uniform structures of kinship. Spaces that insist on heads of families and subordinates. Spaces that stultify creativity and domesticate feeling, relation, and roles. The chaos of eruption that indigenous spirituality invites is not invested in discipline and order. African spiritualists come as they are, not as straight, lesbian, or gay. They emerge from the water oriented away from normativity—as queer AF.

Further Reading