Homosexuality in African history

The topic of homosexuality has often excited extreme reactions in many African countries. Homophobic rhetoric claims that same-sex relations are new to the continent, while homosexuals are being stigmatised as “un-African”. However, the history of colonialism in Africa reveals that it was anti-homosexual legislation, rather than homosexuality, which was introduced by external forces.

The “Africaness” of homosexuality is an increasingly engaged in and consistently controversial topic. While it is continually claimed that homosexuality is un-African, studies by historians and anthropologists have found same-sex relationships to have been in existence in pre-colonial Africa. What has also become apparent in research is that the social meaning of same-sex relationships has changed since the 1800s, with the onset of colonialism transforming it along rigid Western ideas of sexuality and gender, and formulating the idea of same-sex relationships as foreign to Africa.

“A threat to just anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The wisdom of Dr. Martin Luther King

Though often ignored or suppressed by European explorers and colonialists, homosexual expression in native Africa was also present and took a variety of forms. Anthropologists Stephen Murray and Will Roscoe reported that women in Lesotho engaged in socially sanctioned “long term, erotic relationships” called motsoalle.[48] E. E. Evans-Pritchard also recorded that male Azande warriors in the northern Congo routinely took on young male lovers between the ages of twelve and twenty, who helped with household tasks and participated in intercrural sex with their older husbands. The practice had died out by the early 20th century, after Europeans had gained control of African countries, but was recounted to Evans-Pritchard by the elders to whom he spoke.

The first record of possible homosexual couple in history is commonly regarded as Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, an Egyptian male couple, who lived around the 2400 BCE. The pair are portrayed in a nose-kissing position, the most intimate pose in Egyptian art, surrounded by what appear to be their heirs.

Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum were ancient Egyptian royal servants and are believed by some to be the first recorded same-sex couple in history.

The proposed homosexual nature of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum has been commented on the popular press, and the idea seems to (partially) stem from the depictions of the two men standing nose to nose and embracing. Niankhkhnum’s wife, depicted in a banquet scene, was almost completely erased in ancient times, and in other pictures Khnumhotep occupies the position usually designated for a wife. Their official titles were “Overseers of the Manicurists of the Palace of the King”.

Critics argue that both men appear with their respective wives and children, suggesting the men were brothers, rather than lovers.


The Azande (plural of “Zande” in the Zande language) are a ethnic group of north Central Africa. They live primarily in the northeastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in South Sudan, and in southeastern Central African Republic. The Congolese Azande live in Orientale Province, specifically along the Uele River; and the Central African Azande live in the districts of Rafaï, Zémio, and Obo.

Azande Boy-Wives and Princelings 

 A now defunct homosexual boy-wife system was practised by unmarried Azande, as described by the Seligmans (1932:p506-7):

 “Part of the male population between the ages of 20 and 35 was organized into vura, called aparanga for the unmarried and abakumba for the married. While the members of the vura were at court they lived in large houses outside the chief’s enclosures, and near them, in smaller isolated huts, lived the chiefs’ sons or near male relatives. The aparanga worked on the chiefs’ cultivation in time of peace, organized under leaders, in units ready for military service when required. Some of these young men brought with them boys. These boys were sometimes spoken of as women, and were even addressed as such: the seniors might in jest call a particular boy diare, “my wife”, and be addressed by him as “husband”. The young men paid spears for their boy “wives”, and the bond between the two was publicly acknowledged. The boys behaved as women in that they ate out of sight of their “husbands” and performed numerous minor duties for them, though they did not cook for them but fetched them cooked food. At night they slept beside them, and with these youths the elders satisfied their sexual desires. The custom was definitely recognized as a substitute for normal heterosexual union. Now that military service has been discontinued the practice is no longer necessary, nor does there exist any desire to continue it; it might be said that homosexuality is no longer fashionable, indeed homosexual practices between men seem non-existent at the present day, though when referring to the subject the Azande generally express no shame or disgust. It should, however, be noted that penetration was never practised”.

 The custom was also described by Evans-Pritchard (1957, 1970, 1971).Evans-Pritchard (1957:p379-80; 1971:p182, 183) also comments on Azande Princelings. “All Zande princes were (and still are) accompanied by a number of these small boys to attend them wherever they went. […] Azande do not regard it as at all improper, indeed as very sensible, for a man to sleep with boys when women are not available or are taboo, and, as we shall see later, in the past this was a regular practice at court. Some princes may even have preferred boys to women, when both were available. This is not a question I can enter into further here beyond saying I was told that some princes sleep with boys before consulting the poison oracle, women being then taboo, and also that they sometimes do so on other occasions, just because they like them”.

 Further, “Many of the young warriors married boys, and a commander might have more than one boy-wife. […] The two slept together at nights, the husband satisfying his desires between the boy’s thighs (p199-200). Evans-Pritchard (1970:p170 [1992:p170]), although too late to observe the practice himself, notes that the word “boy” (kumba gunde) “must, it would appear, be interpreted liberally, for as far as I could judge from what I was told the lads might have been anywhere between about twelve and twenty years of age”.

“that individuals should be allowed to make their own choices and that we should be careful not to draw conclusions, or adopt prejudicial attitudes, towards people for their choices and preferences”. However, the release said, “he recognizes that there is a wide range of opinion on the issue among Member States, with very strong feelings on both sides of the argument, and he does not believe this is something the United Nations should get involved in.”

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan

Lesbians and gay men of African descent, like myself, today struggle to affirm our identity because we have often been expected to deny our sexuality for the sake of surviving in our spiritual communities. Religious tradition has too often emphasised the holiness of heaven over the holiness of the earth.

this only Just some of what was written about homosexuality in Africa a lot of researchers and Gay Africans are entering a long battle to get our experiences and the reality of our lives recognised and accepted within our own cultures.

Powerful organisations like the mosque and church, Has the greatest influence which could make an enormous difference, add fuel to the stigma and undermine all efforts to change attitudes. African gays and lesbians therefore go underground; leading to a lack of self-esteem, increased insecurity, loneliness and sometimes suicide.

 “I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.”

Former President of South Africa Mr.Nelson Mandela


About rainbowsudan

I'm just a soul whose intentions are good; Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood.

Posted on May 10, 2012, in Rainbow and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. The American missionary who beavered away in Uganda to get the government to declare homosexuality illegal and punishable by long terms of imprisonment,dared to claim that homosexuality was never part of Uganda”s history.
    Such nonsense. Their last Bugandan King who was deposed in the 1060’s,, Freddie Mutiso. was gay! The Ugandans knew it and couldn’t care less.tHp , f

  1. Pingback: Umutoni: Why Histories of African Homosexualities Matter | NOTCHES

  2. Pingback: WATKINS: Umutoni - Why histories of African homosexualities matter - Denis Nzioka

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