African SexualitiesAssociation for Women's Rights in Development
In 2003, Sylvia Tamale was named as the "Worst Woman of the Year" by a conservative bloc within Uganda. Working at the time as an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Law at Makerere University (she later became its Dean), she was vilified for weeks within one of Kampala's major daily newspapers, New Vision, as responsible for everything from the moral degeneration of the nation to the reason Ugandan teenagers were going to go to hell.- Jane Bennett
Her crime: suggesting to the (then) proposed Equal Opportunities Commission, in her status as a lawyer, that the term "minorities" should cover lesbian and gay citizens of Uganda. Those who suggested that she should be “lynched” for her opinion then must be in great trouble now; they must be struggling for an intense enough vocabulary of distress to respond to the recent publication by Pambazuka Press of Sylvia Tamale's edited collection, African Sexualities: A Reader. The 674-page collection goes far beyond the assertion that the term “minority” should include homosexual people when it comes to the discourse of equal opportunity; it suggests that, far from being marginal victims of patriarchal and postcolonial systems, African writers and researchers who take gender and sexualities seriously constitute a critical, dynamic, and fabulously diverse set of interlocutors whose ideas catalyse not simply a conversation about rights but a political kaleidoscope of possibilities for remapping African epistemologies of the body.
Globally, over the past thirty years, writing focused on questions to which an understanding of sexualities is core has grown enormously, and has been located in several disciplinary areas: demography, health, sociology, and cultural studies. There are leading international journals, grounded in very different approaches, ranging from the renowned British Journal of Medicine (a google search of the journal’s contents over the past 20 years using the term sexuality comes up with 1034 hits) to GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Studies, which regularly publish research on the politics, cultures, and dynamics of sexualities. Culture, Health and Society and Sexualities, in particular, are well known for their editorial support of research which recognizes the importance of medically-grounded work (such as the need to prevent the transmission of the HI virus between men having sex with other men) but which insist on sexualities research as always engaged with the micropolitics of local, stubborn, and complex contexts in which the possibilities of ready categorization or straightforward generalization are rare. These journals’ work has insisted, too that while the urgencies of the HIV pandemic continue to deserve the attention of researchers, sexualities research cannot be imagined solely in terms of questions of viral transmission, 'vulnerability’, and 'risk’. The range of topics catalysed by an interest in sexualities is, of course, formidable, and their constellation into fields of allied enquiry is directed by political questions of epistemology. Within medical research, of course, research around sexualities may readily deploy concepts of dysfunction, a-typicality, and illness; within postmodern cultural studies, communities of researchers accept ideas about race, intersectionality, margin, or economy as critical points of entry into a new question or concern.
I would argue that the concept of gender has suffered in very specific ways from the politics of knowledge-building about sexualities, most powerfully through the past 20 years of health-focused research on HIV and AIDS. On the one hand, feminists and sociologists sensitive to the politics of gender have insisted that gender dynamics are central to issues of viral transmission and of access to treatment, especially in Subsaharan Africa. On the other hand, these dynamics quickly came to be homogenized into a profile of a poor woman, usually racialized as ‘black’, located within an environment of family and cultural abuse, and deprived of information and education (citations). The corollary of this image was one of a man: heterosexual, with many sexual partnerships and liaisons, often a migrant worker, usually insensitive to his own or others’ health, and economically either corrupt or irresponsible or both (citations). Despite the essential integration of gender analysis into much HIV-focussed qualitative work, in this body of work, gender has become a somewhat static framework through which the largely conservative norms, understandings, and practices of heterosexualities can be scripted: ‘women’ as all victims, ‘men’ as all dangerous.
The truth of the matter is that it is difficult to manage the politics of gender and sexualities together, especially in policy-oriented research. Within African feminist writing over the past two decades, there has however been a strong thread of research and writing which seeks to combine epistemological commitment to ‘undoing’ patriarchal and colonial versions of gender with the recognition that sexualities comprise a critical terrain for theory and activism. Leading contemporary voices here are Charmaine Pereira, Kopano Ratele, Sylvia Tamale, Desiree Lewis, Elizabeth Khaxas, Patricia Mcfadden, Pumla Gqola, Zanele Muholi, and Akosua Ampofo, although many others contribute (in myriad ways) to the discussions. The researchers named here do not share foci or approaches (Muholi, for example, researches as a visual artist, a photographer, and works mainly with black lesbians in South Africa; Ampofo comes from development studies as a background, and directs Development and Women’s Studies at the University of Ghana – her writing has taken on questions of reproductive choice, and of masculinities). But what a survey of their work will show is a passionate engagement with the activism of research, with the urgency of writing which tackles the politics of gender and sexualities within African contexts and with an eye attuned to the fact that researching these politics has often been done in the name of ‘culture’, the exotic and the sub-human. As Lewis begins her piece on ‘Representing African Sexualities’, in African Sexualities: A Reader: ‘Although the American cartoon (this cartoon is reproduced) ...was produced in the nineteenth century, it features images that still haunt our conceptual landscape, whether within or beyond Africa. The cartoon portrays recurring stereotypes of black bodies and sexuality: the image of the lewd black man; the pure white female body; the portrayal of the black/African body as grotesque, uncivilized and crudely sexual, even when formally dressed’. It is not only the image of the poor HIV-positive black woman, abused and abandoned, whose hegemony over the meaning of gendered-sexuality-in-Africa deserves deconstruction; it is also that case that a very long legacy of anthropological, epidemiological, and development-oriented research exists, rehearsing notions of gender as static, ‘traditionally’ brutal, irrational and superstitious in matters of sexualities, and identically deployed across African contexts.
In the past few years, a small number of volumes edited by feminist writers, presenting research on the politics of gender and sexualities in African contexts have been published. These include two books edited by Steyn and van Zyl, from Kwela in South Africa; Re-thinking Sexualities in Africa (edited by Signe Arnfred of the Nordic Africa Institute), African Feminist Politics of Knowledge (published in 2010, and edited by Akosua Ampofo and Signe Arnfred), and now, Sylvia Tamale’s African Sexualities: A Reader has been published by Pambazuka Press. The collection profiles the possibilities of writing which is unafraid to tackle questions of gender and sexualities outside the framework of HIV transmission and ‘traditional’ rites: questions of who is having sex, with whom; questions of pleasure; questions on the impact of post-flag democratic change – or militarism - on sexualities; questions about masculinities; questions about sexual commodification; and about queer African theories and experience. The collection comprises some 67 writers, working with different genres (poems, academic essays, autobiographical reflections), from 16 different countries, and the granular diversity of the pieces creates a sense of expansiveness and adventure.
Most powerfully, for me, African Sexualities: A Reader opens with two chapters, both of which address the question of what is means to research the politics of sexualities and gender in African contexts, both with a sense of the colonial (and indeed occasionally current) gazes which configured African embodiment as simultaneously exotic and bestial and with a commitment to exploring the ethics and methodologies of contemporary work. Tamale writes, ‘ a good sexuality research project does not view methodology as a mere appendage ….or a ‘way of carrying out an enquiry’’ and argues that that is in the consideration of research methodology that ‘researching and theorizing sexualities beyond the tired polemics of violence, disease and reproduction and exploring their layered complexities beyond heterosexual normativity and moral boundaries will lead to fresh conceptual insights and paradigm shifts’.
Sylvia Tamale: Best Woman of the Year?
Jane Bennett, African Gender Institute, University of Cape Town
African Sexualities: A Reader will be launched in Cape Town by the African Gender Institute and the Women and Gender Studies Department at the University of the Western Cape at The Book Lounge, October 11th, 5.30 for 6. Professor Tamale will be there to discuss the book.
African SexualitiesStellenbosch Literary Project
Oct 31, 2011
African Sexualities: A Reader edited by Sylvia Tamale, Pambazuka Press, 2011.- Danson Kahyana
African Sexualities: A Reader brings together 66 contributions on African sexualities, ranging from critical essays, life stories, fiction and poems, to diary entries, conversations and interviews.
The book is divided into nine sections, each addressing particular issues related to the topic of African sexualities. Framing essays by writers such as Sylvia Tamale, Jane Bennett, Desiree Lewis, Nkiru Nzegwu, Beth Maina Ahlberg and Asli Kulane, Kopano Ratele, Stella Nyanzi, Chimaraoke O. Izugbara, and Mensah Prah introduce each section respectively. These framing essays are so seminal or provocative that each calls for its own review/discussion. In fact, this is true for most of the contributions in the book, which is hefty reading at 656 pages.
From the outset, the title of the Reader establishes sexualities as pluralised, thus dismantling the dominant ideology of heterosexuality. It also captures the complexity of the topic at hand, for the concept of African sexualities encompasses a variety of sexual orientations.
This is one of the things that makes the Reader alluring: it does not present a homogeneous, monolithic position on sexualities. Its contributors belong to different sexual and philosophical orientations: some, like the editor, are heterosexual and happily married; others are gay, lesbian, transsexual, and transgender.
This is as it should be, for as the World Health Organisation puts it in a report entitled Defining Sexual Health, sexuality is experienced and expressed in different forms – "thoughts, fantasies, desires, beliefs, attitudes, values, behaviours, practices, roles and relationships" — that are influenced by "the interaction of biological, psychological, social, economic, political, cultural, ethical, legal, historical, religious and spiritual factors" (WHO, quoted in chapter 59, Reader).
At the launch of the book at The Book Lounge in Cape Town on 11 October 2011, the editor, Professor Sylvia Tamale, revealed that the title is meant to “tantalise, stir and awaken, to take you to another level of awareness where you start thinking about sexuality and asking yourself: Is there such a thing as 'African Sexuality', let alone 'Sexualities'?”
I certainly found the book to be “tantalising” in the sense that it kept me in a state of expectancy from beginning to end. By the time I reached page 656, I could only take a breath and gaze at the Reader with a sigh: “What a book you are! You are both edifying and unsettling.”
The Reader is edifying because there is so much to learn from it, what with the many theoretical perspectives, research findings, and polemical stances it contains. But it is also unsettling because some of the issues brought to light are frighteningly brave. I will give an example. In a life story that I wish were fiction, Everjoice J. Win gets rid of the uterus that she finds bothersome and enslaving. Entitled “Ode to my Uterus,” she gives us a first-person account after the deed:
So here you are. Lying all dead and shrivelled in a jar of formaldehyde. [. . .] We have had a long 41 years together, you and I. I no longer want to be defined by your presence. [. . .] So, dear uterus, rest in peace. I can’t say I am going to miss you, because I definitely will not. I look forward to living out the rest of my days without being reminded of your presence every month. More than anything, I am now a free agent. The rest of my body belongs to me. Nobody is going to get a cut from you, my little reproductive machine. (375-376)
I find this conception of freedom disturbing. Perhaps it is her poetic style that makes me feel so sorry for her helpless uterus: by giving it human attributes of hearing and understanding as her addressee, Everjoice’s “revolutionary” act strikes me as wanton, especially when we remember that there are several other ways the “little productive machine” could have been stopped from reproducing. But Everjoice is an emancipated subject with absolute freedom over her body; so uterus, rest in peace.
The book is revolutionary in many ways, but perhaps most importantly it lifts the shroud on the deity called sexuality. Unveiled, sexuality is presented to the gaze of the reader without any qualms about blasphemy. In a sense, the book makes das Unheimliche of sexuality become das Heimliche. That which has been hidden, or discussed in whispers, is exposed and demystified.
One of the strongest points of the Reader is the intensity and profundity of theorising, especially in the framing essays. Sylvia Tamale, for instance, gives a deep analysis of research on sexuality in Africa, showing how it has been approached by different interest groups — missionaries, colonialists, imperialists, patriarchal governments, etc. Jane Bennett does a related analysis in the area of activists’ subversion of and resistance to monolithic sexual regimes. Desiree Lewis uses postcolonial discourse to demonstrate how western/Eurocentric/US-centric conceptions of Africa are not only sometimes misleading but also racist.
In a startling analysis of African erotic sexuality (which she calls “osunality” after the Yoruba goddess of erotic pleasure and fertility), Nkiru Nzegwu turns phallocentrism on its head by demonstrating that the phallus is not a symbol of man’s power; on the contrary, it is evidence of his helplessness, for it is devoured by the vagina. “After the semen’s extraction,” she writes, “the depleted male is physically and emotionally drained, while females are powered to continue.” And shortly after: “Because of its importance in the continuation of birth and the expansion of families, the vagina becomes the seat of women’s power” (264).
Another area that is re-theorised, is the issue of female genital mutilation (FGM). It turns out that FGM is not always and already a mutilation or a patriarchal imposition on women. On the contrary, some of the practices that have been lumped together in the category “FGM” are modifications, not mutilations, and they are sometimes voluntarily undertaken by some women to enhance their sexual pleasure or that of their partners.
In an insightful essay that anti-FGM crusaders need to read carefully, Brigitte Bagnol and Esmeralda Mariano write: “Some women modify the diameter of the vagina, its temperature, lubrication, humidity and consistency through steam baths, smokes and application or ingestion of various preparations” (271). In an endnote, they report something that will surprise many white South Africans: “Anecdotal accounts suggest that some white South African women are getting in on the act [of manually elongating the inner folds of the labia minora to create the culturally approved organ modification, which is deemed sensuous and critical for enhanced sexual pleasure] in order to keep their men from crossing racial lines” (267). Clearly, the Reader challenges us to discover issues that might seem too “archaic” to interest modern and postmodern people, some of them carrying Master’s and Doctoral degrees.
There are also some humorous (albeit serious) chapters in the Reader. One of them is entitled “Ob/Gyn Experiences – Life Stories”. It is a list of twelve experiences compiled by the editor, Tamale. “In more ways than one, the relation between gynaecologists and their women patients is quintessentially one of power,” she writes in her introduction to this chapter. The first of these stories presents us with a lady called Mumbi (not her real name) whom a male doctor asks while at his job, “Did you know that you have grey hair?” Imagine that!
“How old did you say you were again?” another male doctor asks Ndanatsei, who has spread out her legs as much as she can, making her wonder if the question has been raised because she “looked older or younger down there”.
The Reader is encyclopaedic in its coverage of African sexualities, and the range of issues raised is admirable, with very insightful contributions from different parts of the continent. Karim Mahmoud Tartoussieh gives us an illuminating essay on “clean cinema” in Egypt – a genre that requires “a reconfiguration of the cinematic bodies of artists (especially female artists) to fit within a normative religio-ethical project” (218).
From Uganda, we have the experience of Julius Kaggwa, Director of Support Initiative for People with atypical Sex Development, who lived the first 17 years of his life as a woman, having been “born with an atypical body anatomy close to 40 years ago” that made her/him “a victim of emotional blackmail” — a story that reminds the reader of Herculine Barbin, the 19th century French intersexual who eventually committed suicide.
Sally Gross, a South African Jew born intersexed, gives a chronicle of her life, specifically the legal activism in which she has been involved. She observes that the public needs to be educated about intersex as “part of the fabric of human diversity and not a threat, a rights issue and not pathology” (236). Indeed, the definition of the term “intersex” given in the Oxford Dictionary of English (2010) as “the abnormal condition of being intermediate between male and female; hermaphroditism”, indicates the extent to which intersex is still inscribed as an abnormality.
Despite these strengths there are a few shortcomings in the book. Firstly, heterosexuality seems to be marginalised in favour of other sexualities. This is understandable, given that one of the aims of the book is to dismantle what Adrienne Rich called “compulsory heterosexuality”. However, it does make the book seem activism-oriented. Of course there is nothing wrong with this, except that it gives the feeling that heterosexuality is “guilty” of something – of suppressing other sexualities, if you like.
Secondly, there are cases where some contributors are blatantly biased. In the ob/gyn experiences I have referred to above, all twelve experiences portray “bad”, unethical male gyns. Surely there must be accounts of “a few good men” out there?
Finally, the Reader does not provide a note on the contributors that would have helped readers to follow up on the work (and biography) of their favourite contributors.
These shortcomings are of course nothing when compared to the wealth of information presented in the Reader, and I commend Tamale for enriching the African library with a book that is destined to change the way we talk about and teach sexualities in Africa. Indeed, the last section of the Reader offers pedagogical approaches to the teaching of sexualities both at school and in communities. The book will certainly change the way some people experience sexuality, for instance by encouraging those in “hiding” to open up and embrace their sexuality the way contributor Kipkemboi [Jeffrey Moses] did.
In 2003, the readers of Uganda’s leading daily, New Vision, named Sylvia Tamale, at that time an associate professor of law at Makerere University, “the Worst Woman of the Year” for suggesting to the then proposed Equal Opportunities Commission, in her status as a lawyer, that the term “minorities” should cover lesbian and gay citizens of Uganda. Reading African Sexualities: A Reader, it becomes clear that the woman they vilified as a moral degenerate is a great humanist who is using her scholarly talent and calling as a lawyer to give hope to the millions of people on the continent who are being oppressed for embracing who and what they are, sexually.
African SexualitiesThink Africa Press
Jul 11, 2011
This collection of essays and poems moves beyond Western stereotypes to explore all aspects of sexuality in Africa.- Jenni Smout
'The myth of black sexuality was simply a myth of excessive sexuality: it held that 'with the Negro everything takes place at the genital level' - Frantz Fanon
"The myth of black sexuality" has evolved alongside the history of white presence in Africa. Conceived in the minds of colonisers, supported by ideas of the Christian association of blackness with evil, this myth was reified into authoritative scientific knowledge by the 1800s. Like most myths, it was pure invention; a story told and retold, reflecting the fears of those who promoted it. Yet the power of science in post-Enlightenment epistemology is that it holds authority unlike any other forms of knowledge, therefore while some of the claims were disproved – for example that Khoisan men were born with one testicle and were thereby deviant – the stereotypes they enforced remained unchallenged.
It is on this premise that African Sexualities: A Reader begins, with the first out of nine sections discussing methodology and research. In acknowledging the difficulty in researching an area which is simultaneously personal and political, the editor Sylvia Tamale manages to underline the fundamental issue in this collection of essays and poems: how is knowledge of sexuality collected and shaped in an African context? The same question runs through essays ranging from intersex activism in South Africa, Ghanaian masculinity, how Muslim traditions impact on reproductive choices, and celibacy in Swaziland.
The implications of such a question can be traced along two axes, which, as tends to happen, cross at a certain point. The first axis is how the myth is being retold, reinvented or refuted by academics, and the second is how they myth was created.
Re-examining this myth
These academics re-examining this myth call into question the use of theory from the global North in relation to an African context. This is a potentially dangerous task – in The Invention of Africa V. Y. Mudimbe notes that "until now, Western interpreters as well as African analysts have been using categories and conceptual systems which depend on a Western epistemological order". Yet while it is important to be weary of uncritically imposing Western thinkers and terminology, Tamale makes a convincing case for its inclusion, as sexuality is generally based on "labour, authority and performance", set against a backdrop of capitalism and patriarchy. Therefore there is, to a certain extent, no need to reinvent the wheel. Instead Tamale would rather acknowledge that existing theories can be helpful if used sensitively. This is where the Reader excels. Despite having over 60 contributing authors, there is a refusal to simplify or translate such a complicated issue into Western friendly terms.
Tamale notes the final advantage for the inclusion of Western theory is that "both the contemporary codes of sexual morality and most of the laws pertaining to sex ... are rooted in the history and tradition of former colonising European nations". This is where 'the myth' of African sexuality reaches its crossroads - the problem in research and academic writing is rooted in the very history of the subject.
How the myth was created
Although the "scramble for Africa" didn't begin until the latter part of the 1800s, white interest in the African as a subject of study considerably predates this. In her chapter "Representing African sexualities" Desiree Lewis notes that what was initially considered cultural inferiority shifted to a racial issue with the backing of colonial science. In "White on Black" Jan Nederveen Pieterse notes that "in the 1770s several works were published which gave a different turn to the discussion", which by "the mid-1800s a persuasive knowledge system for differentiating African bodies from others had been established".
It is here, with the body as the site of control, that sexuality enters the field in several different ways. First of all the African subject was examined and it was concluded they were fundamentally different to their white counterparts. This was done informally, with 19th century traveller Richard Burton describing women in Dahomey (now Benin) as 'hideous' and "adulterous", as well as formally, with the body of Khoisan Sarah Baartman displayed naked around Britain and France as the "Hottentot Venus".
After their 'Otherness’ was established, the African subject was disciplined and controlled by the colonial government. This was done physically with the Contagious Disease Bill, proposed in 1886 and again in 1890, which demarked all black populations of South Africa as potential carriers of syphilis, further noting that black women were likely to be prostitutes while black men were likely to rape their white female employers. Such logic extended into "sanitation segregation" which ultimately became "the Native Question" in apartheid South Africa.
Colonial discipline did not end with public spaces, but encompassed religion and language as white powers tried to formalise and control African sexuality. Through Christian and Islamic religious conversions, which stressed the values of modesty and adopting the "civilised ways" of the whites, missionaries in Africa put a stop to practices such as "dry sex" and sexual socialisation. Furthermore the 19th century missionaries presented "the natives" as governed by lust, placing them as morally and spiritually inferior to their white counterparts, while simultaneously ensuring the colonisers themselves remained blameless for their sexual relations with African women.
This inferiority extended to the absence of written language, which allowed pioneering Victorians to define the terms of African languages. For instance, in 1878 Bishop of Natal John Colenso’s Zulu-English dictionary defined uthando (love) by saying that "the government says that girls should choose through love and not be compelled to husbands". This definition implied that before the arrival of the British in Natal, the Zulu people existed in a love-less state, where marriage was arranged and yet sexuality remained unbridled.
Yet these techniques of the colonial government are ignored by the contributors to the Reader, even in Stella Nyanzi’s chapter "Unpacking the [govern]mentality of African sexualities". Instead a neat dichotomy between the white colonisers and the black colonised is employed, which neglects the process behind the creation of "the myth of black sexuality". Contributors like Lewis take stereotypes of African sexuality as only having an intellectual or abstract existence, ignoring the daily effects they would have had on those living under colonial rule. This is where the Reader lacks work from anthropologists such as Mark Hunter or John and Jean Comaroff, whose work would have filled this gap.
An anthropological approach
It is from a colonial base that anthropologists began their research. Early works such as Isaac Schapera’s "Married Life in an African Tribe" caused both moral and academic controversy for being too sexually explicit as well as presenting a form of unitary and "specifically African culture" – rather than, in the words of Bronislaw Malinowski, acknowledging sexuality was comprised of "old Africa, imported Europe, and the New Composite Culture".
Yet the Reader doesn’t pick up on the role of anthropology until the 1980s onwards, focusing in on Caldwell et al’s 1989 study which concluded there was a distinct African sexuality, which was permissive focused on fertility and existed outside of a moral frame.
This attitude has over spilt into policy, with HIV/AIDS programs characterising African men as sexually aggressive and engaging in high-risk behaviour, as well as promoting Western ideas of heterosexuality and patriarchy as the norm.
It is necessary to move away from such essentialist presentations of African sexuality and this is what the Reader does well, with whole sections on positive sexuality. Yet in offering such a diverse spectrum of topics, there is a gap in understanding how "the myth of black sexuality" was created and what the Reader is responding to.
Sylvia Tamale has given us a jewel of a book, drawing together a dazzling array of contributors from all over the continent to offer the most eloquent of repudiations of the many myths about sexualities in Africa. This landmark collection deserves to be widely read.- Andrea Cornwall – Professor, School of Global Studies, University of Sussex, UK
African Sexualities: A Reader captures the physical and emotional aspects of African sexualities in their diverse forms and contexts, applying the question of power to these realities. An important affirmation, this book is a useful contribution to African literature on sexualities from Africa that is based on African perspectives and experiences.- Ifi Amadiume – Professor and Writer, Dartmouth College, USA
Bravo! A book about Africans, published in Africa, and mostly written by Africans. Literally dozens of established scholars, activists, artists, and an emerging generation of young African intellectuals explore the diverse aspects of sexualities in Africa. The Reader can almost stand alone as a university course, challenging by its breadth, interdisciplinarity, and passion, the many stereotypes and silences that still encumber sexuality studies in Africa.- Marc Epprecht – Professor, Queens University, Canada and author of 'Heterosexual Africa?'
This volume far surpasses its stated objective of 'amplifying the voices of Africans' by situating these in a critical and post-colonial feminist framework offering profound insights into the troubling dynamics of power, domination, subjectivity and cultural liberation that variously affect the continent’s people in today’s globalizing world. It gives voice to the seismic shifts in the politics of sexuality that are currently taking place. Tamale’s reputation as a courageous and highly accomplished feminist legal scholar and activist no doubt facilitated the stupendous outreach and research engagements that lie behind this volume.- Amina Mama – Nigerian-British feminist Professor, University of California, Davis