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Explaining African Homophobia?

In The Politics of Politics on May 28, 2010 at 2:53 pm
Keguro Macharia, Kenya Imagine
Monday, 24 May 2010
In a recent article on “African homophobia”, Madeleine Bunting opens with the claim that there is “rightly huge concern and anger in the west at the recent increased homophobia in Africa.” This inauspicious opening leads to a series of claims that purport to explain “African homophobia.” I have no doubt that Bunting has good intentions, but I want to respond to her article as a Kenyan intellectual and as a scholar trained in gender and sexuality, in short, as precisely the kind of African intellectual whose presence is sorely lacking from her article. We might begin with the expression of concern that opens the article, and that strange word “rightly.” I am puzzled at why there is “rightly huge concern and anger in the west” about homophobia. Puzzled because “the west” has been “rightly” concerned about everything in Africa for as long as I can remember: women’s roles, AIDS, polygamy, corruption, disease, hunger.

Being “rightly” concerned is, as far as I can tell, a full time occupation where Africa is concerned. To be western, Bunting suggests, is to have “the right” to be concerned and angry about what happens in Africa. 40 years after African’s independence from colonialism, I remain puzzled at what gives “the west” any rights over Africa. And because I am an intellectual, I wonder at Bunting’s need to posit an autonomous “west” against a knowable “Africa,” even after more than 30 years of scholarship that has emphasized the cross-hybridization of these two spaces.

Because Bunting is somewhat responsible, she tells us that it is impossible to generalize about Africa. And then proceeds to do just that, claiming that such a stance is possible if one has “spent any time in Africa or with Africans.” “Any” time allows Bunting to speak with authority about the “vast majority of Africans.” How much time is any time? Does it even matter? All those poor Africanists who spend years learning languages and working in remote fields to write books and articles have clearly wasted their time because one only needs to spend “any time” in Africa or with Africans to tell a story about the continent.

Bunting’s evidence about African homophobia? A half-remembered conversation in a chaotic noisy restaurant with African professionals. Why, based on such evidence, can one make sweeping generalizations about everyone? At dinner tonight in Silver Spring, Maryland, in a loud crowded bar, I overheard a young white man exclaim how much he loathes immigrants. Based on this, I can only conclude that white men across the U.S. hate immigrants.

Given the article’s authoritative tone, I would have assumed that, at the very least, Bunting would take the time to read the body of activist and scholarly work available on African homosexualities and African homophobia, much of which lives online. Had she bothered, she might have found the long-standing website Behind the Mask, which offers a range of resources and reports on Africa. She might have discovered the erudite scholar writer Sokari Erkine whose blog is a historical and scholarly resource. A little digging might have turned up Feminist Africa , which has devoted special issues to questions of sexuality in Africa, including a moving article by Uganda-based professor Sylvia Tamale .

If Bunting had cared to actually study her subject, she might have discovered scholarly monographs by South African Neville Hoad and Canadian Marc Epprecht, both of which offer nuanced, historically grounded analyses of homosexual and homophobic practices and discussions in Africa.

If, indeed, Bunting did look at these sources, and I want to be generous, then she chose to ignore them, and that, sadly, happens all too often with scholarship on Africa and by Africans.

Simply, Bunting seems unwilling to admit that such a thing as Africanist scholarship exists or that African intellectuals have anything substantive to say. Instead, a half-remembered conversation in a “noisy” and “chaotic” space grounds her argument. Shaky foundations indeed.

We learn from Bunting that African homophobia, which apparently is more virulent than homophobia anywhere else in the world, stems from power-hungry preachers and emasculated men. I was surprised to learn that religious positions are “one of the most competitive and lucrative career options for upwardly mobile Africans.” One could say much the same thing about U.S. mega-churches or positions in the Vatican.

I was similarly surprised to learn of the “rapid and chaotic African urbanization” that strains African kinship relations. Surprised because African urbanization has been going on for over a century and because all urbanization is rapid and chaotic. I am not sure I understand what is especially “chaotic,” an adjective Bunting seems to love, about “African urbanization.”

But the real problem is the African man. He feels emasculated by the west. He does not like condoms. And he must produce children to prove that he is a man. Poor African men, so atavistic in their longings, so unable to inhabit the truly progressive forms of masculinity available in the west. Where there are African men, there is sure to be homophobia, and no condoms.

This mish-mash of speculations and partial observations might have some value, but it is limited and, frankly, insulting to those of us African intellectuals who have actually devoted time to thinking and writing about homosexuality and homophobia in Africa.

As an African intellectual, I am insulted by what passes for knowledge about Africa. As a queer intellectual, I am disgusted by the nonsense that passes for truth about Africa. As a scholar and a thinker, I am disheartened that the work we African scholars and thinkers do is continually made invisible by “experts” like Bunting.

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