Dissecting The 'Homosexuality Is Un-African' Myth

A new study says four out of five people in Africa don't want gay neighbors.

Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum. Courtesy of Mohammed Elrazzaz.
While someone like three-thousand-and-twelve-year-old Zimbabwean President for Eternity Robert Mugabe might contend that homosexuality is a form of Yacubian trickery: a tool of western imperialism to destroy the African population through HIV/AIDS. The reality is, well, to the contrary.

We gonna do some fact-checking in a minute to see the extent to which this Yacubian conspiracy is true, but first let’s get to headlines.

Afrobarometer, a pan-African and non-partisan African-led research network that “conducts public attitude surveys on democracy, governance, economic conditions, and related issues,” recently released a report based on over 50,000 interviews across more than 30 countries in Africa titled, "Good neighbours? Africans express high levels of tolerance for many, but not for all." The ‘many’ being immigrants, people of different faiths, and folks of different ethnicities, while the ‘not for all’ refers to the LGTBQ community. Out of those polled, only 21 percent of people said they did not mind having a gay neighbor.

These attitudes have been fueled by a new wave of stringent anti-gay laws that have been sweeping the continent. One of these recent laws passed in Uganda in 2014 makes those convicted of being gay subject to life imprisonment. In Nigeria homosexuality is punishable for up to 14 years in jail. You can technically kill someone, get charged with involuntary manslaughter, and get away with less prison time. Back in 2014, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in response to the then new anti-gay Nigerian legislation, said:

A crime is a crime for a reason. A crime has victims. A crime harms society. On what basis is homosexuality a crime? Adults do no harm to society in how they love and whom they love. This is a law that will not prevent crime, but will, instead, lead to crimes of violence: there are already, in different parts of Nigeria, attacks on people ‘suspected’ of being gay.

Last month, Akinnifesi Olumide Olubunmi, a man accused of being gay in the Ondo State of Nigeria, was allegedly beaten to death by a mob deeming themselves judge, jury and executioner.

The Afrobarometer study reports Senegal as taking the top spot for the least tolerant country they surveyed with a shockingly low 3 percent of Senegalese people not minding if their neighbor is gay. That’s a whole 97 percent of Senegalese people not wanting the LGTBQ community in their vicinity. Guinea is second, followed by Uganda, Burkina Faso, Niger, Malawi, and Sierra Leone, which is only 6 percent tolerant. The most tolerant countries in the study are Cape Verde with 74 percent of respondents having no problem with having a gay neighbor, followed by South Africa at 67 percent and Mozambique in third with 56 percent.

From Afrobarometer Report: "Good neighbours? Africans express high levels of tolerance for many, but not for all"
A’ight, let’s put our time travelling hats on and try and find (arguably) the first recorded homosexual relationship. Oh snap, Mugabe ain’t finna like this. We in ancient Egypt, the same continent Zimbabwe calls home, circa 2400 BCE, that’s approximately ten years before Mugabe was born. Here we meet Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum. They were the "overseers of the manicurists" at the palace of King Niuserre during the fifth dynasty of Egyptian pharaohs. Although I feel strict gender roles should be done away with, their titles, in some circles such as one that Mugabe belongs to, could be viewed as a glaring clue to their sexuality.

The two men are depicted in ancient paintings as embracing and touching noses, which is argued to be the equivalent to kissing for ancient Egyptians. They changed their names at some point and when translated Niankhkhnum means “joined to life” and Khnumhotep means "joined to the blessed state of the dead”. Yup, their names when put together basically mean “joined in life and joined in death”.

Although both had heteronormative nuclear families, add in the whole cute matching name thing, and the fact that they made good on their promise and were buried together, there have been questions raised and a fierce debate within the egyptology community to the nature of their relationship and sexuality. According to polls by the Pew Research Center from 2013, 95 percent of current day Egyptians think that homosexuality should be rejected.

The idea that LGBT Africans did not exist prior to European colonialism is actually false. It was European colonialists that instituted some of the first anti-sodomy and anti-gay laws throughout the continent, gaining their supposed moral guidance from such texts as the bible. Previous to the introduction of these mandates, homosexuality and trans people existed and were to differing degrees tolerated throughout African societies. Alas, there is in fact a Yacubian conspiracy, but it is not what we have thought. Arguably, homophobia is what’s un-African and not homosexuality. It can be further argued that claiming something is un-african is a problematic statement within itself, considering the immense size and diversity that exists within the continent.

In even more recent news out of Kenya, gay rights, which was proclaimed a “non-issue” by President Kenyatta, has most definitely become (and was) an issue. Authorities demanded Google block access to a Kenyan rap group's cover of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ 2012 gay rights anthem, "Same Love," because it doesn’t “adhere to the morals of the country."

Photo: courtesy of Natsai Audrey Chieza

100 Women: Natsai Audrey Chieza is Changing the World One Petri Dish at a Time

Her interdisciplinary approach to biology and fashion has sparked conversation about the future of sustainability and pollution in textile manufacturing.

The bold jewel tones of OkayAfrica 100 Women honoree Natsai Audrey Chieza's silk scarves aren't the product of hazardous chemicals or silkscreen printing. Instead, they are the product of bacteria. Specifically coelicolor, a strain of bacteria found in soil that happens to excellently synthesize organic chemical compounds. Working in the trade for six years, the Zimbabwean materials designer quickly came to understand why the textile industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world. Knowing that the most harm occurs during the process of dyeing fabrics, she decided to take action.

Chieza has worked with leading brands such as Microsoft, Nissan, and Unilever to usher in a new approach to science and design. Through her creative R&D; studio Faber Futures, the design innovator uses the process of creating with bacteria to assist in moving mankind away from our fossil fuel dependency. As the biopigment expert put it [last year during her TED talk "Fashion has a pollution problem—can biology fix it?"], in the future we must make sure that we are not "mirroring the destructive legacies of the oil age."

Her interdisciplinary approach to biology and fashion has sparked spirited conversation about the future of sustainability and pollution in textiles. Here, Chieza expounds on her start, the pros and cons of creating something new and the urgency of change.

The following has been edited for length and clarity

Akinyi Ochieng for OkayAfrica: STEM and the arts are often conceptualized as separate worlds. However, in your career, you've managed to find the overlap. How did you, a materials designer, end up dabbling in biotechnology?

Natsai Audrey Chieza: I've always really wanted to work within the creative field. I used to work in architecture where I really enjoyed my education in a systems approach to designs and designing for multiple contexts. But I wanted to explore a different side of the design world, so I began exploring the skill and context of material flows, and how technology and futures fits within this framework of how we design.

For my own work and my practice, not having a scientific background made me try things based on what I understood about materials and what I understood about the interactions in which those materials existed in society. I'm interested in a political lens, an economic lens, and how textiles perform in reality. That's not necessarily the approach that a scientist would have taken. Now that's not to say that science isn't important—it's vital. But innovation can occur in that intersection.

Did you go into this thinking, "Oh, I'll figure it out. There must be a path to make this work"?

To be honest, when I started off, the field was not defined. I think I found something really interesting, which was about how biology was becoming a realm of design, and I just explored that as best as I knew how as a designer and non-scientist. It just so happened that around me there was a context that was imagined but enabled me six years later to say, "That's the industry where this work belongs" and stakeholders who give me a space to further my work in a creative and experimental. The path was never anything clear at all. I learned as I grew.

There's a phrase that is often repeated today: "You can't be what you can't see." But you have really created a niche for yourself. What are the benefits of entering an emerging space?

I think what's amazing is not having anyone or anything telling you that what you think is impossible. If you're carving a new territory then you must trust in your instinct and vision to effectively push where the work can be and where it exists. You're not asking permission to do anything. Of course the flip side of that is you have to bring people with you, and so part of you being able to do the work is convincing people that your vision has legitimacy and it's worth exploring, worth taking a risk to look outside of that box.

It's often quite challenging to figure out how to find the strength to push something that hasn't been done before. There's no precedent or rulebook to my work, but sometimes it's really nice to have a rulebook. [Laughs] However, I think it's made me a person who doesn't see challenges as obstacles that are in the way, but more as problems that can be solved. And I think that's the good thing.

Much of your work is about biopigments. What color excites you?

It's not really the colors that excite me. It's color as a cultural context that really fascinates me. I'm really interested in if a microbe is almost like this living factory that produces this pigment, and the technology can be shared and deployed with people as to how you work with it across the world, then what are the cultural interventions that can happen in South Africa versus in Argentina versus in the United Kingdom, based on this common microbe. I think that's always been what interests me the most, the context in which our materials exist. I think a really good example is indigo, and how from Japan to West Africa, indigo is just this really, really rich material, and the process and the craftsmanship that goes into it. I'm interested to see how the future ecology of making arises in response to biotechnologies across the world.

Where do you see yourself and your work evolving in the near or long term?

I'm sort of going through that growth moment where you've been working toward something and then you've arrived at that and you're like, "Right, what's next?" I think I'm fundamentally somebody that wants to use design as a discursive tool to understand how our technologies proliferate. My focus is really on the imagined life sciences and how they're going to become very much a part of all of our lived experiences, and particularly in the context of really urgent changes that are happening from a local level to a global level. From global warming and climate change to resource scarcity across regions, our response to what I think being able to design with living systems, can afford us in the future. So my work really is about understanding how to engage stakeholders across different sectors to grow a consensus around how we're going to leverage these sorts of technologies so that they can be technologies for good. That's really where this is going.

This article appears as part of OkayAfrica's 100 Women 2018—a project highlighting the impactful work done by African women across the globe. Throughout March, we will be publishing a series of profiles, videos, interviews and feature stories on these inspirational women.

Click here to see the entire list of 2018 honorees.

Maia & The Big Sky LP cover.

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The Nairobi-based artist is now sharing the new music video for "Pawa," the album's leading track, which we're premiering here today. Directed by Chris King, the beautiful new clip sees Maia & the Big Sky taking over the TV airwaves and minds of all of those watching, freeing them from the "power" that controls them.

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Photo: Mídia NINJA

The Assassination of Marielle Franco and the Dawn of Brazil's New Civil Rights Movement

Marielle Franco was one of a new generation of black activists trying to overturn Brazil's entrenched and violent racism

The violence in Rio de Janeiro right now is akin to a war zone, with per capita death tolls resembling those from Afghanistan and Syria. Two weeks ago I traveled there for business and stayed in the relatively safe and trendy neighborhood of Santa Teresa. Each night of my stay, was abruptly awaken by long streams of gunshots and also fireworks from the nearby favela of Falett. The fireworks—as I learned from my local friends—were not a result of any celebration, rather a signal that either drugs, guns, or the police have arrived. This is the norm for many of the 763 favelas in Rio which houses nearly 25 percent of the city's population.

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