Sunday, April 20, 2014

Homosexuality in Africa (Part 2)

also see: Homosexuality in Africa - (Part 1)


A very exceptional case was provided by the Nkund¢, a Mongo people of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their tradition of homosexuality among men included the requirement that the younger men assume the top position. That tradition had died out by the time it was reported, but had been replaced by several others. One replacement was a game called yembankongo wherein younger boys pretend to be monkeys. Another replacement was the game of "playing parents," which is very commonly reported. Among the youngest children the game is merely imitative of adult sexual positions, but as the young people mature the game becomes perfectly conscious sex. And in the game not much attention is paid to whether the partners are of the same or opposite sexes. Among the older boys, when they lay together, one would say to the other, "This is what I do to your sister." The missionary who made this report then suggests that the boys are not really doing anything homosexual because they say that stuff about each other's sisters. Female homosexuality was well known and was called ya¡kya bons ngo which can be translated very roughly as "bumping pussies." The missionary writes, "Homosexuality has been known among the Nkund¢ since time immemorial, among men as well as women." But then he tries to explain it away, saying it is difficult for the young people to get married (Hulstaert). This kind of doublethink is found over and over in the literature whether the writers are missionaries, colonialists, historians, or anthropologists. A tradition is something that the average person in society knows about and reports. Since the average person in any society is non-gay, traditions of homosexuality are filtered through non-gay perceptions. Then when the traditions are reported, they are filtered again through the prejudices of the anthropologist or the colonial civil servant or whoever. Finally, before the report is printed, it is often is edited or censored. Sometimes we end up with a few sentences in bad Latin, if we are lucky. Often we find only a reference to "unspeakable acts" or "reprehensible scenes." We have a good idea what is meant. But the details are lost. Then we may find a later report that is more candid. We just have to suppose that the later report explains what the "unspeakable acts" were.

Here, however, is an example in which the earlier investigator gave the better account. The Fang live in the forest on the border between Gabon and Cameroon. The Fang were so called Bantus who replaced the original Pygmy inhabitants of this area three or four hundred years ago. One writer (Trezenem) reported: "Neither homosexuality or bestiality have ever been recorded, to our knowledge, among the Fang." That writer did his fieldwork around 1935. Writers who treat homosexuality and bestiality in the same sentence do not merit our trust. The Fang deserve a closer look. Sure enough, a writer who did his fieldwork around 1905 recorded traditions of homosexuality among the Fang. First Gunther Tessmann gives the usual reports of younger people playing parents. He reports a game played by older boys among the neighbouring Pangwe: one boy plays the wife of another and presents the play-husband with a mud pie. If the husband accepts, he pretends to eat the mud pie. They do not, however, pretend to have sex, but have sex in fact. Adult Fang excuse this sort of thing by saying the children do not know what they are doing and that children have no sense of shame. Adult Fang imply that such things never happen between adults. Tessmann then writes: We have spoken of homosexual relations among 'children.' In adults such conduct is regarded as something immoral and unnatural, simply as unheard of. In reality, however, it is frequently 'heard of' that young people carry on homosexual relations with each other and even of older people who take boys, who, as is well known, 'have neither understanding nor shame'. And they readily console them by saying: [we are playing a game]. The children are excused with the well-known assertion, which in its deeper sense can rarely be defended: [they don't know what they are doing]. Adults are excused with the corresponding assertions: [he has the heart of boys], which is, of course, by no means flattering to them.

Publicly, of course, homosexuals are treated with the greatest contempt, and they were therefore forced, as a matter of course, to cast about for a protective covering to shield themselves from the attacks of those who are different, just as a porcupine is protected by its covering of quills, a covering on which the attackers would cut their mouths and their caustic tongues. Such a covering was supplied by medicine, it was said that homosexuality is 'wealth medicine.'

Well, do you think that homosexuality among the Fang had completely disappeared by the Thirties, so that the writer who denied it was being completely honest? Or do you think it more likely that he was not sufficiently interested to ask the right questions of the right people. Certainly he made no great effort to survey the literature on the point. Clearly the Fang are as capable of being hypocritical as anyone. Perhaps by the Thirties they had learned to be more careful about what they said to Europeans. The Fang were not proud of their traditions of homosexuality. Adult male homosexuality was not generally accepted by the Fang. Fang homosexuals had to have a cover story. They told the other Fang: we are not really homosexual; we are just making money. Perhaps the Fang, as much as any of us, realised it was just an excuse, but at least it was an acceptable excuse. This is an example of a homosexual tradition and also an example of a tradition that not everyone in society thinks well of. According to Fang belief, the bottom man has the wealth medicine and the top man acquires it. Tessmann writes: "In actual fact it might turn out the effect of the medicine consists in the mutual support the 'friends' render each other, based chiefly on the consciousness of common guilt and the endeavour not to let this guilt be known." The wealth medicine is called bian nkuma which is generally used as an euphemism for anal sex between men. There is also a down side to this. Fang think homosexuality causes diseases such as leprosy and yaws.

The Fang are great story tellers and you are likely to find some of their stories in any anthology of African folktales. One of the stories involves four suitors who arrive at Bongo's house to court his beautiful daughter. The suitors were Schok I, Schok II, Schok III, and Schok IV. The daughter liked Schok IV. The mother liked Schok III. The brother liked Schok II. Bongo, the father, liked Schok I. Night fell and when they laid down, Schok IV laid with the daughter, Schok III laid with the mother, Schok II laid with the brother, and Schok I laid with Bongo. Schok IV tried to get romantic with the daughter, but since they were all in the same hut, the others made remarks to discourage him. Instead, he and the daughter planned to run away together, and the next day that is what they did. When it became apparent what had happened, Schok III flew into a rage, killed the mother, and fled. But Schok II decided to stay with the brother and be the brother's lover. Bongo wanted to make it up to Schok I, so he offered Schok I money and a wife. But Schok I refused, saying: "No, I don't want it. Rather, let it be that we shall always be together; when you urinate I shall urinate; when you defecate, I shall defecate; when you sleep, I shall also sleep with you in the same bed." Those Fang! Such romantics! Anyway, that is the Fang pledge of eternal love. So Schok I stayed with Bongo and was his lover. They became quite rich. But this is, after all, a Fang story, and the Fang do not approve of homosexuality, so eventually one of the lovers died of leprosy and the other died of yaws, while the Schok who had murdered the mother got away scot-free. In stories, disease awaits all those whom the Fang consider to be sexual deviants, such as anyone who has sex in the daytime.

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