By Arya Jeipea Karijo for LGBT History Month 2024

The challenge in looking at queer pasts in Africa is that what western framing calls queer, what the western framing called immoral, what the western framing called uncivilised; was what all colonised people called their culture, called their way of life, called their way of being. Queerness as we know it today was part of spirituality, it was part of continuity of families, it was part of celebration of milestones in life such as childbirth.

Therefore to ask indigenous peoples of whatever part of the world if their culture was queer is partly a fallacy of presumption because it assumes that these people agree with a Western framing that created boxes. This framing labelled some boxes normal, heterosexual, good and labelled other boxes abnormal, homosexual, deviant and bad. The laws based on this framing of course went on to criminalise anything that didn’t seem to fit the boxes.

Orlando Patterson spoke of “Natal Alienation” in relation to slavery where slaves were genealogical isolates from their ancestry and so only had their masters point of reference to the world. African or other indigenous queer people all over the world have to  find pieces of heritage and pieces of belonging through this lens. The only way to be connected with these queer African pasts is seeking a relationality and a seeing of self in this past. Seeking an equivalence of modern queerness to indigenous queer culture would not work. Queer Africans are African or indigenous and therefore like all other African people have a claim to their ancestry and belonging and their search for cultural pasts that they identify with is valid.

Queer pasts

A difference in words used in the past with how they are perceived today plays out all over Africa. In Ethiopia “wobo” was used to mean crooked for the Maale people or God’s mistakes for the Coptic Amharas. These wändarwäräd (loosely translated to male female) were part of the community and unlike modern Western anti-rights christian groups “God’s mistakes” weren’t subjected to earthly persecution by Christians, but it was a word for acceptance and inclusion. The Ashtime (ritually installed wändarwäräd) served in the palace which gave them a place in society protected by Kings and not pushed to the fringes of society as is the case in modern day Ethiopia. There were also “mannish women” wändawände who were subject of many myths but not much was documented about them by white male ethnographers.

All over Kenya and Africa there are people like me, people using modern words such as transgender to identify with their erased pasts. Finding something in the now in order to belong in the present and to create a future. In the Lango peoples in current Uganda people like me were referred to as Mudoko Dauku. With the Hausa of Nigeria we were referred to as the Yan Daudu and we occupied a space in gender that was not man or woman. In Angola and Namibia, like the Mugwe of the Meru in Kenya, their diviners Zvibanda were possessed with powerful feminine spirits. 

The reaction of colonisers to queer identities is still reflected by people today,  400 years later. Whatever we experience on Twitter or Meta apps was experienced by our ancestors. Father Antonio Cavazzi on meeting the Ganga-Ya-Chibanda in Congo described the diviner of this tribe as a “a bare faced, insolent, obscene, villainous, disreputable scoundrel” who “committed the foulest crimes” with impunity. Cavazzi couldn’t understand why this shaman was dressed as a “grandmother”, he couldn’t understand why he freely walked and lived in women’s secluded chambers and he assumed it was to engage in his “brutal passions”. The Ganga, like many effeminate men with a similar title in Africa, took men for husbands, but the Priest could not get this and assumed cis heterosexuality.

In my argument with a British woman on Twitter I mentioned female sons and male daughters. She quickly responded saying she had nothing against “DSD people”. I corrected her ignorance and also called her out for referring to intersex people as “DSD”. Female sons and male daughters was a term from the Igbo people of Nigeria. It had nothing to do with sex. It had everything to do with gender roles. Families that needed a son or a daughter could choose any child regardless of whether they were male or female to become a son or a daughter. This was in West Africa, but it also resonated with a practice among the Agikuyu of East Africa where a young person, if they were struggling with fitting into whatever groups, could walk around the Mugumo tree several times and when they came back the community would place them whatever gender roles they fitted in. This ambivalence and rightful non causal relationship between sex and gender was common. In her book “The Invention of Women” Dr. Oyeronke Oyewumi talks about Obinrin and Okunrin terms that were descriptive of anatomy in regards to reproduction. However this recognition, according to Oyeronke, did not refer to gender categories connoting social privileges nor did they imply sexual dimorphism. In the Yoruba culture anyone could take up whatever roles in society including warriorhood, elderhood and leadership. Age, skill and experience is what mattered in taking up a role.  The Igbo account, the Kikuyu account and Dr. Oyewumi’s account of the Yoruba complement the story of Queen Nzinga of the Ndongo who for four decades defended her people against the Portuguese invaders. Queen Nzinga was the Ngola (King) of her people. She ruled dressed as a man , surrounded by a harem of young men dressed as women. The Mbundu recognised gender as situational and symbolic. Queen Nzinga’s rule evokes memories of Hatshepsut, Queen regent in 1479 BC to 1458 BC. Hatshepsut was Pharaoh, wore a golden beard and was referred to in genderless terms. Egyptians believed Pharaohs were divinity.

Wall Art

Family continuity did not also happen in the way that it is seen in modern times that is fixated around heterosexual sex. In communities such as the Kamba the belief was that if you did not have a son your ancestors were lost in limbo. So the Iweto (two women) would marry in order to save their ancestors and continue their lineage. With the Kuria who are both in Kenya and Tanzania, women who married other women were known as mokamööna. The Agikuyu women who married other women firmly refused to be seen as men or female husbands, they were women. Unlike modern Africa where continuity is only believed to happen through heterosexuality, in African pasts what is now known as queer was crucial and in some cases “life saving” for our ancestors.

Global futures

In queer theory, one is encouraged to look at the world through a different lens. Many queer theorists try to queer their fields both in terms of practitioners and in terms of practice. Queer theory is not only about challenging social inequalities but also imagining futures through the lens of people who have to fight to be in the present.

For African queer people and queer people in Africa the talk about futures might be met with pessimism. We are barely surviving the present. 26 countries still have British colonial penal codes that make queer existence criminal. British criminalisation of queerness was empire wide not just limited to Africa. The people of Pakistan and India had Khawaja Sira and Hijra respectively, who according to Jessica Hinchy were criminalised in the Criminal Tribes act of 1871 to keep the social hegemony of the British man at the apex of society followed by Sikh’s and Pathans and with the effeminate Bengali stuck at the bottom. In this social order women were only relevant as their husbands’ wives while the Khawaja Sira and Hijra went from being palace attendants to begging for a living.

Hijras in Bangalore

While many of the British colonial laws have been repealed and the remaining ones not actively enforced, only being used occasionally for extortion by police, there is a new wave of legislation this time by African leaders who claim to be protecting both African culture and the family. In African countries the new legislation is supported by far-right groups such as CitizenGo from Spain and Family Watch International from the USA. All we see is a second round of erasure of our existence, 100 years after the first round.

How could I speak of a future to any queer person in this context? Not only of a future, but of a queer future. How can millions of us raise our hearts and minds from the trenches of trying to stay alive, from the activism of trying to prevent our erasure, and imagine for a minute the future?

I want to imagine this future based on our pasts. The Ameru who are my people of origin created families with Maa and Galla peoples when they emigrated to Mount Kenya from the Indian Ocean. I imagine that future families will be made of choice with bonds of blood like the Wagalla and Ameru, in this future “blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.” In this queer future we will have a home in each other’s home with our origins of where we were born becoming only useful to identify ourselves, in similar fashion to like the Wagalla waving white tufts of grass when coming to the Meru, but never as a restriction to where we can make a home in the world. A home in Africa, a home in Eurasia, a home in the Americas. In this future we would not need to be stuck in paperwork limbo or jump through decades long red tape while stuck in refugee camps. In this queer future no one obsesses about whether we are lesbian or transgender, we are just human beings with roles in societies, with families that we love and with people who we share our lives with. Maybe in this future, who we took as a family and our communal existence would be seen as the key to survival and thriving, as opposed to being seen as labour, as opposed to family members being seen as populace to extract labour from to build an African or whichever other imagined national or racial renaissance.

In such futures technology, religion, governance, commerce would serve humanity and the planet instead of extracting from both. Tech would allow you to move around the world with a global identity. Religions would honour our humanity and our spirituality instead of erasing the former and fighting the latter. Commerce would help us exchange our skills and craft instead of herding us into class tiers where we were stuck for life, engaged in an unending lifelong attempt to break out. Governance would facilitate human unity instead of fighting for narrow territories of resource control. 

Even to a person who is not an African or a Middle Eastern queer stuck in a state of statelessness, my dreams of the future might seem ridiculous. Even if I back up my dreams with thousands of years of indigenous cultures as evidence of possibility they still seem far fetched. In this world in which according to Yuval Harari we have overcome disease, effects of war and famine or at least have the means to overcome all of these, my dream would still rank as far-fetched. 

The challenges of the present may bring us to the point where we are tempted to deny the existence of both the past and deny the possibilities of the future. Our presents can be the continual link for our imagined futures as described by Neema Githere in their theory of “Afropresentism”. The question we are faced with becomes, “what resource do we need to build this future?” and the answer is <<Hope>>. Hope built on the evidence of making this future a present reality for one individual at a time. We need hope built on queerness. We need words that bring this hope to life, words like José Esteban Muñoz, in his work Cruising Utopia that remind us of the powerful insights to life from our queer existence.

The future is queerness’s domain. Queerness is a structuring and educated mode of desiring that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present. The here and now is a prison house.

Arya Jeipea Karijo is a trans woman in Kenya working at the intersection of human rights, LGBTIQ rights, feminism and gender equality. She is a user experience researcher and designer, building for simplicity in human lives – applications, experiences and interventions for people’s resilience and the planet’s sustainability. She was a Data Journalism Fellow for open Democracy’s Tracking the Backlash team in 2020.

Arya is currently working on Narrative Change for her communities in Eastern Africa

Did you know that some of the current struggles of LGBTQI+ people seeking safety here are shaped by our colonial past as well?  Learn more