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African Literatures  
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African Laws Pertaining to Homosexuality

A review of African laws pertaining to homosexuality compiled as part of the Second ILGA Pink Book, a compilation of the legal and social restrictions imposed on gay and lesbian people worldwide issued by the International Lesbian and Gay Association in 1988, reveals several judicial approaches.

The practice may be flatly stated not to exist in the country, as in the case of Congo; to be present but to receive no public attention, as in Cameroon; or to be considered not illegal, but socially taboo, as in Senegal. By far the most common report was either that no information was available or that same-gender sexual relations were explicitly prohibited in the national penal codes and subject to a variety of punishments ranging from the payment of fines and jail sentences to the death penalty.

The ILGA summary notes that where such sanctions do exist, almost all apply exclusively to men. The prohibitions are a consequence of the transfer of European legal codes to colonial venues, which accounts in part for the strictly condemnatory attitude taken by some former British possessions such as Nigeria and Kenya in contrast to a more relaxed approach where the French Code Napoléon (which makes no mention of consensual homosexual relations between adults) served as the judicial model.

The Legacy of Colonialism

Contemporary African writing of all genres is inextricably rooted in the experience of colonial rule, which in some regions of the continent lasted up to three centuries. A key tenet of imperialist ideology was to view indigenous cultures and peoples as possessing no values of their own worth perpetuating, thus rendering them prime candidates for the civilizing mission of Europeans.

Perhaps most familiarly phrased as "the White Man's Burden," this belief led to the foundation of school systems on the Western model to replace traditional initiation practices by tribal elders and to train civil service personnel for colonial bureaucracies. These same classrooms also served as the wombs of a new literature born of the transfer of European literary forms to the African imagination.

The Affirmation and Validation of African Identity

The first products of this new literature were devoted to the affirmation and validation of a unique and valuable African identity and the articulation of grievances and complaints against the established order. Much of this writing appeared originally in school literary magazines, but the more highly political poems and essays were often circulated surreptitiously.

On the achievement of political independence by most African colonial possessions and territories in the decades following World War II, the focus of African literary output shifted. Whereas initially its purpose had been to serve as a voice for the oppressed masses who could not state their demands, African literature began to explore the tumultuous minds and hearts of the newly liberated.

The novel of manners became popular as a vehicle for social commentary and criticism, subjecting all aspects of the collision between the forces of modernization and tradition to examination and reflection. Among those aspects of traditional life most heavily affected by modernization were sexuality and its permissible expressions, as well as the roles of men and women in a world lacking clearly defined and enforced boundaries.

Hence, sexual and gender roles became acceptable, if necessarily controversial, subjects in the new literature. It is within this uncertain landscape that homosexuality first makes its appearance in the pages of contemporary African writing.

Homosexuality in Contemporary African Writing

It must be frankly admitted that the exploration of the presence of homosexuality in African literature is as yet in its infancy. The primary research in this area is a 1983 survey by Daniel Vignal, at the time a member of the faculty of the Department of French at Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria.

Published in the journal Peuples Noirs, Peuples Africains as an article entitled "L'homophilie dans le roman négro-africain d'expression anglaise et française," it examined African literature in both English and French for its use of homosexual themes.

Vignal's list of relevant works ranges in date from 1960 to the early 1980s and includes some twenty-three novels and one short story from authors representing Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Congo, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Kenya, Mali, Guinea, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Uganda, and Zaire.

Among the volumes included are such widely read creations as Ayi Kwei Armah's Two Thousand Seasons (1973), Kofi Awoonor's This Earth, My Brother (1971), Wole Soyinka's The Interpreters (1973), and Yulisa Amadu Maddy's No Past, No Present, No Future (1973). Following a lengthy and detailed documentation of the varied depictions and literary uses of homosexuality, Vignal observes that "for the majority . . . is exclusively introduced by colonialists or their descendants; by outsiders of all kinds; Arabs, English, French, metis and so on. It is difficult for them to conceive that homophilia might be the act of a black African."

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