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African Literatures  
 
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The treatment of same-sex relationships in African literatures has been influenced by the traditional belief systems of various African societies, the imported views of Christianity and Islam, and the political and legal legacies of European colonialism.

The elusive yet universal force of sexuality appears in virtually all genres of literature, with its definition and expression determined by the interwoven threads of cultural mores and traditions, historical experiences unique to each land and century, and the intent of individual authors. The massive twentieth-century explosion of literature by African authors using Western literary forms offers an opportunity for the exploration of sexual attitudes.

Sponsor Message.

Any attempt to understand the treatment of homosexuality as a theme in modern African plays, poetry, and novels must take into account traditional views on same-sex relationships, the influence of the imported religions of Christianity and Islam, and the political and legal conditions faced by the authors, especially the legacy of colonialism.

Traditional Views of Same-Sex Relationships

Contrary to the claims of some scholarship, homosexuality was not an unknown behavior over much of the African continent before colonialism. The range of local opinion on the topic, however, varied considerably. In his landmark 1988 work The Construction of Homosexuality, David Greenberg proposed a four-part classification to bring order to the descriptions of homosexual behavior recorded for various cultures across the centuries.

Robert Baum's 1993 application of this analytic framework to published ethnographic data on fifty African cultures verified the presence of three types of homosexual behavior in traditional African societies, namely, transgenerational, transgenderal, and egalitarian relationships.

Available data indicate that the transgenerational and transgenderal patterns of homosexual behaviors are of great significance in many traditional African belief systems. Their function is involved with the proper maturation of children into full adulthood and the achievement and transfer of certain types of spiritual and religious authority. In an interesting parallel to the North American berdache tradition, some societies also recognize the existence of an intermediate gender considered sacred and with powers beyond the ordinary.

Egalitarian homosexuality covers the familiar category of adolescent sexual exploration between members of the same gender, which is viewed as natural and acceptable for that stage of life but not usually sanctioned in adulthood.

The lack of extensive and reliable data on homosexuality in African cultures in the literature of anthropology is due to factors ranging from a true absence of the phenomenon in the culture under study to informant awareness of the disapproval with which the researcher's culture viewed same-gender relationships.

The Influences of Christianity and Islam

Although Christianity had been introduced to the cities of the Roman province of Libya by the second century C.E., its influence in sub-Saharan Africa (outside the Coptic faith of Egypt and the monophysite church of Ethiopia) was limited prior to the late fifteenth century. The Portuguese mission to the Kingdom of Kongo in 1486 had as one of its objectives the spreading of the faith and served as the forerunner of some three centuries of evangelization by various denominations.

Success in transplanting specific mores and codes of conduct varied with the zeal of individual workers and the degree of cultural sensitivity they possessed. A common goal of all evangelizing was the provision of basic education, including literacy, as a means of inculcating Christian values and standards of behavior, including prohibitions against homosexuality. Christian educational institutions (perceived as both beneficial and imperialistic) profoundly influenced African literature in many areas of the continent.

The coming of Islam to Africa occurred as part of the initial wave of conversion sent forth by the heirs of the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century. The swift acceptance of Islam by many cultures had less to do with specific dogma and more with its willingness to be flexible on such matters as polygamy.

Its adoption was most pronounced in West and North Africa, although the trading cities of the Indian Ocean coast such as Mombasa and Malindi also had connections to the Muslim world. With the advent of Islam in Africa, local mosques served as sources of education alongside established bodies of folklore and animistic beliefs. Emphasis was placed on learning Arabic, the original language of the Holy Koran, as translation of the scriptures into local vernaculars was forbidden. Thus, as Islam spread, the idea of written literature was disseminated across much of Africa.

A basic tenet of the new faith was submission of each individual's will to the will of God as codified in the body of Islamic law called the Shari'ah, "the path." In this frame of reference, sexuality is viewed as a natural and positive drive present in all human beings, with heterosexual marriage regarded as a foretaste of the eternal joys of Paradise.

As a type of sexual activity occurring outside the licensed boundaries of marriage, homosexuality is classed as a form of adultery, a revolt against the divinely established order, and a source of darkness and disruption. Its practice is explicitly condemned in the two most fundamental documents of Islam: the Koran, the word of God as revealed to the Prophet, and the Hadith, a collection of deeds and sayings attributed to him and used as a source of precedent.

Although the punishments of one hundred lashes and death by stoning are mandated for homosexual acts by unmarried and married persons, respectively, a chief aim of the Shari'ah is the discouragement of unacceptable behavior, rather than any desire to carry out the full letter of the written law. This emphasis on preserving the divinely ordered social plan effectively isolated homosexuality as a practice known to occur but seldom publicly recognized.

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