Regarding Obama and Homosexuality in Africa

I’ve been dragging my feet about finishing a more thematically ambitious essay I started more than a week ago, but while working on that I have been actively involved in various other debates that I haven’t blogged about here. To get something up here while semi-blocked on the other project, allow me to toss out a response I gave via social media to an acquaintance of mine in central Africa this morning. He wrote:

President Barack Obama should know that we africans [sic] have our ways life. We don’t just copy anything done in the western world. Its shameful to hear president Obama advicing [sic] african governments to ligalise [sic] homosexuality and gay marriages! The American president should be made to know that we make our laws based on our ways of life, not on the uncalled for advices [sic] from foreign leaders. If there is nothing usefull [sic] he can tell african leaders and people, then he better shut up, enjoy his african tour and go back home.

What would have happen if, 500 years ago, a group of Zulu warriors would have discovered that one of the guys among them wasn't actually attracted to women but rather to men? We don't have any records that would answer that question for us one way or the other.

What would have happen if, 500 years ago, a group of Zulu warriors would have discovered that one of the guys among them wasn’t actually attracted to women but rather to men? We don’t have any records that would answer that question for us one way or the other.

This sparked a lively conversation, strictly between Africans, on topics ranging from the irrelevance of the homosexuality question to the pressing problems of poverty, Obama’s personal vanity and his mother’s potential Jewish roots to the extent to which Africans are expected to mimic western cultural standards. So in response to that my wake-up rant this morning was as follows:

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OK, as an American with no pretense at fully understanding Africa, but having tried, having only spent a year in South Africa, and having worked teaching humanities subjects in international schools in Europe for most of my professional life, I still feel I have to say something here.

President Obama is the first American president to be in touch with his African ancestry, as well as the first to have spent a significant amount of his childhood in a Muslim country. He doesn’t make any particular claims of cultural connection with your cultures beyond that, and those who have false expectations of him on those bases only have themselves and their own social echo chambers to blame.

By American political standards Obama is a moderate liberal. That means that his policy priorities are focused on better reinforcement of human rights for all both within the US and around the world… in theory. In practice of course he has his own cultural blind spots. This does not mean that he is going to start lecturing Africans on the meaning of marriage from his own cultural perspective: He will not be preaching to Jacob Zuma about the dangers of his polygamy or his adultery. But with his general human rights focus he will be telling Indians who didn’t get the message from Gandhi that they can’t treat Dalits as disposable human beings. To Africans, I honestly believe, he is fully justified in saying that there are certain abuses that cannot be tolerated in the name of “protecting cultural tradition”. These would include genocidal wars, the sexual abuse of children, and yes, killing homosexuals for no other crime than being homosexual.

It is rather difficult to say if homophobia in Africa is a cultural feature which goes back to the time when sangomas dominated religious life there, or whether homosexuality was something that Africans learned to hate and fear with the coming of Muslim and Christian missionaries. There is little question about the matter that in all cultures there have always been certain small minorities of men who are more sexually attracted to other men than to women, and that the same has gone for women as well. Westerners did not introduce this phenomenon into any culture. Westerners may have actively tried to change attitudes towards such people, in both positive and negative ways. In this regard for Obama to preach tolerance towards homosexuality in Africa is, probably to his mind, and in my mind quite justifiably, a matter of attempting to undo the damage that has done by other westerners and outsiders with their various forms of hate-mongering. There isn’t any God-given or other need for Africans to hate and attack the sexual minorities among them. Those people too are people, having value as such and capable of making important contributions in their societies.

I’ve been studying the phenomena of “Theonomy” among western Christians and “Qutbism” among Muslims as radical programs for establishing modern civil law on the basis of “God’s eternal decrees” — including a religious decree that homosexuals should be killed for their “perversion” just because “God says so.” This is not a traditional African perspective on such matters, but foreign missionary groups have very actively and successfully promoted such views on the African continent. In the name of respect for indigenous culture those messages should be rejected at least as vehemently as President Obama’s message of tolerance — preferably far more vehemently.

I say all this not as the outsider who is “so much more intelligent that you” but as the outsider who can perhaps see your situation just a little bit more clearly for not being entangled within it. You might have the same advantage in analyzing problems of European culture. I ask that you kindly consider my words here not as those of a wannabe cultural imperialist, but as those of someone who wants to be your brother in spite of having been born white and far away. Peace all.

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That’s a strictly “take it for what it’s worth” perspective, but if any of you would like to add your own $0.02 worth here, feel free.

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2 Comments

Filed under Ethics, Human Rights, Politics, Religion, Sexuality, Tolerance

2 responses to “Regarding Obama and Homosexuality in Africa

  1. You raise some good points, but you should understand that Africa has faced a lot of issues as a continent, precisely because of all the outside influences. Whether Islam or Christianity. Whether it was from Europe or Asia. Whether AIDS or Poverty or War or Corruption. A very large percentage of these issues are due to outside interference. So please understand why you see such reactions. Many Africans are suspicious of what they perceive to be yet another incursion into their moral sphere. They’re struggling to cope with their own institutions (e.g polygamy which many Africans either love or hate, have suffered under or thrived under) to deal with a new institution from the west (gay marriage). So for example, one minute, Africans are being told not to be polygamous (by christianity) then they’re being told they can be polygamous (by Islam). The next minute they’re being told not to be sexually promiscous (by both islam and christianity and native religions) then the next they’re being told to be “sexually liberated” (by the west). Now they’re being told to have men marry men and women marry women? Sigh. Maybe, we should just stop telling them what to do. Period. Allow Africans to make their own decisions about their own lives, instead of constantly twisting them one way or another

    • Thank you for your feedback. Let me make it clear that I am not, nor do I believe President Obama is, telling you who you are and are not allowed to marry, and what you are and are not allowed to do with your genitals outside of marriage. There are some facts of these matters that go beyond tradition, in which making Africans aware of scientific facts is an important task for westerners to take part in. For instance in South Africa it was important for national leaders to start getting the message that AIDS could not be prevented by showering after sex, and it could not be treated with beetroot instead of ARV medications. I don’t thing it would have been morally acceptable to let the South African poor just keep dying until their leaders figured this out for themselves. At the same time I recognize that no matter what we white westerners had to say about the matter, it was only when the people of that country heard the message from Mandela himself that they believed it.

      When it comes to homosexuality, the main point is to overcome the message that earlier generations of westerners preached in Africa that all practicing homosexuals should be killed. This is not a valid capital offence, and killing someone for such reasons is a gross human rights violation. The more people who get that message, the healthier African societies will be. I think that is worth saying, even while I acknowledge that many Africans will not believe such a message until they hear their own leaders saying it. Please help spread this message, not because it is western and thus “more civilized” on that basis, but because in line with the very African principle of ubuntu it is the right thing to do.

      Peace, David

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