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.
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:
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.
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.