It is often argued that “homosexuality is un-African”. While cultures vary across different African countries and communities, a common element of African cultural life centres on belonging to a community of people. For example, the key principle of Southern African philosophy is ubuntu whose definition is captured in the Zulu saying “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” – “A person is a person through persons”.

In many Western cultures, human identity places less emphasis on interpersonal relations, and is instead based on an individualistic approach: “I think, therefore I am”. Ubuntu on the other hand says, “I am because you are, and because you are, therefore, I am”. In other words, the individual is affected by what happens to the whole group, as indeed the whole group is affected by what happens to the individual.

The framework of togetherness that is encouraged by key philosophies of African origin like ubuntu requires that cultures should live side by side, and should see diversity as enriching the community as opposed to diminishing it. The claim that lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders and intersexuals (LGBTI) are inherently incompatible with African cultures is not supported by history or contemporary experience.

Historians have shown that prior to the influx of missionaries in the 19th century, same-sex relationships existed in most African cultures – this is reflected in ancient art; in indigenous language terms as seen with the Hausa people in northern Nigerian, who were among the last cultures to be colonised by Europeans in the 20th century; and in preserved records – for example, a 16th century Brazilian inquisition refers to the “jimbandaa” – a term originating from Angola and Congo to refer to men who had sex with men. As seen in the following quote from “Being Rwandan and Gay”, a 2009 article in a Rwandan newspaper, contemporary experience also confirms that homosexuality is not a “Western” phenomenon.

 


"Many people think that gay Rwandans were influenced by western cultures. This is a big lie and an insult. I take myself as a living example: I’ve been in contact with Western Culture through the Internet for two years but I knew I was different since I was 12. Right now, I am in my twenties and nothing has changed. I am still attracted to men. I’ve never told anybody since it would be called a shame and I would be an outcast in my family. It really is not easy; I didn’t choose that, and I wasn’t influenced by anybody.”


Therefore, although culture has been used as justification for discriminating against LGBTI, the paradox is that, while sexual orientation is a factor of one’s nature regardless of citizenship,homophobia is in itself the “un-African” crime in that discrimination – and particularly, the violent discrimination that frequently accompanies homophobia – is in absolute opposition to the cultural philosophy of ubuntu. To discriminate against LGBTI is therefore to harm our culture and break down our own social fabric.