Thursday, 29 May 2014

The view from abroad

‘I think the Black sense of male and female is much more sophisticated than the western idea. I think that Black men and women are much less easily thrown by the question of gender or sexual preference – all that jazz.’
                                                                                                                     James Baldwin

I was recently in Cape Town as one of four speakers for a debate on ‘Sexuality and the Law’. The event itself, which held at the university, was part of the annual Africa Month programme to ‘celebrate our Afropolitan vision, the beacon that guides our engagements on the African continent. That vision is about our connectedness to the continent and our desire to play a role as an intellectual meeting point between Africa and the rest of the world.’
This year’s topic was dictated by the recent anti-gay legislations in Uganda and Nigeria, itself part of the widespread homophobia that appears to have surged through the continent. It also happens to be a subject South Africans feel strongly about, having themselves legislated in favour of same-sex marriage. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was among those counted in the struggle against apartheid, voiced what I take to be the common view in his country:

We must be entirely clear about this: the history of people is littered with attempts to legislate against love or marriage across class, caste, and race. But there is no scientific basis or genetic rationale for love. There is only the grace of God. There is no scientific justification for prejudice and discrimination, ever. And nor is there any moral justification. Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa, among others, attest to these facts.

In my own contribution, I suggested that Nigeria’s Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, while generally popular, was politically motivated by a president anxious to appease a constituency determined on his ouster next year. I also suggested that, again though popular, the legislation may have been posited on a misunderstanding of what constitutes what we are pleased to call ‘African culture’ that was supposedly hostile to alternative narratives, for instance love between members of the same sex. This may or may not be the case but we don’t know because we have banned the study of history, which might otherwise be our guide to such arcane matters. Ironically, not even the ‘apartheid gods’ went that far, choosing instead to rewrite the narrative to suit their own purposes, which is what any serious ruling class does.
Whatever the case, the underlying assumption of the event in Cape Town was that no government anywhere had the right to legislate against what people were ‘allowed’ to do as long as they didn’t disturb the next person. Passing laws to corral them into a preconceived set of moral imperatives simply because you possess the power to do so was in itself a fascistic act, and this whether based on a concept of ‘race’ (itself a misnomer) or sexual orientation.
And, yet, the matter can hardly be as simple as that, and for the reason raised by a member of the audience who expressed uneasiness that the agenda concerning gay rights was a foreign invention foisted on Africans by those who colonised us yesterday but lecture us today on the universality of human rights. In either case, we remain the helpless butts of an agenda set by others, which is then easily exploited by African leaders seeking cheap popularity. This is well taken and true enough as far as it goes, but the essential hollowness of this argument – if it can be so called - is perfectly illustrated here in Nigeria by the ongoing drama of the abducted schoolgirls. On the one hand, President Jonathan (like his Ugandan counterpart) outlaws gay marriage as an expression of our independence; on the other, he rushes to Paris in order to beg those same foreign powers to come and rescue the schoolgirls from the clutches of fellow Africans who have threatened to sell them into slavery, women as chattel presumably also being part of our supposedly time-honoured cultural values. All this must be pleasing to the likes of Senator Ahmed Yerima, the former Zamfara state governor who was the first to introduce Shariah in order that he might marry a 13-year-old girl as his fourth wife, and this despite the provisions of the Child Rights Act that he and his fellow northern governors have consistently refused to sign into law.
The point, in any case, is not so much that we have forfeited the right to the moral high ground, to judge what is right and what is wrong, but that our responses can hardly be dictated by outsiders, which is what the whole debate amounts to. We are like the child who does the opposite of what their parents tell them merely because their parents tell them and for no other reason. In other words, our responses are purely reactive. In the process, we don’t stop to ask ourselves what we think about the larger issues of our age. The irony here is that those indigenous cultures we fall back on to justify our non-actions (which is what it amounts to) would not have survived as long as they did had they not themselves adapted to the changing world around them, including the foreign onslaught which sought to subjugate them and would now save us from ourselves.
In other words, cultures are not static entities handed down at the beginning of time and fixed forever in stone like the Ten Commandments. But until we begin to interrogate what is best for us irrespective of what others say, so long shall we remain slaves to their whims. Passing anti-gay legislation is not an assertion of our independence but the abrogation of it. That it is popular is a commentary on our collective inability to see beyond those amongst us who use it to subjugate us even as they turn our country into a laughing stock in the eyes of the world.
©Adewale Maja-Pearce
An earlier version of this piece first appeared in Hallmark, 27 May 2014.

Adewale Maja-Pearce is the author of several books, including Loyalties
and Other Stories, In My Father's Country, How many miles to Babylon?, A
Mask Dancing, Who's Afraid of Wole Soyinka?, From Khaki to Agbada,
Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa and Other Essays, A Peculiar Tragedy, and
Counting the Cost, as well as the 1998 and 1999 annual reports on human
rights violations in Nigeria. He also edited The Heinemann Book of African
Poetry in English, Wole Soyinka: An Appraisal, Christopher Okigbo:
Collected Poems, The New Gong Book of New Nigerian Short Stories,

and Dream Chasers. The House My Father Built, a memoir, will be
published later this year.

Click here to see Maja-Pearce's page:

1 comment:

  1. Inasmuch as our outlawing of homosexuality does not amount to an expression of our autonomy from foreign powers, the act of outlawing that nefarious sex orientation is a laudable policy.
    In fact, no one is complaining about lesbianism because it is entirely unproblematic, even pleasing to the eye. But how can two men be having sexual intercourse? The thought of it sickens 'our mind' let alone the very act. Never have I seen a thing as disgusting as homosexuality.
    In much the same way that Boko Haram insurgency threatens our common livelihood, so also does this perverted practice tend to plung us into irrecoverable ruination.
    Homosexuality is moral insurgency. There is a conscionable mandate to 'purge' humanity of the gay disaster, even if it amounts to death.