Sex in the archives: same-sex relationships in pre-colonial times

What kinds of same-sex relationships existed in southern Africa prior to colonialism; how and why did these change over time; and where did today’s overt homophobia come from? To these questions, critical to policy formulation of public health interventions, Marc Epprecht found some interesting answers hidden away in archives.

Marc Epprecht


When I first started research into the history of same-sex sexuality in Zimbabwe in the mid-1990s, several colleagues at the university there questioned the feasibility of the project. I suspected they were right. A two-page article by a famous anthropologist claimed that the extreme rarity of homosexuality among the Shona proved their healthy socialisation. Two footnotes in two scholarly books mentioned a handful of cases of male-male sexual crimes among Africans from mid-colonial times. Otherwise I had no idea of where to look for evidence, which had to be from before or from the very beginning of the colonial period to be of use to me.

The search for a sexual taboo

Colleagues were not that helpful. Everyone said that homosexuality was a taboo topic, a sexual secret. Such relationships, if they existed at all, would have been fleeting, and of so little meaning that they would have been quickly forgotten even by the people who engaged in them. There would be no record of them.

I asked someone who knew the archives like the back of his hand if he had ever come across references or knew places in the archives where I could look for clues to this hidden secret. He sent me to the diary of a colonial official in charge of the administration of law and order in a certain Shona chiefdom in the 1890s. At last, I thought, I am on the way! But after days of poring over hundreds of pages of scarcely legible hand-written notes dealing with all kinds of marital, witchcraft and cattle disputes, I went back to the colleague to express my frustration. ‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘Exactly,’ he replied.

Eventually I did manage to find numerous other sources with abundant evidence that shed light on my main questions.

My sources included transcripts of criminal court cases dating from the very first year of colonial jurisprudence, government enquiries, press reports, health documents, Bushman cave paintings, private letters and more. Another colleague in South Africa found graffiti on prison walls which spoke of male-male sex. This was especially interesting to me, not for new information on the sex itself, but because his research assistant tried to hide the evidence from him.

Virtually none of this material was catalogued or indexed, so the search involved a lot of time, luck, and intuition. Often it was a boring and frustrating slog. But it was a thrill when I stumbled upon a hidden gem – documented proof of the first known use of the word nkotshane more than 100 years ago  (from which today’s word for homosexuality in chiShona derives), and transcripts of trials where African men speak to us from generations past to tell of their love for each other, among many examples.

Bringing same-sex sexuality in Africa into the debate

Many other researchers have since engaged the project of making same-sex sexuality and gender variance in Africa visible and hence inserting them into the complex debates over reproductive and sexual rights/health. The last couple of years have seen some extremely impressive contributions - and 2013 promises to provide a further bumper crop. New studies from Mali, the Gambia, Uganda, Nigeria, Ethiopia, hardscrabble townships in South Africa and more, show clearly that the so-called greatest taboo is not impossible to breach in research terms.

Some of these recent interventions have been very powerful and may lead to policy, legal and perhaps even attitudinal changes. A recent World Bank (WB) report on men who have sex with men (MSM) is an important example. It uses public health and economistic measurements to argue in favour of sexual minority rights. Yet, in some ways such studies also create new problems for those of us who hope that research will support transformation towards both an entrenched culture of human rights and social justice in Africa, as well as a political economy that supports such a culture. Let me give a few examples.

The role of historical documents in policy formulation

The aforementioned WB report presents the existence of MSM and homophobia as given, constant problems that are costing Africa thousands of lives and many millions of dollars per year. In effect it establishes a new historical narrative: there is no history. According to this view we do not need to know where today’s MSM or gay sub-cultures came from, how sexual stereotypes about racial, ethnic or religious groups developed (and how such stereotypes play out in contemporary politics), why Africans (all of them?) are so homophobic, why MSM were not included in previous public health interventions going back over the last 25 years, or what was the role of the WB in creating the very conditions that it now blames Africans for.

To be fair, the WB is a bank, not a history channel. The authors of this report depended primarily on biomedical and sociological studies conducted by others. These, in turn, draw largely upon personal histories typically collected through “sample-driven surveys”. Personal testimony gives rich insights into the struggles and stresses of life under homophobic and structural adjustment regimes. It puts a human face on the tragedies (and triumphs) of people who do not conform to the expectations of dominant culture. Yet, looking closely, we can see that informants in these surveys are overwhelmingly young people. This means they can hardly say anything pertinent to the discussion from personal experience that is older than the 1990s. In some cases, when informants told their interviewers about local traditions, they were actually repeating what they had read or heard about European anthropologists. I once encountered a study that quoted someone (mis)quoting me, a phenomenon known as “paraliterate feedback”.

People everywhere also tend to overstate or oversimplify their arguments, or generalise from their own experiences, sometimes coloured by nostalgia or self-interest. There may be self-interest involved, for example, in exaggerating the horrors of life under homophobic political leaders in order to garner international sympathy and donor funds.

Taking the time to check contemporary sources against evidence preserved in historical documents is thus, in my view, critically important to policy formulation.

It can help to ensure that the discussions are informed by awareness of different ways of looking at issues than might be assumed based on current stereotypes, secrets, or taken-for-granted assumptions.

Marc Epprecht is the author of Hungochani: The History of a Dissident Sexuality in Southern Africa, and professor in the Departments of History and Global Development Studies at Queen’s University, Canada. He was recently a visiting scholar in the Human and Social Development programme at the HSRC (Pretoria). This article is based upon a seminar which formed part of the HSRC’s Distinguished Lecture Series in the Humanities.