I have been trying to figure out what to write about Neville Hoad’s recent African Intimacies: Race, Homosexuality, and Globalization (U Minnesota, 2007). Phrases in my mind include, “it is the first queer study of sub-Saharan Africa”; “Hoad’s process of assembling his archive is just as important as the final assemblage”; “Hoad re-thinks the invention of Africa through its orifices”; “Hoad is a jolly good read!”
In truth, I remain stymied by a short book that does a lot of things, some brilliantly, others less so (the chapter on Soyinka’s The Interpreters is the weakest, but the chapter on Mda’s Welcome to Our Hillbrow is stunning). Of what the book does well, I mention only two—saving the rest for the review in progress.
First, Hoad re-orients the question that has plagued studies of African homosexuality. Instead of engaging in the unanswerable, “did homosexuality exist in Africa prior to colonialism?” Hoad asks how “corporeal intimacies” come to be regarded as sexual. What constitutes sex and sexuality within colonial archives? In the broadest possible way, this statement re-thinks Foucault for Africa, claiming—this is more sotto voce in Hoad than I’d like—that Foucault’s four categories of sexuality—the Malthusian couple, the masturbating child, the hysterical woman, and the homosexual—these four categories in the “West” need to be re-thought for Africa.
This idea is stunning both in its conceptual complexity and in the doors it breaks down for we who work on African sexuality. Hoad, by the by, is amazing at breaking down doors.
Even more impressive, his re-reading of the Kabaka Mwanga scandal—Mwanga is accused of martyring catholic pages at his court because they would not “give in to his desires”—urges us to re-think African archives. Instead of engaging in the strange search for mentions of “African homosexuality,” we can read through the archives to understand how the very process of archive constitution became sexualized, and was, in fact was one mode of inventing Africans. (In conversation, I have claimed that this one chapter makes the entire book worthwhile! And I would love to see it excerpted in a wide-ranging anthology on Queer African Sexualities—any publisher willing to take me up on this?)
This is not to repeat the claim that Africans were hypersexualized—in fact, those of us who have spent some time with archives know that Africans were hyper- and hypo-sexualized, that African sexualities proliferate in the archives in much more complex ways than our Afro-Victorian research strategies have allowed us to recognize. (Afro-Victorian is Simon Gikandi’s coinage.)
Here there’s a broader question of how our research strategies, research questions, and research assumptions have both helped and hindered our approaches to African sexualities.
Hoad’s queer approach—and it is queer—to the problem of homosexuality in Africa raises vital and important questions about the relationship of queer scholarship, queer methods, to the field of African homosexualities.
Put otherwise, Hoad, and, indeed, the study of sexuality in Africa, must contend with how to read the history of homosexuality in Africa alongside the vexed (and perhaps longer) history of queering in Africa. Not simply as a matter of how “the West” queered Africa, but also how we can and should read African strategies of queering: how do Africans queer other Africans and to what end?
More generally, what is the status of “the homosexual” within queer studies? I continue to wrestle with this.
I’m veering off course. Damn book. Excites my neurons.
Second, Hoad has a more extended argument, which emerges in pieces, about the relationship between religion, predominantly Christianity, and sexuality in Africa. I have argued in my own work that we cannot conceive of modern sexuality in Africa without going through religion—the first Gikuyu-language dictionaries are created by or at least in consultation with missionaries. As a recorded, written language, Gikuyu is already embedded within religious discourse. And as Bishop Akinola’s pronouncements in Nigeria demonstrate, the church continues to wield enormous influence over what we consider sexuality—that we go to church and then fornicate (usually not in church) does not invalidate the church’s ability to shape sexual discourse, if not sexual mores. Especially when it comes to homosexuality.
I like the range of the book, from the late nineteenth century to the present; I like the subtle braiding of narratives; as we jump from Uganda to Nigeria to South Africa, we must ask how sexual discourses in Africa are not simply regional or national but pan-African—and why this is so.
Hoad emphasizes, repeatedly and usefully, that sexuality in Africa is African, forged through shared information, shared experiences, shared prejudices, shared ambitions.
“Jolly Good Read!”
* * *
One of Uganda’s officials has announced a plan to publish pictures of men (and women?) who pick up prostitutes in town.
Shame might accomplish something.
I am reminded of the anecdote in Megan Vaughan’s Curing Their Ills, in which missionary doctors tried to make Africans (don’t have my book, don’t remember which ones) ashamed of being treated for venereal disease.
Perverse Africans (I love them!) were very proud of receiving their injections and boasted about it.
Can we not imagine this campaign of shame similarly backfiring?