What makes us human?
I have asked this question many times, and to this day I have yet to find a satisfactory answer. It might be our ability to use language. If that is it, then there are many animals in the world that can be classified in our category. Scientists will readily show you any number of animals that have distinct languages. Whistles, barks, growls and trumpets and inaudible rumblings that the human ear cannot pick up are just some of the ways animals communicate amongst each other. When I had dogs I understood their whines and barks way better than I understood sixty percent of the political speeches made today.
Makes you wonder just how advanced human language is, doesn’t it?
Hmmm. Not language then.
Perhaps it is our opposable thumbs. Wait! What? Monkeys and apes have those too? Crap! Not the thumbs then.
I think it might be the things that we invent. Yes, that might be it. We create things; we make things that help us to adapt to our environment. We invent telephones, cars and other things that click, go boom and tick to help us adapt to the world that we live in.
Hold up a second though. Birds create nests, chimps use straws to suck termites from their deep nests and some fish have found a way to create light in the deepest depths of the ocean. It took Edison years of research to create the light bulb, and he had an opposable thumb and mathematics at his disposal. If the power to create is what makes us human, then we are behind the rest of the animal kingdom and our greatest fallacy lies in believing that we are the only creatures blessed with the power of invention.
Not language. Not invention. What is it then? What makes us human?
I would argue that what makes us human is our ability to the ability to alienate the other; the ubiquitous talent to differentiate between ourselves, to group ourselves into social and economic units and distancing all others who are different from us.
Who are these others though and where do you find them?
You know him, you have passed her. The other – the one that is not of us, that cannot be part of us; that other that who is just not…human. These others are very easy to find; they are everywhere. Look around your neighbourhood and I am sure you will find some: look at the beggars, look at the black people, and look at the maids, the gardeners and the AIDS sufferers. Just look for anyone who has been classified in a misunderstood group; they can always be linguistically spotted by their status as proper nouns.
For example: The Gays.
Ah! I see you have met these others. If you have spotted these kinds of creatures, I have to congratulate you: you are human.
History is filled with reams of pages documenting our humanity. But rather than composing a minor thesis on the doings of our species since Adam and Eve, I will narrow it down to focusing on the happenings on the Dark Continent that I call home. More specifically, I’d like to zero in on a topic that is never discussed enough in Africa. I would like to talk about The Gays; those impure and dirty creatures sent by the Devil to lead us astray; the heralds of the impending apocalypse
A couple of years ago, I was emailed a link by a close friend of mine. It was the link to a Youtube clip that showed Pastor Martin Ssempa, A Ugandan national, launching into a verbal tirade about why homosexuality should be banned. In the video, the pious pastor sat before a group of reporters and his eager followers telling of the numerous barbaric acts that homosexual men apparently engage in. I would rather not repeat what he said; it leaves a sour taste in my mouth. You can always watch the video for yourself. His words idiotic. His message though was something worth noting – something worth writing about. It is just one subset of the larger issue that has been plaguing Africa for centuries: the “othering” of people.
The continent is rife with Africa’s humanity. A search on Google with the words “Africa” and “war” will show you any number of past and current conflicts that plague the continent – all based on the “othering” of people; the alienation of some minority group that has been excluded from enjoying all the rights and privileges that the majority has reserved from themselves. Some of these “others” are a certain tribe and more often than not, it will be a specific ethnic or national group. You might think that these kinds of conflicts only exist in the Central and Western parts of Africa, but with a little reading, you will quickly discover that these conflicts have been widespread over the continent.
Expanding the Google search to countries in which there are conflicts or social disputes based on race, gender and sexual orientation will yield a list that covers every particle of soil that can be called Africa – every singly African country has had (or is having) a conflict based on the alienation of a certain group of people. If you can find a country in Africa that does not have a conflict based on one of the Big Five (race, religion, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation and the cream of the crop, resources) I will name my first born after you.
No seriously, I will.
This article is the expression of emotions and beliefs that have been held deep inside me for a long time – only recently have I been able to put words to them. And even then, they are faulty and incomplete. I do not think that these emotions are mine alone. I am sure many people feel the way I do and hopefully, in some small way, I hope that our voices will be heard through this piece of writing.
If I fail, there is nothing new. Just as we are good at making our voices heard, so are we as equally skilled in batting our ears to things that make them smart and hurt, things that might stink of the truth.
The Big Five have been perpetual problems in Africa although they have reared their heads at different times and have been, or are being addressed in various mediums. Issues concerning race and ethnicity and the scramble, pilfering (by the Western world) and unequal distribution of Africa’s resources can be found in any national newspaper. It is only recently that issues concerning gender have been reported in national media, despite the fact that they have been prevalent in African society since the dawn of time.
As far as homosexuality is concerned, you will have to go to the blogosphere to read anything of substance on the topic.
Sure, a couple of newspapers write about the treatment of homosexuals in countries like Malawi but you have to go to page four to read that. That is too far for the average reader.
No one dares to discuss homosexuality in an open manner. Race, ethnicity and religion? Sure. Economics? There are public lectures at every university about demand and supply and how Africa can improve its lot by doing x on a y chart. The lectures get really interesting once the marginal cost of production reaches that bendy bit at the top.
Gender? There are whole institutions dedicated to that.
But homosexuality is nearly taboo. It is something you can talk about freely in Cape Town, but as soon as you leave the (seemingly) liberal shores of the Western Cape, things take on a queer (no pun whatsoever intended) turn for the worst. Homosexuality in any shape or form is still treated and talked about in the way that people talk about the boogie man. As far as being gay is concerned, the real monsters come out of the closet.
Some might be quick to brush off the need to talk about homosexuality as being a tertiary need. Surely there are more pressing issues in Africa? The AIDS rate, the literacy rate, racial integration and distribution of resources are pressing issues. But so is homosexuality. It is up there with the rest of them. Because it taps into an essential part of society; sexual orientation is an important factor in the way people find happiness in their lives and the way in which communities are ordered. Sexual orientation after all, creates the family unit which is the basic building block of society – so why not talk about it? Why not address it in an open manner? What is more important – to a person or a community – than knowing that you will not be crucified because of the person you love or choose to be with?
On a continent that has a hungry child every ten metres, an abused wife every five and an HIV-positive, philandering man every three centimetres, Africa has a weird fascination with homosexuals. It is bordering on the voyeuristic; everyone is in on it at some level or another, but now one wants to admit. No one wants to be the first to broach the subject. And even when it is discussed, it is talked about in hushed tones.
The Gays are an awkward fireside topic, one of those that will start old men sitting under the proverbial tree spitting reciting how their ancestors turn in their graves because of the mere existence of homosexuals. Housewives hanging up the laundry clap their hands to their head and denounce The Gays as though Satan was in their midst. Homosexuality, for such a contentious topic always worms its way into conversation through a carefully placed metaphor, a sly joke or the negation of a statement or denial of something by describing it as being “soooooo gay.”
I am sure that there are readers who will state such is the case on every other continent – but I would counter and say that those continents are not mine. This one is. What happens there happens there. I am more concerned with the things that occur less than three metres from my doorstep.
Like all things that anger, shock and worry Africans, homosexuality will be met with three quintessential arguments that are uniform across the continent. The language may change, the politician or anti-gay lobbyist will occasionally sport a different tie, but the arguments are all the same:
- It is against our culture;
- It is unnatural;
- And it is against our religion.
These three seemingly foolproof defences have been piloted around Africa, from one head of state to another, politician to politician, idiot to idiot. Everyone who uses these poor excuses appears to have walked into the same all-purpose human rights market and thought they purchased the last pearl of wisdom. Of course, in the spirit of ubuntu, they generously share these defences with their fellow African, arming them with the three securities that would surely protect them from the impending attack of The Gays.
Like all African constructions – I apologise for this gross generalisation but it is necessary – there is some brick that was laid by a fool; a half-brained dimwit who should not have been allowed near something as important as a building. The three defences all show this weakness; the constant tendency to allow the village idiot to participate in matters far above his head. The problem in Africa though, lies in the fact that the term village idiot has been replaced by “President”, “Comrade”, and “Honourable Minister”. In some instances it is a combination of all three.
To be blunt about things, I think it is high time that Honourable Comrade President Minister stopped representing Africans – he (because it always a man) is leading us into a rabbit’s hole that the most advanced compass cannot steer us from.
In short, Honourable Comrade President Minister is an idiot.
Predictably, anything alien – anything that Africans deem not to be human enough – like The Gays is always declared to be unnatural by Africans. The wisest and most learned amongst Africans will tell you that homosexuality is against the laws of the trees, the soil, the water and the lion that chases the gazelle – it is against nature. It is an argument that has polluted debates about homosexuality since Africans learned how to spell nature. It has been used to defend acts of violence against The Gays, it has led to discrimination and alienation of homosexuals from the protection of the law and the denial of participation in civil society. “The Gays are unnatural”, says Honourable Comrade President Minister, “they cannot participate in our world – they are not human.”
If you cast your eyes a couple of sentences back, I said that with all African constructs, there is always the evidence of an idiot mixing the cement. In this argument, as with the remaining two, there was a dunce standing at the mixer adding rubbish to the mortar that is supposed to be holding our fragmented African society together.
What is natural? What does it mean to be unnatural? Ask any African about it and they will give you an answer that is similar to the manner in which they answered their grade ten Biology paper on the characteristics of life: “A living thing moves – movement is the act of moving.” Honourable Comrade President Minister was promoted with distinction to grade eleven the following year.
To state homosexuality as being unnatural on the African continent is to call the entire existence of the people who reside on the land mass into question. Our lives and the manner in which we construct them are not natural. It is not natural to kill so many of our own people, it is not natural to be so greedy in times of great need, it is unnatural to ignore the teachings of ubuntu – a principle that we claim to be the founding philosophy of Africa. If anything, it is we, Africans and (human beings as a whole) that have become unnatural. To state that homosexuality is against the law of nature is nothing more than a romantic and poetic throwback to a time in the distant past when we as Africans lived in harmony with nature, when we did not pollute and cause harm to it, when we resisted the urge to shit where we eat – when we natural.
The defence is nothing more than a nostalgic claim to a past we have lost and long for, a time when we sat underneath acacia trees and observed all of the wonders of Nature and revelled in them.
No my African friends, we are not natural at all. The Gays are not as alien as we think they are.
Of course, a politician cannot be called a politician if like a hydra, he is unable to spring another argument upon you when one has been cut off and left writhing on the floor. So Honourable Comrade President Minister states that homosexuality is against “our culture.”
Hmmm….culture. It rolls of the tongue doesn’t it? It is just so easy to say, so African. The word is so African it makes me want to kill a lion and claim my manhood; I want to have ten wives and a hundred children. I want to undergo scarification and wear the makings of my immortality on my shoulders – I want to squat and not worry about 2ply whenever I damn well want to. It is in my culture! And The Gays are going against it.
Uhmmm…No. I do not want to walk around barefoot, unless there is Italian marble underneath my feet. I do not want to kill a lion. I do want to see one though, but only if I can change the channel when I get bored of seeing Mufasa. I do not want to be naked, unless it is the time between taking off my generic clothing for something more exclusive – something from Paris, something with “é” on it. As for the wives, I think one will do – these new divorce laws are making it expensive to discard women whenever the mood strikes me. Plus, the hundred children come with maintenance costs which will have to come from my BMW fund.
So, no thank you. No culture for me; unless it comes packaged in a Gucci box.
Like the claim that homosexuality is unnatural, the culture that people raise as a deterrent to homosexuality is nothing more than the fiction of a life that no longer exists. It is the expression of a yearning that has been Nike-d and McDonald’s-d and BMW’d out of Africa – it is an imaginary lie that we make up when we feel guilty about something, something new that cannot fit into our narrow frame of experience and understanding. Culture can mean any number of things to people; there is not one common understanding of it. But whatever it is, any anthropologist will tell you that it is a fluid concept – it is ever-changing and adaptable, malleable to any situation.
However, Honourable Comrade President Minister will have you believe that culture is a specific point in time when men carried clubs around and bashed each other on the head; a time when “men were men” and when “men” did “manly things”.
There is no direct temporal reference to when homosexuality began, and as more of history is uncovered, it is becoming evident that it has been around for a long time. It is not only in Roman and Greek culture that it existed; it is becoming clear that homosexuality probably existed in one form or another in numerous cultures in Africa. If anything, I am convinced that at some point in time, one of my Honourable Ancestors must have kissed another Honourable Ancestor on the lips. Think about it, how long can you be on a hunt for food with another Honourable Ancestor before you start wondering what is under his grass skirt?
(I can already sense quite a few of my Honourable Ancestors riling at the thought that they might have been discovered – a sound cursing, voodoo-ing and juju-ing of my man parts is soon to follow. Pissing off the honourable ancestors is dangerous for one’s libido.)
But that is it in a not-so cultural nutshell, homosexuality cannot be declared uncultured because the idea of culture as a fluid medium of social arrangement and interaction accommodates, and even welcome homosexuality. The Gays are not looking so unnatural are they now, darkie?
Africa though is known for its resilience, its constant battle against elements that seek to oppress it. So it comes as no surprise that Honourable Comrade President Minister’s arguments are as hardy as the elephant that walks hundreds of kilometres in search of water, remembering small trails that lead to an oasis in the parched landscape. Honourable Comrade President Minister has the memory of a pachyderm and he is as cunning as a hare. When culture and Mother Nature (That bitch! Honourable Comrade President Minister has now passed a draft bill to have “Mother Nature” changed to a masculine term because men are more reliable…) fail him, there is always the one last defence that people will not challenge – religion.
Before going any further, I must state that I am a Roman Catholic. I am as Roman Catholic as much as the average Roman Catholic, which of course means that I have not been to church since I was confirmed. I was educated in Christian schools and as far back as I can remember, I have always believed in God (or something like him but much cooler – you know, with guns and swords popping out of him and with a voice like Optimus Prime). My relationship with religion is suspect though, not because of The Da Vinci Code (which is a deathly boring book while we are on the subject) but because of personal observations that I simply cannot justify to myself; I have arguments that the teachings cannot quell. But that is of no consequence at the moment – I just wanted to let all of the religious people that might be reading this, that I am one of you. Sort of. Not really.
Anyway, back to Honourable Comrade President Minister and his religion that will see The Gays condemned to Hell.
In Africa, there is the self-assured claim that the colonisers have been vanquished and that the imperialists will no longer claim this continent, that the mzungu will not claim the hearts and minds of darkies through his words, his Western practices, his individualistic traits that do not acknowledge ubuntu or his money. This claim, of course, is so fiercely defended by Honourable Comrade President Minister because he thinks it is true. Saner heads know that the converse is true. Thus, when all else fails, Honourable Comrade President Minister knows that the mzungu’s religion will surely rid him of The Gays.
The imbecility of this thought process will only be understood by how intensely Africans will claim their “Africaness”, their ties to the continent that reach beyond time immemorial, a connection that transcends the physical whenever they feel as though the world is pointing out their flaws. But when something strange happens within the local community, like homosexuality, it is the foreign that they look to for guidance. How African.
Religion is the last defence that so many Africans raise against homosexuality, the all-encompassing, eternally correct standard that dictates who is going to the White Man’s Heaven and who will go to the lake of sulphur. In so few other areas of life are we darkies so keen to be accepted to the Pearly Gates than when we see one of The Gays. At that moment in time, we become holy; our virginity lost long ago returns in a blinding flash of self-righteousness that shows us that The Gays are destined for an eternity of gnashing teeth.
“Damnation without relief awaits The Gays” we tell our children.
But this argument, like those before it is nothing more than an imaginary construct, a doctrine that is held by the frightened – that The Gays are against the will of God. It is so much easier for people to alienate homosexuality into the land of religion for the same reasons African governments talk about human rights in hushed tones and fuzzy, confusing words; talking about such things any louder would invite too much debate and too much discussion that might lead to people actually changing the status quo that has elevated Honourable Comrade President Minister to his current station.
You see, if you cast something as being religiously forbidden, it removes you from all blame, all justification – all reason. It is a system of continuous blame-shifting and topic-avoidance that only shows the flimsy poles that Honourable Comrade President Minister has constructed his argument upon. My problem with the religious argument is that religion has always been manipulated to suit someone’s agenda. Whatever society is uncomfortable with will simply be found in some random book of the Bible. I find it so strange how Africans are quick to embrace a God that was brought to them at the end of whips, chains and guns whenever they need an argument against homosexuality. Although this is not a debate about religion, it is hoped that at some point Africans will stop hiding behind a religion that is not their own when they have to address homosexuality.
Religion, culture, nature. What are all of these arguments but proof of the real problem? The problem lies in the fact that we as Africans lack a true identity. We are quick to alienate The Gays as the Other even though we cannot come up with a collective definition what “we” actually means to us.
What is an African? If not what, then who is an African? What is it that makes them (whoever they may happen to be) African?
From experience, I know that whenever I have met another darkie like me, I have almost automatically hated him. I have hated him from his hair to his toes, the way he speaks angers me, his jokes make me want to throttle him and his mannerisms should be declared unconstitutional. It is not just his guts I hate; it is his knee caps too.
But as you might have noticed, all I am doing is hating myself – something that Africans have become so adept at doing, a reflexive habit that kicks in when we are confronted with our own reflections. I only understand this now; I am learning to let it go.
Perhaps the reason why The Gays piss so many Africans off is because in some way, they are a small and scary part of ourselves that we are too afraid to admit exists.
It is not homosexuality that is covered up though; it is also the treatment of minority ethnic groups; a woman whose strength show us our most embarrassing weaknesses; those hungry children that reveal our complete inadequacy at providing for ourselves. Perhaps Africa’s treatment of homosexuality is just another manifestation of the numerous insecurities we have as a continent.
As a black African, especially one who has read a fair amount of history, literature and is busy tackling Law, I find it distressing that my fellow black Africans are quick to treat homosexuals as less than human. So many of us forget that in some countries (*cough cough South Africa) we only became human in 1994. In others, the verdict is still out: Somalia is still sorting out whether it likes any of its people.
Now, more than ever, I am reluctant to let issues concerning homosexuality slide, just as I am unable to let talk of Africa being inferior go unpunished. People talk of an African Rennaissance all the time, but I assure you, if such a thing is to happen we need every man, woman and child to bring it to fruition. Heterosexual or homosexual, it really doesn’t matter to me anymore.
But if this article offends you, I would like to recommend The Quill’s Homophobia Soup. You can find it in aisle marked “For Douchebags.”
Author’s note: The skeleton of this post is based on an article I wrote two years ago, so if you have seen it before, I apologise. Feel free to download the image – it’s free for everyone. Straight or otherwise.