Tag Archives: African History

Homosexuality is “unAfrican” in pre-colonial history

Such a thing did not exist in the African jungle…or not

When I read a paper by an African researcher that insinuates that Africans learnt homosexuality from Europeans (and/or Arabs), I do not go to my happy place where only thoughts of first love and first kisses rule. Rather I think about waking up in the dead of the night to a ghostly white female figure hovering over my bed. The white woman that all African lesbians, bisexual women and women who sex with women know intimately, because after all we learnt this from Europeans. In this cult of gayness that the Europeans started, we are taught our colonial heritage and to venerate Margherita dos Santos, the first very bored, very gay Portuguese colonist wife who successfully seduced a young African woman in the 16th century thereby making homosexuality an African identity.

The above sound ridiculous? Well ridiculous is what I find Africans who go out of their way to argue how “unAfrican” homosexuality is. Africans who write lengthy “logical” papers, disputing various sources and references, all while ignoring the real lives of LGBTIQ Africans today. Their efforts are not only silly but dangerous to me and I probably wouldn’t spit on them if they were on fire. I recently read one such paper, but this one left me totally disheartened because I initially thought it was pro-African queers. The paper in question is “A name my mother did not call me: Queer contestations in African Sexualities” by Taiwo Oloruntoba-Oju. Perhaps when I saw this title I zoned in on the “queer contestations in African sexualities” part and for some reason believed that it was arguing for the presence of homosexuality in pre-colonial African history. Little did I know that the paper was written by someone who finds it “agonising that disputation about the status of homosexuality in Africa is often equated with “homophobia” even when some of the disputants have close and friendly relations with known homosexuals” and who believes that “the imputation of homosexuality as an African identity must of necessity generate [antagonism]”.

I happily settled down to read the paper, and it started innocently enough but the more I read the paper, the more my face fell and now days after reading it, I find that I am still angry with it. But I can’t stop thinking about it and need to let my jumbled thoughts out in this post.This paper evoked all sorts of feelings in me so this post may be lengthy, I’ve broken it down to sections based on what I found problematic in the paper, so you can leave and return easily. If I sound angry, I most likely am.

Africa as a monolith

Africa is such a big country, and what happens in one part of Africa happens in the other part. So you come from an ethnic group that has apparently never known what homosexuality is yet manages to somehow consider it an abomination, this must be the same all across the village that is Africa. It does not matter that your ethnic group numbers in the millions, and that different regions have always had different customs in spite of sharing a similar language (which turns out is not so similar considering dialects). In one corner of the continent, homosexuality is considered a deviance so this must be the same across the African continent. This ignores the diversity in which disparate African philosophies viewed homosexuality, while in some societies gays, lesbians and transgendered people were key to society’s psychic balance (as among the Dagara of Burkina Faso), in others there were witches who were exiled (see Izugbara O. Chimaraoke, “Sexuality and the supernatural in Africa”, pp. 533-558, in African Sexualities: A Reader, ed. Sylvia Tamale). The antagonists towards homosexuality as an African identity will do well in remembering this.

Western terms and African sexualities

When the antagonists argue that homosexuality did not exist on the African continent before the advent of the Europeans and/or Arabs, do they mean same-sex love or same-sex sex. Were Africans waiting to learn how to develop feelings for a member of the same sex from the European and/or Arab gay bogeyman? Or did queer Africans never practice any form of sexual activity before the foreigners taught them to? Then again the Europeans and/or Arabs supposedly taught our ancestors a lot, they civilised us, they brought complex religious systems and the One True God, they taught us manners, they taught us how to wear clothes, they taught us how to build civilisations, they taught us how to maintain personal hygiene, they taught us medicine…and they taught us how to develop feelings for the same sex and how to sexually act on these feelings.

Truth is many Africans today are disconnected from the sexuality our ancestors knew. We do not know our philosophies, or argue that African philosophies do not exist. In the paper, the issue of “woman-to-woman marriage” is brought up, and Oloruntoba-Oju argues (rightly so) that this institution was not necessarily proof that the pre-colonial African societies that practiced them accepted homosexuality and lesbian marriage. The institution was probably not created to facilitate lesbian marriage, although it did develop for varied reasons depending on region. Western scholars and researchers have no right to impose their ideas of gay marriage on a society where a woman marrying another woman was a show of wealth. But who is to say that one lone African woman did not use this institution to her advantage and to be with a woman she loved? Maybe the antagonists have the ability to read through the minds and memories, and look into the houses and bedrooms of the female husbands and their wives. Apparently no researcher is yet to have asked women married to other women if there had ever been a sexual component to their “social” arrangement (see Amory P. Deborah, ‘“Homosexuality” in Africa: Issues and Debates’).

There is still not enough research into African history outside of Egypt

The majority of African history remains shrouded, under-researched, in the shadows or honestly ignored. Majority of us do not know history outside the racist colonial lens and are surprised to read that our ancestors engaged in complex medical procedures or evenwrote in indigenous script. Without this knowledge of pre-colonial African history, along with the reality that there is even less research on African sexuality in history, how can someone know for sure that “homosexuality” was not practiced before the Europeans and/or Arabs introduced it? That it wasn’t an identity?

Linking to the point below, the fact that most of African histories are oral as opposed to written makes no difference. How many Arabs, for example, would argue that homosexuality is a “Western deviation” today despite the fact that there is written evidence to the contrary. The activities of medieval Arab lesbians were well documented in studies from the 9th century by philosopher al-Kindi and physician Yuhanna ibn Masawayh. Written history can be destroyed and silenced just as oral histories can.

The role of colonialism

Africans tend to dismiss the ways in which colonialism (both European and Arab) damaged institutions and our view of self and history. Most of what we insist today as “tradition” is in most cases not, and I sometimes imagine our ancestors being shocked at some of the things we claim as tradition. For example, views on marriage, years ago I read a paper that argued that homosexuality would be strange to Africans because we have always placed a high value on marriage. I am sure I cannot find that paper now, in my recent readings on Igboland I’ve seen that there were actually several people in this pre-colonial African society who never married. The sex workers, the priests and priestesses (all wives of Gods and Goddesses), the slaves. I will not be surprised if there were more societies like the pre-colonial Igbo in this respect, it may be more accurate to say that high value was placed on children or that emphasis on marriage was reserved for certain classes of people.

There is no way one can discuss pre-colonial Africa, or in fact pre-colonial Asia, the Americas, Australia, while belittling the role of colonialism. One cannot ignore that colonialism drastically changed mindsets, as people adopted Victorian mindsets and mannerisms eschewing the “barbaric” ways of their ancestors.

The role of language

Oloruntoba-Oju is Yoruba, in the paper they argue that Yoruba people have no words, sayings or proverbs that indicate that they knew what homosexuality was. Yoruba is a colourful language, and can be quite explicit in detailing heterosexual sex emphasising the penis and the vagina, so Oloruntoba-Oju believes that it should have been the same for homosexual sex. At the same time, a saying “apparently” hidden deep within the Yoruba divination cult was produced by a Nigerian scholar and says obinrin dun ba sun ju okunrin lo (“it is easier to sleep [have sex] with a woman than with a man”). This saying is dismissed as an isolated example, Oloruntoba-Oju drives home their point by demonstrating how metaphorical Yoruba is, something that all Yoruba speakers know. In praising twins, one says “twins, kindred of Isokun, born of an ape” however this clearly doesn’t mean twins are apes or monkeys. Perhaps this “isolated” saying refers to something else entirely, yet somehow the sayings which reference penises and vaginas are not metaphorical. Not to mention this widely popular saying, okunrin o se ba sun bi obinrin (“you cannot sleep with a man as with a woman”) which is to be taken at face value because it is “more established”.

Context is ignored, the former saying seems to be coming from the perspective of a woman, while the latter from a man. If a Yoruba woman who has sex with other women, says “okunrin o se ba sun bi obinrin” is it not impossible that her next sentence would be “obinrin dun ba sun ju okunrin lo”.

It seems the antagonists prefer to find a term that directly translates to “lesbian” in Yoruba language. However what happens if this term is vague or unrecognisable, it could have been simply “witch” as in a recent Yoruba film I watched, Enisoko Soja, in which a man’s mother was branded a “witch” after his wife dreamt she “made love” to her. Most terms associated with lesbians in other languages are from the action of tribadism. In Arabic, the roots of words linked to “lesbianism” and “lesbian” (s-h-q) means “to pound” or “to rub” (see Amer Sahar (2009), “Medieval Arab Lesbians and Lesbian-Like Women”, Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 18, No. 2). And in Urdu words which refer to female homosexual activity are rooted in words like chapta which means “flat”, chapatna “to be pressed flat” and chipatna “to cling to” (see Vanita Ruth (2004), “Married Among Their Companions”: Female Homoerotic Relations in Nineteenth-Century Urdu RekhtiPoetry in India, Journal of Women’s History, Vol. 16, No. 1). African languages may be unique and different, or they may be similar, some antagonists may be searching for words they expect to clearly spell out L-E-S-B-I-A-N while ignoring words other words like “pounders” or “clingers” or even “witches”.

In addressing the difficulties of investigating lesbian women in history Judith Bennett introduces the term “lesbian-like” to cover those women who in the past lived lives that may have offered opportunities for same-sex love, or lived in circumstances where they could nurture and support other women. Rather than referring to such women outrightly as lesbian, Bennett suggests “lesbian-like” to extend over those women in the past who felt emotions towards other women, even if they never acted sexually on this; women who never married; women who cross-dressed or assumed masculine roles and mannerisms; as well as women who resisted established cultural norms of sexual propriety (see Bennett M. Judith, “Lesbian-Like” and the Social History of Lesbianisms).  “Lesbian-like” recognises that not all societies had constructed terms for women who had feelings for or had sex with other women.

Oloruntoba-Oju mentions ‘yan ludu, a term that means sodomy in Hausa and is derived from Arabic. ‘Yan ludu literally means “people of Lot” and apparently the fact that Hausa people refer to sodomy with this term “exposes its modern and post-contact origin”. But what exactly does it expose? That the word is not indigenous to the Hausa, or that sodomy isn’t? Considering the tone of the paper, I’ll go with the latter. Notice the assumption that all gay men engage in anal sex, there is also no mention of language appropriation. Today some Yoruba people call milk, miliki, a term that clearly has roots in English, so I guess Yoruba people did not know what milk was before Europeans introduced it. Moving farther yet closer to the topic on hand, in Japan today, lesbians are referred to as レズ (rezu) fromレズビアン (rezubian) which of course comes from English, lesbian.  レズビアン is a foreign word in every way, even down to the characters that form it, this must mean that that there were no lesbians in Japan before European intervention, an estimation that is laughable considering how well documented same-sex relations are in Japanese literature and art history (although the bulk is on men loving and sexing men because this is HIStory).

What constitutes “gay behaviour”?

When I was growing up, it was a common to see two men holding hands while walking down the street in parts of Nigeria. Now, maybe a decade later, this scene has become rare because two men holding hands is “gay”.

Oloruntoba-Oju states “it is true that even in contemporary times, a good number of Africans go through an entire lifetime without coming into contact with gay behaviour either in the rural areas or even after having passed through such “high risk” urban locales”…with nothing to back his claim except for this footnote; “A colleague reading this article recently drew my attention to a forum observation by an apparently gay white fellow who had been in Nigeria and had noticed that straight Nigerians apparently do not have what he called a “gaydar”, hence a lot of gay sex does take place without them being aware. If this observation is true it may well be a further curiosity that these Africans seem not to have developed a gay sensitivity over the centuries”. This falls back to several of my points above, especially the one on imposing Western definitions on Africans. Oloruntoba-Oju argues elsewhere in the paper against Western hegemony but fails to see how contradictory it is to then attach relevance to this “white fellow” who believes that Nigerians do not have a gaydar. There is no consideration that what constitutes gay behaviour in Nigeria and how gay Nigerians single each other out may be different from what this white man is used to. I mean how many straight people in the country this white person comes from possess a gaydar? Does this suggest further curiosity that these white people seem not to have developed a gay sensitivity over the centuries?

Oloruntoba-Oju then continues, “many may have “heard stories” but these are mostly about gayness being a “foreign import” and occurring in proximal geographical locations where foreign contact has occurred over the centuries”…again with no references. Oloruntoba-Oju mentions “logical” reasons in being an antagonist to this preposterous idea that homosexual identity is African but it is really debatable whether their paper exhibits logic.


Oloruntoba-Oju argues that it is speculative to debate that there was “homosexuality” in pre-colonial Africa. In my humble opinion, it is just as speculative to argue that there was no “homosexuality” in pre-colonial Africa. While majority of these African researchers do not like stating whether they are talking about same-sex emotions, or same-sex sexual activity, I am referring to both. I am not speculating when I state that some of my African female ancestors must have developed feelings of attraction to other women. Whether my female ancestors acted on these feelings may be speculation, yet in societies were initiation ceremonies and sexuality training schools involved women touching, massaging and pulling breasts and vulvas, usually under the guise of “training” in order to please future male partners, it is not inconceivable that my female ancestors physically loved the women they adored. Maybe they did this secretly, maybe they were in the open and society did not mind because it recognised that these things happen (getting speculative here).

Albeit confusing, the paper was at times well written and even convincing, I can agree that Western hegemony should not be imposed on queer African identities but every other point was like someone inserting needles in my skin. I suggest that heterosexual African researchers leave criticisms of homosexual labels and identities to African queers themselves. We are not as close-minded as you, and this is not an insult, a privileged heterosexual worldview is limiting.

Homophobic African antagonists, yes homophobic, fail to realise that part of their antagonism is attempting to wipe the thousands of Africans who engaged in same-sex relationships, whether sexual or not, from history. Oloruntoba-Oju positions as being largely for queer Africans stating that “a synchronic focus on today’s sexuality realities in Africa may well offer safer grounds of analysis of queer representation…” but then rounds up  with “…than the frequently strained colonial imaginaries on pre-contact African sexualities”! This is someone who finds the pain of being labelled as a homophobe (because homosexual friends!) greater than the pain of LGBTIQ Africans who have to face homophobia daily. Oloruntoba-Oju, in this paper, completely ignores and, pardon the colourful language, shits upon the feelings, thoughts and experiences of queer Africans. It could be that the paper is addressed to the West and Western scholars, hence the mention of “colonial imaginaries”, but this further emphasises my point on Oloruntoba-Oju completely ignoring that queer Africans will find their presented historic picture problematic.


I would like to end with a call to the queer African women reading this, especially if you have a link to histories in some way, even if it is access to the elders or ancestors. We need to gather the stories and voices, keep them in a safe space where people can access this information. Perhaps now or in the future, one woman will appreciate that there was a woman who loved another woman in 13th century West Africa.

Amer Sahar (2009), “Medieval Arab Lesbians and Lesbian-Like Women”, Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 18, No. 2 Vanita Ruth (2004),

Married Among Their Companions”: Female Homoerotic Relations in Nineteenth- Century Urdu Rekhti Poetry in India, Journal of Women’s History, Vol. 16, No. 1


This article was first published on HOLAAfrica! by Cosmic Yoruba

Telling Uneasy Stories: El Negro Of Banyoles #1



Over the next several weeks, I will be analyzing the phenomenon of human exhibition  that was the trend of the day in 19th century Europe. I will do this with specific interest in the exhibition of the African body, and even more specifically the body of a Motlhaping man who came to be known as El Negro. Here begins my story with this story. There was a mild drought in Botswana that year. I also remember that there was also a flood and Gaborone City had just suffered a minor earth tremor – and that all these unusual happenings were (according to the superstitious among my compatriots) clear signs that El Negro could not wait to come home and receive a proper burial. I recall October, 2000. I was a 15-year old high school student in Gaborone. The news reports on Botswana Television repeated themselves like commercials about a southern African man whose body had been stolen from a grave almost two hundred years earlier. Ostensibly, the man had been a king of his Batlhaping nation or as Western media like to condescend: “chief” of the Batlhaping “tribe.”

I also remember political pundits on Radio Botswana speaking in subdued tones about how after the said king’s traditional burial in 1830, his body had been exhumed and stuffed by two French taxidermists in exactly the same way that trophy animals were stuffed, and taken to Europe to entertain the public who had never seen a black African. He had become known as “El Negro.” Before 2000, Batswana themselves had not heard of “El Negro.” As history would have it though, the African Union – Botswana included – had decided that his remains be repatriated from Banyoles, Spain to Africa. What better place to re-territorialize his remains then than the internationally obscure Botswana in lieu of the rightful South Africa to circumvent international media? In consequence, on October 4, 200o El Negro’s remains touched down at Sir Seretse Khama International Airport in Gaborone and his physical reterritorialization slotted him into Botswana’s narrative. We even created myths around him to justify our climate.

In this series of weekly posts on Black Looks I will:

i)discuss the narrative about Africa that El Negro served during his exhibition in Banyoles, and

ii) examine the narrative about Banyoles and perhaps Spanish society that he told at the same


Let me leave you with the idea of a “social freak” since that will be the first category I look at and the ways in which El Negro was made to be one and how that ripples across centuries to today in how the African body is consumed by spectators. A freak is defined as “a person or animal on exhibition as an example of a strange deviation from nature.”1That cool night when Jules Verraux, a French taxidermist, and his brother exhumed El Negro’s body their objective was to show Europe body deviant from the European norm. El Negro’s corpse would be consumed as entertainment; a freak would be created. For the Banyoles museum-goers who had never come across a hue this dark or hair this tightly-coiled, the startling exhibition of El Negro immediately established a more tactile notion of the African, the Other. Looking forward to discussing more with you all next week.

Batsumi : Masterpiece AfroJazz

Rise up music – forget the coffee just think Batsumi!

“rare indigenous afro-jazz sounds from South Africa with the release of Sowetan group Batsumi’s self-titled debut from 1974. The reissue has been lovingly re-mastered from the original tapes and features material compiled on the recent Next Stop Soweto series from Strut.

The album arrived amidst a period of intense political, intellectual and artistic ferment stimulated in large part by the teachings of Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement. ‘“Say it loud! I’m black and I’m proud”. This is fast becoming our modern culture,’ wrote Biko in 1971, ‘a culture of defiance, self assertion and group pride and solidarity.’ Drawing partly on the insights of Frantz Fanon and the poets of Négritude, and partly on the contemporary US Black Power politics of figures such as Eldridge Cleaver and Stokely Carmichael, Biko forged a visionary and potent message of South African redemption, pride and defiance. It took culture to its heart, and in the wake of Biko’s message a burgeoning arts scene rooted in the black and African experience began to flourish.

Batsumi is a masterpiece of spiritualised afro-jazz, and a prodigious singularity in the South African jazz canon.

Via Matsuli Music

How I Earned the Right to Speak about Anything

It is hard, as I am sure most writers know, to efface the person, render it impotent in the face of the writing life. Who I am always haunts my writing; and this is why and how I argue that I have earned the right to speak about anything — and you might want to consider this word ‘right’ as encompassing as it is in the legal regime. To make this process easier (this essay is a process, every word builds into revelation), I have charted two layers: Identity and Ethnicity. You might have to be dishonest with me — you might have to forgive how I render myself so bare; all writers eventually do this, pushing themselves, in fiction, in poetry, to the place where there’s no telling what is reality and what is not, because everything is reality, everything written is real. Helene Cixous says this of Clarice Lispector, for instance.

I should give a background. I was born to an itinerant preacher — when I was born my Daddy was an employee of the Scripture Union, an interdenominational organization with offices around the world. His job description was ‘Travelling Secretary’; clearly, he ‘traveled.’ So, I begin my questioning from this point — I was born fluid; I was not to stay too long in one place, my Present was always in motion.

Of identity, I ask myself: Am I or aren’t I? How do I begin to define myself? What is the crack in the surface in which Me leaps into visibility? You should know that I do not feel Ibo enough, because I can’t speak the language well, because I respond in English when my Daddy speaks to me in Ibo. So, I am not keen to identify myself as This or That. In my case, there is no This, and no That. Perhaps it’s a This-That.

Which is why, in December 2009, when we were moving again, I wrote: ‘Who am I, after this transition?’ I cannot think this irrelevant — I am a borderline person. I have transited too much to be just one person. It is simply a question of identifying myself. What I want is to be able to say, This is Me, when a million others stand beside me, with me, in a crowd. So far, I should tell you, it has been difficult.

The antonym of ‘easy’, Anne Berger says, is not ‘difficult’. It is ‘impossible.’ If then it is not easy to define myself, is it perhaps impossible? Will I, as I remain on the border of who I am and who I can be and who I am meant to be, never identify myself in the crowd? I cannot tell if this is a shared feeling — but when I am in Ile-Ife I am not Yoruba, and when I am in Umuahia, I am not Ibo. I am simply, perhaps, Emmanuel, a person, but not the kind of person who feels ‘Emmanuel’ enough. Not inferiority, of course. It has never been a question of being less; perhaps it is that I am not ‘more’ enough, that I have ascribed too much to Being, and I am yet to meet up with that definition.

Speaking of Ethnicity might make this clearer. You see, I am an English-only onye Ibo who can comprehend Ibo spoken at any speed but is reluctant to utter any word of it, for fear of sounding incorrect. In fact I can comprehend Ehugbo, the language of Afikpo, which Ibos from other parts cannot comprehend. My Daddy wanted us to speak English first, in Akure, because he feared that we might become mischievous urchins, too ‘local’ in an urban space. So, we lapsed into an Anglo-consciousness. I do not blame him; I should not blame him. You want to blame him? English is a ‘lingua franca’, isn’t it? He remembers being mocked when he was a little boy of his inability to speak English — he remembers desiring to speak English like his brother.

But I realize that no matter how loaded, conflicted and difficult the word may seem to me, I am Ibo. By heritage. Perhaps there is some new meaning I can confer to it. I am, like, Carmen Wong, “A mishmash and hodgepodge of conundrums and contradictions.” I am ready to stay hyphenated, to add a dash to my personality, something like ‘English-only-onye-Ibo.’

Let’s imagine that there are others like me. Let’s further imagine that these others are — because this is the occupation dearest to my heart — writers. What will happen to their writing? Will it embody the same mishmash of their borderline personalities? How will they speak true to their sense of ethnicity? What home could they define for themselves, what sense of place?

Yes, I speak about myself, asking questions that bother my art. And there’s a sense of urgency, too. There is, for instance, a Facebook identity, a Twitter narrative, the acculturation that comes from being an internet user. Should we only consider the internet as utility, not as lifestyle? Isn’t the internet a border, a separate identity, part of the dashes I’ve acquired?

I’ve decided to be a writer, which in itself is an acceptance of the Borderline, an acceptance of staying a hybrid, remaining fluid, accepting that one word cannot define your process, your heritage. How do I come to the point where I am not simply termed as an ‘African writer’? I do not fear this label because I am not from Africa, or not black, or because Africa has been derogatorily called blah blah blah. I fear it because it is, somewhat, a closed parenthesis. I want to work within an open parenthesis. I want my definition to start from ‘an English-only-learning to speak Ibo-onye Ibo-internet-using writer’ with a […] around the term, leaving space for more dashes. Because I am always more; and my writing will always be bothered with this More-ness.

Hence, it is this fact that gives me the right to plunge into uncharted courses, to use unused language, to speak about anything, because there is nothing like This or That in my head. There is the possibility of everything and anything.

But this is not, cannot be, the subject of a single post. I’ll publish a Kindle e-book with the same title in January 2012. I hope my ranting is heard.


The beauty of revolution – Steve Biko lives!

Two interesing and not unrelated blog posts to mark the 34th anniversary of Steve Biko‘ death. In the first Khadija Patel interviews Andile Mngxitama, South African Black consciousness activists and co-editor of “Biko Lives!” – the mistake is to have believed he died on that day 34 years ago. It is much harder to kill an idea than a person as Andile points out.

“Steve Biko… we say Biko lives. Steve Biko lives,” insists Mngxitama, “The biggest mistake of the apartheid regime was to think they could kill him and his ideas.” Mngxitama believes Biko himself understood the need for longevity in his ideas when he wrote, “It is better to die for an idea that will live than to live for an idea that will die.” Steve Biko is certainly more than a T-shirt. His were ideas that galvanised the struggle against the apartheid and a realisation of self-worth among black people themselves.

“Today we see young people outside of the political formation trying to read and understand Biko, try to make sense of Steve Biko in a country which remains basically anti-black. So, from this point of view, it is very clear that Biko lives,” – Read the full interview here

The second post is less an idea and more a reality is a speech given by Abhalali baseMjondolo President, S’bu Zikode on the progress of post-apartheid south Africa. [A discussion between Zikode and Andile would be an interesting one and I wonder why this has not happened to date especially since Abhalali is a breathing revolution] Much of what Zikode speaks confirms Andile’s comment that South Africa is anti-black – “a white country under black management”
Continue reading

Black Mamba Boy

Somali writer Nadifa Mohamed discusses her novel Black Mamba Boy inspired by the life of her father – often written about but never have their perspective represented.

Helsinki African Film Festival

Wanjiku wa Ngugi is the founder of the  Helsinki African Film Festival. Here she talks about Africa in Finland and this year’s theme “Women’s Voices and Visions”.

Wanjiku, please talk a bit about yourself and the creation of the Helsinki African Film Festival.

I was born and raised in Kenya. After high school, I attended New York University (NYU) where I studied Sociology and Political Science. It was actually here that I first met Dr. Manthia Diawara, a film-maker and critic, who was also the head of the Institute of African-American Affairs at NYU. I got a job assisting in his office and thus begun my introduction to African films. Growing up in Kenya, all we got to watch were Hollywood films and seeing black people on the big screen was a very rare occasion if ever. Anyway, a few years back I moved to Helsinki and was surprised at the level of misinformation about African people, both in the continent and the Diaspora. Even Finland has not escaped the Hollywood machine and the chronically negative representation of Africa in the News, so information about Africans is largely informed through the same narrow prisms. Hollywood has not exactly done any justice to the story of Africans, as most of their films–I am thinking here of popular films such as The Last King of Scotland or Blood Diamonds for example, are replete with stereotypes about Africa and Africans. And basically this is how HAFF was born–out of this need to deconstruct the depiction of Africa as this Dark Continent that only produces dark images, one-sided stories, and dehumanised people who should be pitied. Africa is not a country; I want to repeat this over and over again! We wanted to show the diversity of this continent, and begin a different conversation, one informed by a more realistic view as told by the Africans themselves…… Continue reading here.

“Indio” being not-black in Dominican Republic

An interesting look at the construction of race through the island of Hispaniola – In the Dominican Republic, there is Cristóbal Colón, Black is Indio and Spain is homeland. In Haiti, there are revolutionaries – Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Henri Christophe, Black is Black and Africa is where I came from. Ok its a bit more complex than that but the point remains and try to ignore the irritating narration by Henry Louis Gates!

Watch the full episode. See more Black in Latin America.

“The last word has not been spoken” – Beah Richards

I’ve watched Beah Richards in many films and I remember reading somewhere about her poetry. But I never knew she was a feminist, wrote powerful political poetry speaking truth to power; was a playwright, a strong fiercely political, inspirationally powerful Black woman. Richards had no fear of speaking out at on her commitment to truth and freedom at political rallies. What frightened her was fascism not communism, after all as she said “I grew up in Mississippi and lived with it every day”. In an interview with the director and co-producer, LisaGay Hamilton – who herself must be congratulated for such a selfless work of art – Ann Marie Offer, described Beah Richards as a “Minister of Human Dignity.” what an apt obituary for such a great woman.

Like most life stories the film is full of those joys and sadnesses we all pass through – some better and worse than others. At the time of the interviews, Beah was suffering from the last stages of emphysema and was on oxygen 24 hours a day. Her next to last journey, back home to Mississippi, in which she leaves her home of 25 years, is one of those indescribable painful sadnesses which sap your strength leaving you weak and utterly forelorn.

3 months later, Beah Richards received an Emmy Award for her role in the series, “Practice” and soon after she passed away. Her last request was that her ashes be scattered on the confederate graveyard in Mississippi – even death was to be made an act of struggle.

Her life story is told in the film “Beah: A Black Woman Speaks” a documentary film by LisaGay Hamiliton. As a young woman trying to be an actress and dancer in Hollywood in the 1950s and facing the proverbial slammed door, Beah decided to go to New York. She was penniless and hearing about a peace conference in Chicago with a prize for the poem which best expressed peace, she decided to enter her poem “A Black Woman Speaks……” Beah entered a poetry competition. I never heard of this poem yet it’s at least as powerful as Sojourner Truth’s’Aint I a Woman“. The poem speaks to the primordial memory of pre-Americas, slavery, rape, imprisonment, racism,humiliation, lynchings and centuries of dehumanization of Black peoples. The poem though it speaks to these vile memories and realities, is a poem of resistance. An act of survival and despite the terrible hardships of the journey from there to here, I, we remain standing our pride in tact.

I kept your sons and daughters alive.

But when they grew strong in blood and bone
that was of my milk
taught them to hate me.
PUt your decay in their hearts and upon their lips
so that strength that was of myself
turned and spat upon me,
despoiled my daughters, and killed my sons.
You know I speak true.
Though this is not true for all of you



Read by Beaula Richardson at the Women’s Workshop at the American People’s Peace Congress held in Chicago on June 29, 30 and July 1, 1951 bringing a standing ovation from all 500 women attending.

It is right that I a woman
should speak of white womanhood.
my fathers
my brothers
my husbands
my sons
die for it: because of it.
and their blood
chilled in electric chairs,
stopped by hangman’s noose,
cooked by lynch mobs’ fire,
spilled by white supremacist mad desire to kill
give me that right

I would that I could speak of white womanhood
as it will and should be
when it stands tall in full equality.
but then, womanhood will be womanhood.
Void of color and of class,
And all necessity for my speaking thus will be past.
Gladly past.

But now, since ‘tis deemed a thing apart
I must in searching honesty report
How it seems to me.
White womanhood stands in bloodied skirt
and willing slavery
reaching out adulterous hand
killing mine and crushing me.
What then is the superior thing
That in order to be sustained must needs feed upon my flesh?
Let’s look to history.

They said, the white supremacist said
that you were better than me,
that your fair brow would never know the sweat of slavery.
They lied
White womanhood to is enslaved,
The difference is degree.

They brought me here in chains.
They brought you here willing slaves to man.
You, shiploads of women each filled with hope
That she might win with ruby lip and saucy curl
And bright and flashing eyes
Him to wife who had the largest tender.
And they sold you here even as they sold me.
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Somehow, between the requirements of summer
and winter, we went forth holding above our heads
souls that death comes in, like Moses scurrying
down the mountain side with tablets scratched
with scripture; like a lamp blinding the damp dark
of mines our fathers walked in search of food.
We raised them and held them like sacrifices
to specific gods, trophies of a triumphant day,
and kept them, self-evident, lifted above the world
with a purpose. Our souls, glowing like headlights
at a storm as if they knew what hardship meant.
In our hands they were the day’s newborn child:
behold, we cried, lifting them with hands callous
from scraping, as we approached the charge office,
behold, the only thing greater than yourself! It was
breath held in anticipation, though some were candles
that lit our way to freedom, others hammers
and others scythes, nailing in planks and reaping
the full grass. And others going to their graves
alone, though their heads still scream in the night
like trees that were felled before their season.

© Rethabile Masilo

The US has no right to impose their political processes on others

Amy Goodman interviewed Mildred Aristide just before they landed in Haiti.  Mrs Aristide rarely speaks in public so I was very interested to hear what she had to say.  She spoke of her time in South Africa and learning about the connections between Africa and Haiti – learning about Africa and teaching about Haiti. In answer to the US government’s statement to President Aristide not to look to the past but to the future she quoted Barthélemy Boganda of the Central Africa Republic [CAR] response to the French colonial government who made a similar statement “I would stop talking about the past, if it weren’t so present”.     It is convenient and in the US’s interest for Haitians and any of us for that matter to forget the past. The past is full of betrayals, violence and exploitation carried out by the US so no wonder they would prefer we all forget it.

And I think that what I’ve learned from Africa is how much Africans carry the past with them, and the past being lessons from their ancestors, the lessons of their culture, all of which happens in time, in a time space. So it’s not that you live in the past, but you carry with you the lessons and the good and the experiences of the past.

I think it’s–it’s an inability, maybe, by the American political process to understand the kind of relation that Titide has with the Haitian people, and it doesn’t fit within the kind of policy frameworks that perhaps they have of–and so, it’s an unwillingness to see beyond that. I’ll attribute it to that.

I think that the United States and a lot of those western European countries see politics a certain way, and I think that they have no right to impose that on other peoples.

Migritude: Teardrops from Babylon

Migritude by Shailja Patel

We have traveled half the world

with hearts open,

we’ve seen everything.

Always remember who we are,

where we came from,

and you’ll never do evil [From What we keep ©]

Migritude is a gift of which Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak writes,

“A vibrant, gendered, wordsmith’s voice, speaking Africa, Asia, the metropole, history, the present – the world” [shailja.com]


In the introduction to Migritude, Vijay Prashad writes

“I came to Shailja Patel’s Migritude joyously, embraced by the first few lines about the teardrop in Babylon.  The embrace didn’t falter.  The words held me.  They are a song”


I too did not deviate from that first embrace.

One has great expectations from a text which begins with such poetic imagination as “It began as a teardrop in Babylon”.  My mind flew to all the teardrops shed from the dignities stolen by imperialism, injustice and hate.   The indignities endured in exile; the collusion of global capital and imperialism in the political and socio-economic tyrannies which force us to flee our homelands. We see this as I write, with the murder of Ugandan LGBTI activist David Kato and South African lesbians and transgendered women and men who are being raped and murdered because of  their sexuality and gender identity;  with the women of Congo, many of whom daily, face rape and other terrible acts of violence; with the people of Egypt who are demanding freedom from the tyranny of Mubarak and his US / Israeli allies;  with the millions of people of colour – who dare to cross borders and  face daily hostility in the US, Germany, and UK; with the surviving indigenous peoples of America whose lives are impoverished and history erased with whiteness.

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The Lost Kingdoms of Africa

BBC Four’s “The Lost Kingdoms of Africa” is a series presented by Dr Gus Casely-Hayford a student of African culture and history and an art historian. The four episodes that make up the series start with this refrain;

The African continent is home to nearly a billion people. It has an incredible diversity of communities and cultures, yet we know less of its history than almost anywhere else on earth.

But that is beginning to change. In the last few decades, researchers and archaeologists have begun to uncover a range of histories as impressive and extraordinary as anywhere else in the world.

The series reveals that Africa’s stories are preserved for us in its treasures, statues and ancient buildings – in the culture, art and legends of the people.

This sets the stage for fascinating and eye-opening insights into the histories of some of Africa’s “forgotten” kingdoms. Dr Hayford travels through several countries including Tanzania, Sudan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Mali and Zimbabwe in search of amazing information on four prominent African kingdoms of Nubia, Ethiopia, Benin and Great Zimbabwe.
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More on Zheng He

Zheng He’s 7th expedition was his last and after years of moving back and forth between the East African coast and China, all contact seized. Some people may look at this and say that the Chinese turned their backs on Africa but if you look at the situation within China in that time, it sheds more light on this situation.

In 1424, the Yongle Emperor died. His successor, the Hongxi Emperor (reigned 1424—1425), decided to curb the influence at court. Zheng He made one more voyage under the Xuande Emperor (reigned 1426—1435), but after that Chinese treasure ship fleets ended. Zheng He died during the treasure fleet’s last voyage.

…Chinese merchants continued to trade in Japan and southeast Asia, but Imperial officials gave up any plans to maintain a Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean and even destroyed most of the nautical charts that Zheng He had carefully prepared.[citation needed] The decommissioned treasure ships sat in harbors until they rotted away, and Chinese craftsmen forgot the technology of building such large vessels. Source.

China decided to close itself from the outside world. Also,

But Zheng’s heroics in this adventure and others did not long outlive the emperor Zhu Di.

He had rivals at court. Enormous treasure ships don’t come cheap, and though they brought back curiosities like giraffes, they didn’t earn back their investment in new tribute; the state budget had competing priorities, while China’s concern with the sea was so overwhelmingly fear of piracy that it all but shut down maritime activity for a time. (Source).

Yet private relations continued to flourish. Even in the 16th century, men from Ethiopia, Mogadishu, Malindi, Mombasa and Kilwa were spotted by the Portuguese on the Malay seaport of Malacca. These men were traders who came in their own ships to trade and buy silk and porcelain which were Chinese of origin.

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Zheng He’s Star Fleet

In 1414 a Chinese fleet heralded by the Muslim Grand Eunuch of the Three Treasures, Zheng He (also known as Cheng Ho) sailed into the western Indian Ocean for the fourth time since his journey to the East began in 1405. In previously, that is between 1405 and 1414, Zheng He and his ships had reached the ports of Indonesia, south-west India and Ceylon. However, the trip in 1414 was special because the fleet was advancing into more distant regions beyond South Asia and the Arabian Gulf and in the process, covering a larger total of water than any seafaring people had before.

Zheng He is frequently referred to as the Chinese Columbus and today he has become the personification of maritime endeavour for China. I am personally not fond of this comparison between Zheng He and Columbus, no way Zheng He was much cooler they shouldn’t even be compared. They are not on the same level in terms of their maritime adventures. Really to me calling Zheng He the Chinese Columbus actually dims his shine.
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Ijebu war of 1892: Two accounts

This detailed report on the Ijebu War of 1892 gives an insight into  British rule in Nigeria.  The Chief of Ijebu Ode,  the Awujale, had blocked the trade route from the interior into Lagos which at the time was a Crown Colony.  In May of 1891 a British officer traveled with Hausa troops to try to persuade the Awujale to end the blockade but he refused.   The following year the Awujale offered to end the blocade – why he changed his mind is not clear and in return he was to be given £500 annually to cover the loss of revenue.   However the agreement did not last long and soon after  a missionary was refused entry into the Kingdom, the British attacked Ijebu land using troops from the Lagos Hausa contingent, West Africa Regiment based in Accra and a West Indian regiment from as far away as Sierra Leone.

The story which is on a military history site documenting colonial wars and World War I and is very much in the mold of glorifying wars etc

“It is all to easy to forget that the “Glory” of war is paid for in blood. The blood of a soldier’s comrades, but also the blood of the foe.

is told from a British perspective based on a memoir of the British Officer and other historical documents which explains the language used.   Nor does it pretend to be anything else than what it is – a site about colonial wars.   Nonetheless it’s an  interesting story of resistance to British rule and also I found the use of northern troops against southern resistance a familiar one which is still used in the Niger Delta today.

The second account,  is about an Ijebu arms dealer and warrior “Balogun Kuku” who was also involved with the Ijebu British war as well as a war between Ibadan and Ekiti in which the Ijebu took an anti-Ibadan stance [ at one point Ibadan was fighting a war of 5 fronts].    However Ibadan and Kuku were in support of the British when it came to the Awujale’s blockade and was exiled to Ibadan.   More on Balogun Kuku on the wonderful  Nigerian Wiki site



Ancient African Writing Systems

I wonder if I am the only one that gets seriously disturbed when I see claims that ancient Africans (excluding the Egyptians of course) were not using any writing systems before Arabs came into the continent bringing Arabic script. I believe such an assumption taken as fact is not only erroneous but is  also one in several attempts to paint Africans as “lesser” in that everyone else in the world had writing systems except ancient Africans.

The truth of the matter is that ancient Africans were writing and there are several African writing systems even though most of them may be forgotten now. I have been following with keen interest Naijablog’s posts on the Nsibidi script yet the Nsibidi is not the only script that I’ve come across, there is also Tifinagh or Shifinagh, the written form of Tamasheq which is the language spoken by the Tuareg a nomadic people scattered through West and North Africa. Tamasheq is a southern Berber language and apparently bears significant resemblance to Pharaonic Egyptian. The roots of the Tamasheq writing system can be traced directly to the ancient Berber script that was used by the Numidians in pre-Roman times.

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African Revolutionaries: Remembering Mauice Bishop and Thomas Sankara

This week marks the anniversary of the assassinations of two Black revolutionaries,  Maurice Bishop on October, 19th, 1983 and Thomas Sankara on October 15th, 1987.  The assassination of Maurice Bishop  effectively ended the Grenadian revolution and the “New Jewel Movement” when on the 25th October, US forces under Ronald Reagan invaded the Island.

The JEWEL Movement (The Joint Endeavour for Welfare, Education & Liberation) originally  started in 1972 as a  political movement centred around the agricultural cooperatives. A year later the New Jewel movement was created and Maurice Bishop became Prime Minister in March 1979.

Bishop was assassinated in ‘palace’  coup led by Deputy Prime Minister and childhood friend, Bernard Coard over ideological differences.   Coard along with his wife Phyllis were sentenced to death which was later commuted to life-imprisonment.  In 2007, the Privy Council of UK, ruled the death sentences unconstitutional which has implications for the case in the first place.   What is clear is the  New Jewel Movement’s socialist ideology and it’s relationship with Cuba were perceived as a “communist” threat to the US hegemony in the Caribbean.   The invasion battle lasted just over a week and resulted in the death of many Grenadians and 12 Cuban civilians who were there to help with the construction of an airport in the capital.  According to Don Rojas, press secretary to Maurice Bishop, the US invasion had been planned as early as 1981 and the coup provided the perfect excuse.

“The coup provided a pretext for the invasion to take place at that particular moment. In other words, taking advantage of an opportunity of internal destabilization as a result of the coup and confusion within the Grenadian society. The invasion however had been planned by the Reagan administration as far back as 1981. In fact, there were mock invasion, military exercises on the island of Viequas off of the island of Puerto Rico. Viequas happens to be similar in topography to Grenada. This had been in the works, so to speak, for at least two years before October of 1983.”

Grenada under the New Jewel Movement.

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Che’s 1964 speech to the UN National Assembly still remains relevant today.

Today marks the 43rd anniversary of the execution of Che Guevara in the mountains of Bolivia. On the 11th December, 1964, Che made his presentation to the UN General Assembly. In the speech he calls on the UN to “Shake itself out of complacency and move forward” – 46 years later and most of us have given up on this institution a long long time ago. Che speaks a great deal about imperialism and liberation movements of the day. The particular section of his speech I want to highlight is in reference to the Congo [DRC] and “humanitarian” aid which he calls “tasks”. Remember these words were spoken 43 years ago and three years after the assassination of Congolese Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba by the US and the role of the UN forces in upholding US interests in the country. Today the UN continues it’s failures in the DRC, failure to protect communities and especially its failure to protect women not to speak of the complicity in the abuse of women by UN forces themselves. As Che states where ever they journey “the merchants of war do good business”!.

In a few days time, October 15th, will mark the 23rd anniversary of yet another imperialist assassination – that of Thomas Sankara. In March 2004 the US engineered the violent overthrow of Haiti’s elected President, Bertrand Aristide of and forced him into exile. From Lumumba to Aristide – we can see there is a trend which Che explains clearly.
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Ajami writing system

Ajami writing system has been used for at least at least a thousands years in parts of Africa. As I understand it, the script is a modification of Arabic incorporating local languages such as Hausa [mainly the northern regions of Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana] and Fula – Fulani [mainly Gambia, Senegal, Nigeria, Niger]. Ajami has also been used to write Yoruba, Kiswahili and Amharic and Afrikaans – “the first written Afrikaans was produced in Ajami by Muslim Malay slaves”. The importance of Ajami is that it has been used by scholars, writers and poets in these regions for centuries recording our histories and writing stories.

Ajami developed in communities with a long history of practicing Islam, and who sought to adapt the Arabic alphabet to their own tongues, first for religious purposes such as prayers, writing magical protective devices, and disseminating religious materials and edicts, and later for secular functions such as commercial and administrative record-keeping, writing eulogies and family genealogies, recording important events such as births, deaths and weddings, and writing biographies, poetry, political satires, advertisements, road signs, public announcements, speeches and personal correspondence. There are also Ajami documents describing traditional treatment of various illnesses, the properties of plants and ways of using them and occult sciences; translations of works from Arabic into African languages; and texts on administrative and diplomatic matters (correspondence between Sultans and provincial rulers), Islamic jurisprudence, behavioral codes, and grammar (Hassane 2008, 115-17). This adaptation of the Arabic script to write African languages was not easy; the Arabic consonants and vowels reflected by the Arabic script do not necessarily correspond to those in specific African languages. Therefore scholars within each community devised systems of transcribing their languages by modifying the Arabic script, thereby allowing speakers to learn to write, read and recite Ajami texts. ….

More on the Ajami system here


Other African scripts:

Nsibidi Script: – An indigenous adaptable and fluid writing system of two dimensional signs, three dimensional forms of pictographs and ideographs and pantomimed gestures

Naijablog : Igbo script

I would appreciate any links to other African scripts.