Debunking the Notion that Non-conforming Gender Identities are Un-African

Oftentimes, we shun discussions on the acceptance and inclusion of transgender and gender non-conforming persons and strongly reiterate that such identities are foreign to the African culture. Is this really the case? Historical evidence shows that such identities not only existed but were also accepted and respected.

In Senegal for instance such gender identities were tolerated under the philosophy of ‘sutura’. This philosophy regards an individual as being equal to another one and worthy of honor and protection from shame. The term has meanings equivalent to; discretion, confidence, respect and decency and is predicated on the idea that one must avoid shaming another person. This notion was used with the expression Niit deñu koy suturalwhich stresses the right to privacy and calls people to order whenever they make indiscreet disclosures about another person.

Various evidentiary materials show the existence of transgender and gender non-conforming persons in pre-colonial African cultures. This is represented under the sub-themes of gender role blurring, crossdressing and gender-affirmative practices. In the late 1640s, a Dutch military diplomat recorded Nzinga, a warrior woman in the Ndongo Kingdom of Mvundu which was in current day Angola. Nzinga ruled as a ‘king’ rather than a ‘queen’, dressed as a man and surrounded herself with young men who dressed as women and were her ‘wives’.

Anne Zingha, king of Matamba, Francois Villain [lithographer]. [Source: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. (1800-1899)

Further evidence shows that in Luanda (in modern-day Angola), there was cultural acceptance of the third-gender narratives called ‘chibados.’ These were transgender women who were assigned male at birth but dressed and carried themselves as women. A Portuguese soldier documented a similar culture in reference to the ‘quimbandas’ of Angola. These were also transgender women. Interestingly, the soldier recorded that the community members respected the ‘quimbandas’ and were not offended by them.

In Ethiopia, athropolist Simon Messing documented transgender women among the Amhara tribes. They were known as ‘wandarwarad’ [male to female] and lived by themselves. There were also transgender men referred to as ‘wandawande’ [female to male]. The transformation of gender was pretty much tolerated. In Southern Bantu societies which were found in modern-day Gabon and Cameroon, there were ‘female husbands’ who were regarded social males. In his records of Senegalese history, Michael Davidson documented a vibrant transgender community that was accepted in Dakar in 1948.

Even in present- day Ghana the term ‘kojobesia’ refers to transgender women. Surely, a culture could not have possibly devised names for persons who did not exist. In essence, the notion that gender and sex were regarded as synonymous and cast on stone in the African cultural contexts is misleading and just a facade to justify the inhumane treatment and exclusion of such persons.

Shelmith Maranya
Project Coordinator, Amka Africa