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

[sbs_blog_stats] 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 sutural’ which stresses the right to privacy
and calls people to order whenever they make indiscreet disclosures about another

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’.

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, anthropolist 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

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