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Our best poets Write poetry full of holes: The women, who love women, never tell. The men who love men write of wombs The genius who loves both is rendered mute --ALICE WALKER, IN SEARCH OF OUR MOTHERS GARDEN 206
The stigmatization, denial, and denigration of nonheterosexuality have recently become part of political and social discourse in Africa, a continent where homosexuality is criminalized in several countries. (1) In Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Somalia, for instance, homosexuals are subject to extremely repressive legislation and tracked down by state police. In Uganda, the practice of homosexuality is referred to as "carnal knowledge of another against nature," while Zimbabwe's president Robert Mugabe claimed homosexuals are "worse than pigs and dogs." (2) Following in Mugabe's footsteps, several African presidents are now openly expressing their views on homosexuality. Yoweri Museveni asserted, "Homosexuality is not only against the biblical teachings. It goes against the African culture and the order of nature.-3 In 2004, the Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo condemned homosexuality and same-sex marriages as un-Biblical, unnatural, and un-African.' In Cameroon, Paul Biya faced a defamation campaign when prominent figures of his government were accused in a newspaper of being gays Biya did not condone nor express disapproval of homosexuality. Instead, he "cautioned journalists to look away from the private lives of individuals. Observers were surprised that even though homosexuality is a criminal offense, punishable by the Cameroonian penal Code, the President never condemned the ill before going on to launch a virulent attack on the media. "6 Museveni, Obasanjo, and Mugabe seem to share the idea that homosexuality is un-African and part of the destructive and pervasive legacy of colonialism. Furthermore, Biya is more interested in protecting his questionable government than advocating gay rights.
In response to political Afrocentric discourse and to the criminalization of homosexuality, many gay rights activists strive to prove that homosexuality is an African practice. The bisexual gordjiguenes and the Woubi' are becoming increasingly visible and vocal in Senegal and Cote d'Ivoire. American scholars have also decided to tackle the issue. In 2001, Boys-Wives and Female Husband: Studies of African Homosexualities, a groundbreaking work by Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe, was published. The book documented the existence of same-sex relationships in Africa from the precolonial to the postcolonial era. Three years later, in 2004, Marc Epprecht published Hungochani, the History of a Dissident Sexuality in Southern Africa. Like Murray and Roscoe, Epprecht offers a historical approach of homosexuality in which he explores how traditional African societies dealt with homosexuality. He claims that homophobia is a byproduct of the Westernization of Africa through colonialism:
The most outspoken homophobes in the region often use biblical, public health, or "family values" arguments that appear to be borrowed wholesale from social conservatives in the West, while repressive laws are a direct legacy of colonial rule. Even the claim that same-sex behaviour is un-African appears to have originated in the West rather than Africa itself. (6)
Between Afrocentric political discourse characterized by gay bashing and the commitment of some Western academics to prove the precolonial existence of same-sex relationship in Africa, the intricacies of traditional woman-woman marriages, (8) prison sex, and mine marriages (Epprecht 84), critics need to keep in perspective that what is at stake is neither an essentialist discourse on the African origins or un African origins of same-sex relationship nor the so-called importation of homophobia from the West. Instead, it is the need to build a specific discourse on the increasing visibility of sexual identities that are neither exclusively heterosexual nor part of some complex ancient social practices.
Whether they are jumping on the bandwagon of Afrocentric discourse or setting Africa's priorities, prominent voices of African feminism or womanism choose not to discuss same-sex love or even acknowledge its existence. Ifi Ama diume is adamant in her disapproval of the existence of homosexuality in Africa. She asserts: "These priorities of the West are of course totally removed from, and alien to the concerns of the mass of African women" (19). Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi argues that her African womanism (9) does not address female homosexuality because of the "[African] silence or intolerance of lesbianism" (133). And according to Mary E. Modupe Kolawole:
To the majority of ordinary Africans lesbianism is a non-existent issue because it is a mode of self-expression that is completely strange to their worldview. It is not even an option to millions of African women and can therefore not be the solution as ... many Western or westernized women propose. (15)
African feminism and womanism exclude African women who happen to be lesbian or bisexual from their activist agenda. Blinded by their desire for self-naming and their willingness to distinguish themselves from Western feminism and Black feminism (10) they eradicate "un-African realities." In so doing, African feminist theories are in denial of a possible component of African women's sexuality. They silence a "minority" of African women by not giving them the right to experience a sexuality that does not fit the norm. Juliana Makuchi Nfah-Abbenyi, one of the rare African feminist scholars who has tried to theorize same-sex relationships in the African context, believes that literary critics are also at fault:
Most African literary critics are not concerned with lesbian or gay issues because this topic is very sensitive and often controversial, or because they view other issues as more pressing. Or, they fall back on the excuse that homosexuality is shunned or repressed by their culture and thought by many not to exist. (29-30)
In Gender in African Women's Writing, Identity, Sexuality and Difference (1997), Nfah-Abbenyi argues that nonheterosexual relationships between women could be seen as a means of rebellion that challenges patriarchy. Against the African feminist background previously mentioned, she addresses lesbian issues from an empathetic viewpoint. She also urges African scholars to look at the ways in which francophone women writers such as Calixthe Beyala "are creating a space for themselves by questioning a combination of oppressive conditions that are both traditional and specific to their colonial and postcolonial context" (30).
Confronted with critical and political discourse driven by narrow agendas, I decided to focus on the work of three francophone African women writers, Mariama Barry of Guinea-Conakry, Ken Bugul of Senegal, and Calixthe Beyala of Cameroon." Following the framework of Nfah-Abbenyi, I examined how these writers' portrayal of atypical female characters could be read as a theorization of an African sexuality that is neither exclusively heterosexual nor openly gay or bisexual. Because they belong to societies that do not permit nonheterosexual behaviors, their explorations of same-sex desire could help problematize the mainstream and Western use of categories such as "heterosexuals," "gays," "lesbians," and "bisexuals." In my attempt to analyze homoerotic patterns in Barry's, Bugul's, and Beyala's novels, I will not examine the literal applicability of these categories. Rather, I will use them as "excavatory tools of contradictions, denial and reversal to examine the tropes" (Pincheon 39) of homoeroticism in the African context. It is my aim to unravel the politics of writing female homoerotic desire. By politics, I mean the method, tactics, and strategies involved in writings about same-sex relationships. This work aims at displaying the ingenious literary devices, adroit techniques, and skills that allow Barry, Bugul, and Beyala to create a narrative space--one in which female sexuality is viewed through complex lenses that alternate, combine, or contradict …