Monthly Archives: June 2014

Homosexuality in Ethiopia and Horn of Africa, it’s neither unEthiopian nor an import!!!

by Will Roscoe and Stephen O Murray

The Italian Paolo Ambrogetti, at the beginning of the twentieth century, reported age-based homosexual relations between Eritrean men and what he called diavoletti (little devils). Regarded as being no more than a mild fault, these relationships were pursued quite openly and tolerated by the boys’ fathers since it was a source of income. After puberty, the boys generally began to have relations with females, but diavoletti especially attached to their patrons might continue with them until they were twenty. An unusual case was a twenty-five-year-old married chief who continued to have receptive intercourse with men senza lucro (not for payment), Ambrogetti also reported that many apparently effeminate Eritreans were not “sexual inverts”, echoing other writers of this period who argued that same-sex behavior among “nature peoples” was situational and that few, if any, were “real” or “constitutional” homosexuals.

A few years later, Friedrich Bieber described what he termed “Uranism” among the Islamic Harari, Semitic-speaking agriculturalists near the Ethiopian city of Harar (Harer), According to Bieber, “Sodomy is not foreign to the Harari” (1909). Such relations appear not to have been organized in terms of age or gender status, however. “Uranism” occurred as often between adult men as between men and youths. He also reported similar practices among the Cushitic-speaking Galla, pastoralists in southern Ethiopia, and their neighbors, the Somali, “albeit not as commonly”. In addition, both sexes and all ages in all three groups (Harari, Galla, Somal) practiced mutual mastur- bation. More recently, Gamsi reported homosexual relations among shepherd boys of the Cushitic- speaking Qemant (Kemant) of central Ethiopia (1969).

In the 1950s, Simon Messing encountered males with alternative gender identities among the nearby Coptic Amhara peasants. Viewed as “god’s mistakes,” they were generally well accepted. Such wandarwarad (literally, male-female), as they were termed, were believed to be physically defective (1957). They “live as individuals, not forming a society of their own, for they are tolerated. Only their kinfolk are ashamed of them, so they to go live in another province. Women tolerate a transvestite ‘like a brother’; men are not jealous of him even when he spends all his time with the womenfolk. Often the transvestite is an unusually sensitive person, quick to anger, but intense in his personal likings, sensitive to cultural diffusions from the outside world, especially those carried by Arab traders; and Muslim Arab traders are often the only male contacts he tolerates”. He also found “mannish women” (wändawände) suspected of attempting to abrogate male privileges, although he did not inquire into their sexual conduct.

C. R. Hallpike conducted fieldwork in the mid-1960s among the Cushitic-speaking Konso, agriculturalists living in walled cities on the southern edge of Ethiopia. He found a complex of beliefs concerning the danger to men of contact with women. Konso men believe that “women have an emotionally as well as physically deleterious influence on men,” and one told Hallpike, “Some girls’ vaginas are so strong that they can snap off a man’s penis” (1972). These beliefs are reflected in restrictions on when and how often marital intercourse can occur that are as severe as those of the Melanesian societies that have served in anthropological literature as the prototypes of sexually antagonistic cultures.

The Konso have “two words each for penis, vagina, and sexual intercourse, but no less than four for ‘effeminate man’” (Hallpike 1972). One of these categories, sagoda, includes men who never marry, weak men, and men who wear skirts.

“Men who actually wear skirts are very few, and those who do are clearly incapable of acting as men. I knew one in Gaho, who earned his living curing skins, a female occupation. He was very effeminate in voice and manner. … I was told that sagoda liked to play the passive role in sodomy, and the description I was given of the manner in which a sagoda would in- duce a man to perform this upon him in the night was so detailed that it could not have been invented. The question is whether normal men only practice sodomy with sagoda or among themselves. I am strongly inclined to think it is not confined to relations with sagoda.”

Although Konso men “were generally very reluctant to talk about sexual matters,” Hallpike heard “coarse remarks on occasion” that included jokes about taking a man reputed to be a sagoda into the fields and raping him. Hallpike concluded, “This sort of occasion, the conduct of transvestites, and the sexual strains put on men by society, lead one to suppose that they seek relief among themselves on occasion. But this is not to say it is approved of.” (1972)

Among the Maale of southern Ethiopia, Donald Donham observed that “a small minority [of men] crossed over to feminine roles. Called ashtime, these (biological) males dressed like women, per- formed female tasks, cared for their own houses, and apparently had sexual relations with men” (1990). Donham interviewed an ashtime, who described his status in terms of a distinct gender conception: “The Divinity created me wobo, crooked. If I had been a man, I could have taken a wife and begotten children. If I had been a woman, I could have married and borne children. But I am wobo; I can do neither.” Although this individual was the only ashtime Donham knew, Maale men told him that more had existed in the nineteenth century: “Indeed, part of the Maale kin’s traditional installation had consisted of a ritual ordination of an ashtime.” By 1975, however, the Maale considered as/ltime “abnormal”.

Donham suggested that rather than discrete gender categories, the Maale recognize a continuous gradation of maleness from the ritual kings to subchiefs on down. The ritual king “was the male principle incarnate.” Consequently, no woman of childbearing age could enter the king’s compound. Domestic labor generally done by women was performed instead by ashtime, who in traditional times were gathered and protected by the kings. On nights before royal rituals, when the king was prohibited from having sexual relations with women, “lying with an ashtime was not interdicted.” Thus, Donham concluded, ashtime constituted “part of the generativity of maleness in Maale”






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