Heritage - Colonial Continuity

Colonial continuity

Up to three years in prison are homosexuals - many prefer to remain anonymous

Photo: Robin Hammond / Panos Pictures / Visa

Matthew Blaise, 21, picks up the phone before the news from Ghana hits the Nigerian LGBTI community. A good friend called that there had been an attack on the newly opened queer community center in the capital Accra. "I immediately spread the news on my social networks," says Blaise. The “Son of the Rainbow” account is followed by 13.000 people on Instagram and almost as many on Twitter. In a very short time, thousands all over the world show their solidarity online with those affected in Ghana. As much as Blaise's sympathy encourages - the fear for friends and one's own life has grown with the events in Ghana.

It was supposed to be the first queer community center in Accra. Umbrellas in rainbow colors, bar tables and balloons decorate the backyard of a one-story brick house when it opens at the beginning of March. The picture, taken in anticipation of the opening, is the first and, for the time being, the last from the center. On the same day, the police stormed the event of the organization LGBT + Rights Ghana. The Executive Secretary of the National Coalition for Proper Human Sexual Rights and Family Values, Moses Foh-Amoaning, calls for the members to be arrested. This is followed by a smear campaign by the media, which prints pictures of the members and incites the public to commit acts of violence. Many flee or have to go into hiding.

In Ghana, homosexuality is punished with up to three years in prison. After the attack on the LGBTI center, politicians from the opposition party also called for solidarity and “advocacy for homosexuality in its present and future forms” to be criminalized. In many neighboring countries, things look similarly bleak for queer people. In 28 of the 49 African countries south of the Sahara, homosexuality is criminalized. In Sudan, in northern Nigeria, where Sharia law is applied in parts, in Mauritania, the death penalty is homosexuality. In horror, Western media reports often omit where these laws - like most African constitutions - come from: Europe.

What is missing in the history book

Blaise wants to use social media to raise awareness of the centuries-old African history of queer people: “Homophobia and the churches that have moved into Africa are direct descendants of colonialism. In a post-colonial society we therefore not only have to fight against the economic consequences of exploitation, but also against the ideological ones. ”Blaise emphasizes:“ Queerness is not a Western concept. Homophobia is a western concept. ”In northern Nigeria, where gay men are threatened with death today, the pre-colonial expression“ yan daudu ”is used in the Haussa language. In short, it denotes a social category. The term is used to describe crossdressing and same-sex relationships in a value-neutral manner. Even more: Yan Dauda play a major role in the spiritual canon of the northern Haussa culture.

Historical sources also describe Nzingha Mbande, who took over the areas of Ndongo and Matamba in what is now Angola as heir to the throne of the late king in the 17th century. Although she married a man, in 40 years of reign she was from then on referred to as “king”. Mbandes, further marriages with women and a harem made up of men who wore women's clothes were also socially accepted. With colonization and the European mission churches, the public discourse changed. Missionaries spread homophobic slogans, colonial rulers implement homophobic laws of their own countries on the occupied territories. Queer cultural practices are criminalized, punished and suppressed. On this threshold of social change stands King Mwanga II. 1899. At the age of 16 he became the last independent heir to the throne in Buganda, today's Uganda. He was openly bisexual, which was particularly displeasing to the British colonial power. His subjects, however, did not seem to have a problem with it. He lost the power struggle in the region and died in exile in the Seychelles.

History books in Nigeria today would omit these historical details, Blaise laments. Even more, they would be disputed and revised: “Many African people do not know their own history, they believe what the churches preach.” Blaise has also declared war on the churches: “The churches with their homophobic and transphobic sermons are the most visible remnant of colonialism. And the most dangerous. ”Today, 470 million Christians live in sub-Saharan Africa, a fifth of the world's Christians. German missionaries began to impose their faith on people in Africa in the 19th century. Much later than in other colonial areas, but no less violent. Nevertheless, especially in states with a weak or no social system at all, the churches are still gaining constant members today.

Matthew Blaise would have no problem with that - if it weren't for his permanent life in danger. Blaise defines himself as queer / femme, dresses feminine, occasionally wears jewelry and make-up. Blaise is celebrated on the Internet for this, is a role model that Blaise lacked even in his youth. But in public, on the street, the mood is different. "My look is part of my identity, I won't let that be taken away from me," says Blaise. "Even if it's enough to make me a target." Last year Blaise was arrested, taunted and beaten up by the Nigerian SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad) on the way home. “I said I worked for a human rights organization because I knew they were afraid of lawyers and activists. I thought they were going to kill me. "

In fact, numerous murders, rapes and robberies have been carried out by the SARS unit. Blaise was eventually released and shared his experience with the online community. Thousands of people showed their solidarity, the post brought hundreds of new followers and the #EndSARS protests in Nigeria a new impetus. “I was lucky,” says Blaise, “because my identity is firmly established and my activism in my environment has already led me out.” The police officers' strategy is often to blackmail queer people into publicly outing them. Blackmailing is a widespread strategy for pressuring LGBTI people, says Blaise. And there are more, like after the eviction of the LGBTI center in Ghana: Members were attacked in the street, received death threats and were arrested.

But Blaise has developed his own strategies that give hope: “Social media is more powerful than any newspaper in Nigeria. You reach everyone with it. Our discussions don't stay on the internet. They seep into society from there. Social media is the beginning of every social movement in West Africa, and that's where I see a lot of potential for rethinking. ”African countries have shown that it is possible: In Botswana, the supreme court in 2019 overturned the legal text that criminalized homosexuality the reason that it was a "relic from the Victorian era". Angola abolished a similar paragraph in early 2021. Will other countries follow suit? Blaise is determined: “Colonial laws need to be adapted for the people we are today. I see it as my duty to stand up for this until it happens. "