Tommy Boys, Lesbian Men, and Ancestral Wives: Female Same-Sex Practices in Africa

Tommy Boys, Lesbian Men, and Ancestral Wives: Female Same-Sex Practices in Africa

by Ruth Morgan, Saskia Wierenga

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Tommy Boys, Lesbian Men, and Ancestral Wives: Female Same-Sex Practices in Africa by Ruth Morgan, Saskia Wierenga

A vivid portrait of homosexual African women, this collection of essays examines and celebrates same-sex practices while acknowledging their taboo status in many African cultures. From Uganda to Namibia, governmental homophobia and female strength are among the thoroughly discussed issues.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781770090934
Publisher: Jacana Media
Publication date: 06/30/2006
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.75(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Ruth Morgan, PhD, is an anthropologist and the director of the Gay and Lesbian Archives in Johannesburg. Saskia Wieringa is an anthropologist who has studied female same-sex relations for over twenty years. She is the coeditor of Female Desires: Same-Sex Relations and Transgender Practices Across Cultures and the president of the International Association for the Study of Sexuality, Culture, and Society.

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Tommy Boys, Lesbian Men, and Ancestral Wives: Female Same-Sex Practices in Africa

By Ruth Morgan, Saskia Wieringa

Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd

Copyright © 2005 Ruth Morgan Saskia Wieringa
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-77009-093-4


'I want to marry the woman of my choice without fear of being stoned': female marriages and bisexual women in Kenya

Nancy Baraka with Ruth Morgan

I am a 26-year-old freelance journalist from Nairobi with a diploma in communication arts. I am an active member of the Association of Media Women in Kenya (AMWIK).

Legal position of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community (LGBT) in Kenya

In common with other African leaders, former President Daniel Arap Moi has verbally attacked homosexuals and lesbians on various occasions. In The Nation, a leading Kenyan newspaper, Moi said 'Kenya has no room or time for homosexuals and lesbians. Homosexuality is against African norms and traditions, and even in religion it is considered a great sin.'

Sections 162 to 165 of the penal code outlaw homosexual behaviour and attempted homosexual behaviour between men, referring to it as 'carnal knowledge against the order of nature'. The penalty is 5 – 14 years imprisonment. Lesbian relations, though not specifically mentioned under the law, could depending upon interpretation be proscribed under the above reference as this applies equally to women as to men. In practice, the Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) advises that while men are occasionally prosecuted for homosexual offences they are not aware of any cases where women have been charged. If men are caught practising 'carnal knowledge' the police impose a fine of around 30 000 Kenyan shillings, and it is very rare that imprisonment occurs. It is unlikely that legal action would be taken against a homosexual male or female unless some other offence was involved. The reason for the lack of enforcement of the laws is that the state has not focussed on homosexuality as a political issue as it assumes the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) community is too small to warrant its time and attention. The LGBT organisations and groups do not draw attention to their activities and are therefore invisible in the public domain. Unless people are actively involved in these organisations they will not know of their existence. It is therefore very rare for police to raid parties or events.

The Kenyan constitution, that recognises only heterosexual relationships, was gazetted in November 2003. During the drafting of the new constitution same-sex organisations were not actively involved in this process due to their need to operate underground to avoid being arrested. Although a few human rights organisations lobbied for the legalisation of same-sex relationships, this idea was opposed by religious groups who are the moral custodians in Kenyan society and who have a great deal of support. The process of drafting the new constitution included participation by a wide range of organisations in civil society, including women's organisations, professional associations, trade unions, religious groups and other Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs.)

Cultural and religious beliefs

Homosexuality has been termed barbaric and alien to our culture. It is seen as an import from western culture. This notion has been instilled in Kenyans through various leaders, either through the church, both Catholic and Protestant, or from the government.

Culturally our society has had a big problem with same-sex relationships making it very difficult for people to come out publicly as homosexuals. Men cannot show affection in public without provoking a reaction. For example when two men are seen holding hands, words such as shoga and msenge (Swahili terms meaning 'slut') are on everyone's lips. The situation is different for women. When two women are seen hugging and kissing in public it is accepted as the norm for showing real friendship. However, if they say they are lesbians, abuse is poured upon them, making it easier for them to remain in the closet and enjoy their freedom while they are there.

Interestingly, there is a well-known tradition of same-sex marriages between women from certain ethnic groups. When an elderly woman from Kikuyu, Kisu, Kamba or Kalenjin tribes decides she needs a female wife it is encouraged, not solely for the sake of inheritance but also as a way of encouraging procreation. This practice has been in existence for a long time and is still practised and accepted today. The issue of same-sexuality within these marriages is considered taboo, and this tolerance is not extended to LGBT people.

These cultural and religious beliefs, in addition to the harsh legal penalties, have made it extremely difficult for LGBT people to have a sense of well-being or to be open and able to come out to their families. Only LGBT people who have been brought up in an urban setting – mostly overseas – have a different view about same-sex relationships. They realise that these relationships exist and are not ashamed of their same-sexuality. This is in contrast to LGBT people in rural areas who think of themselves as doomed or cursed.

LGBT organisations

Although there is fairly strong social pressure against individual instances of homosexuality and lesbianism from family members, it is ignored in the public domain. Discreet homosexuals are unlikely to face prosecution or persecution. Current LGBT organisations therefore operate so as not to antagonise the government.

The interviewees

My first interviewee was Laura (pseudonym), a 26-year-old modern professional woman. She has been brought up in an urban setting and is not afraid of her sexuality. She is Kikuyu but is not traditional, as she does not know the language. The thought of marriage to a man has often crossed her mind although she is currently involved in a closeted same-sex relationship with a woman who has an official boyfriend.

My second interviewee was Suki (pseudonym). She is of mixed Indian and Kikuyu descent. She is 26 years old and completed high school in the USA where she spent a few years. She is pursuing a course in the health sciences and is due to graduate in three years. She has not disclosed her sexuality.

My third interviewee was Rehema (pseudonym). She is a 26-year-old professional. She was brought up in the coastal region, in an urban setting. She is confused about her sexuality although she has a girlfriend in the United States where she would like to relocate. She was raised as a Christian but has rejected religion completely.

My fourth interviewee was Kavisu. She is 57 years old and has no biological children. She lives in Kitui, around 120 kilometres from Nairobi, the capital. She was brought up in a rural setting with no education. She is a traditionalist. Her husband died and left her property, which she is to take care of. Her clan thought it wise for her to marry Mwikali who could help with the chores. She is the main determinant of who will impregnate Mwikali, her traditional wife, whom she treats as her daughter-in-law. There is no sexual relationship between the two women. Kavisu herself has no sexual relations with a man.

My final interview was with Mwikali. She is Kavisu's 29-year-old wife and had a basic education. She agreed to the same-sex marriage, as she needed someone to take care of her four children who were fathered by different men. She will inherit Kavisu's property on her death. She is Christian and is active in church activities.


In this chapter I will first discuss the themes that emerged from the first three interviews which deal specifically with women who have same-sex relationships: early same-sex experiences at primary school, taking same-sex exploration further at high school, current relationships, roles, same-sex practices, awareness of HIV/AIDS and the desire to have long-term relationships in which they raise children. I will then go on to discuss issues around self-acceptance and disclosure. These include the influence of religion and the pressure to get married and procreate. At this point I discuss the interview material that I collected on traditional women marriage which is accepted more easily by society. I include this information in order to shed more light on this accepted traditional practice. These female marriages could serve as a model for the introduction and acceptance of LGBT same-sex marriages as this is a traditional custom that has existed since pre-colonial times. However, the prevailing societal attitudes of intolerance made it difficult for all my interviewees to accept their same-sexuality resulting in their identification as bisexual. Disclosure was not an option for any of them. I then discuss their options for having same-sex relationships. For some this includes the wish to emigrate in order to be able to pursue a same-sex lifestyle without persecution. For others this includes heterosexual marriage and to continue having same-sex relationships secretly. Finally I discuss their dreams for the future if the constitutional review is to legalise same-sex relationships.

Early same-sex experiences

Suki realised that she was different to other girls while she was still at primary school:

While I was in primary school ... we played many games. What surprised me was that I did not enjoy the games the same way the girls used to enjoy them. Anyway it was in primary school that I realised that there was something wrong with me I guess. I remember the girls used to play blada, kati and all these games girls play. However, I was more drawn to playing football and other rougher games. The boys liked me very much but the girls resented me. They could not understand what I was feeling. I liked how the boys were teasing the girls. I would enjoy how the girls would scream and call me to protect them against the bullies. So I became the peacemaker between the boys and the girls. I felt nice defending the girls and from then on I became one of their protectors.

Suki describes how she had her first experience of same-sex attraction in her last year of primary school during swimming lessons with another girl:

In my last year of primary school we were all told we had to learn swimming. One of my classmates insisted on showing me how to swim because she had already learnt. She would hold my belly up in the pool. I was trying to float and as she held my belly up in the water her other hand was caressing my developing breasts. At first I just thought her hand had brushed across my breasts, but no, it was too coincidental. I wanted to ask her what she was doing but I could not find the words to ask. It happened every Friday as that was the day we used to go for swimming. I remembered this particular Friday, her hand was creeping between my legs and I was waiting patiently to see what she would do. She stopped midway and whispered in my ear: 'Is it okay if I just touch it?' I nodded and she did as she had said. She then looked at me. I did not know what to say. She took one of my hands and directed it between her legs. I did not know what this was doing to her. I just placed my hand there and removed it so fast. Remember, all this was happening under the water in the swimming pool.

Laura had her first same-sex relationship at the age of 13 in primary school with her best friend. Their sexual explorations were initiated by her friend and started while they were playing a game of hide and seek:

While I was in primary school I had a best friend; our friendship bond was so strong, people referred to us as twins. We shared everything together, books, sweets and eventually a love life. My friend had the habit of inviting me to their place in order to play hide and seek. It was a simple, innocent game at first. Then one day she invited the sister so that we could also play with her. The sister did the seeking while we did the hiding; you see we used to hide under the bed. She would make sure the sister would not find us. She insisted she always be on top of me. From that position she would kiss me and tell me to suck her breasts. I was so uncomfortable in this position and she told me the space we were hiding [in] could not fit both of us side-by-side so one of us had to be on top of the other. She demanded I cooperate. You see, I was too naïve to understand what she was telling me to do. It was all about getting passionate. I was 13 years old and she [was] the same but she knew (raising her voice) so much. I was really amazed by how much of these, I mean, kissing and caressing, she knew. She used to creep her fingers up my private parts and ask me how I was feeling. I used to feel nothing, but I lied to her 'cause I saw the effort she was taking to ensure I was having a good time.

We played the game every day. We used to sneak out of school, that is escape games and clubs and go play our game. Slowly but surely I started enjoying it. We did not need the sister now, we pretended that she was around and continued hiding and there was imaginary seeking. The game however had to come to an end because we had finished our final year in primary school and we were headed to high school.

Their relationship developed when they initially went to the same high school:

You see we were too close to each other; she was my boyfriend and I was the girlfriend. I did not view anything strange with that. Then I did not know anything like femme and butch. To me it was just a special friendship that had blossomed [in] which we needed to define roles for each other. She was the dominant one. She provided for me what I needed, and protected me from my bullies.

School principals have been known to deny these practices, but they know what goes on in their schools. Their solution is to warn, suspend or expel the guilty culprits.

Unfortunately this happened to Laura when they were discovered kissing by a teacher and were sent to different high schools.

However, one day she made a false move. She kissed me on the lips in front of a teacher. Imagine the expression on all the teachers' faces when they were told of what had transpired. Our parents were called to school the following day and informed of our relationship. We were both sent to different schools. That is the day I will never forget.

Taking same-sex exploration further at high school

In Kenya the majority of woman-woman relationships begin in girls' boarding schools. As Suki said in her interview:

Love affairs were a common thing in our school and girls did not hide it. Girls exchanged gifts and kissed openly. The others knew who belonged to whom, so there was not much unfaithfulness in our school.

All three of my interviewees described how they experienced feelings of arousal when they saw the other girls nude in the showers or change-rooms. Laura's feelings of arousal when she saw girls changing at school confused and scared her:

What surprised me the most, was whenever I saw a girl changing her clothes in the open – very much nude, you see girls in dormitories had no need for privacy. They would strip and change clothes in front of me. It used to affect me so much I had to leave the room. I don't know what I was feeling. I don't know if I was missing my friend or I was lusting over them. I really can't tell. Anyway, I was still not sure. However, that confused me so I used to go to bed when everyone was asleep and rise up very early before anyone was up.

Rehema found her feelings easier to accept:

I can say [it happened] when I was in high school, because I was in a girls' school in the coastal province. We had some very pretty women. You will agree with me Arabs are very pretty and damn, I could not help myself, you know. We would go to the showers and I am like damn, shit, these women are so pretty.

Similarly Suki described how she couldn't stop herself from openly admiring the girls' nude bodies:

I could not help myself; I admired my dorm mates as they undressed and changed into their nightgowns. I openly stared at their breasts and this made me feel awkward. However, I just let it go and hoped it would eventually pass.

However it didn't pass and Suki started a relationship with one of her friends who had noticed her habit of staring at other girls:

One of my friends had noticed how I openly stared at the other girls as they changed. You see in our school girls didn't have an issue with being nude. It was not something to think twice about.

While I was changing into my pyjamas she approached me. She told me how she had seen me admiring other girls and asked me if I was attracted to women. At first I was taken aback by what she was saying and I wanted to deny this idea she was putting in my mind. I told her that what she was saying was all new to me. She put her hand around my waist and pulled me towards her. She kissed me full on the lips. I kissed her back and that was the beginning of my new sexual orientation.

After her painful separation from her first girlfriend, Laura purposely created a distance between herself and other girls for the next four years. Although she was given a 'mother' when she arrived at high school she refused to depend on her for anything at all:

The new school was an all-girls' school. I missed my best friend so much and knew things would never be the same. I realised that now I was on my own and would protect myself from having that kind of friendship again. I was given a 'mother' (quoting in the air with her fingers), a routine in the school, but she did practically nothing for me. Anyway, I depended on myself for everything. I kept off from the close relationships one has and was a loner.


Excerpted from Tommy Boys, Lesbian Men, and Ancestral Wives: Female Same-Sex Practices in Africa by Ruth Morgan, Saskia Wieringa. Copyright © 2005 Ruth Morgan Saskia Wieringa. Excerpted by permission of Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd.
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