Africa has a rich history of transsexualism; but this was largely destroyed by the British and others during the colonial era. As they did in India, the British enforced a rigid religious injunction against any form of what they saw as homosexuality.
That means it’s difficult to find out about transsexualism in Africa. Even though the Empire is longs gone, the most homophobic and transphobic wings of the Episcopalian Anglican Church — the majority denomination in the old British colonies — are relentless in their persecution.
Writing for Thompson Ruters, Katy Migiro describes the case of Audrey Mbugua, an MtF HSTS transsexual from Kenya:
When Mbugua sought help to deal with her inner turmoil from a health worker, the woman took Mbugua’s hands and prayed for her to be freed from the devil’s clutches.
“She pulls open her drawer, takes out a Bible, and starts to preach to me,” Mbugua said with a laugh. “I don’t think she knew what I was going through, so to cover up, she said it’s the work of Satan.”
Transgender people are some of the most invisible in Africa, where rigid gender stereotyping continues to stifle freedoms. Many are forced to hide their identities and live on the margins of their communities or risk being vilified as immoral and unchristian by the conservative majority.1
Ethnologist Eva Meyerowitz, stationed in Ghana, in Africa during the 1920s-1940s, observed that among the Ashanti and Akan, “men who dressed as women and engaged in homosexual relations with other men were not stigmatized, but accepted.”
“In Burkina Faso of the Upper Volta River, Frenchman Louis Tauxier reported sorone within the Mossi tribes during an expedition in 1912. The sorone were beautiful boys, aged seven to fifteen, that dressed like women and served as pages and sexual partners to the village chiefs. They were often entrusted with state secrets and forbidden to be sexually intimate with women. Among the Dagara tribes of southern Burkina Faso, homosexual and transgender people served as shamans and were considered special gatekeepers who straddled both worlds in order to help sustain the universe.’ 2
Today, the huge continent of Africa is today noted for some of the most strident anti-homosexual voices in the world. Most of these come from the Anglican religious community, which was introduced by the British and has, wherever it set itself up, been a harbinger of extreme intolerance for all things homosexual and transsexual. It is a bizarre irony that the Church of England, the mother of all of this, is now quite relaxed and has an open attitude to both; but the wider Anglican community, often egged on and funded by extremist US American fundamentalists, remains as intolerant as ever.
Both homosexual and transsexual behaviour were noted across the continent in pre-colonial days. Once again, the two were not seen as separate, with transsexualism being seen as a natural conclusion to homosexuality.
Miss Sahhara, a Nigerian HSTS transwoman who now lives in London because of the discrimination she suffered at home, told the BBC:
“I get a lot of online messages from Nigerian trans girls who are there now and they find it so difficult. A nightmare…there’s no male privilege for trans women in Africa.”
Growing up in rural northern Nigeria, where homosexual activity can be punishable by death (although no executions by law for homosexual activity have been verified), Sahhara says that it was “obvious to all” that she was “a girl in a boy’s body”.
Nigeria is one 34 African countries that outlaws same-sex relationships, and since the Nigerian government tightened its anti-gay laws in 2014, punishments have become much harsher.