- Hungochani: The History of a Dissident Sexuality in Southern Africa
In 1995 the president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, publicly referred to gays and lesbians "as worse than pigs and dogs." Five years later he called homosexuality "an abomination, a rottenness of culture," that Britain's "gay government" was trying to impose on his country (4). He urged his compatriots to defend Zimbabwe from this latest sort of Western imperialism. Such statements denouncing homosexuals and identifying homosexuality as un-African have been echoed by other African leaders. Yet at the same time a bold gay rights movement has emerged in southern Africa. This movement has scored dramatic victories in South Africa since the attainment of black majority rule in 1994. South Africa was the first country to enshrine freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation in its new constitution. Subsequently, gay and lesbian activists have successfully challenged homophobic laws in the courts. In 2006 the South African state recognized marriage between same-sex couples.
Hungochani unpacks this paradox. It challenges the myth that homosexuality is historically un-African. Colonialism and Western decadence did not introduce same-sex practices to southern Africa but rather the concept of homophobia, the active loathing or fear of same-sex practices and desires. In an ambitious overview Marc Epprecht traces the history of same-sex practices among (mainly male) Africans from the precolonial period to the present. Drawing on oral testimony, memoirs, fiction, ethnographies, court records, and government enquiries, Epprecht explores the changing meanings of same-sex sexualities and the complex origins of homophobia. He examines the emergence of gay and lesbian identities in the context of colonial rule, Christian education, and racial capitalism. The book explains why southern Africa's queers have played such an important role in the development of a civil society over the last few decades. This is an important, path-breaking book. The historical scholarship on homosexuality in Africa is still quite slim-with the exception of work on South African gays and lesbians. Epprecht has written an accessible monograph that presents the first account of the history of same-sex practices and their meanings in southern Africa.
Hungochani has many merits. It sets the record straight and, informed by queer and feminist theory, shows how contestations over gender and sexuality are forged and perpetuated and how new gendered meanings and sexual identities emerge. It addresses the silences in the available sources on same-sex practices in southern Africa as well as in much of Africanist and postcolonial writings. The book makes an important contribution to the scholarship on "queer globalization," which seeks a greater appreciation of dissident and illicit sexualities as well as local subcultures in order to reveal oppressive discourses within dominant cultures. [End Page 335]
The book's title refers to how homosexuality is known today in chiShona, the main African language of Zimbabwe. In the 1990s gay activists coined the term hungochani by adding the prefix hu- to the older, derogatory expression ngochani (sodomy, or homosexual). The term refers to a state of being or an intrinsic nature rather than a specific lifestyle choice. Hungochani offers to be an inclusive term that encompasses self-identified gays and lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered people as well as other men who have sex with men. Although specific to Zimbabwe, hungochani is widely understood, since there are related terms in other languages of southern Africa.
The book contains eight chapters that explore different themes on the history of same-sex practices in the modern countries of Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Lesotho. Chapter 1 offers an overview of same-sex practices and gender relations in the premodern societies of Zimbabwe. It draws on oral research, ethnography, and archaeology. The transition from the hunting-gathering economy of the Bushmen to the cattle-based economy of Bantu-speaking people brought more male control over the sexuality of women. The Shona, like other societies, observed a "culture of discretion around sexual matters" (37). Potential dangers of sexual transgressions were...