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Journal of the History of Sexuality 15.1 (2006) 128-132

Reviewed by
Michelle C. Johnson
Bucknell University
Re-thinking Sexualities in Africa. Edited by Signe Arnfred. Uppsala: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, 2004. Pp. 215. €22 (paper).

In this diverse and provocative volume scholars from a variety of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences explore a wide range of beliefs and practices pertaining to sexualities (they insist that the concept be discussed in the plural) in Africa. The volume is an impressive collaborative effort by scholars from African and European institutions. The principal goal of the volume, as the title suggests, is to "re-think" sexualities in Africa, by which Arnfred means to examine them critically "beyond the conceptual structure of colonial and even post-colonial European imaginations" (7). Central to this effort is an acknowledgment of the fact that current understandings (both scholarly and nonscholarly) of sexualities in Africa are primarily Western in orientation; that is, they are conceived of as essentially "other," as premodern, irrational, and exotic in opposition to "modern" and "rational" sexualities in the West.

The volume is divided into three major sections. The first, "Under Western Eyes," echoes one of the major goals of the volume as a whole, exploring previous understandings of sexualities in Africa and suggesting new and alternative approaches. The second section, "Problems of Pleasure and Desire," attempts to correct a current bias in the study of sexualities in Africa that emphasizes the procreative aspects of sexuality over issues of pleasure and desire. The third section is entitled "Female Agency" and interrogates how socioeconomic changes in African societies influence power relations between men and women. The volume's twelve chapters address these wider issues by focusing on more specific topics, including initiation rituals and genital cutting (for both men and women), HIV/AIDS, sexual desire, fertility, and childbearing in African societies.

In bringing together diverse (and often contradictory) voices and approaches from all corners of the continent, the volume makes a noteworthy [End Page 128] ethnographic contribution. The numerous case studies juxtaposed in the volume allow the reader to draw comparisons and to examine a particular concept from a variety of different perspectives. More important, however, the volume makes several valuable theoretical contributions to the study of gender and sexuality. First and foremost, it reminds us that sexualities in Africa and elsewhere are not biological facts but complex social and cultural constructions that are always linked to wider economic, political, or religious realities. What is most refreshing about this not-so-new argument, however, is that the authors of the volume start rather than end there.

Several of the volume's contributors raise the importance of distinguishing African categories from Western ones, the latter being propagated by colonial officers, missionaries, and development workers. At the same time, however, they demonstrate through vivid ethnographic analysis the difficulty, even impossibility, of disentangling the "African" and the "Western." This is especially true in cases when these categories merge over time, mutually constituting one another and eventually becoming indistinguishable. In such a scenario Africans themselves (even African scholars) may appropriate colonial categories and reproduce stereotypical representations of their own sexual practices and/or identities. Likewise, Africans in local settings may recast the "traditional" as "modern" or the "modern" as "traditional." One specific example of this complexity is found in anthropologist Heike Becker's chapter on women's initiation in Namibia. In an attempt to "be modern," Namibians converted to Christianity and stopped speaking openly about their traditional initiation rituals, which they continued to practice in secret. In the 1990s these same Namibians began advocating for a more open expression of their "traditional" culture both through the public practice of initiation rituals and in the media (e.g., a television program portraying initiation). Christian Namibians defined these efforts as a backlash against a perceived "loss" of traditional culture, which they attributed to Christian missionaries. In analyzing the shifting and contested arenas of sexuality and gender through time, accordingly, Becker argues that "it would be inappropriate to assume a break between a...


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