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Reviewed by:
  • African Sexualities: a reader
  • Marc Epprecht
Sylvia Tamale, African Sexualities: a reader. Cape Town, Dakar, Nairobi and Oxford: Pambazuka/Fahamu Books (pb £24.95 – 978 0 85749 016 2). 2011, 656 pp.

Bravo! Here is a book about Africans, published in Africa, and mostly written by Africans. Literally dozens of established scholars, activists and artists explore the diverse aspects of sexualities in Africa. They employ empirical case studies and reflections upon pedagogy and activist strategies, research ethics and methodology. They consider the theorization of sexual diversity and its relationship to gender, race, ethnicity, tourism, the political economy, biomedical science, and much more. There is something here for almost everyone – provided, that is, that readers are engaged by the underlying theoretical premises. Indeed, the Reader can almost stand alone as a university course, challenging by its breadth, inter-disciplinarity, and passion the many stereotypes and silences that still encumber sexuality studies in Africa.

The underlying premises (politics) are: feminism, anti-colonialism, human rights, and sex positivity. The authors persuasively argue that none of these is a Western import. On the contrary, much of the book’s overall optimism stems from the conviction that these concepts are embedded in African traditional cultures and can, therefore, be nurtured without inciting a patriotic backlash, while proceeding with sensitivity to local context.

Sylvia Tamale is a legal scholar based at Makerere University. Among her previous contributions has been her vigorous defence of human rights for sexual minorities in Uganda. She brings that boldness to this collection as well, launching the volume with a judicious critique of Western constructions of a singular and mostly pathological ‘African sexuality’. That construct reaches back to some of the very earliest travel and anthropological writing about Africa but, as Tamale notes in a chilling account of a Google search on ‘black lesbian rape’, continues in the present.

In stressing the need for Africans to deconstruct this pathology, and to envision sexualities free from the pernicious, lingering influences of colonialism, apartheid and imported religions, Tamale does not promote nativist opposition to the West. On the contrary, she makes a compelling and reasonable case for building upon the insights of Western pioneers in sexuality research. The influence of Foucault, Butler and Rubin especially is evident in many of the chapters. The bottom line, however, is that no amount of reference to the Western canon can by itself replace the hard ethnographic, archival, and other face-to-face work in Africa that is necessary for good scholarship on this topic.

The chapters that follow (and there are too many to describe individually) are organized into nine sections. Not all of these cohere very well, but all close off with a set of questions designed to focus classroom discussion on key concepts and how these might be applied to personal or local knowledge.

Scholars will recognize many of the chapters from previously published versions. Bringing them together in conversation within one volume is a valuable exercise in its own right. But it is particularly welcome given that many of the first publications were in fairly obscure journals. Brigitte Bagnol and Esmeraldo Mariano’s wonderful engagement with the ‘female genital mutilation’ debate, for example, probably did not get the attention it deserves in the Finnish Journal of Ethnicity and Migration.

Several chapters deal extensively with homosexuality, bisexuality, intersexuality and transsexuality, in many cases from a first-person perspective of dealing [End Page 654] with prejudice and self-doubt. One striking juxtaposition gets us thinking about the role of faith in that project. For Julius Kaggwa, faith in the Christian message of love and tolerance was central to his self-acceptance. To Audrey Mbugua, by contrast, ‘religion is a threat’, and her essay is enlivened by anger at the selective literal-mindedness of homophobes who justify their hate by reference to the Bible or Qu’ran.

Delights abound throughout the book, including Tamale’s and Bennett’s inclusive and radically anti-essentialist definitions of Africa and Africans. There is a remarkable memoir by an HIV-positive female Kenyan sex worker who enjoys her work. There are poems, short stories and, memorably for me, a fictional debate between a feminist professional woman and a sexist...


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