- The Erotics of History: an Atlantic African example by Donald Donham
This is a thought-provoking book, full of surprises and even suspense, inspiring challenging reflections on the study of ‘sexuality’ in general and in Africa in particular – all this in only 100-odd pages. It took a special occasion to make Donham – an American anthropologist, well known for his studies on political economy and sexuality in East and South Africa – come to West Africa. A neighbour in Oakland surprised him by announcing that he was going to sell his house and resettle in West Africa in the house of his African lover – ‘jack-of-all-trades, body-builder in his late thirties and son of the local shrine priestess’ (p. 18). When Donham went to visit his friend there, he discovered that his friend’s move was not exceptional. In this neighbourhood, eight white male gay foreigners had built second-storey apartments on top of their African lovers’ family houses; a ninth had built a three-storey house on his lover’s land. Despite the fact that colonial sodomy laws still criminalized male–male sex in this country (which Donham prefers not to identify), and that both nationalists and Pentecostals increasingly attacked homosexuality as un-African, these liaisons between local and expatriate men had become part of everyday life – an ‘open secret’ (p. 20). The internet had become important for forging such erotic links, but Donham emphasizes that the pattern has a longer history both in Africa in general (cf. British businessman J. M. Stuart-Young living with his lover and the latter’s family in Onitsha in the 1930s) and in this village in particular (situated next to a colonial golf course, it had become a recruiting ground for caddies, some of whom served their white patrons sexually as well).
But there are more surprises to come. When Donham showed a draft of the book to his Oakland neighbour (who subsequently had opted for alternating between California and his African home), the latter told him that he had missed the sadomasochistic context of many of these relations. In his chapter on ‘White slavery’, Donham reports on further research on the internet, notably on the creativity with which Africans try to profile themselves in line with the preferences of Euro-American gay men. A recurrent profile turns out to be that of an ‘African slave master’ – some using pictures not unlike American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s famous Man in Polyester Suit. But Donham emphasizes also a special aspect: the African slave masters seem less preoccupied with pain than with power. He relates this to his more general analysis of the performance of sexuality by Africans in these contacts as a special form of ‘extraversion’ – a [End Page 976] notion launched by the political scientist Jean-François Bayart to highlight a recurrent trait of African social formations in their contacts with the outer world. Donham gives the notion a new relevance by linking it to sexual exchanges: the African partners are true masters in such extraversion by turning a relation of dependency into one of empowerment.
Donham is certainly conscious of the limits of his example. There is much uncertainty because of hostility in the environment. The fact that same-sex relations are illegal opens up all sorts of possibilities for blackmail, easily giving domestic quarrels dangerous overtones. After a few months, he decided to stop his fieldwork because there was growing uneasiness on all sides. This is also why he chose not to identify the country involved, for fear of nasty consequences for his spokesmen. But he most convincingly shows that, limited as his example might be, it raises crucial questions in the study of ‘sexuality’. In fact, Donham proposes to do away with the term as such. He confesses that teaching, year after year, a course on ‘Sexualities’ made him increasingly unhappy with the term and its apparently unavoidable tendencies towards classification (often going together with a neglect of desire and excitement). For him, the...