We Deh Here

Acrylic on canvas painting by Kwame Bakoji-Hume.

February in the UK is LGBTQ+ History Month.  Much like black history month it deserves way more than a month a year. It should of course be integrated, but much like Black History LGBTQ+ history is deliberately erased and ignored and therefore demands a special focus.

The reality is that many African spaces are not safe for LGBTQ+ people. In my country Ghana being LGBTQ+ is both illegal and unsafe. The campaign for LGBTQ+ rights is being met with a vociferous and violent response.

The most common objection to LGBTQ+ in Ghana, and here in our Black communities in the UK, is that it is an alien concept to our culture. The use of sodomy in subduing enslaved people is often raised. 

This LGBTQ+ history month made me mindful of our approach to Black History Month, to go back to before colonialism and the horrors of the transatlantic trafficking of enslaved peoples. So I wondered, when we go back to the before what might we find?

Of course the pre history of our continent is often oral, undocumented and unseen by the west. Our history is often obscured and the truth is the history of our Black LGBTQ+ community is even harder to see, but as expected they were always there.

In Ancient Egypt male lovers have been found buried together. In addition to acceptance of same sex relationships, Ancient Egyptians also acknowledge a third gender. Many deities were portrayed androgynously, and goddesses such as Mut and Sekmeht often had penises.

But as we know, in the British museum, Egypt is on a different floor to Africa. It seems an obsession to separate Egypt from the continent on which it is based. So what evidence is there from the wider continent, indeed from Ghana itself?

In Ghana, as on the rest of the continent, if we look hard enough LGBTQ+ history was always there.  In the cities Techiman and Wenchi in Ghana men dress as women – and vice versa – during the annual Apoo festival in April and May.  Across west Africa there are matrilineal societies and many non conformist gender roles such as the warrior Ashanti women, the most famous wore the men’s undergarments. In the 18th and 19th century Asante courts, male slaves served as concubines, dressed like women.   Ghana’s shrine elder women are unmarried and unfettered living with their all female harem. The Dagaaba people from Upper West in Ghana assign gender not based on ones anatomy, but rather the energy one presents. The Fante people believed that those, of either sex, with “heavy souls” were attracted to women, whereas those with “light souls” were attracted to men. The Nzema people had a tradition of adult men marrying each other, usually with a 10-year age difference. These marriages were called agyale, “friendship marriages”. The couple would obverse all the social equivalents of a heterosexual marriage, a bride price was paid and a traditional wedding ceremony was held.

The final counter argument to LGBTQ+ rights activists is that it is unnecessary. That in fact throughout present day Ghana there is a strangely liberal and simultaneously conservative attitude to sex in general.  It should be private, it should not bother the public at all. But all sex is accepted – so long as it is also unseen.

It results in a dangerous dance of subterfuge and hiding for the wider LGBTQ+ community.  A dance heterosexual people never need to learn and one in which a miss step can mean persecution or even death.

The shadow of colonialism is darkest in Churches, in our constitution, in schools and in the cities.  These were after all the main tools of the colonial state. It is also here where the oppression of the LGBTQ+ community is most keenly felt.

It is a notable fact that 25 per cent of the world’s population currently live in a country belonging to the Commonwealth, however they make up a disproportionately large 50 per cent of countries that still criminalise homosexuality.

Homosexuality in Ghana was criminalised in the 1860’s, when we were subject to an occupying power. Indeed in Ghana our Penal Code remains a relic of British colonialism, it punishes “unlawful carnal knowledge”.  In truth it has rarely been used but it’s very presence inspires and encourages hate and allows populist politicians to harness this power against the vulnerable in our society.

Before the 2020 election the police and the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice had reached out to LGBTQ+ people and taken proactive steps, including providing human rights training to help ensure their protection. It became possible to witness openly LGBTQ+ people in Accra, Ghana’s capital city.

Sadly the 2020 election was incredibly close and LGBTQ+ rights are a populist issue.  On the 31st January the countries first LGBTQ+ Community Centre was opened by Alex Kofi Donkor. Yesterday on the 25 February this centre was raided by the police.

In Ghana marriage is known as Aware.  It translates as long journey.  Sadly I believe we have a long journey until Ghana sees parity for LGBTQ+ communities. Hopefully a focus on LGBTQ+ history in Ghana will expose the clear reality. LGBTQ+ people have always been a part of our history, I hope to work for a future when no one has to hide.