Colonial structures call for responsiveness from the West

Opinion  In 2009 a proposal for stricter legislation against homosexuality was made Uganda, which among other things involved the death penalty. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni justified his acceptance of the law amendment by stating that he was taking a stand against Western social imperialism. The problem is that he had a point.

When conducting our Master’s degree projects in Kenya and Malawi, as white field researchers we experienced the racially determined social existence involved in going there to work with human rights. The white colour of our skin was always the elephant in the room – this symbol of status indicating wealth and privilege. In everyday life as well as in large and small, political and economic contexts, we experienced an expectation that we would act in accordance with our skin colour, which made our knowledge of historical and contemporary colonialism insistently concrete.

Segmented colonial structure at all levels make Westerners in Africa, including researchers and field workers, inevitably reassert imperialist patterns. Westerners who travel to Africa demonstrate inequality simply by having the opportunity to move around. Further, to maintain a minimum standard of what, from a Western perspective, can be considered decent living conditions, such as laptops and hot water in the room, reinforces that image. As for Western visitors with an interest in LGBTQI rights, their presence adds fuel to the fire of aggressive anti-homosexual rhetoric. As a foreigner, to come and express opinions about how Africans should live and think is not considered a new phenomenon, on the contrary, colonial views have been so thoroughly imposed that there is little room for interpretation. Why should a country like Uganda, where 93 percent of the population believe that homosexuality is immoral,[1] once again be forced to adhere to superior Western knowledge?

“Showing support for LGBTQI rights in Africa is currently popular in the West.”

“Showing support for LGBTQI rights in Africa is currently popular in the West”, says Kenyan human rights activist Mariah during one of our field studies. Scattered showers of money from the West are therefore currently particularly aimed towards gay rights movements rather than other human rights organisations. “Why are they so special?” and “what do they really want?” were recurring comments from people we met. In the contexts where we were situated, homosexuality – both as a concept and as a social and political phenomenon – played a role that was clearly different to the one we were used to. The most time-consuming issue for us was to understand the role and our own function, rather than presenting strategies for change.

The Ugandan criminologist Sylvia Tamale has together with other, mainly feminist, researchers written the book African Sexualities,[2] aiming to explain the ideas and forgotten processes that led to the current situation. A situation where the West is understood as the civilised free zone for homosexuality, while Africa, which has long been constructed as the antithesis of enlightenment and democracy, is attributed with an attitude of strong, popularly established and often aggressive aversion in Western media stories on African homophobia. However, as Tamale points out, the laws that still apply in countries such as Uganda, Nigeria, Malawi and Kenya were originally written by the British Empire. The prohibition of homosexual activity, or rather “”carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature”, carries the memory of British colonialism.

Tamale’s message is complex, but one position she finds to be of great importance is that there are political reasons why governments in African countries, with corrupt political systems and failed economies, highlight homosexuality as the most important moral issue. The argument that is most insistently presented by conservatives during the recent years’ sexual-political development in Africa is that homosexuality is not African, but something the imperialist colonial powers are trying to impose on Africa to destroy the continent from within. “Homosexuality is not in our culture” was a frequent comment during our field studies. The line is used repeatedly also by high-ranking African opinion-makers and politicians. Active lobbying, mainly from the US, has spiked the popularity of conservative Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa. Politics and religion have been woven together into a description of reality that evokes the sympathy of the majority of African citizens as it is presented as an expression against imperialist oppression.

Tamale explains that this line of reasoning represents a paradox, as it is Western religion and law that are imported colonial instruments of power, rather than homosexuality. At the same time, the political movements which have long been in the process of revolutionising the religious and political beliefs with regard to sexuality should be considered as emerging from Africa.

With great confidence Tamale describes the ongoing struggles that, parallel to the religious revival, has created a completely different change through activism based on courage and feminist theory. And there is hope for meaningful work for the rights of LGBTQI persons. Westerners with financial as well as research-related resources must therefore work sensitively in order to contribute to the fight against homophobia in Africa, to combat the hijacking and exploitation of the issue for purposes of power. Although it seems obvious, it requires a completely different type of effort rather than spotty charity.

Emma Eleonorasdotter, Master in Applied Cultural Analysis and doctoral student in Ethnology, Department of Cultural Sciences.

Sofia Nyrell, Master in Applied Cultural Analysis, Department of Cultural Sciences.

Gabriella Nilsson, Doctor of Ethnology, Department of Cultural Sciences


[1] Pew Research Center, (2013).

[2] Tamale, S. (red.) (2011). African sexualities: a reader. Cape Town: Pambazuka Press.




More facts about the researchers

Emma Eleonorasdotter – internship and field work in 2013 in Malawi, and has written the paper Lesbian Life in Malawi – An intersectional study of repressive and constructive power, 2014.

Sofia Nyrell – internship and field work in Kenya in 2014, and has written the paper The Special” Minority – Western Aid and LGBTIactivism in Kisumu, Kenya,

Facts about LGBTQI

LGBTQI is an umbrella term for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersexual and other persons with queer expressions and identities.

Intersexuality is a medical term for a person who has a congenital condition in which the gender chromosomes, gonads (testicles or ovaries) or genital development do not correspond to the norm of what is identified as the female or male gender. Intersexuality has nothing to do with sexual orientation. (Source: The Swedish National Encyclopedia & the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Rights (RFSL))

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