Gay African History: Zanzibar

During the 19th century European ‘scramble’ for Africa, the Zanzibar archipelago, off the African east coast, was a British Protectorate from 1890 until it became part of Tanzania through it’s union with Tanganyika. In the 16-17th centuries the region had been under Portuguese control, before coming under the influence of Arabic cultures under the Sultan of Oman. By the time the British arrived Zanzibar had its own Sultan, and although his mainland territory was soon taken over, the Sultanate continued until the formation of Tanzania in 1964.

In 1899 Hungarian Michael Haberlandt, a professor of ‘ethnology’ at the University of Vienna, wrote a letter to his friend Dr. Oskar Baumann in which he detailed his observations of same sex and gender variant behaviour among the tribal people he had encountered in Zanzibar. This letter was translated and published in ‘Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies in African Homosexualities’ by Stephen O Murray and Will Roscoe in 1998. Far from being ‘un-African’, records like this, despite the homophobic assumptions of its writer, show just how diverse and queer Africa really was before the import of western attitudes, laws and prejudice.

Michael Haberlandt

Haberlandt was also keen to find a non-African cause of what he called ‘contrariness’ and stated his opinion that “The rather high frequency in Zanzibar is doubtless attributable to the influence of Arabs, who together with Comorosans, and the prosperous Swahili mixed-breeds, account for the main contingent of acquired contraries.”

Speaking of the Arab’s love of pederasty, he went on, “Typically engaging in sex at an early age, oversaturation soon occurs among these people, and they seek stimulation through contrary acts, in addition to normal acts. Later they lose desire for the female sex and become active pederasts. With the occurrence of impotence, they then cross over to passive pederasty. Their love objects belong almost exclusively to the black slave population; only rarely do the poor freeman, Arabs, “Belutschen” and others submit to it out of greed. The adolescent slaves that are selected are kept away from any work, well pampered, and systematically effeminized (kulainishwa).”

But then Haberlandt admits it’s not only the Arabs:

“In parallel to this custom the Negroes of Zanzibar also come to engage in contrary acts. Since slaves are often not available to them for this purpose, male prostitution has developed, which replenishes itself partly from the former catamites of the Arabs, and partly from other Negroes. The aforementioned mainly live in Ngambo and ply their trade very openly Many among them wear female clothing; at almost every dance in Ngambo one can see them among the women. Others go about in male clothing, but wrap a cloth around their heads in place of the cap. Many otherwise reject that distinctive sign.

Having covered slaves and prostitutes, more follows which shows how accepted and normal gendervariant individuals were in the local tribes, how queerness was seen as amri ya muungu, the will of God:

“Inborn contraries of the male as well as the female sex exist. From youth on, the former show no desire for women and only find pleasure in female occupations, such as cooking, mat-weaving, etc. As soon as this is noticed by their relatives, they reconcile themselves without further ado to this peculiarity. The person concerned puts on female clothes, wears the hair braided in female fashion, and behaves completely as a woman. He associates mainly with women and male prostitutes. He seeks sexual satisfaction mainly through passive pederasty (kufira = to pederast, kufirwa = to be pederasted) and in coital-like acts. In outward appearance, inborn contrary men are not distinguishable from male prostitutes, but the natives make a sharp distinction between them, the professional catamites are despised. while the behavior of the inborn-contrary is tolerated as amri ya muungu (the will of God).”

Haberlandt seems to have got to know some lesbian Africans quite well:

“Contrary-sex aligned women are likewise not rare. Eastern custom makes it impossible, of course, to wear men’s clothing, but they do it in the privacy of the home. They spot other women by their masculine bearing and when their female clothing “doesn’t fit” (Chawapendezwi na nguo za kike). They show preference for masculine accomplishments. They seek sexual satisfaction with other women, sometimes contrarily disposed ones like themselves, sometimes normals who give themselves over to it from coercion or greed. The acts performed are: kulambana – to lick one another, kusagana to rub the private parts up against each other; and kujitia mbo ya mpingo = to furnish oneself with an ebony penis. This last kind is remarkable because a special tool for it is necessary. It is a stick of ebony in the shape of a male member of considerable size, which is fashioned by black and Indian craftsmen for this purpose and is sold secretly. Sometimes it is also made from ivory. There exist two different forms. The first has below the end a nick where a cord is fastened, which one of the women ties around her middle in order to imitate the male act with the other. The stick is pierced most of the way and it then pours out warm water in imitation of ejaculation. With the other form, the stick is sculpted with penis heads at both ends so that it can be inserted by both women into their vaginas, for which they assume a sitting position. This kind of stick is also pierced. The sticks are greased for use. In addition to its use by contrary-sexes, this tool is employed in the harems of the Arabs, where the women, because of strict seclusion, find insufficient sexual pleasure. It is considered an Arabic invention.”

Finally, Haberlandt reveals for us the Swahili terms for queer people, which has a strong parallel with the meanings behind terms given for example to Native American queer shamans:

“Homosexuals of both sexes are designated in the Swahili language as mhe-si-mume (woman, not man). However, the expressions mzebe and the Arabian-derived hanisi, which actually mean an impotent person, also apply. Arabic law is somewhat “tolerant” in the persecution of male contraries, although the Qur’an strenuously forbids pederasty. Female contraries are punished, as are the craftsmen who supply the ebony penis, which is consequently acquired only with difficulty and at a considerable price.”

Mke si mume is another very old expression that we also find in studies of ethnology and dictionaries of the late 19th century. In some areas like Bardanza, it is used to name both men and homosexual women, and in others, it means sexually receptive man. The English translation of this expression cannot be simpler, but the interpretation is much more complicated. In all texts, it is translated as “woman not man” or “woman is not a man”. However, Swahili dictionaries define Mke as wife and mume as a husband.” From online Gay Dictionary Mke si mume | Swahili gay dictionary | say gay in Swahili | gay in Kenya (

From introduction to Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: studies in African homosexualities by Stephen O Murray and Will Roscoe:

“Haberlandt’s 1899 article on Zanzibar… is concerned with distinguishing inborn (angeborne) “contrariness” (a psychological condition rather than an act, like sodomy) from that which is “acquired” (erworbene). One of the preoccupations of medical-psychiatric discourse at this time was reconciling an older theory of homosexuality as acquired (through degeneracy, which was conceived simultaneously as a failure of morality and physiology, a favored nineteenth-century explanation for both group and individual behavior) and the newer theory of homosexuality as an inborn orientation. There is no evidence, however, that these distinctions were used by the natives of Zanzibar – Haberlandt does not quote natives on the subject, nor does he provide case histories that might elucidate how and why individuals came to be engaged in the behaviors he reports. Indeed, from the perspectives of the discourse Haberlandt relies on, “contrariness” is an essential psychic condition that can occur in any human population and is the same phenomenon in each case. Native understandings can only be misunderstandings in relation to the “facts” of Western “scientific” discourse…”

Decolonise sexuality and gender expression now!


Published by shokti

i am shokti, lovestar of the eurofaeries, aka marco queer magician of london town. i explore the links between our sexual-physical nature and our spirits, running gatherings, rituals and Queer Spirit Festival. i woke up to my part in the accelerating awakening of light love and awareness on planet earth during a shamanic death-and-rebirth process lasting from January 1995 to the year 2000, and offer here my insights and observations on the ongoing transformation of human consciousness, how to navigate the waves of change, and especially focusing on the role of queer people at this time.

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