Gay sangomas are not un-African, rather they hold an important place in cultural tradition, a new study suggests.
A practising sangoma and graduate student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Lindiwe Mkasi, has published a study which challenges the traditionally-held belief homosexuality is “un-African”.
The study argues the existence of gay relationships among Zulu healers means they hold a fundamental place in cultural tradition.
Mkasi followed 10 female traditional healers in same-sex relationships in Kwa-Ngcolosi and Inanda and her study found male and female sangomas practised same-sex relationships without discrimination.
Sangomas, or healers, are thought to serve as human links to ancestors and to the divine.
Many researchers call sangomas “custodians” of Zulu culture and heritage.
Yet many Zulu leaders have condemned homosexuality, decrying it as a cultural import from the West.
Titled “A threat to Zulu patriarchy and the continuation of community”, the study on lesbian sangomas shows homosexuality is not “un-african”.
Dr Sarojini Nadar, Mkasi’s research supervisor and a professor of gender studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said Mkasi’s research was “a sort of spin-off” on a wider study on HIV prevention they had worked on together in 2008.
In that study, one woman revealed she had not slept with her husband in several months because she suspected he might be HIV-positive.
Nadar said they had asked how the woman could have this kind of sexual control in such a patriarchal context, and it emerged the woman was a sangoma.
She had then taken a lesbian partner because, according to her, it was safer.
Some study participants said they had been possessed by male spirits when having sex with other women.
“When ancestors do not want men… you actually feel it, yourself,” said one.
Another sangoma, Nkabinde, said she had been possessed by a male spirit named Nkunzi, saying: “Nkunzi loves women especially young women.
“If I am with a woman of 21 or 22, normally Nkunzi will want to have sex with her… I have more power when Nkunzi is in me, especially when we both desire the same woman.”
Becoming a sangoma has long served as an alternative for Zulu women who find traditional marriage “burdensome,” according to Gina Buijs, a social anthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand.
“As a sangoma, there is a space for a lesbian woman to be herself without the pressure to form a relationship with a man,” said Buijs.
But Nadar said Mkasi’s findings also pointed to the extensive homophobia in traditional Zulu culture, where “ordinary men and women don’t have that kind of freedom”.
The title of sangoma may protect lesbian women in townships, where they face serious dangers if they come out as lesbian.
In particular, a woman who is perceived as homosexual may be subject to “corrective rape,” where she is raped in an effort to “turn” her straight again.
The emphasis on hyper-masculinity in traditional Zulu culture can also lead to gang formation in urban settings, according to Buijs.
Since 1994, the constitution has forbidden discrimination on the basis of gender and sexual orientation. Yet prejudice persists in the highest strata of society.
Two years ago, many prominent Zulu leaders campaigned to have this clause removed, and Jacob Zuma’s failure to condemn Uganda’s recent anti-gay legislation has drawn international scrutiny.
Yet there are signs South Africa’s leaders are catching up to its constitution.
Last April, the first traditional Zulu marriage involving a gay couple took place. Tshepo Modisanea and Thoba Sithole, both 27-year-old young professionals, faced a lot of negative backlash from social media outlets and some Zulu academics. But other citizens took heart at the news.
One, a blogger named Lenox Magee, called the story “beyond epic”.
“Undoubtedly, this wedding will go down… as one of the most significant events in South African LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersexual) history,” he wrote.