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three pairs of lovers with space



The author in 1922

Monica Wilson, née Hunter (1908-1982) was a South African anthropologist who spoke Xhosa from childhood. Together with her husband and fellow-anthropologist Godfrey Wilson, she undertook fieldwork with the Nyakyusa, a Bantu-speaking people in the south-west of Tanganyika (a British-ruled territory in East Africa), between March 1935 and January 1938, during which time they lived amongst them and learned their language. The fruit of this was her book, Good company: A study of the Nyakyusa age-villages (London: Oxford University Press, 1951).

Presented here is everything Wilson had to say about Nyakyusa homosexuality, which was mostly between boys, included some Greek love, but was not countenanced between men. It should be understood that, as she explained in her second chapter, “Village Organization”, Nyakyusa villages were age-structured, in that when boys reached the age of ten or eleven, they stopped sleeping in their fathers’ houses and joined a village of boys their age, where they remained for life, eventually marrying pubescent girls about ten years younger than them.

Chapter IV.  Values

d. Decency

Homosexual practices are said to be very common in the boys’ villages – they begin among boys of ten to fourteen herding cows, and continue among young men until marriage, but they are said never to continue after that, and are regarded simply as a substitute for heterosexual pleasure. ‘A man never dreams of making love to another man’ – only of making love to a woman. If a boy's own father, or a village father, finds a son with another youth he will beat him, but provided both parties were willing, there is no court case, and the older men treat the practice tolerantly as a manifestation of adolescence. To force a fellow to have homosexual intercourse against his will is a serious offence, comparable to witchcraft (vide Document, p. 196). […]

As we have already indicated, there are profound differences between pagans and Christians in their sex code. The Christian dogma that sex relations should only take place between adult married persons excludes the freedom of girls to have external sex relations before betrothal, or in the ‘bride’s’ hut; it excludes girls visiting their betrothed husbands before puberty; and it excludes homosexuality, which is regarded as a mortal sin. [pp. 87-88]

"The Genesis of a Village. Boys’ huts built on the edge of their fathers’ village" (p. 19)

Select Documents relating to Nyakyusa age-villagers

7.  Homosexuality

X (an exceptionally relíable informant)

‘When a boy sleeps with his friend they sleep together; it is not forbidden. Everyone thinks it all right. Sometimes when boys sleep together each may have an emission on the other (bitundanila). If they are great friends there is no wrong done. If a boy has an emission on his friend in his sleep without the friend knowing there is no case. Boys sometimes agree to dance together (ukukina) and work their evil together and that also is no wrong. But they fear very much to dance thus because their parents will be angry, saying; “You are learning adultery; you will be fools when you grow up.” Boys do this when they are out herding; then they begin to dance together and to have intercourse together. But there is something which is a great wrong – if one boy, perhaps out herding or perhaps in the boys’ village at night, catches hold of his fellow and has an emission on him (nukutundila) then it is a great case, involving a fine. One who has been forced by his fellow will tell his parents and they will take him to the village headman to inform the headman. It is a great case and the boy who forced his fellow pays a bull or perhaps a cow. They say that to force a fellow thus is witchcraft (bo bulosi); he is not a woman. But when they have agreed and dance together, then even if people find them they say it is adolescence (lukulilo), all children are like that. And they say that sleeping together and dancing is also adolescence.

Mwanyila, a future Nyakyusa chief, photographed by Wilson in 1936

‘This custom is mostly among children, it is forbidden for men to sleep together. They do not fear lest when they have soiled a friend they will pay; no, they fear to be shamed. Not many cases of grown men having intercourse together come to light, but only of boys together or of a man and a boy. Some, during intercourse, work in the mouth of their friend, and have an orgasm; those do very, very great wrong. Some have intercourse in the anus, some between the legs –  there are many who practise this latter form and this is what boys mostly do. That of the mouth people do very rarely when they dance together, because one who does it may have a great case against him.

‘A person never dreams of making love to another man but only when two youths sleep together on a mat, then something evil may take place between them, at night during sleep. Perhaps when one has dreamed that he is having intercourse with a woman but he has been caught and not finished, he soils his friend.

‘And when out herding, some of the older boys do evil with the young ones, the older ones persuade the little ones to lie down with them and to do that which is forbidden with them between the legs. Sometimes two older boys who are friends do it together, one gets on top of his fellow, then he gets off and the other mounts. All this which they do together or with a junior is a small wrong. When their parents find them they reprove them and tell them it is forbidden, they beat them a little. But when a little boy is caught hold of by an older boy against his will, and he tells that so and so caught him and had intercourse (ukulogwa) with him then the older boy will be fined, perhaps a bull.

‘It is altogether forbidden to do evil to a fellow by night. The boy who has been so treated will be angry and run off to the court, and he who did evil to him will be fined. He will pay one cow, because they say it is forbidden to do evil to your fellow by night. There are some who, when they have dreamed at night of a woman, wake up and catch hold of a friend, and have intercourse with him.'

Wilson interviewing Mwanyila, a Nyakyusa chief, in his village of Lupanda, 1955

.A and J.

A and J agreed that homosexuality occurred frequently in boys’ villages. ‘A boy has intercourse with his fellow, but a grown man? No, never, we’ve never heard of it. They always want women; only when a man cannot get a woman he does this, only in youth. A few men do not marry but they are half-wits who have no kind of intercourse at all.

‘And there is one famous case in the hills of a man who, though not mad, dresses as a woman; but he has no intercourse either with men or women.’

A case was also quoted of a doctor in Tukuyu who ‘is a woman; she has borne children, now her body has grown the sexual organs of a man and her feelings have changed also; but she keeps it very secret, she is spoken of as a woman. [pp. 196-7]




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