THE BOY-WIVES OF THE AZANDE OF THE SUDAN
The Azande inhabit the north of Central Africa. Those of them living in the Yambio district of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan were studied by the English anthropologist Sir Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard (1902-73) in his first fieldwork between 1926 and 1929.
The following is what he had to say about their practice of Greek love in his essay "Sexual Inversion among the Azande", in American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 72, No. 6 (December 1970) pp. 1428-34. Some of his findings had been reported as early as 1932 in his The Pagan Tribes of Nilotic Sudan, pp. 506-7 by the ethnologist Charles Gabriel Seligman, who, however, added nothing of his own.
It is beyond question that male homosexuality, or rather a sexual relationship between young warriors and boys, was common in pre-European days among the Azande, and as Czekanowski (1924:56), citing Junker (1892: 3-4), has pointed out, there is no reason to suppose that it was introduced by Arabs as some have thought. All Azande I have known well enough to discuss this matter have asserted also that female homosexuality (lesbianism) was practiced in polygamous homes in the past and still (1930) is sometimes. This paper brings together information about both practices and presents translations of a few texts on the subject taken down from Azande of the Sudan forty years ago.
Before European rule was imposed on the Azande there was a good deal of fighting between kingdoms (Evans-Pritchard 1957b, 1957c). Part of the adult male population of each kingdom was organized in military companies of abakumba 'married men' and aparanga 'bachelors'; the same companies, besides their military functions, served at courts in various capacities and were called on for labor in the royal and princely cultivations (Evans-Pritchard 1957a). In this account we do not have to refer again to the companies of married men. It was the custom for members of bachelor companies, some of whom would always be living in barracks at court, to take boy-wives. This was undoubtedly brought about by the scarcity of marriageable women in the days when the nobility and also the richer commoners kept large harems and were able to do so because bridewealth was hard to come by and they were able to acquire it more easily than poorer men. Most young men consequently married late - well into their twenties and thirties - and, because girls were engaged (in a legal sense married) very young, often at birth, the only way youths could obtain satisfaction from a woman was in adultery. But that was a very dangerous solution to a young man's problem, for the fine his father would have to pay was heavy - twenty spears and a woman, which meant in effect the payment of two women to the husband; it sometimes happened that the husband was so enraged that he refused compensation and chose instead to mutilate the offender, cutting off his ears, upper lip, genitals, and hands. So, the risk being too great, it was the custom for cautious bachelors in the military companies who were living at court, if they were not content to masturbate - a practice to which no shame is attached, though a young man would not do it in public - to marry boys and satisfy their sexual needs with them. A youth of position in his company might have more than one boy (kumba gude). To these boys their warrior mates were badiya ngbanga 'court lovers.'
That it was on account of the difficulties of getting satisfaction in heterosexual relationships that boy marriage was a recognized temporary union is, I believe, shown by the fact that boy marriage has in post-European times entirely disappeared. It is true that the military companies disappeared also; but Azande, I think rightly, attribute the giving up of the custom to its having become easier for youths to marry and, in the general breakdown of morals and of the suppression of customary punishments, to indulge in adultery and fornication. Boy marriage was owing, Azande say, to zanga ade 'lack of women.' As one man put it, "What man would prefer a boy to a woman ? A man would be a fool to do so. The love of boys arose from lack of women." So the Azande in my day spoke of it as kuru pai 'old custom,' though I have never heard anyone speak of sleeping with a boy with distaste - at worst it is regarded as something of a joke; even in my time one heard it said of a man that he used to be some well- known older man's boy much as we in England might say that someone at school was fag to some celebrity. It should also be made clear that, as in ancient Greece, so far as one can judge, when the boy-wives grew up and when they and their husbands married females they had a normal married life like everyone else. There were no urnings in the modern European sense.
The custom of boy marriage had died out before I first visited Zandeland, and as direct observation no longer was possible, I had to rely on statements about the past, but such statements by senior men were unanimous. I have pointedly used the terms "wife," "husband," and "marriage," for, as the texts will make clear, the relationship was, for so long as it lasted, a legal union on the model of a normal marriage. The warrior paid bridewealth (some five spears or more) to the parents of his boy and performed services for them as he would have done had he married their daughter; if he proved to be a good son- in-law they might later replace the son by a daughter. Also, if another man had relations with his boy he could, I was told, sue him at court for adultery.
The boys were "women": "Ade nga ami," they would say, "we are women." A boy was addressed by his lover as diare 'my wife,' and the boy addressed him as kumbami 'my husband.' The boys used to eat out of sight of the warriors in the same way as women do not eat in the presence of their husbands. The boys performed many of the smaller services a woman performs daily for her husband, such as gathering leaves for his ablutions, gathering leaves for his bed, drawing water and breaking off firewood for him, helping him in hoeing his father's cultivations, bearing messages for him, and bringing him cooked provisions from his home to court to supplement those provided by the prince; but he did not cook porridge for him. With regard to these services it should be borne in mind that a young man at court had no mother or sisters to look after him there. Also, the boy-wife carried his husband's shield when on a journey. It should be understood that he performed these services lest it might be thought that the relationship was entirely of a sexual nature; it will be appreciated that it had an educational side to it. With regard to the sexual side, at night the boy slept with his lover, who had intercourse with him between his thighs (Azande expressed disgust at the suggestion of anal penetration). The boys got what pleasure they could by friction of their organs on the husband's belly or groin. However, even though there was this side to the relationship, it was clear from Zande accounts that there was also the comfort of a nightly sharing of the bed with a companion.
The word "boy" (kumba gude) must, it would appear, be interpreted liberally, for as far as I could judge from what I was told the lads might have been anywhere between about twelve and twenty years of age. When they ceased to be boys they joined the companies of warriors to which their at-one-time husbands belonged and took boys to wife on their own account; so the period of marriage was also one of apprenticeship. I cannot present figures for boy marriages, but the practice was certainly both accepted and common. I obtained lists of a succession of such marriages from several senior men but there would be little profit after this lapse of time (sixty-five years after King Gbudwe's death) in recording just strings of names.
Before giving the texts it should be further stated that some members of the noble ruling class indulged in homosexual intercourse. In the main these were those young sons of princes who hung about court till their fathers saw fit to give them wives and districts to administer. They kept well away from their fathers' harems and took commoner boys as servants and for sexual pleasure. It appears also that a prince, however many wives he might have, might sleep with a boy rather than by himself during the night before consulting the poison oracle, for intercourse with a woman was taboo on these occasions. It was said that kumba gude na gberesa nga benge te 'a boy does not spoil the poison oracle.' Otherwise I have heard of only one senior prince - deposed by the administration - who, although he had several wives, still habitually slept with boys. For this and other reasons he was regarded by Azande as slightly crazy. One must not jump to conclusions, as Czekanowski did on what Junker had recorded about boys accompanying a Zande prince wherever he went; all kings and princes are accompanied by pages who are treated by their masters with notable indulgence in contrast with the severe aloofness with which their seniors are usually treated.
Text (Evans-Pritchard 1963a:277-280) was taken down from Kuagbiaru, a man well acquainted with the court life of the past who had himself been a boy-wife and, as head of a company of warriors at the court of Prince Gangura, several times a husband to boys.
In the past men used to have sexual relations with boys as they did with wives. A man paid compensation to another if he had relations with his boy. People asked for the hand of a boy with a spear, just as they asked for the hand of a maiden of her parents. All those young warriors who were at court, all had their boys. Those huts of the young men which were around the court, all their boy-loves were in those huts. They built their huts large and long, and there were many youths to each hut, each in his own place, together with their captain. Their boy-loves also slept in the huts. When night fell they all kindled fires in front of their husbands' beds, each kindled a fire in front of his lover's bed. When the young warriors began to be very hungry at court they sent their boy-loves to their [the boys'] parents to fetch food for them. Their boy-loves went and returned with fine lots of porridge and cooked fowls and beer. The relatives of a boy escorted him [when he was married] in the same way as they escorted a bride [on her marriage] to her husband with much good food. However, the boys did not cook porridge for their lovers themselves; they cooked manioc and sweet potatoes for their lovers. It was their mothers [the boys'] who cooked porridge in their homes, and nice meats; and some of them cooked fowls. They collected all these lots of food together where their husbands were. All these youths and their loves, there was no forgetfulness of the boys' part about giving food to the lovers. But that porridge which they gave them, they broke off part of it together with part of the meats to hide it for their husbands, for they were like wives. Their lovers did not approve of their laughing loud like men, they desired them to speak softly, as women speak.
When all the young warriors went to hoe the prince's cultivations each took his love with him. When they reached the cultivations they built a big hut for their captain and they set up a palsade around it. In this enclosure, filled with boys, otherwise was the captain alone. Then the youths began to build their little shelters adjacent to the hut of the captain, and they stretched far, crossing streams. But all their boys were in the enclosure they had erected for the captain. When it was dusk the boys scattered, each to the hut of his lover to kindle a fire there for his lover. Each went to kindle a fire in the hut of his own lover. Next morning they gathered together in the enclosure of the captain. No youth could enter there without permission. The captain gave them their meals behind the enclosure. Only if the captain felt well-disposed towards him might he summon one of the senior youths into the enclosure to share his meal with him. All the rest of them never entered the enclosure; they saw their loves at night. The youths hoed the cultivations till evening and then they returned to their sleeping places. Their loves had already made their husbands' beds and kindled fires for them in their huts.
Text (Evans-Pritchard 1962:16-17) was taken down from Ganga, one of King Gbudwe's captains of companies of warriors.
This is about how men married boys when Gbudwe was lord of his domains. In those days, if a man had relations with the wife of another the husband killed him or he cut off his hands and his genitals. So for that reason a man used to marry a boy to have orgasm between his thighs, which quieted his desire for a woman. If this boy was a good wife to his husband five spears might be paid for him, and for another as many as ten might be paid. A husband who was liberal to his in-laws, they would later give him a woman, saying that good for a boy, how much better for a woman; so if he married a girl his in-laws would greatly profit, and so they gave him a wife [girl]. This his boy, he did not abide seeing another near him; they would quarrel, and if they took the matter before [King] Gbudwe, Gbudwe told the one who went after the other's boy to pay him spears [in compensation] since he had gone after the other's boy. Also there were some men who, although they had [female] wives, still married boys. When war broke out they took their boys with them, but they did not take them to the place of fighting; the boys remained behind in the camp, for they were like women; and they collected firewood for their husbands and plucked nzawa leaves [for the toilet] and they cooked meals for when their husbands returned from the fighting. They did for their husbands everything a wife does for her husband. They drew water and presented it before their husbands on their knees and they took food and brought it to them, and the husbands washed their hands and ate this meal and then recounted what had happened in the fighting to their boy-wives.
The following section here omitted concerned lesbianism.
Perhaps I should add in conclusion to this note that it is not of course being suggested that pederasty and tribadism are explained by social conditions such as those obtaining among the Azande. Obviously they are not. What is perhaps accounted for, given libidinous plasticity, are the institutional forms prevalent in Zande society and the (male) attitudes towards them.
1924 Forschungen im Nil-Kongo Zwischengebiet. Vol. 2. Leipzig: Klinkhardt & Biermann.
EVANS-PRITCHARD, E. E.
1957a The Zande royal court. Zai're 5: 495-511.
1957b Zande border raids. Africa 28: 217-232.
1957c Zande warfare. Anthropos 52: 239-262.
1962 Zande texts: part 1. Oxford: Oxonian Press.
1963a Some Zande texts. Kush 11.
1892 Travels in Africa. London: Chapman
 A man asking a girl's parents for her in marriage gave them a spear or two as a first installment of bridewealth. In the case of boys, the acceptance of a spear likewise constituted a legal marriage.
 In preparing a meal for guests a Zande wife often kept part of it back before serving it so that her husband could have a second meal secretly when the guests had departed
 Intercourse with women was taboo for warriors during periods of fighting.
If you would like to leave a comment on this webpage, please e-mail it to email@example.com, mentioning either the title or the url of the page so that the editor can add it. You could also indicate the name by which you wish to be known.
Anonymous 103, 11 August 2022
Very useful text to research.