Sex, secrecy and religion in Africa

“Secrecy,” says American fiction writer, Robert Heinlein, “is the beginning of tyranny”. But I think, secrecy is actually the abode of darkness, ignorance, prejudice and confusion. Because whatever is held in secret is like something held in the dark- it can be anything, it can become anything. It can become nothing.

In Africa, so much secrecy prevails in the area of human sexuality. Sexual expressions are preferably done in secret or discussed in hushed tones. There is hardly any open honest debate or dialogue on sexual issues going on anywhere on the continent. All questions about sexual matters appear to have been answered and such answers are taken to be correct- absolutely correct. Sexual rules are taken to be beaten paths cast in stones without any room for revision, change or improvement. And any attempt to question, challenge or alter the sexual norms and traditions is perceived as a taboo or an open invitation to social chaos and moral anarchy. Africa’s secretive morality has caused so much confusion, misinformation and misrepresentation of sexual dynamics in the region. It has estranged Africans from the table of ongoing debate on global ethics and morality. It has thrown up self appointed moral demagogues and custodians of African cultural norms.

Unfortunately, religious faiths have capitalized on this confused situation in Africa to tyrannize over the lives of the people using their largely primitive and mistaken doctrines, dogmas, notions and norms. Alas, most people in Africa have taken moral solace in religious dogmas and superstitions. It was Arthur C. Clarke who once said that the greatest tragedy in human history might be that religion hijacked morality. I think Clarke made this assertion not because he did not know that religious doctrines shaped people’s moral choices. But because religious faiths weighed undue influence- total and absolute influence- on moral decisions.

Religious faiths corrupt people’s moral sense and hamper their ability to question, examine and revise their moral positions when the need arises. Religions made moral rules divine commandments-perfect, eternal and immutable laws handed down to mere mortals from above. But in actual fact, moral rules are imperfect, temporary, questionable and changeable laws articulated by humans for their own happiness and well being. Religious morality is the moral outlook that prevailed in the past; the moral viewpoints of those who lived in the past- at the time the religion was codified or instituted.

So due to religious influence, Africans hold moral perspectives-exotic moral perspectives- as if we are strange beings thrusted down from a dark age. Many Africans openly express moral views that fly in the face of facts, reason, history and common sense. They espouse moral positions that are patently hypocritical, retrogressive and backward-looking.

One moral issue that has revealed the darkening, corrupting and confusing influence of secrecy, hypocrisy and religious tyranny in Africa is homosexuality.

Homosexual orientation is found is all cultures of the world including Africa. But many Africans have tried in vain to deny this cultural reality. Persons who are attracted to people of the same sex  have always existed in societies and communities across the globe. But in Africa, there is this tendency in many people to pretend about this social fact and to regard homosexuality as an unnatural perverse moral import from the West. In actual fact many Africans want a situation where homosexuals do their things in secret or go about their business as if they do not exist.

 I have met Africans who told me that they did not bother if homosexuals expressed themselves hiding. That they were opposed to their going open with their sexual identity and their demand for equal rights with hetereosexuals. And they had quotations and references in the Bible and the Koran to justify their outrageous moral positions. Yes, their moral position is outrageous by today’s moral standards.

But I have always wondered why Africans cannot pause for a moment and think. Don’t we, Africans, know that there are practices that were morally justifiable and tenable in the past and in the scriptures like slavery, discrimination against women, child marriage, persecution of unbelievers etc that are criminal and atrocious by today’s moral standards?. Why can’t we Africans chart an independent moral course without the trappings of religious dogmas and pretensions?

 When will Africans realize that those who introduced the Bible and Koran to the continent no longer allow these ancient texts to tyrannize over their lives? Why can’t we say NO to religious tyranny and extremism, ‘secretive’ and self deceitful morality and hypocritical attitudes towards human sexuality? Because these are the primitive sentiments that led to the murder of the Ugandan gay rights activist, David Kato and to other atrocious acts-genocide, religious violence, witch hunts etc-which Africans perpetrate against Africans.

I mean, when shall we, Africans, wake up from our intellectual and moral slumber?  We, Africans, missed out on the old enlightenment. Shall we also miss out on the new enlightenment?

About the Author

Leo Igwe is the International Humanist and Ethical Union’s representative for West Africa and Executive Director of the Nigerian Humanist Movement.

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