Dele Meiji Fatunla and I are back again with another list – this time on ten gay characters from African Literature Everyone Should Know. I love lists – even though I struggle with the enormity of narrowing them down – so as always when Dele asked me if I would like to collaborate again – I jumped at the chance. With there being 10 characters on our list, we both decided we would each make a list of 5 characters that fascinated us. I can say for myself that it was not the easiest task narrowing it down to 5 – and as you would read in this list, I particularly struggled with associating fascinating with likeable. Once I got over that, it was fun to put together. Well, and the ranking is no particular order…. from a “Batswana woman” conforming to social norms, to an amazing male hairdresser harbouring a secret and even a hot-headed activist, here are the ten gay, lesbian or bisexual characters in African literature we think everyone should know. As always this is not an exhaustive list, but drawn from literary works we’ve both read and characters we were fascinated by. Still, we hope these characters fascinate you as much as they did us and reveal to you the wonderful characters coming out of the world of African literature. 

Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed – Founder, Bookshy Blogger

(Feature Image: K Sello Duiker, Author, The Quiet Violence of Dreams)

1. Marija, Our Sister Killjoy, Ama Ata Aidoo, (1977)

Loneliness is to be the defining characteristic of Marija – whose encounter with Sissie in Aidoo’s ground-breaking book, leads to a sensitive exploration of same-sex love; while she is rendered as the pitiable cypher for Or Sister Killoy’s exploration of herself, nevertheless, Marija is striking and fascinating in her daring to engage with another person from another culture. I’ve always wondered what Aidoo was trying to achieve with that whole storyline, and creating the desperate character of Marija  – the clue I think is in the poetic coda to the moment Marija shares a kiss with Sissie – what had been to some extent uncontroversial instances of same-sex interaction in African societies, became taboo with the arrival of victorian, judeo-christian morality – shackling both European and African cultures in its contradictions — Dele Meiji Fatunla 

2. Tshepo, The Quiet Violence of Dreams, K. Sello Duiker (2001)

Tshepo, the central protagonist in K Sello Duiker’s “The Quiet Violence of Dreams”, is a young black South African man, who goes through a lot in his journey – from being enrolled at University, to being hospitalised at a mental institution, working (and losing his job) as a waiter, then working at a male massage parlour, before moving to Jo’burg (from Cape Town). With all that said, he also captures excellently the volatile intersections of sexuality, space, race, class, nationalism and human rights in post-apartheid South Africa. Tshepo also enables us to look beyond a number of things – particular negative perceptions/stereotypes of mental illness, of sex work, and also of being a gay black man.  – Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed

3. Nonceba, The Glass Pecker, Lindiwe Nkutha (2005) (from One Hundred Eighty Degrees edited by Helen Moffet)

What do you do when your Egyptian lover sends you a letter of her decision to commit suicide, but also promises (if Isis permits) to see you in the afterlife? For Nonceba, a black bisexual South African woman, in “The Glass Pecker” by Lindiwe Nkutha (2005), the answer is to follow your lover, and also commit suicide. Far from being a tragedy, the lovers are actually reunited after death on Nefertiti’s tomb. For me, there was something about the way Nonceba lived her life that fascinated me – she had lived it as though she had borrowed it from someone with no plan of returning it intact. She loved things that were pre-owned and discarded – vintage clothes, second-hand books, and even preferred to pick food from others plates. There was a nonchalance to Nonceba, which made her committing suicide to hopefully be with her lover (and possibly not live in a city without cinnamon cigarettes), seem plausible. — Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed

4. Unnamed narrator and Sanyu, Under the Jambula Tree, Monica Arac de Nyeko, from African Love Stories, (2006)

These two girls have guts, in a small town in Uganda, they fall in love, and their relationship has consequences that echo subtly in their lives for years to come. Sanyu, the object of the narrator’s love, is someone we know only through the narrator’s eyes, but she comes across as gutsy, intelligent and destined for great things. Sanyu fascinates of course because she is silent, but our narrator also fascinates because she tells us so much about herself but withholds her name, becoming literally a love that dare not speak its name. — Dele Meiji Fatunla

5. Hatim Rasheed and Abd Rabbuh, The Yacoubian Building, Alaa Al-Aswany (2007)

I struggled with Hatim Rasheed the most, but maybe that’s why he is on this list, because as a character he leaves me very conflicted. I went back and forth with him the most, because while on one hand, he is the respectable editor-in-chief of Le Caire, a French newspaper in Cairo, is an intellectual, highly intelligent, speaks four different languages and is openly gay in an extremely homophobic society, but I wondered if his privileged position in society enabled him to be more openly gay. I say this, because his lover – Abd Rabbuh, was a poorer man, whose sexuality he kept secret from his wife and who was constantly guilty about the affair (fearing God would punish him for being in a relationship with Hatim – and not for having an affair). It is actually Hatim’s relationship with the younger, poorer Abd Rabbuh, which made me conflicted about him. Hatim goes through great lengths to seduce Abd – from free drinks and meals to money, and eventually an apartment for Abd and his family. And while within the relationship there were certain positive traits – Hatim telling Abd his life could be better (when Abd believes his life cannot be changed as that’s his fate), this is clearly a relationship with unequal power relations. There is also the larger conflict around how he was described in the novel –  as, for instance, a ‘conservative homosexual’ who did not wear powder on his face and – but that really isn’t the fault of the character, but more a larger discussion of his description as a character. Still, Hatim does show that a fascinating character does not necessarily have to be liked. — Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed

6. Tendeka, Moxyland, Lauren Beukes (2008)

Tendeka, one of the four central characters, in Lauren Beukes 2008 cyberpunk, dystopian novel Moxyland, is a young activist whose passion and drive fascinates me. He and his partner, Ashraf, run a programme helping street children in Cape Town and he is anti-corporations, anti-technology and anti-corruption – and truly believes in his cause. Still, this doesn’t take away from his flaws – he is sometimes too naïve and idealistic, and his strategies (resulting from his frustration with an unjust system) are violent (billboard hacking, disrupting an art gallery opening).  I admire the cause he is fighting for, but not so much his actions to achieve that cause, but why I am most fascinated by him is because he makes me question one thing – can you really and truly change a system you are fed up with from within, without there being serious consequences? – Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed

7. Chinedu, The Shivering, The Thing Around Your Neck, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, (2009)

“Somebody once told me I was the straightest gay person they knew, and I hated myself for liking that” Chinedu says in a moment of self-revelation, which is both tendered and tortured, in Adichie’s story. When Adichie gave a talk on Fiction at the Royal Society of the Arts last year, she talked about how many of her Nigerian readers said they fell for this character before they knew he was gay. For me he fascinates, partly because we first encounter him as a fervently religious Nigerian – the kind of person, most people in Nigeria (I assume) can relate to. He fascinates of course, because we also wonder if he is a cypher for people the author knows, and we wonder if we are getting a glimpse into a particular fragment of gay, Nigerian identity.— Dele Meiji Fatunla

8. Dumisani, Hairdresser of Harare, Tendai Huchu, (2010)

The protagonist of Tendai Huchu’s brilliant debut, Dumisani is a sensitive, outgoing person with a gift for making hair gloriously attractive but he is also holding on to a secret. What makes him fascinating? That he has a relationship with an older man, and despite struggling for acceptance in a society hostile to his identity he holds on to his vivaciousness and sense of self-worth – and he fascinates me because of how his story concludes – it leaves me with the haunting sense of a character, who blooms in exile, but will always mourn for the possibilities of home. These are not things that are really said in the novel, but live on in our mental space beyond the page. — Dele Meiji Fatunla

9. Sethunya, Sethunya Likes Girls Better, Wame Molefhe (2011) – (from Go Tell the Sun by Wame Molefhe)  

“This is how things are done.” That sentence alone ensures Sethunya – the main character in Wame Mohfle’s “Sethunya Likes Girls Better” – lives a life that is shaped by others expectations of what a good girl/woman/wife should be. Sethunya is by no means a happy character – for instance, she is married to a man, who she struggles to feel something for, other than the love of a brother. Through obsessing over a story in a newspaper about an ape who was shot after escaping the local zoo, we learn that she is a woman – a Batswana woman – whose sexuality is suppressed because good girls do not behave in certain ways. There was sadness to Sethunya – she embodied deference to society (through her heterosexual marriage) but there was also a complexity that I liked – her hidden resistance to that, through her hidden desires for Kgomosto – whose kiss made her feel warm in places.— Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed

10. Boniface, Shoga, Fairytales for Lost Children, Diriye Osman, (2013)

Arguably one of the first representations of a working-class gay character in African literature – we know little about Boniface – hired to be a muscled and useful presence in an older Somali lady’s house in Kenya, he becomes the lover to her grandson. We know he wants to become an academic, he likes weed, and fucks well, but our encounter with him is cut tantalisingly short, and he becomes the proverbial ‘one that got away’ for the lead character. – Dele Meiji Fatunla

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