Monday, March 18, 2013

Sexuality and tradition among the Baga

Another note from Frederick Lamp’s fascinating Art of the Baga (1996):

Lamp describes “a spectacular and sensuous dance” performed by Baga men (73), that celebrates an important spirit named “a-Bol, the patron of the feminine moiety,” one division of Baga society. (70). This dance, which another scholar observed in the 1950s, was performed several times in 1987, perhaps as part of the renaissance of Baga traditional practices. All the dancers, Lamp reports, are dressed as women:

Each dancer is dressed in a particular female style: a printed-cloth wrapper around the waist, a scarf around the head, necklaces, bracelets, and conspicuous earrings tied to the ears. (73)  

What’s the dance like? Lamp writes that:

In the dances we saw in 1987, the men’s movements were homoerotic. First parading at a normal gait, the dancers would then take a position with legs splayed and knees bent, shuffling their feet with each beat, swiveling the hips …. (73)

He goes on:

Demonstrations of this dance in several [Baga] Sitemu villages were relatively sedate, but at the three-day ritual sacrifice the dancing was boisterous, continued for several hours, and included some spirit possession and also some sexually suggestive gestures and contact between the men.  (73)

Lamp suggests there may be multiple reasons for this ritual, but he proposes that one source may be that “the a-Bol ritual may be seen in the context of a ‘younger’ clan identified with the feminine principle, and sexual as sexuality is defined for the ‘younger’” – and, he writes, “No studies have investigated the extent of this phenomenon, but it seems clear that some homosexual behavior was expected among the youth.” (74)

This elaborate display of cross-dressing, with its complex roots, is interesting in and of itself. But it is also striking evidence – not that any was actually needed – that the claims sometimes made in Africa today that homosexuality is un-African are, of course, false. 

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