Difficult love and camaraderie:
Representing sapphic sexualities in African cultures

In Matrimony by Azza

Modern African sapphic sexualities are moulded in silence and secrecy, governed with repression and regulated through shame and punishment. Seeing African lesbians share their love in the open is awakening. Their visibility in itself is a form of revolution. They call us into a fuller and braver understanding of what it means to be African, and what it means to experience love. One lens to understand how African lesbians represent themselves is through film. In this article, I briefly highlight two films, Difficult Love and Rafiki. The first film was released in 2010, and the other in 2018. They belong to different genres, but they explore what being a Black-African Lesbian in South Africa and Kenya, respectively. We end with a discussion about tradition and the role it plays in creating and governing sexuality.

Difficult love

Difficult Love is a documentary written and produced by Zanele Muholi. What makes Difficult love peculiar is that South Africa was the first nation on the African Continent to decriminalize homosexuality. It did so in 1998. The film features multiple interviews with women who have been economically and socially disenfranchised by their communities because of their sexuality. In one interview, the audience sees how a Black South African lesbian becomes homeless with her partner and had to recreate a shelter underneath a bridge, after being outcast from her community. Despite laws that are meant to protect queer people, it is the social policing, the shaming, disenfranchisement that cause lesbians to build a home under a bridge.


This critically-acclaimed film by Steven Markovitz explores the bloom of romantic love of two women who happen to be the daughters of rival politicians in Nairobi, Kenya. Throughout Markovitz’s Rafiki, the two main characters Kena and Ziki face deep cultural punishment when their love is discovered. When members of their religious community learn of the nature of their relationship, they track down Kena and Ziki and assault them. Kena and Ziki are then taken to the police station, not to report the crime, but to be booked for it. Throughout this scene specifically, we hear the two police officers mocking the couple by asking each other: “So, who is the man in the relationship?”

What should we do with our cultural past?

I’d often hear people say that being a lesbian is not part of the African tradition. The major reason that is cited by politicians in the 32 out of 54 African countries that criminalize consensual same-sex conduct is culture. “Being Gay/Lesbian is not part of the african culture” they say.  But even with a recent rise in decriminalization, what is clear is that decriminalization does not equate to de-stigmatization and acceptance.  The challenge is not just with laws, but with culture. 

I am not interested in debating the authenticity of traditions that began a thousand years ago, or fifty years ago. However, what these movies show us is that the matters that affect African lesbians are deeply urgent. Anti-LGBTQIA+ rhetoric finds plenty of comfort in tradition. It often means powerful people picking and choosing what is conveniently “traditional” to legitimize hate.It also steeped in interpretations of religious beliefs which collectively legitimize oppressing and excluding members of these communities. The result is deep human suffering.

African sapphic lovers exist. They have always existed. In the modern era, to survive, they often go into hiding, living in between breaths, and stealing moments of freedom in subtle ways to subvert the shame that seeks to govern them. Many often marry men, to get by, and receive the security heterosexuality provides. Heterosexuality is the default, is compulsory and socially regulated. Operating outside of these systems is conceived of as ‘dangerous’ and taboo. Any refusal to perform heteronormativity and heterosexuality often leads to social isolation and economic repercussions.

The LGBTQIA+ community live brightly and share their stories for you to see.  Through collective artmaking, there is an eloquent expression of pain and reality that we, as individuals, may not have the capacity to express ourselves. Through this process we explore and embrace our cultures and traditions. We reinforce our ideas of what love is by representing ourselves through the stories we tell. These movies are not just movies; they are a release, a breath of new air that reminds us that loving should be easy. These movies help to provoke us into questioning which harmful traditions we have firmly held onto but need to let go of.

A new movie continuing this tradition of lesbians is Ife. Ife is a Nollywood film about two women in love in Nigeria. It faces an uphill battle in a country where homophobia is rampant. I can’t wait for it to come out later this year, and continue in this brave tradition of African women telling their stories, and living in their truth.