In twentieth-century East Africa, children and young people had to contend with complex and inconsistent rules about sex and maturation. While many indigenous authorities considered juvenile sex meaningless before the person completed customary rites of passage, Christian missionary, Islamic reformist, and British colonial campaigns against “unnatural offence” and “defilement” taught boys of all ages to avoid homosexual acts and urged girls to preserve their virginity before marriage. Many East Africans worried that boys who had sex with other boys or men and girls who had sex before marriage became “spoiled” (“-haribikwa” in Swahili).
“Spoiled” children brought shame to their families and faced challenges when trying to marry and take on other adult responsibilities. Some children and young people avoided this calamity by keeping their sexual desires and encounters secret. Other boys and girls took advantage of new child protection campaigns and colonial criminal laws to fight against this image of them as “spoiled” by claiming to refuse sex from men or by accusing men of rape. Whereas secrecy protected one from being exposed as “spoiled” in the first place, refusals and criminal accusations restored normality to the children and young people whose “spoiling” was public knowledge. This talk argues for queering the history of childhood by reading these histories from the “spoiled” children’s perspectives instead of those of adults in order to reveal how young people navigated the shifting landscape of sexuality, citizenship, and belonging in twentieth-century East Africa.
Corrie Decker is an associate professor of history at the University of California, Davis. Her first book, “Mobilizing Zanzibari Women: The Struggle for Respectability and Self-Reliance in Colonial East Africa” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), investigates the history of Muslim girls’ education and women’s professionalization in the Zanzibar Islands. She co-authored, with Elisabeth McMahon, “The Idea of Development in Africa: A History” (Cambridge University Press, 2020). Her work also appears in the American Historical Review, Past & Present, the Journal of Women’s History, Africa Today, and other journals and edited volumes. Decker is currently completing a book titled “The Age of Sex: Custom, Law, and Ritual in East Africa,” under contract with the University of Wisconsin Press.
In collaboration with Furman Humanities Center, WGSS, and Middle East and Islamic Studies, the Department of History offers a year-long lecture series, “Queer Histories and Narratives.” The series focuses on histories, archives, and sociopolitical representations of LGBTQIA+ communities across various spatial, temporal, and cultural settings through an interdisciplinary lens. Bringing together scholars working on LGBTQIA+ histories or using queer theory as their methodological approach, the series will shed light on the importance and urgency of exploring the historical construction of gender and sexuality in the US and non-US localities for a novel, diverse and inclusive approach to historiography and contemporary politics.