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Professor discusses African homosexuality

Wendy Belcher, African literature professor at Princeton University, explains early Ethiopian homosexuality at the Comparative Literature Office Building on the College Avenue campus.
Photo by Trent JoaquinWendy Belcher, African literature professor at Princeton University, explains early Ethiopian homosexuality at the Comparative Literature Office Building on the College Avenue campus.

Wendy Belcher wants to prove that African literature began before Western colonization with a text that shows the history of homosexuality in Ethiopia before Western influences. 

Belcher, a professor of African literature at Princeton University, discussed the text from 1672 at a lecture, “Same-Sex Intimacies in an Early Modern African Text about an Ethiopian Female Saint,” held Tuesday at the Comparative Literature Office Building on the College Avenue campus.

Belcher expressed her life ambition: to convince as many people as possible that African literature goes back further than 1958, the year Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe’s published  “Things Fall Apart.”

Belcher has been examining African literature for over two decades and is working to call attention to early African texts through her research and translations, said Ousseina Alidou, director of the Center for African Studies.

The lecture was presented to a segment of Alidou’s graduate seminar, which aims to analyze African texts. The lecture was open to the public as well.

“Whenever we have an opportunity to get a wonderful contribution from a professor, whose work aligns with the course, it is an honor,” Alidou said. “We will have some great dialogue related to women in Ethiopia.”

During the lecture, Belcher focused on an early modern African text called “The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros,” written in 1672. 

The text details a life-long partnership between two women and same-sex sexuality among nuns, written, she said, “by Ethiopians [and] for Ethiopians.”

Belcher began by providing background on the historical significance of Walatta-Petros, an Ethiopian saint.  

During the early 17th century, Portuguese Jesuit missionaries came to Ethiopia to convert Ethiopians from their ancient form of Christianity to European Christianity. Many women fought this conversion, and the Portuguese king eventually rescinded the order. 

Walatta-Petros was among 10 women who were named Ethiopian saints for saving the church.

Belcher read anecdotes of the relationship between Walatta-Petros and her female partner throughout the lecture.

“It is my argument today that the text represents [these] women’s relationship with each other as a love story [between] a holy and celibate couple who struggled with being chaste,” she said.

Delving further into textual analysis, Belcher noted that proper interpretation of the text requires care. She stressed the importance of avoiding a “queer reading” or “traditional reading” of the characters.

“My research calls to extend knowledge of sexuality in earlier periods and in non-Western context,” she said. 

The text’s confirmation of same-sex relationships in Ethiopian history also holds important implications to Ethiopia today. Both male and female same-sex sexual activity is currently illegal in Ethiopia. 

Belcher said this early text is important because it points out that homosexuality is not a Western import.

She is in the process of completing an English translation of the work for Princeton University Press with her co-translator Michael Kleiner. The translations are as close as possible to the original manuscript, out of 12 total manuscripts written over time. 

Belcher and one of her colleagues visited the Saint’s Monastery in Ethiopia and were able to view the never-before-seen manuscript, which she believes to be the original.

“It was somewhat of a miracle that we were able to see the manuscript,” she said. “I like to believe that Walatta-Petros was looking down on us.”

Belcher mentioned a few stories related to “The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros” and then opened up the floor for discussion and dialogue.

Abena Busia, chair of the Department of Women and Gender Studies, said the act of writing about Walatta-Petros’s miracles confirms her as a saint.

She believes Walatta-Petros’s sainthood makes the gender issues more deeply profound and interesting.

“This text must be seen as the earliest known representation of same-sex partnership and desire among women in Africa,” she said.