Very little is known about the communicative practices of men who transgress gender and sexual norms in East Africa, particularly along the Swahili Coast, where the majority of Swahili speakers are Sunni Muslims. In Zanzibar Town, Tanzania, the valorization of verbal discretion, the widespread belief that sodomy is a religious taboo, and the real risk of negative sanctions for transgressing sexual norms usually prevent open discussion of sexuality. Through discourse analysis of a conversation about Popobawa, a supernatural sodomist, with a man who transgresses Zanzibari gender norms, this essay examines how transgressive identities can be revealed in discreet ways while respecting Zanzibari discursive norms and discusses the difference between widely used Swahili terms for transgressive men (hanithi, basha, and shoga) and the newer borrowed term magays. Some of the communicative practices discussed are similar to secret “gay” languages in other contexts, but talk about spirits, and about Popobawa in particular, offers a unique way for transgressive men to respect local conversational norms while discreetly revealing their own identities and desires.
Research Article|October 01 2015