The Negotiation of Homosexuality through Video Films in Tanzania

Claudia Böhme. Africa Today, suppl. Special Issue: Love and Sex in Islamic Africa. Volume 61, Issue 4. Summer 2015.

On 4 February 2011, a film-release party was held at the Travertine Hotel in Magomeni, Dar es Salaam, with Member of Parliament Idd Azani as guest of honor and the popular band Mapacha Watatu performing. The film was Shoga (‘very close friend’, ‘homosexual’), produced by and starring the famous actor Hisani Muya (also known as Tino), with a poster displaying Tino’s face as half-female, half-male. Shortly after the première, the film was “suspended” by the Tanzanian Ministry of Information, Youth, Culture, and Sports. The official statement said that the film conflicted with shared values that made promoting homosexuality a criminal offense in Tanzania. After changes to the poster and the film, the ministry approved the film under the name Shoga Yangu (‘my friend’); however, it issued an 18 certificate, meaning that the film may not be seen by persons under the age of eighteen. The new cover appears with Tino’s face in front and his wife’s face behind him.

As illustrated by Shoga, the video film industry has produced a platform for visualizing and negotiating love and sex. As filmmakers visualize what was invisible or unshowable, such as homosexuality, it provokes constant negotiation among producers, consumers, and state and religious institutions on what is morally acceptable for viewers. These unrepresentable desires and fears are most often channeled through the supernatural and diabolical in horror films or occult dramas (Green-Simms 2012b:28). Video film functions as a form of revelation in which viewers are eyewitnesses (Meyer 2003:17), thereby dissolving the distinction between the visible and invisible worlds and reproducing an unstable balance between them (Green- Simms 2012b:32). Achille Mbembe’s discussion of the simultaneity of the visible and invisible world highlights the video film’s creation of “spectral affect” to portray occult forces (Green-Simms 2012b:32-33). Building on such analysis, this paper examines how video filmmakers in Tanzania show the unshowable by pointing to the difference between the visible and invisible, the relation between images and in-between the images, and sound and the dialogue in the construction of these narratives.

Using long-term fieldwork and participant-observation in the Tanzanian video film industry, I discuss how newly introduced video films, through their form and aesthetics, have changed the perception and reception of love and sex(uality). Using the examples of the (currently) only two films that discuss homosexuality or same-sex practices, Popobawa and Shoga, I want to show how they audiovisually represent their perception of the topic. With the example of Hisani Mohammed Muya’s Shoga, the first Tanzanian film about homosexuality in detail, I elaborate on how video filmmakers take up and connect to globally circulating discourses and local ideas about sexual morality and religion. As the topic is part of larger narratives about sexuality, otherness, or the occult, I want to show how homosexuality is used metaphorically to talk about subjects such as the longing for self-fulfillment and personal success and the role of the family in a postmodern world.

Shoga provoked public protest in Tanzania and was discussed in local and Western newspapers and blogs, indicating the public’s growing interest in sexuality-related issues: “As sex and sexuality become more ever-present in the public sphere, they are nonetheless regulated into certain cultural constructions through powerful discourses” (Benshoff1997:10). These discourses are “a multiplicity of discursive elements that can come into play in various stages” (Foucault 1983:100). These multiplicities, which become intertwined with multiple reception sites, create a space for the active negotiation of these issues. I argue that Shoga, like other films about homosexuality, activates and blends discourses surrounding not only masculinities or homosexuality, but other crucial topics, like the drive for individual success, power, and exploitation (Benshoff1997:54; Ouzgane 2011). This “economy of discourses” on sexuality offers insight into relations among knowledge, power, and sex (Foucault 1983). This means that the visual portrayal of homosexuality in video films and the reaction of the censors foster public discourse on this topic and create an important space for thought. Video films and discussion around their content thus give us important insights into the persistence of discourses around sexuality and heteronormativity, and whether and how they are subject to negotiation.

Video Melodrama, Religion, and the Aesthetics of Outrage

Popular Tanzanian culture, with nuanced and ambiguous messages, has always been a valuable means to speak about love and sex. Indian films have served in Zanzibari and mainland cinemas to define and construct views on “true love” and educate audiences about “romantic love,” flirting, and relationships (Fair 2009:58-59); cinema houses have been spaces in which couples could practice intimate togetherness (Fair 2009:72-75). The coming of video film and TV has opened up new viewing arenas, changed genderrelated viewing practices, and through its aesthetics altered how love and sex are shown in popular culture and film. The video film industry in Tanzania kicked offin 2003 with the release of the film Girlfriend-Filamu ya Maisha na Muziki, based on a love story between a poor bongo flava artist and his wealthy girlfriend; soon after, many more artists expanded into filmmaking (Böhme 2006). Early filmmakers were heavily influenced by Nigerian horror films, and portrayals of love and sex were often packed with narratives about vampires, ghosts, and witches (Böhme 2013). Plots come in a variety of genres, but love, gender, and sexuality are the main topics discussed in the genre labeled love movies (filamu za mapenzi), now the most popular genre with Tanzanian audiences. They offer melodramatic representations, which, as in video films from Nigeria, can be read as a reflection of the insecurities and instabilities of everyday life and people’s constant fight against it (Larkin 2008:169). They “evoke their world’s constantly shifting sands” and “dramatize the predicaments of an unstable and ultimately unknowable world. Here people who appear to be one way are revealed to be completely different” (Larkin 2008:170-171). While Tanzanian film production has its own cultural roots, it has followed the model of Nollywood, with which it shares common production and reception practices, narrative trends, and aesthetics. Emerging theories about Nigerian films and the recent work on their transnational dimensions and “diasporic influence” make a fruitful framework for comparing these cultural industries and the topics discussed in the films (Haynes 2010; Krings and Okome 2013). I use theory developed to analyze Nigerian video films in this case to show how narratives on similar topics develop in different religious, cultural, and national contexts.

As with the films discussed in this article, one of the main themes in Nollywood video films is that of the family, the social basis of life, but presented as morally ambiguous: family members can be loving and supportive as well as disloyal and duplicitous; the family can offer security as well as destruction (Larkin 2008:171). The love-film plot, a grotesque and “extravagant aesthetics,” or “aesthetics of outrage,” with intense transgression of moral and religious norms, often heightened by exaggeration and excess, is “a narrative based on continual shocks that transgress religious and social norms and are designed to provoke and affront the audience” (Larkin 2008:184):

The aesthetics of outrage, aimed at bodily stimulation, represents an experience of film integral to the film itself. It is a temporal and corporeal sense of living in and with the film, and it represents the singularity of film over and above political and economic contexts … The aesthetics of outrage forces people to live the film so that external realities are intensified, vivified, and made sensate through the mediation of film narrative itself. (Larkin 2008:187)

Through this bodily encounter, video films reshape the representation and reception of love and sexuality. As other studies have shown, through the insecurities of modern life and threats like HIV/AIDS, Tanzanians have become less trusting of their intimate partners (Haram 2005; Maganja et al. 2007; Reuster-Jahn 2014). Additionally, as video film production has become a highly competitive business, filmmakers are on the lookout for new, innovative, scandalizing stories as a way to transgress and provoke common morality and religion. In reaction to this provocation, institutions both governmental (like the Tanzanian Film Censorship Board) and religious (like churches and mosques) have shown a growing interest in controlling films circulating in Tanzania in recent years. These institutions, and even the public, often criticize the films for representing immoral or Western behavior, as is true for other genres popular in Africa (Masquelier 2009; Newell 2005; Spronk 2009), but filmmakers claim that their films are educational: films that highlight bad behavior and poor role models are intended to illustrate the consequences of this behavior.

The director Hisani Muya is himself a Muslim, but his film Shoga does not explicitly refer to Islam or represent an Islamic standpoint on sexuality. Compared to Nollywood, where film production is divided along religious lines, filmmaking in Tanzania is, in theory, religiously neutral. In actuality, there is a big difference between the visual presentation of Christianity and Islam. As in other African countries, Pentecostalism has been on the rise in Tanzania and has successfully conquered the public realm through the use of media (Hasu 2007; Tromp 2014). The Pentecostal perspective and its quest for the revelation of the hidden world (Green-Simms 2012b; Meyer 2005) have become such a popular thread that even some Muslim filmmakers pentecostalize their narratives in using characters, settings, and stories that viewers recognize as referencing forms of Pentecostalist Christianity. While Pentecostal stories are presented in a rich visual manner, references to Islam have until recently been reduced to a character’s clothing or a singular sura of the Quran in the credits of a film. Islam, because of its history and place in Tanzanian society and to aniconism, belonged to the realm of “impossible representations,” a phrase used by Birgit Meyer in reference to Ghanaian filmmakers’ depiction of Jesus (2003:2-3). As such, it stands as an example of the broader philosophical question about the visual representation of Islam in the age of electronic reproducible media. Muslim video filmmakers avoid obvious markers of their religion; instead, they Christianize their narratives, as Muya has done with the use of Christian names for the characters and the integration of a church scene. In conveying a general sense of morality, Muya speaks to Christian and Muslim viewers alike, as he uses themes that appeal emotionally and morally to both. Focusing on the theme of homosexuality could be seen as a strategic choice for him, considering that Muslim and Christian authorities attack homosexuality as a Western disease, brought to the continent through colonialism. The video melodrama with its extravagant aesthetics offers a space for a constant negotiation of the visual representation of sexuality and its relation to religion.

Homosexuality in Tanzania and its Filmic Representations

In Tanzania, as in other East African countries, homosexuality is a social taboo, against the law, and punishable by imprisonment. The nation’s founding father, Julius K. Nyerere, stressed its “non-natural-ness” in 1973 and called for its prohibition (Epprecht 2008:106-7). The topic, when it comes up in conversation, is articulated as unacceptable behavior that violates African society’s values and culture. Many claim it is an imitation of behavior in the West, where it is more widely accepted, to the confusion and dislike of Tanzanian observers. As elsewhere in Africa, same-sex practices were accepted but silenced-a point evident among the Wassiba in Tanzania (Arnfred 2004a:73). Despite this silencing, homosexuals or transsexuals have long played a small but vibrant part of Tanzania’s urban social life in cities such as Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar Town (Amory 1994:187-208). In taarab music culture, for example, male homosexuals are accepted in the company of women and make up an important part of the audience (Kolbusa and Beez 2003:21). This is also true for Zanzibar, where “flamboyant gay men are welcome to participate and flaunt themselves in women’s taarab [italics sic] dances and where a small number of well-known cross-dressers can-or until recently could-walk the streets at night and meet with you and me in bars”; this history of local celebration of difference can be linked to similar practices in Oman (Walsh 2005:17).

Local constructions of homosexuality are reflected in the Swahili terms for homosexual practices, which have a clear focus on sodomy and hierarchical penetration. They are categorized into the active and passive partner: those who penetrate are portrayed as masculine; those who are penetrated, as feminine. Pertinent terms range from food metaphors denoting consumption to religious metaphors casting the homosexual as a demon. Most of the terms are used in joking or contemptuous ways of slander and abuse (Reuster-Jahn and Kießling 2006:23). Homosexuals and transsexuals, though generally tolerated, most often live a marginalized and invisible life-in confusion, secrecy, and fear (Anti Ali 2006; Kahora and Wainaina 2007; Mwachiro 2013). Perhaps the only written account of homosexuality in Tanzania is Anti Ali’s autobiographical report, published in 2006 as a leaflet. Under the title My Life as a Shoga: I Have Been Infected with HIV and Wait to Die, Anti Ali recounts his life as a homosexual man. He fills the report with not only a guilty conscience and self-doubts, but mistakes made by his parents and peers. After each chapter, he makes a short comment on what can be learned from his case and how his fate could have been prevented with the right educational and medical reactions to “the problem” (Anti Ali 2006). Through the growing tabloid press, famous homosexuals and transsexuals like Anti Bilali and Anti Suzy have become a bestselling topic in stories that feature them as haunting other famous men or women.

With the growing circulation of discourses, different viewpoints on same-sex practices versus homosexual identity have come together and are in transition. The rise of Pentecostalism, with its crusade against homosexuality, has fueled homophobia across the continent. Many political leaders have adopted the view that homosexuality is a Western import that has to be destroyed as a means to articulate and propagate local power vis-à-vis the West. Ironically, taking up the othering tactic implanted in Africa by colonizers, they claim that homosexuality is “absent or incidental in African societies” (Murray and Roscoe 1998:xi). The problematic side effects of this discourse have been sadly shown in the case of the antigay bill in Uganda and the murder of the gay-rights activist David Kato. Even the international gay-rights movement replicates these missionary and colonial discourses and poses a threat to indigenous sexual cultures (Massad 2002:385). These discourses are taken up in popular media in Tanzania, especially the tabloid press, where public aggression against homosexuals has increased in recent years (Arnfred 2004b). For video filmmakers, homosexuality offers a valuable source for melodramatic and shocking narratives. In Nollywood, lesbian and gay movies have become a distinct genre, visibly representing anxieties about same-sex spaces and practices (Green-Simms 2012a, 2012b; Green-Simms and Zauah 2012). Homosexuality in Tanzania, in contrast, has been a no-go area for filmmakers, hidden in a video closet-a phrase that “calls attention to the politics and interplay of erasure and exposure that [Nollywood] films enact” (Green-Simms and Azuah 2012:38). Transgender representations, for example, have been restricted to male actors who dress up as women in popular comedies, rather than actual discussions of the issues facing transgender people and transsexuals living in Tanzania.

The first visual representation of homosexual practices in Tanzanian film appeared in Popobawa, by Haji Dilunga in 2009, which treated the myth of an evil spirit called Popobawa (Batwing) that originated in Zanzibar in the 1960s. Popobawa is a batlike creature, said to appear at night and anally penetrate his victims. To prevent his coming back, the victims are obligated to tell others what has happened, and in this way the myth functions like a chain letter, creating an ongoing discourse (Thompson 2011:9). As Popobawa stories revolve around anal sexual rape, they have been associated with homosexual practices. In Zanzibar Town, Popobawa is said to sodomize mainly male victims. These accounts, which can be linked to growing anxiety about homosexuality and rising homophobia, have become the subject of numerous jokes and much humor and verbal mischief (Walsh 2005:16-17). The few existing works on Popobawa have tried to explain the reason for its rise, be it psychological, historical, or political (Parkin 2004; Walsh 2005, 2009). Young women’s accounts of occult or supernatural sex with Popobawa create an important conversational resource and space for them to talk about their sexual experiences and imaginations in an environment where sexual practices are commonly silenced (Thompson 2010, 2011).

In 2009, the filmmaker Haji Dilunga had the idea of making a film about Popobawa “based on a true story,” as the film claimed. The film was made as a filamu ya kutisha, a horror film, a genre in which Dilunga has specialized and which can be related to the history of films that show homosexuals as monstrous (see also Benshoff1997). Exemplifying the subgenre of witchcraftfilms, it portrays an evil female relative who secretly practices witchcraft. It is the classic figure of the wicked stepmother, seen here as Mama Kibibi, the new wife of Babatatu, who sends her stepdaughter Tatu away to university and treats her father like a domestic servant. When the relatives oppose her behavior, she calls on Popobawa to take revenge on them. When the relatives realize that she is a witch, they seek help from traditional healers. In making a film on the myth, the filmmaker shows not only the hidden practices of a witch, but the previously unshowable Popobawa, who becomes visible as a spirit in flesh and blood, personalized as a man with dreadlocks, wearing a bright red gown, a head scarf, and a horror mask while killing his victims. The film shares aesthetics with other video films with its nonlinear narrative, local soap-opera style, long dialogue-filled sequences, and contrast between harmless representations of the characters’ daily lives and horrific scenes, in which Popobawa appears magically, laughing loudly before raping or killing his victims.

The sexual acts themselves are only hinted at. The victims lie dressed and covered on their beds when Popobawa appears magically in the room, realized through a jump cut. He wags his head, climbs on the bed, carefully lies on top of the victim, covering himself with the bed sheet, and after a few seconds leaves the bed and disappears again. In contrast to the verbal discourse in which he is said to rape male victims, in the film he is seen raping only female characters. What is shown is the aftermath of the rape, when the deranged (male and female) victims cry and talk about what happened. The characters say several times that they have been penetrated anally and that their secret parts have been “fouled,” showing their hands to the camera. This sex talk is much more overt than in other movies.

In Nigeria, male filmmakers first used female lesbian characters as a means of othering homosexuals and portraying them as dangerous aggressors (Green-Simms and Azuah 2012). Accordingly, in Popobawa, while the male rape remains invisible, in the subplot in which the stepdaughter of the witch is introduced at her hostel on the university campus, the viewer witnesses how a lesbian seduces a young woman in a guesthouse. The scene is a birthday party, with many young women dancing. As the party gets going, the camera focuses on a corpulent woman in trousers and bright orange T-shirt with a Rasta cap and big silver chains. When the girls start dancing, the woman approaches a girl, takes her aside, and pays her compliments. Her face shows obvious signs of excitation as she touches her hair and moans ecstatically. Claiming to protect the girl from evil men, she leads the girl into her room and proceeds to get her drunk. In the end, the girl’s worried friends come to her rescue and confront the lesbian. Later, the viewer sees the lesbian in jeans and a basketball shirt, lying on her bed smoking as she opens the door, sees that nobody is there, strips to the waist, and enters a girl’s room before trying to rape her. Once again, she is unsuccessful, as her victim fights back and escapes.

Dilunga has explained (2012) that he designed this scene to educate viewers about evil things like ushoga (homosexuality), thought to be more pervasive in unsupervised hostels. Similarly, some Nollywood movies present the lesbian as an aggressive predator, a threat to innocent girls (Green- Simms 2012a; Green-Simms and Azuah 2012). The scene evokes and draws on the genre of Nigerian campus films, in which lesbians join cults and organize prostitution gigs for their members. In this case, the educated lesbian stands for the anxiety of the behavior of the elites, as well as of homosocial environments like universities, where women are beyond the control of men and patriarchal society (Green-Simms and Azuah 2012:42-46; Hodgson and McCurdy 2001). Despite the obvious discussion and visualization of sexual rape in the film and the lesbian scene, Popobawa was never a subject of censorship. By packaging it as a local tale about an evil spirit, Dilunga could discuss these highly taboo topics in it. With the release of Shoga, though, homosexuality for the first time became the main topic in a Tanzanian film.

The Case and Plot of Shoga

In February 2011, the popular actor and filmmaker Hisani Muya announced the release of a film with the highly provocative title Shoga. It was surprising to see a Muslim filmmaker not only take up such a topic in a film, but also play the main character. At the time, I wondered if Muya might have a more liberal stance toward homosexuality; perhaps his film would call for more tolerance.

I got to know Muya in 2006 as a member of the Kaole Sanaa Group, which produced his first feature film, The Supermodel, with minor success. Through hard work in subsequent years, he established himself as one of Tanzania’s most famous actors. He specialized in the underrepresented genre of action film and started a career as a video film producer. Shoga was produced with Sofia and distributed by Al-Riyamy, a company that recently caught the attention of the censorship board. As in earlier comedies of the 1990s, the company’s comedy series Inye featured men continuously staring at fat women’s buttocks-a trope used regularly to stress the heterosexuality of male actors, even when they cross-dressed. The casting for Shoga, with local film stars including the director himself and the popular actresses Jacqueline Wolper and Aunt Ezekiel involved in transgender conversation, promised that the film would be a success. The script was completed in a month, and the shooting and editing in four. Muya then began promoting the movie in local newspapers and on Internet blogs, and held release parties in Dar es Salaam and Mwanza.

The poster and original cover of the film was a shocking teaser. It displayed the face of the main actor, half-male and half-female, with the name of the director and the title in golden old-style and graffiti-style scripts, mixed with lightning and smoke. The female half, with long blond hair, an earring, and makeup, stands against a dark night background. The male half, a man whose beard also covers the female side of the face, is that of bright sunshine casting a light shadow on this side of the face. The background of the feminized face conjures up fears about the powers of darkness and is interpreted as a lesson on the negative behavior linked to monstrosity. According to one blogger, in a translation reproducing the style (and orthographic errors) of the original:

The cover is all right … I like the way they designed it I think there is a message they want to convey through this cover. I think it is about homosexual deeds, its deficiency, and the way to destroy it, … and it is like he practices homosexuality mainly during the night … during daytime he is a normal man, that in my opinion and that’s indeed the message I got as I saw the cover.

By late 2012, the scandal the movie had fostered in 2011 had died down, but Shoga was vividly remembered by filmmakers and viewers. Muya explained to me that his idea for the movie had been based on stories and rumors circulating about homosexuals in Dar es Salaam. He wanted people who have “that homosexual behavior … to stop it at once” (Muya 2012).

The film begins in an interrogation room, where an obviously deranged and confused woman is questioned about the murder of a man. A flashback leads the viewer into the back story. Marc, played by Muya, is an ambitious and hard-working musician and family man, who lives with his wife, Betty, and their daughter in Dar es Salaam. The film attributes his success to Monica, a beautiful female producer, but a flashback scene later in the film reveals that the family has moved to the city under the auspices of a wealthy benefactor named Papa Miundombinu, who discovered Marc while he was performing in Tanga. Marc meets Monica at a concert, where she expresses interest in him and his music. She offers him a contract with her production company and everything he needs, in return for his affection. He and his family then move into a luxurious house, which Monica has rented for them. The family enjoys its new prosperity and intimate togetherness, but their idyll is soon threatened, as Monica declares that she wants sex in return. Meanwhile, Betty’s best friend, her shoga, casually warns her about the new neighborhood and advises her to attend the women’s mass at the local church-a nod to the lingering dangers of urban life. The pastor dramatically preaches about the majaribio, the temptations of the devil to which one can fall prey, even within a family. Betty is challenged by these temptations when she experiences her husband’s changing behavior, as he begins to reject her advances in bed. She complains about his constant working, his relationship with Monica, and his reluctance to go to church. That there is something wrong with him is hinted at when he is shown buying medicine. His father, portrayed as a strong old drinking man who makes sexist advances to the women around him, interrogates him about his behavior. When Marc puts it down to his hard work as a musician, his father reminds him of his duty to have male offspring.

The term shoga is mentioned for the first time when Marc’s colleague and fellow musician is approached by Papa Miundombinu (Father Infrastructure Development), somebody who has his fingers in every pie. Played by Kulwa Kikumba, famous for acting as a criminal cheater in the series Bongo Dar es Salaam, he is presented as a wealthy middle-aged man wearing elegant clothing, a gold chain, and sunglasses. In this scene, Miundombinu interrogates Marc’s colleague about his dreams and says he would be ready to help him as long as he agrees to share a big secret with him. Miundombinu then whispers into his ear, and the viewer sees the man’s skeptical reaction to what Miundombinu states is a kitu cha kawaida sana (very normal thing). Marc’s colleague, shocked by Miundombinu’s approaches, answers aggressively, mimi siyo shoga! … mimi ni mwanaume kamili (I’m not a gay! … I’m a real man). He warns Miundombinu that if he tries to exploit him like that, he will visit evil upon him.

That Marc might be a shoga as well is revealed in a scene in the pharmacy where he asks for Viagra, in local discourse a sign of excessive or dysfunctional sexual activity related to homosexual practices. Here, the pharmacist stands for the viewer, who wonders why he buys this medicine. Her colleague explains to her that this famous musician is a longtime customer, who buys the medicine because he is “shoga smart, a shoga who does not show that he is a shoga,” which the colleague regrets, as she had been attracted to him. She laments, “Really, the world is ruined.” In another scene, Marc’s colleague tells Monica that Marc is a shoga like Miundombinu and should be fired. Monica remembers (shown in a flashback) that he frequently resisted her sexual approaches. Later, Betty finds a strange medicine and a condom in his trousers-which she believes indicates that Marc is betraying her. She seeks advice from a girlfriend, who interrogates her on her sex life and explains to her the purpose of Viagra. When Betty asks Marc directly what’s wrong, he leaves the room. Desperate and confused about his inability to satisfy his wife, he visits a doctor, who explains to him that these problems can be caused by stress, alcohol, or drugs, and urges him to reduce these things from his life and work.

At the end of the first part of the film, Marc’s wife asks Miundombinu and Marc’s colleague for advice. Miundombinu justifies Marc’s behavior because Marc is a musician, but the colleague seems to know the secret. Afraid to hurt her by saying the unspeakable and unbelievable, he says she must go and see for herself. He directs her to a certain hotel in town and tells her to ask for Miundombinu. Suspense comes to its height when she resists her girlfriend’s offer to accompany her. The following long sequence is accompanied by a thrilling soundtrack, when she hesitantly enters the Paradise City Hotel, asks for a guest called Miundombinu, gets a key and room number, and takes the elevator up to the room, shown by a close-up on the floor numbers. Slowly, she walks down the hall. She stops at room 2104, and the viewer sees a close-up of her face, her hand pressing the door handle. When she enters the room, her view wanders over Marc’s and another man’s clothes on the bed and floor. The shower is heard running, and through its glass door, two moving bodies are visible. When she opens the bathroom door, the picture freezes on her shocked reaction, but what she sees is not shown, and we can only guess that it is Marc and Papa Miundombinu together in the shower. The camera keeps the act of homosexuality hidden. The extensive use of the reaction shot on Betty’s face is a “public witnessing,” which enacts a moral commentary on society itself: “It is most common in response to moments of transgression, where it stands in for the audience’s judgment, and heightens the sense of the transgression itself” (Larkin 2008:186).

In the second half of the movie, the narrative reaches its height when the viewer witnesses the destruction of the family and Betty’s reaction to her shock. In a long scene, the camera intensively follows her suffering in the bedroom, with her daughter crying with her and trying to calm her down. Marc’s father is so embarrassed that he wants to leave town and go back to Tanga. The priest and his assistant visit Betty to see what is going on, but they are met with silence. Marc seeks help in the church, hoping to learn how to deal with his sin. At the same time, Betty binges on alcohol and trashes the apartment. When Marc comes home, he silently goes past her, sits down in the bedroom, and thinks. The following flashback leads the viewer to his life in Tanga, where he worked as a wagon carrier to make his living and dreamed of being a musician. In his search for success, he visited a traditional healer (mganga)-a common narrative figure in Tanzanian movies (Böhme 2014). The healer, as a medium between the common world and the realm of magical power, represents the strategies of occult economies to gain success and accumulate wealth. The healer says he can help. Marc has to speak his wishes into a magic calabash, but when the healer demands a cow with a spotted head and a turtle that has reached the age of sixty, Marc and a friend who had accompanied him become skeptical and leave. This narrative thread is not taken further, but it raises a question as to the consequences of this magical encounter. When the magic fails to help his career, he asks friends and relatives for help; they advise him to leave the business, but Marc is sure that there must be a way to quick success. Then, Papa Miundombinu comes from Dar es Salaam to Tanga because he has heard of Marc’s talent. Marc’s dreams seem to be coming true. Miundombinu promises to bring him to Dar es Salaam, give him a lot of money, and make a superstar out of him. When he discusses the opportunity with his father, his father warns him about this suspicious man, but is quickly convinced when Marc shows him the Tsh 400,000 (about USD$ 236), which Miundombinu has given him.

The flashback ends with Marc sitting on the bed with his head in his hands, realizing that everything has happened as a result of his greed. The soundtrack hints at the subsequent events, when we see Betty and her daughter crying in the living room. Suddenly, Betty gets up, the camera following her walking feet while she goes toward a cupboard. A parallel cut shows Marc lying on the bed while she takes a large knife and walks toward the bedroom. A close-up shows the unsuspecting Marc and then a close-up of Betty’s face as she takes the knife in both hands. She is shown from below as she swings the knife twice. A trick edit before a fade to black indicates that she has stabbed him to death. Clearly suffering from shock, she is arrested, and the film closes with a bongo flava song about general worries in Tanzania and the world-a commentary suggesting that homosexuality stands in for the disorder of a “normally” gendered world.

Shoga’s narrative is a stereotypically negative representation of homosexuality as a bad, family-destroying behavior, the consequences of greed (tamaa), and the desire for quick money, as well as the use of the occult. It is presented as a sickness, a sin, even a punishment from God, but the performance itself can be interpreted in different ways. As a male character, Marc is neither a monster nor an analog of the evil and aggressive female characters like those that appear in the Nigerian campus lesbian genre and in the subplot of Popobawa. Moreover, the fact that Muya performs the role of the main character conjures up images of his real-life identity as an actor and director. He is initially presented as a sympathetic family man and talented musician who has a dream of becoming famous and struggles to comply with social norms and expectations. Later, he is feminized (Green- Simms 2012b:47) and reacts passively to the sexual advances of the two women and Miundombinu. As in West African films (Green-Simms and Azuah 2012:46-47), homosexuality in Shoga is associated with greed, wealth, abuse of power, and corrupt and powerful men like Miundombinu. The ending is predictable and understandable to those familiar with Nigerian and American films that portray homosexuality as a sickness, a bewitchment, and part of an occult economy, whose only solution is to eliminate homosexuality and the sinner’s death (Benshoff1997:19, 64; Green-Simms and Azuah 2012:37). The story criticizes an industry in which musicians have to sell themselves to rich sponsors and do anything to achieve success (Reuster-Jahn and Hacke 2011:16).

Censoring Shoga

The legitimacy of censorship, as William Mazarella states with regard to Indian films, is often based on the assumption that we live in transitional times. Its ideological loop is that governments have kept citizens immature, and an ordinary illiterate man has to be protected from his own base desires. This is an ignorant man, called a pissing man because he has to be told where to piss to prevent him from pissing anywhere he wants (Mazzarella 2013:14). Censorship is a response to anxieties about the “the open edge of mass publicity” and functions as “performative dispensation,” a claim to authoritative cultural order (Mazzarella 2013:29, 41-42). “The work of these local censors represents political compromises resulting from conflict between the state and commercial cinema, as well as conflict among censors and the communities they claim to represent” (Brennan 2005:481).

The censor’s fist came down when the Tanzanian Film and Censorship Board, Bodi ya Filam Tanzania, learned of Shoga and its contents through media reports of the premiere and called the filmmaker before the board shortly after the release party. When I talked to a member of the board the following year, the topic was still delicate and, despite his willingness to answer my questions, he asked me not to mention his name. He spoke of the board as the legal defenders of national morality and told me that the board’s action was based on judicial grounds. Homosexuality is forbidden in Tanzania; therefore, it cannot be displayed or even talked about on film, as such representation may promote it. Apart from that, Muya had not submitted the script for review to the board, for which he was fined several million Tanzanian shillings.

Representatives of the Ministry of Culture watched and discussed the movie. Because the film displayed St. Jacob Roman Catholic Church in Dar es Salaam, members of the church weighed in also. In accordance with the board’s recommendation, Muya was required to change the title of the movie to Shoga Yangu (My [Girl]friend), change the design of the cover, and excise two scenes. To remove any overt allusion to homosexuality in dialogue and image, Marc’s colleague’s reaction to Miundombinu’s advances, the pharmacists’ gossip, and the shower scene were cut. So as not to associate homosexuality with any particular church, the scene in which the priest preaches about evil temptations had to be removed. Muya could release the movie only after making the recommended revisions (Anonymous 2012; Muya 2012).

Muya told me that in general he would agree with the work of the censorship board, but he felt that the board had misunderstood the educational aim of his film. He believed that neither the cover, nor the scenes to be cut, would have been problematic or could “spoil society,” as they were a means of educating society on these matters (Muya 2012).

Shoga also received global attention by those who had an alternate agenda. Gay community publications, such as the Seattle Gay News and the website of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association, published articles about the banning of a Tanzanian film. Without having any knowledge of the content of the film, they reported the Tanzania Film Censorship Board actions of banning films “promoting homosexuality” and mentioned Shoga. Though the film shows a stereotyped picture of homosexuality and was intended to give a moral lesson on how homosexuality was “bad behavior,” international gay-rights groups and supporters criticized the censorship board’s actions as homophobic; however, public efforts by global LGBT organizations to defend Shoga for portraying homosexuality demonstrates an irony of Western engagement with Africa, wherein international gay-rights activists may inadvertently support a film with an antigay message (Hoad 2000; Massad 2002).

The Scandal of Shoga: Discussing Homosexuality on the Internet

The news that the release of the film had been halted by the censorship board spread quickly in local Swahili news and on the Internet, and the case was widely discussed. The relatively anonymous space of the Internet offers people everywhere an opportunity to say what they think without fearing social sanctions. The following examples of comments posted on the blog Zamaradi about the advertisement of the movie provide insight into the range of reactions among viewers. Some praised Muya for his artistic work, as shown in the comment about the cover above, but others condemned it for promoting homosexuality and being a threat to children who might watch it. Many bloggers suggested homosexuality and its visual representation were an imitation of Western behavior and claimed that Muya, because he performed like that, must be a homosexual himself. One blogger wrote,

Firstly I want to warn Tanzanians not to misconceive Tino because in this film he is not different to Joty who acts as Bi Kiboga, so it is only art for educating the society! I will try to get it because I am a fan of the Tanzanian film art! Big up Tino the cover is very cool!

I would ask for this movie to be deleted and I think here in Tanzania there is no institution to check our films and songs and that’s the reason why it will be released and there are people who think this is a normal thing. I am together with those who say let us not imitate white things because we can’t avoid it even if it is only for the ones over 18. And I am sure that this Tino will regret one day to have acted like that or otherwise he wants to be a gay. Things to be acted are many and they don’t want to touch them not to provoke the wrong imaginations.

As these blog commentaries show, the film fostered varied discussions on the possibility and use of such a performance and the blurred boundaries between representation and reality, and with issues of homosexuality in general. Some statements clearly stand in line with the othering discourse of homophobia; however, the following comment makes evident that the controversy over the film opened up room for more tolerant voices:

I wasn’t happy to hear they banned the movie but knowing the aim was to “warn society about homosexuality”, it is better they keep it locked up. It is a shame that in this day and age so many people still view homosexuality as a negative thing. Homosexuality has been around even before humans and will always be around. The problem is not homosexuality but a lack of tolerance for homosexuals, which is in most cases fuelled by the religious groups. Thinking about it, isn’t it actually the Catholic priests who regularly rape small kids? Should we now start warning people about the church as well?

From negative responses and calls to keep the film from being shown to the suggestion that people need to be tolerant of homosexuality, Shoga (Yangu) provided an outlet for various voices and views about homosexuality and brought the topic itself more prominently into the public sphere. Clearly, though the film represented homosexuality in a rather stereotypical manner, its ambiguity and the controversy surrounding it inspired a debate that contributes to shifting notions about the subject in Tanzania.


The introduction of the medium of video has led to major changes in experiences of the cinema and viewing practices in Tanzania. With its scandalizing representations of gender, love, and sexuality, it has introduced a new aesthetic to movie watching. To remain competitive in a rapidly growing industry, filmmakers are always on the lookout for innovative and shocking content. They often turn to taboo topics, even if this means risking intervention and protests from moralizing institutions. The scandals they provoke make their movies more appealing to audiences and, as such, more marketable. Homosexuality invokes the highly taboo and is therefore one of the most provocative topics in Tanzania. As Popobawa and Shoga have shown, filmmakers in Tanzania have started to explore the topic. While they relate, imitate, or copy scenes from the Nigerian genre, they set their stories in Tanzanian contexts. That Popobawa and Shoga remain the only such Tanzanian films ever made shows a difference between the Nigerian and Tanzanian film industries and societies. By exploiting the formerly unshowable in Shoga, Muya initiated public discourse on the topic and revealed that despite the taboo, there is a desire for discussion of this issue (Green-Simms and Azuah 2012:48).

As comments by the filmmaker and viewers show, video films are produced and received as moral lessons, but what morality means and what viewers take as lessons from films depend on individual lives and experiences. The unshowable is only hinted at as “the unspeakable”: it hides between cuts, fades, and characters’ reactions. The censors’ target, in contrast, was first the visible and the written-the cover and title of the film-and the censoring itself did not have much effect on the film, except as an appeal to the presumed morality of the nation. As the cross media scandal around Shoga has shown, making the unshowable showable has strongly affected the discourses and understandings of love and sex. In making films like Shoga, filmmakers have opened up debates about such controversial issues as homosexuality, in spite of their intentions and the films’ messages about morality.