Recent articles on Africa’s experience with the coronavirus pandemic register surprise or confoundment that the virus that causes covid-19 hasn’t wreaked havoc there like it has in postindustrial societies. The crisis is but one example of a perennial pessimism for Africa regularly practiced by non-African writers.
The book in this installment of the African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular — “Love Falls on Us: A Story of American Ideas and African LGBT Lives” — focuses on LGBTQ rights and draws on multiple experiences from West Africa to paint a fuller picture.
Robbie Corey-Boulet’s book analyzes and illustrates the lives and activism of sexual minorities in Africa through sharing stories from Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia.
“Love Falls on Us” is a solid introduction to LGBTQ rights in Africa. Corey-Boulet situates the individual stories of sexual minorities in these three West African countries by clearly communicating how their lives and activism are part of a broader political economic context. “Love Falls on Us” avoids both the Afro-pessimist and “Africa is doing great” tropes.
As media reporting on LGBTQ issues in Africa is increasing and perhaps even getting more nuanced, the format of a news article constrains writers and analysts in telling a more complete story. Take the example of a widely reported story on President Barack Obama’s news conference with Senegalese President Macky Sall in 2013. The reporting on the news conference focused on Sall’s response to whether he would decriminalize homosexuality, responding that the United States and Senegal had different cultures and traditions.
Even though I remember reading multiple reports on that news conference, it was only in “Love Falls on Us” that I learned more about Sall’s full remarks, which offered a more nuanced take, suggesting “public opinion on alternative sexualities in Senegal was changing.” To be sure, one doesn’t need a book-length treatment to cover these distinctions, but “Love Falls on Us” shows time and again that books have an advantage over articles in providing context when trying to understand complex issues like the fight for LGBTQ rights in Africa.
Corey-Boulet gives us a thoughtful, critical book that shines a light on some of the pitfalls of American advocacy for African LGBTQ rights. Like the scenario in other interventions to improve the human condition, American advocacy for LGBTQ rights can involve, as the author notes, foreigners “with half-formed ideas about helping people who are pitied but never consulted, invoked but never heard from.”
In one such example, “Love Falls on Us” illustrates how advocacy benefits international advocates. One international advocacy organization associated itself with the plight of 11 men detained in a Cameroonian prison on suspicion of committing “homosexual acts.” This work raised the organization’s profile — and Corey-Boulet quoted a coordinator from the organization saying of their work in Cameroon: “Our donors liked it.”
But Corey-Boulet’s book doesn’t just focus on Western or American activists. It instead uses rich narratives written after deep reporting about African activists who “were not waiting for people they’d never heard of to come in and do the work for them.”
The story behind the title of this intriguing book comes from a central figure in the fight for rights and dignity in Cameroon, the late Marc Lambert Lamba. In an interview with Corey-Boulet for the book, Lambert said, “We don’t fall in love. Love falls on us.” It is these insights and personal stories that make “Love Falls on Us” an enjoyable read.
It’s challenging to write about sensitive and/or issues and people, yet Corey-Boulet navigates well by providing useful context and analysis. For example, when writing about a seemingly self-interested “activist” in Liberia, Corey-Boulet included a problematic quote from the activist, accompanied with a preface characterizing the quote as “a metaphor that would make many sexual minorities cringe.”
Such pithy context notes elevate this book beyond its value as deeply researched, richly described narratives and analysis — to a book that is also ethically and elegantly argued.
Readers interested in the issues and ideas raised in “Love Falls on Us” and looking to explore academic texts will find good options in Corey-Boulet’s bibliography, but might also want to dig deeper by reading a number of new and exciting academic texts like “Politicizing Sex in Contemporary Africa” by sociologist Ashley Currier and “Queering Colonial Natal” by historian T.J. Tallie. Together these and other works complementing “Love Falls on Us” help us to get beyond Afro-pessimism to a broader view of the powers shaping LGBTQ rights in Africa.