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Adandara: A Forbidden Love Between Women (and Cats)

Adandara: A Forbidden Love Between Women (and Cats)

In the legends of the Azande, a Central African people, the adandara are supernatural cats born of women. A woman becomes pregnant with an adandara kitten by making love with one of the adult male cats. The Azande believed that women who made love to other women were more likely to consort with adandara, as same-sex love was considered akin to witchcraft. Same-sex acts between women were so associated with these cats that lesbian love also came to be called adandara.

Adandarain data gathered in the 1920s, the adandara were considered to be a supernatural variant of wildcat that resides in the bushlands. The adandara were thought to have “bright” bodies, a shrill cry, and eyes that glow in the dark. Certain midwives were said to specialize in the delivery of adandara kittens. After a kitten’s birth, the midwife hides the newborn adandara in a termite mound and later anoints it with a mixture of ground kurukpu and sesame oil. A magic whistle is believed to have the power to send such cats away.

The perceived femininity of cats and female sexuality in general were viewed with suspicion by Azande men, as there is considerable power associated with them. For example, it is considered bad luck if a woman exposes her vagina to a man in anger, and Azande women had been known to end domestic quarrels in just such a fashion. Similarly, Azande men believed a man would die if he saw two women or two cats making love. The sight of seeing a woman nurse her supernatural kittens was also considered fatal.

The Zande Bagburu Bond

“Lesbianism began with a maize the name of which is kaima, a maize with a cob red like blood,” Kuagbiaru, a Zande elder informed anthropologist Evans Pritchard.. They (the two women) take this cob and utter a spell over it in the same way as men utter a spell over the blood in making blood-brotherhood; and when that is done one of them takes hold of the top of it on her side and the other takes hold of the bottom of it for her part and they break it between them. After this they should not call each other by their proper names, but they call each other bagburu.”

Among the Zande, women who had an especially close emotional bond could formalize their relationship through a ceremony called bagburu. While wives are expected to ask their husbands permission to form a bagburu bond, it is difficult for husbands to say no as it is ostensibly only a covenant of mutual assistance that is likely to benefit both households. For example, women who have a bagburu bond will work together on tasks of mutual benefit. If one woman were sick, the other woman would take on her chores. But there was also a strong chance that the bond might also involve a sexual-romantic element as well.

The actual bagburu ritual has been compared to blood-brotherhoods that formalize close male friendships. As noted in the quotation opening this chapter, in the bagburu ritual, two women both hold a red corncob. While holding the cob, the two women utter “a spell” over it, presumably sealing their covenant to each other. Then the women break the cob in two, each planting the kernels from her half in her own garden. Thereafter, the women don’t call each other by their first names, but instead know the other as bagburu.

There is also an aspect of gender variance in the bagburu relationship. Kuagbiaru, the Zande elder, explained that the wife in the relationship cooks for her female husband.

How a Bagburu Bond Might Come About

Kisanga, a man especially knowledgeable in Zande customs, told anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard how one of these relationships could begin. One woman might approach a married woman saying, “Lady, come to me the day after tomorrow as I have something to tell you.”

The married woman is more than intrigued. “What is it that you can’t tell me today? Unless you tell me now, I can’t survive the night waiting to hear it.”

Then the first woman replies, “Lady, I’m greatly in love with you. How will we manage this horrible husband of yours?”

The two decide to propose a bagburu bond to the husband, the other woman bringing him a gift of a spear as a sort of bride’s price. The husband is rightly suspicious of their intentions, but he likes the spear. When he finally agrees, they begin their sexual relationship in secret.

The wife worries that her husband might discover them, but the other woman reminds her that if he sees them having sex, he would die.

In the meantime, the husband has begun to cough and goes to his senior wife with his suspicions. He says the elder wife has always done right by him and wonders what should he do. The elder wife suggests he talk to his younger wife about his suspicions, but he spies on them instead. When he finds them together, he cries out (in fear?) for his senior wife.

The elder wife arrives and is clearly perturbed with her husband. “Why have you called for me to deal with women’s business?”

The husband is disturbed by his senior wife’s response. “Do you all mean for me to die?” he accuses them.

“Don’t talk to me that way,” the elder wife scolds. “Is it my fault that you entered her hut?”

Kisanga’s vignette is a fascinating one. It clearly indicates the romantic nature of the connection between the two women. The gift of a spear also likens the bagburu bond to heterosexual marriage bonds and the male-male bonds described in chapter five which also require a “bride’s” price. But what is most intriguing is the message the tale gives to the male listener.

The young wife’s husband is suspicious but still goes ahead and accepts the gift of the spear. The genuine danger of this relationship to his health is suggested by his cough, but his elder wife still advises talk rather than spying as his best course of action. In discovering the women, we don’t know how much of their nudity they exposed to the intruder, but the husband clearly fears for his safety. His elder wife, whom the narrative portrays as loyal to her husband, is nonetheless unsympathetic. She in essence tells her husband, you go poking around in women’s business, and whatever happens to you you’ve got coming.

The message of Kisanga’s story, as told to men, seems to be that you have every reason to suspect the bagburu bond. Even so, perhaps it’s better not to directly try and interfere with it. Yet, the ambivalence is clearly there. There are other stories of famous Zande leaders dying because of the same-sex affairs of their wives. What isn’t spelled out in the available literature is whether thew sense is these men died because they allowed these relationships to exist, or because they tried to interfere with them.

Adandara: An African Term for Lesbian Love

Sex between women was called adandara, the same word used to describe a type of supernatural cat.

Evans-Pritchard concluded his material on same-sex passions among women with a telling summation of Zande attitudes:

Azande further say that once a woman has started homosexual intercourse she is likely to continue it because she is then her own master and may have gratification when she pleases and not just when a man cares to give it to her, and the gratification may also last as long as she pleases.

No wonder husbands were reluctant for their wives to experience sex with other women! And no wonder that wives were often willing to risk punishment to savor it.

Mark Carlson-Ghost

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