Butler has been popular among African feminist scholars, namely regarding power, sexuality, and bodily autonomy and resistance. In this presentation I revisit Judith Butler’s concepts of gender fluidity and performativity and its limitations in informing non-sexual, non-queer, heteronormative relationships in the African context. With the above concepts Butler pioneered possibilities to understanding gender decoupled from sex, while normalizing queer gender expressions and identities. Despite this, there has been an understanding that the use of Butler’s concepts has limited applicability and need to be domesticated to the African context (Tamale 2011). Authors Ifi Amadiume and Oyeronke Oyewumi offer alternatives that challenge biological determinism, without being subversive. A critique to Amadiume’s work has been that it is politically limited (Hoppe 2016). Whereas Oyewumi has been criticized for attempting to extricate European influence from African reality (Bakare-Yusuf 2003).

Bearing in mind the above, I attempt to bridge persistent understandings of gender in the African context, with a focus on the Zambezian context. By persistence I mean the stability of ideas of gendered relations taken from historical and current examples of individuals occupying social roles dissonant from their gender. For this I use two examples: Pabiou-Duchamp’s description of male wives of the Karanga King, and a female Mwene form my own field research. The first example relates to Portuguese men who were considered wives of the king, following locally relevant signifiers in the early interaction between the African Maravi polity and Portuguese settlers. In the second example I present the current case of a female who inherited her father’s rulership, which is terminologically male. In both cases, their individual gender identities are not dissonant from their attributed sex, yet the attributed social gender also does not contradict their identity. In this sense, there is no fluidity but coexistence of the individual and socially attributed gender.

I further argue that these two cases find meaning in kinship relations and how gender are constituted within these. In many African societies, males perform the duties of females to whom they are related, and vice versa. In doing so, the sociality of their gender is relational to the individuals of their kin and change according to the relationship with whom they interact. In this case, fluidity relates not to identity, but to these relationships. At the same time, performativity is no expressed in acting according to the norms attributed to the female or male genders, but rather those expected of specific roles in relationships. Hence, both men and women can and transition relationally from male to female roles at any given time in their lives. These roles are not necessarily related to sexuality or reproduction. Understanding what makes them gendered roles is what can help explain what is expected of males and female in that society, and the eventual hierarchies that ensue.