In principle, Khanithi is one of the oldest terms we have found in this language to refer to homosexual men. It already appeared in the first Swahili dictionary that was published at the end of the 19th century (“A Dictionary of the Swahili Language” Krapf, 1882). This expression derives from the Arabic word ḵanīṯ (خَنِيث) which is translated into English as “effeminate”. In its first mention in the aforementioned dictionary, Khanithi is associated not only with the terms sodomite and effeminate, but also with male impotence, or rather, with impotent men.
This association between impotent man and bottom homosexuality, along with effeminacy or even weakness, is recurrent, and has remained until recent times in the Arabian Sea region where Tanzania and Kenya are located, although anyone who has visited our dictionary knows that we can find similar ideas in many other parts and languages of the world. A homosexual man as a half-man, as an incomplete man, as a man with a defect was, and unfortunately remains, rather a universal idea: Why else would one man allow penetration by another? Why would a man give up his dominant or top position in life and sexuality?
In any case we are facing a term that places special emphasis not only on the sexually bottom attitude of the homosexual men, but also and perhaps above all, on his effeminacy or even the transvestism of the Kanhiti, who usually dress as women or in a feminine way and which is associated, not only with the idea of a third sex, but in more recent times, with the western idea of drag queen. A very recurring idea and of which we have infinite examples throughout the world and history: homosexuality, transgender, transvestism are often inseparable or indistinguishable. If you are not a real man, you are a woman, or something similar. There’s no more.
The word Khanithi, also written as hanithi, haniti or hanisi, or plural as mahanithi, is preferably used in Tanzania while in Kenya the equivalent would be mashoga or shoga.