Nigeria’s foremost gay activist, Bisi Alimi delivered a lecture two days ago ‘Post-colonial sexual identity and orientation in Nigeria’ at Free University in Berlin, Germany where he said homosexuality is very African as much as it is Nigerian. Below is an extract from his paper:
Even though Nigeria has recently seen a more active conversation around the issue of sexuality and gender, these conversations are played out on the premise of sentiments, morality, religion and assumptions rather than on facts. But it is facts and not assumption that can put things into perspective.
The argument against homosexuality in Nigeria has been on the premise that it is “un-African” and hence not part of our culture. The other premise used is that since it is not part of our culture, therefore it is “un-biblical”.
Since the introduction of modern religion into Africa, there has been confusion between the real African identity vs. enforced identity.
This confusion has also found its way into the discourse around cultural identity. The modern understanding of what really is an “African culture” has created a basis for identity misunderstanding not just in Nigeria, but the whole of Africa.
It was not only religion that played a role in the misconstruction of “African Culture” in the 21st century. With the coming of colonizing, African identities were systematically washed away. Africans were made to believe through western education, politics and religion that anything African is not fit for purpose and therefore demonized in most of the cases.
However, unlike culture, identity is more on a personal individualist level. Identity could be strongly interwoven with culture.
I remembered when I first came to the United Kingdom, as a Nigerian. There are certain things in my culture that were not permitted within the English culture. For example, the English could not understand why I have to eat certain food with my fingers.
However, that lack of cultural understanding has not taken away from me my gender identity as a man nor has it eroded my sexual identity as a gay man.
Therefore, how then does the argument used by Nigerian religious and political class as regards sexuality and gender fit into the actualization of fundamental human rights for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) people?
Prior to colonization, there are evidences to prove that Africa was never a “heteronomative” society. In “African Sexualities: A Reader”, Sylvia Tamale argues: “African sexuality lies in ancient histories that live through girot, ighyuwas, imbongies, jellies, igawens, guewels”.
As a young child with deep interest in my culture, I was really fascinated at the eloquences with which histories are passed on from generation to generations in Africa through the power of poetry and oration.
I remembered in 2005, as part of my research in sexuality and sexual identity, I came across the famous word “Adodi”. This translates as “anus fucker”. The fact that there is a language for sexual behaviour explains that there are indeed people that are considered as such.
Aside from that, many of African arts (it is important to note here that while Africans were never seen as writers, the one fact that can never be taken away from us is that fact that we are artists. We tell the story of our lives through our sculpture, painting and drawing), have shown the celebration of same sexual relationship before the colonization of the continent.
African arts has had huge influence on the Greek art and even more so the Roman arts. These arts that not only promote but celebrate sexuality has African culture and identity at its core. From Igbo Ukwu, to Benin and Ife art, Nigerian art works celebrate the existence of same sexual relationship, not as seen as “homosexuality” in modern terms, but as a process of nurturing the acceptance of dualism of sexuality.
In religious setting, most Nigerian gods actually have dual sexes. Take for example ESU who is neither man nor woman, male or female. Sango, the god of thunder is dressed as transvestites, wearing skirts with earrings on both ears and braided hair. Obatala, though a male god, is subtle, emotional and sexual.
Even more interesting are the female gods. Oya the goddess of the ocean and Yemoja the mermaid are said to have used their sexuality to conquer men. They were not just seductive, but they exhibited a level of romantic affinity for each other.
Then the question will be, what happened? Ben Anderson in “The Politics of Homosexuality in Africa” examined the written literature of colonial observation of same sexual relationship in Africa. According to him, examples of famous western sexuality historians like Staples, Davies and Whitten tend to disregard pre-colonial homosexuality in Africa as a forced, accidental ‘phase’ rather than a cognitive choice”.
Anderson noted that in an article in 1982, Lamb argued, “it is curious by Western standards that homosexuality in Africa is virtually unknown.” He stated further that “Africa’s tradition is rigidly heterosexual”.
As a student of African sexuality and gender identity, I know this is not true. I am not alone in my argument, Dr. C. Otutubikey Izugbara in a paper titled “Patriarchal Ideology and Discourses of Sexuality in Nigeria” explained that “evidence, indeed suggests that, in many cases, homosexual practices, while not always explicitly discussed or identified as such in larger public imaginary were often treated with more tolerance in pre-colonial Nigeria than during and after colonial period”.
In the book “The Origins and Role of Same Sex Relations in Human Societies”, James Neil buttressed my earlier assertion that in Nigeria homosexuality is rooted in our traditional religious believe. He stated, “members of a spirit possession cult among the Hausa in northern Nigeria practices cross-dressing and take the passive role in homosexual intercourse”.
Lyn Ossome in her contribution to Queer African Reader edited by Sokari Ekine and Hakima Abbas further dismissed the perceived westernization of homosexuality on the continent of Africa. In a contribution, she argued that the notion that “there is no homosexuality in Africa” is a false claim “often accompanied by the similarity insidious accusation that homosexuality is a ‘western perversion’ imposed upon or adopted by African population”.
In the book “The Construction of Homosexuality”, Greenburg documented the existence of same sexual relationship in diverse African communities including Nigeria. Also Davis and co. in “The Cross-Cultural Study of Human Sexuality: Annual review of Anthropology” argued that “a wide variety of homosexual behaviour is reported”, they also documented “the use of artificial phalli” between two women as a “compensation for rare heterosexual intercourse”.
Two notable anthropologists have not only documented behaviours, but they have also shown acceptance even to the level of marriage. First of such is William Naphy in his well-written book “Born to be Gay”. In it, Naphy captured the process of same gender marriage with the medium of paying bride price. He claimed, “it is clear that customs involving woman-woman ‘marriages’ (in which case bride-price and dowries may exchange hands) is extensive”. He dismissed argument against same sex relations in Africa as ‘ludicrous and to suggest that a practice which is so widespread and yet differently constructed is anything but indigenous. Even more so Naphy considered any argument by white Europeans against the exhibition of same sex relations between Africans as racism.
Another interesting take on beyond sexual behaviour to actual exhibition of relationship is ‘Boy wives ad female husband’. According to Anderson, this book in its research “also effectively demonstrates the existence of same sex love before the arrival of the white settlers”.
But let us for a second agree with the proposition of Staples that exhibition of same sexual behaviour in pre-colonial Nigeria was a phase. The question we then have to ask is: where did they learn this phase? Who and what influenced the occurrence of this phase among what the western academia will refer as “primitive” people.
There are possibly two answers to these questions. It is either we argue that Africans are of lesser human and therefore happened to experiment occasional sexuality, or that actually, homosexuality like every other human traits is inherent in all people irrespective of race, gender, or age.
If you agree with me that homosexuality is very African as much as it is Nigerian, then the argument put forward by both the western and the African opposition to homosexual behaviour is flawed.
Based on the above explanation and argument, I will say that homosexuality is well rooted in the core of Nigerian society and identity.