Black Boy Review

“Sexistential Crisis”: Woman, Queer, & West African


“Is homosexuality a burden? Yes. We are the ones because of whom the world is going wrong one way or another… We are still damned people responsible for the chaos in the lives of pseudo saints.” – Aurelie Attemene

 “Another said killing was bad, but homosexuality is worse.” – Olaedo Obinze (“Growing Wings”)

 “I am a beautiful creation of God who just so happens to love women as much as she loves men. How can that hurt anyone?” – Enyo Selan (“Hope Flies by a Girl like Me”)

Marginalization and othering occur at different levels of human existence. While cutting across social, economic and even cultural classes, some people are quite unfortunate to be minoritized on more than one level. Some are doubly minoritized while some are a minority within a minority that is located inside another minority. The latter is the case of West African women who are queer.

Their triple minority status holds even when we cannot say that women are in the minority, population-wise. The current world system we navigate is patriarchal in nature and women are the worst victims of patriarchy. West Africa also, just like her other African counterparts is an ‘othered’ entity, the subaltern pushed to the ground who in turn continues burrowing its way deeper into the earth. The minority status of queer people in general, and queer women in particular, is an obvious one. Not only are (visibly) queer people less in number than their non-queer counterparts, they have also been reduced to non-human filths and bringers of world doom who must be erased from the surface of the earth.

To be in the minority means to be without a voice, to be not a human but a practice, a detestable idea. To be in a minority whose way of loving is denounced by many religions to be demonic and provoking the wrath of God and antithetical to the cherished traditions and culture of your ancestors is to be “Wedged Between Man and God.” The queer person’s West African siblings makes her believe that her existence is one of the evil effects of colonialism immediately before using passages from colonial religions to also give the Godly condemnations. The queer person looks at her right and sees a God that is unsmiling, angry at her for daring to love, and to the left to see a society ready to club her to die. When one is wedged between Man and God, to whom does she run for help?

The answer to this question varies on individual basis. In an attempt to find these answers, Unoma Azuah and Claire Ba collaborated with Women Initiative for Sustainable Empowerment and Equality (WISE), “an NGO based in Kano, Nigeria” to collect and edit nonfiction stories of Queer West African Women, aptly titled Wedged Between Man and God. Apart from the purpose this anthology serves – its insistence that “we cannot succumb to prejudice of otherness and the imposition of silence” – this anthology is remarkable for being a homegrown effort. The editors are as West African, as womanly and as queer as the contributors whose lived experiences are sad, defiant and sometimes humorous. By collaborating with an indigenous NGO, one based in the Northern part of Nigeria at that, the editors cannot be accused of imposing or trying to impose alien values on the reading populace, but most importantly, their interest in these stories is evidently not “in the way privileged people are interested in having the lives of [the queer] others examined” – definitely not to be understood but to determine the level of evil to be assigned to it as the life of the queer is by default evil.

One of the 23 contributors to the anthology, the Nigerian Kemi Lade in “Catharsis” speaks of “sexistential crisis,” a term she used to describe her earliest state of mind discovering she is a bisexual. Her sexistential crisis is one that arises from the bi-erasure that happens even within the queer community. You are either gay or you are straight, a dichotomy which the fluid nature of human’s sexual orientation shows to be false. As a girl who loves both men and women, she is always asked, even by her own mother, “Are you gay?” a question she answers with a “No.” By answering “No” she knows she has not told any lie, even though she feels like she had because that does not tell the whole story. The state of not being able to tell whether she is gay or straight, because she is none and had not the terms to describe what she is, was what left her “in the middle of a sexistential crisis.” But sexistential crisis as a concept goes beyond that.

Sexistential crisis can intertwine with religious crisis for a person of faith. It is the doubt sown into the mind, the question of “why did God make me like this?” It is the crisis Kemi Lade faces as a secondary school girl hearing from her priests, principal and teachers that “[l]esbianism is a sin. Its earthly punishment is expulsion from the school; its divine punishment … eternal damnation”; It is being told by your father, like Olaedo Obinze, that “this is a Christian home and you must not bring shame upon it”; it is finding it “difficult to reconcile [one’s] sexuality with [the person’s] faith,” just like Lariba Johnson (“A Lonely Journey through Self-Acceptance”) , such that it “keeps messing with [one’s] physical and psychological well-being.” Sexistential crisis is having  a Muslim father “who is no longer in your life,” not because he is dead but because in keeping to his religious convictions he has declared you a “persona non grata,” a child who is not a dream come true for while this child sees herself as “My Daddy’s Daughter,” the father sees in Noni Salma a son that is not; it is wondering how to “tell your churchy aunty that a lady broke your heart,” that you are a lesbian. 

Sexistential crisis is being unable to live one’s truth as a non-binary person in “a home that is supposed to provide [one] with comfort, peace and sanity.” It is knowing that God, in whatever way She has been imagined, is now used as a tool to control the choices of the queer woman “in a society that didn’t give a damn about the torments of your own conscience as long as the supreme injunctions of appearance rather than truth were respected” because for the person wedged between Man and God, the truth does not set free, it kills.

The stories of queer West African women contained in this anthology are, amongst other things, tragic. In Unoma Azuah’s “Eyes,” is the beautiful love story between the editor and Habiba, a love that was not allowed to be as Habiba is expected to get married to a man, not just any man, but a practicing devout Muslim man. To get that done is to please the society and to please the society is to be assured of your own safety. It does not matter if to please the society one has to live in deception, because like Tanamia Ilunga rightly observed, “appearance rather than truth” is held supreme. That is why Habiba enters into an arranged marriage that turns out to be a disaster that creates more cages for her. Arranged marriages between a gay man and a lesbian is a common survival technique that is believed to be a win-win situation for the couple. It is also employed by Veejay Ogugua (“Arranged Marriage”) and ends up in a union between a “psychopath and drunk” gay man, a union that “lasted for … 16 weeks of emotional torture, psychological trauma, physical violence and depression.” From these two instances, it seems the authors are informing the young queer woman reading the anthology not to see in arranged marriage an escape route, and to always have the courage to leave (it wasn’t clear whether Habiba left her husband though).

While Wedged Between Man and God tells the tales of the tragic, like that of Gsan Rolifane (“Javelin: High Voltage”) who finds out that sometimes a parent’s love stops at sexuality when her father almost killed her with a machete and still intentionally hit her with his car upon discovering she is queer; or that of Delesi Sanenu (“Shouting Myself Hoarse”) who is grossly humiliated in an attempt to find out what genitals she possesses: “my bosses made me open my trousers and drop my pants. One of them put her hands inside and felt around my boxers to be sure I didn’t have a penis,” a scene quite similar to Emmanuella Ndunofit (“I Am Who I Am”), Emmanuella’s more outrageous when one considers that it happened in a law court, sanctioned by a judge, one of those considered to be of the ‘learned’ caste of the society; or that of Melody Boateng (“Sido”) sedated by her father and sent to a pastor who “beat [her] with whips under the pretext of exorcising [her] in order to chase away the demonic spirit of homosexuality that inhabited [her]”, a session the 19-year-old Tai Maduka (“Multiple Colors”) experienced 15 times in just a month, the anthology does not cave under the tragedy that is the reality of the existence of her contributors, a task which is a herculean one to pull. In the tears that greet the stories, the contributors and the editors ensure that their readers are not deprived of the sublime and the poetic. Take for example this paragraph from Tanamia Ilunga:

At the age when the senses are racing with hormones, I was the first to not understand why for so long my eyes had lit up in front of a pair of breasts rather than a man’s body. Then there was that precise moment when I could no longer procrastinate. That moment you are dazzled by the body of a queen. You admire her as one can admire a person but not only, you contemplate her as one can contemplate anything but not only, you pretend to follow her gaze as one can be captivated by a thing, but not only, then your lips brush against her lips, your hand wandering in her blouse explores that protruding part of her chest which is familiar to you, your being is invaded by this burning desire for her, then you understand everything.

Also consider Obinze’s humorous rendition, “When my mother found out that our neighbour’s daughter and I were getting into each other, like padlock and key, she sent me to the village. I was to live with my grandmother so that I can be tamed.” Obinze’s story also have other witty and deep and quotable moments – “pretense, sometimes is survival technique. I am bi and androgynous, but I have embraced my feminine side and the world is at peace with me”; “worse than realizing that the world sees through your mask, is realizing that the world sees you, but pretends to see your mask; “but the problem with cutting wings is that the feathers grow back, and with each trim, it comes back thicker and stronger.” Artistic brilliance spreads all over the pages of the anthology, giving the reader something to hold on to so as not to sink under the sadness of the stories.

The most terrible thing about the reality of the queer West African woman is the fact that nowhere seems ever to be safe for her, not even the closet or the queer community. Nwa Diala (“To the Girl in the Closet”) gives it the grave tone it deserves when she wrote “the closet is not safe, but neither is the world outside the closet.” It is a given that the society is not fair to the queer woman but so also is the queer community not always fair to her. The female lecturer who makes life tough for Lariba Johnson while she was doing her undergraduate studies, for example, is also a queer woman whose advances she refused. Not to mention the gay men who maltreat queer women they have an arranged marriage with. Of course, this may be explained to be yet another negaive impact of the society on the psyche of the endangered queer people, internalized homophobia and even the paranoia that comes with thinking about what it would mean to be exposed as queer in the society, what Ilunga refers to as the “fear of social fury that makes one feel obliged to despise homosexuals twice as much when one is publicly accused of being part of the community.”

Do not be mistaken though, Azuah’s and Ba’s is not an anthology that only “create[s] awareness about the endangered condition of queer women in West Africa, [it] also witness[es] their collective anxiety and celebrate their defiant spirit.” In the anthology are women who have resolved to exist, to matter, to live, no matter how the society and her elements are fighting against their very survival. The women here all have their “sexistential crisis” but have refused to allow that define or limit them; they are devising their own means of exiting this crisis and that speaks to the resilience of the human spirit.  For Obinze who is sent to her grandmother’s to be tamed, her solution she got from the community she created for herself online where she found her American lover. Even though the age difference between them is noticeable to the extent “some people asked if [the American lover] was [her] mother” theirs was the kind of love that never looked at the numbers, strong and cautious because “when you stand backing the world, you stand with caution.” Theirs is the kind of love so strong that they had to travel to a Northern state in the country “where no one would recognize that both [their] names are feminine” in order to get an affidavit of her willingness to marry her American lover who travelled down to Nigeria to be with her. Finding genuine love as a way of authentically being is also confirmed by Lariba Johnson’s story of how she finds succor in her girlfriend who would also save her from the hands of the jealous lecturer and in Tanamia Ilunga’s story of her own girlfriend whom she writes glowingly about:

It is with her that I feel equal, and that is what I must keep from the world. It is with her that I feel like a queen and a goddess and that is what I must keep quiet…it is the only tale with two fairies and no prince charming that I want to tell, and that is one I must keep quiet about.

While not intending or posturing to be one, Wedged Between Man and God, can be read as a guidebook for West African queer women. In its tale of love and arranged marriages, it seems to be telling the young West African queer woman to avoid arranged marriage and seek true love where they can feel and be human. It seems to be telling them to pursue passion and seek fulfilment in helping others just like Abalawa Solime who breaks free from her sexistential crisis by working with “LGBTQI organizations that help those who have nowhere to go because they have been disowned by their families after coming out.” The book also tells the young women not to feel pressured to “come out” especially when they are not prepared because “the closet is not safe, but neither is the world outside the closet.” It does not help matters that even some members of the society who claim to be tolerant are the ones who “think being gay is stylish. For them, it’s just a passing moment” therefore being hypocritically tolerant, an attitude Ilunga thinks may even be more unbearable than the “unadorned hatred.” Having this understanding, Delasi Sanenu solves her sexistential crisis by accepting herself even while her “closet is still firmly locked.”

The transwoman is not left behind in this guide. Her social and medical transition, Noni Salma, a Nigerian transwoman who trended some years ago not only because she transitioned when “for Nigerians, being a trans woman was akin to [being] a human eater” but also because she is Muslim, refers to as the “blossoming from a caterpillar to a butterfly” not minding the backlash that may come from family and friends (in the case of Noni, she was disowned by her family). Religion is made here not a tool for exclusion, condemnation and oppression but one for inclusion and celebration of diversity, “I am a beautiful creation of God who just so happens to love women as much as she loves men. How can that hurt anyone?” Enyo Selan asks. For Claire Ba, she has long accepted that to do something differently does not always mean doing it wrongly.

Wedged Between Man and God does not only provide the queer West African women with suggestions for navigating her sexistential crisis, it also gives her a way of not entering the crisis in the first place, and that is the radicality of defying labeling. Eiphiee Ize who used it as her own solution writes about it:

I have tossed my sexual orientation through so many labels that now I just keep mute and accept that only one thing is for sure. I am a spaghetti. Like most spaghetti, I take various shapes when I am wet.

In Obinze’s Nigeria today, homosexuality is still considered a crime punishable by up to 14 years imprisonment, meaning that whenever she is in Nigeria and want to make love, she still have to try “not to make any noise”; while homosexuality is constitutionally not illegal in Ilunga’s Cote D’Ivoire, she must continue to keep quiet about her “queen and goddess” as bringing it to the public becomes a criminal act of public indecency of unnatural act; in Sasha Fattah’s Ghana today, she may not have been able to identify “[herself] fully as a lesbian stud” in High School because the new “Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Bill” (notice the pseudo decolonization posturing?) has caused a shift in the people’s reaction towards real and suspected queer to the extremely negative; in Liberia the picture is grim and so also is it in  Burkina Faso and Benin Republic even though homosexuality is legal in both countries. Therefore, it requires a lot of optimism to hope alongside Solime that the fate of the queer West African woman is changing for the better in the nearest future, but by refusing to keep silent, the contributors and editors of this anthology hearkens to Sanenu’s clarion call: “speak even if all they hear is noise”!

This review was written by Ugochukwu Anadị, with edits by Chimee Adioha. Ugochukwu Anadị is the Book Review Editor at Afreecan Read and an Editorial Intern at Counterclock.

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