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Confronting misconceptions about homosexuality in northern Nigeria

By Farooq A. Kperogi This is not a comfortable topic for many people in northern Nigeria. I know this because the last time I wrote about it...

By Farooq A. Kperogi
This is not a comfortable topic for many people in northern Nigeria. I know this because the last time I wrote about it on this page, I didn’t receive any reader response. It is either that I gave words to the thoughts of my readers who didn’t feel a need to make any further comments or that the subject-matter is too awkward for my readers.

The latter seems more likely since I normally receive torrents of emails when my opinion on an issue gives expression to my readers’ sentiments. But we can’t stop talking about something simply because it’s uncomfortable.

Well, two things led me back to this subject. Recently, I got drawn into a spirited debate, on an Internet listserv, about the yan daudu phenomenon, which lazy scholars, for many years, have equated with Western-style homosexuality.

I found myself providing perspectives which I thought were trite and all too familiar but which many people on the listserv found refreshingly new. Some of them wrote to me privately and suggested that I share my perspectives with a wider audience.

So let me start off by saying that I am neither denying nor affirming the existence of homosexuality in northern Nigeria. I don't know enough to be that definitive in my opinions. However, it would seem that most contemporary, "theoretically sophisticated" discourses of homosexuality in Africa here in the West follow this trite and predictable pattern: an assertion that Africans defensively deny the existence of homosexuality in their cultures and then a studious, sometimes forced, attempt to avow that homosexuality is as integral to the sexual history of Africans as it is of people in the West—if not more so.

To lend credence to their claims, people who are enamored with this now sadly familiar predisposition strain excessively hard to amplify the faintest scintilla of alternative sexuality among Africans as evidence of the enduring presence of homosexuality among Africans.

Some Africans, it would seem, have now been "seduced" by this emergent, intellectually fashionable "homophilic" orthodoxy in the West and are jumping on the bandwagon. Well, in this age of the glamorization of homosexuality and the efforts of Western homosexuals to universalize their sexual predilections through a creeping "homo-normative"—and, yes, "heterophobic"-- discursive tyranny that imposes the facile label of "homophobia" on anyone who expresses opinions that depart from the Western homosexual consensus, this is hardly surprising.

These days, anybody who as much as calls to question some of the broad strokes and wild interpretive leaps about homosociality (which often gets confused with homosexuality) in Africa gets flagellated with one of the emergent homophiles’ cherished devil terms: denialist, nativist, purist, self-appointed cultural gatekeeper, etc. Well, I have never been fazed by ready-made vituperative labels.

One of the ways in which "queer” scholarship (as the study of homosexuality is now called) often seeks to demonstrate the prevalence of homosexuality among Africans, as pointed out earlier, is to magnify and interpolate isolated instances of same-sex intimacy. These magnifications and interpolations are executed, of course, through Western (homo-normative) cultural lenses that occlude the cultural and socio-historical singularities of "other" cultures.

It is in this context that the yan daudu phenomenon is often invoked as an instantiation of the prevalence of homosexuality in northern Nigeria.

However, the "homosexuality" in northern Nigeria does not square with contemporary Western conceptions of the term. Northern Nigerian "homosexuality," that is, the kind that is uncritically celebrated as evidence of the presence of a "homosexual culture" among the Hausa, is not the consequence of some inescapable, biochemically predetermined homo-erotic predisposition, as Western homosexuals describe their sexuality; it is mostly spiritual, even occultic, and is undertaken, majoritarily, by people at the upper end of the social scale because it is believed to bestow power, prosperity, symbolic capital, and influence on people who partake in it.

The lowly yan daudus with whom the rich, big guys consummate homosexual liaisons, often for a price, were and are not primarily male prostitutes; they are, historically, merely male cross dressers and intercessors between female prostitutes (karuwai) and their prospective clients.

Studies have documented that the yan daudu are first and foremost an occupational category of transvestites who entertain(ed) people with their weird and wildly funny ways ("wasa" or "iskanci").

In a culturally conservative northern Nigeria, the yan daudu/bori subculture provides a “safe space” for (nonthreatening) cultural transgression. Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian literary theorist, would call the yan daudu/bori subculture the carnivalesque, that is, the idea that spaces and times exist in society in which power and cultural relations can be inverted or subverted through popular, "earthly," "grotesque" and outrageously comical culture.

The association of the yan daudu with “homosexuality” occurred later. Now, I am NOT denying that there may be yan daudu whose sexual orientation is homosexual; as I said earlier, I don't know enough to be declarative in my opinions.

I'm only saying that largely because of their financially vulnerable positions, among other factors, the yan daudu are easy "preys" for homosexual liaisons with rich men whose “marabouts” instruct them to consummate same-sex encounters as a passport to glory, power, influence, dominance, etc. So, “homosexuality” is actually only incidental to and not constitutive of the yan daudu/bori subculture. It is therefore misleading to hold the yan daudu up as exemplars of homosexuals in northern Nigeria.

Again, because northern Nigerian "homosexuality" is NOT the product of a homoerotic libidinal indulgence in the sense in which it is in the West, most male "homosexuals" in northern Nigeria are not only often married to more than one wife (Islam allows men to marry up to four wives); most of them, in fact, have concubines.
So men who engage in same-sex liaisons in northern Nigeria can at best be described as "bisexuals" or, more properly, ritualistic bisexuals.

To characterize people who simultaneously marry women and even have extra-marital heterosexual relations AND partake in a culturally specific form of "homosexuality" for pecuniary or “power” gains as "homosexuals" is at best a case of terminological inexactitude. In both queer theory and demotic usage, they are properly called "bisexuals."

When you point this fact out, the new homophiles accuse you of "denial" or "nativism" or whatever other vocabulary of derision they have in their linguistic armory for people who disagree with their warped and empirically impoverished views.

And there is firm historical evidence that northern Nigerian "homosexuality," that is, its current manifestation, is a cultural baggage of the region's contact with Arabs, where "homosexuality," like in ancient Greece and the Mediterranean generally, is associated with power, influence, and occultism, but not necessarily with homoeroticism as the term is understood today.

Of course, this Arab-influenced "homosexuality" fused with preexisting cultural practices (such as the yan daudu/bori phenomenon, which I insist was and still is not, strictly speaking, inherently "homosexual"--in the Western sense of the term, that is) to give a peculiar character to "homosexual" practices in northern Nigeria.

It helps to remember that the dominant conceptions of homosexuality today are decidedly Western. And these conceptions don't capture the sexual experiences of many other non-Western cultures, and attempts to crudely universalize and apply these conceptions to the lived experiences of other people often come across as ridiculous and sometimes pity-inspiring.

Particulars masquerading as universals often crumble pitifully when they encounter difference. I once read about the experiences of a Western homosexual researcher who was disillusioned to discover that many yan daudus are married with children, that some of them DON'T have homosexual relations and that most who do confess that it is actuated more by money than by pleasure.

So homosexuality is not a self-contained sexual identity in northern Nigeria the way it is in the West, although homosexual lobby groups in the West are aggressively encouraging some desperate Africans to lie that they are exclusively homosexual.

You have to wonder why these guys need Africans to validate the universality of their lifestyle.

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