Exploring gender through the viewpoint of Igbo Spirituality

by Obinna Tony-Francis Ochem

There is a story told of Area Scatter, a crossdresser who played an ornamental thumb piano as he sang in a rich melodious voice. When you see his pictures, he is adorned in female clothing, roaming the Eastern part of Nigeria in the 1970s and performing for royalty. He was said to have walked into a forest and never returned after. Some rumours had it that he was killed. But was he killed? I doubt. 

Igbo culture is revolutionary – or it was for 500+ years ago. In Igbo land, gender is not presented based on your physical masculinity currently portrayed by the Western conservative gaze. Gender encompasses your wealth, your spirituality, and your mind. How you carry and lace your inner strength; mind.

Men wear singlets and allow wrappers to grip their waists while going about their businesses. It was not a big deal for Area Scatter to dress in female clothing even though it is likely he could have gotten some vitriolic attacks, because this was an era when Western religion – Christianity, was infiltrating the southeast. It is worth noting that my grandfather never converted to Christianity till a year before his death in late 2000, he isn’t alone in this.

Masquerades hold great significance in Igbo spirituality. Some masquerades are said to be occupied by deities and in many cases, dead bodies, manifesting as spirits. In Akwaeke Emezi‘s Death of Vivek Oji, they explored the concept of sexuality through reincarnation. We were made to know that Vivek’s grandmother reincarnated in the form of Vivek, existing as a man.

In Eastern Nigeria, there is Adamma, a female masquerade. The masquerade has mastered the act of moving its waist. Igbo dances are filled with gender-neutral movements. Men and women danced by swinging their whole bodies, and most dancers are men wearing a woolly ballet dress made from a sack. 

Adamma is a female masquerade yet worn by men. Men cosplay femininity freely – this allowance birthed a whole genre of comedy in Nigeria populated largely by Eastern Nigerian men. Women can also cosplay masculinity. In this, gender is not rigid but flexible. There are no laid down rules but there are things perceived as an abomination.

In this current era, an average Igbo man will wrinkle his face in disgust when he finds out it’s a man inhabiting the female-presenting masquerade. Adamma‘s beauty is uncanny. The carved wooden face is painted ugly. In Igbo land, masquerade is laced in spirituality. They acquire some power because it takes strength to perform theatrics inside the covered woolly enclosure. Before making their ways out of the housing, they had performed some magic.

I spent my formative years in Eastern Nigeria, living with my grandparents. I was a little younger than ten and there was this light-skinned man the children (myself included), taunted whenever he walked past us. He painted his lips red, the same as his nails. Whenever he walked past, we booed him with, “Omekanwanyi.”

This phrase is not reserved for only men that painted some parts of their body because as a child, I had my fair share of this phrase thrown my way that meant, “one who behaves like a woman.” Apart from painting himself, he walked like a woman. He talked like a woman and was unapologetic about it. Beyond the taunt, there was never a case of mob lynching.

I remember when my grandfather expected me to slit off the hen’s throat and I shivered. He asked if I was a man. Also, people are initiated into masquerade society and it plays roles in determining masculinity. There are few cases of women initiated into this society. The women that are perceived as inquisitive, strong-willed and hardly exhibit societal feminine qualities. 

Before he killed a hen, my grandfather sprays white chalk on the ground to appease deities, symbolising his beliefs on spirituality. Only men are expected to kill domestic animals. It determines the strength of a man. Some ‘headstrong’ women in many cases are allowed this opportunity. Women that beat up boys of their age groups.

While gender represents man and woman, and in Igbo, a young man is called Dimkpa or Okorobịa and a young woman is called Agbọghọbịa, these things aren’t rigid. They are flexible.

There are cases where women identify as Dimkpa. The only thing that remains rigid in many cases is men’s relationship with masculinity as it’s fragile and men are less likely to identify out of the comfort zone of their inborn masculinity. But there are a few disruptive men like, Area Scatter and the man in my neighbourhood the children used to taunt, who redefined masculinity and many still do the same without exposure to the western media.

It may be not enough to say that the unshakable misogyny and rampant violent homophobia in Igboland nowadays is as recent an import as Christianity, but it is certainly enough to make one wonder – where did it all go wrong?

If Gods can embody ambiguous genders, what is uniquely despicable about Uchenna being a non-binary effete-presenting and cross-dressing man? There isn’t a logical explanation for it. The question is still vital however, if it makes us ponder where we came from and where we now are.

It is a journey from greys to the heart of darkness that makes it okay for us to deny the humanity of others simply because we cannot place them into the straitjacket of gender binaries. 

Obinna Tony-Francis Ochem writes from the comfort of his tranquility, exploring the theme of gender, class, sexuality, climate change and shape shifting monsters.

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