by Alabi Adewale
Nigerian cultures often rely on oral traditions as sources of reference on their history. Oral forms of documentation, however, are subject to distortions which could be caused by various reasons. For example, there could be shame associated with an aspect of a people’s past, and this may lead to its custodians distorting the narrative, or a change in the ideology of a people. This can lead to distortions in oral history such that the culture fits into the new ideology. Whatever the case may be, oral forms of historical documentation are not a full-proof way of learning about the ancient, cultural practices of a people.
These distortions in the oral narrative of tradition are one of the reasons why the LGBTQ+ community in Nigeria is faced with homophobia. Apart from religion, culture is another direction Nigerians point to when justifying homophobia because same-sex relationships are considered an ‘imported culture’. This belief that the British brought in the ‘culture’ of same-sex relationships is quite ironic because many aspects of our present culture were actually influenced by the British, including homophobia.
The British gained control of most regions of what is known as Nigeria during the Victorian Era. The Victorian era was named after Queen Victoria, whose reign was associated with a strong religious drive for higher moral standards led by the nonconformist churches, such as the Methodists and the Evangelical wing of the established Church of England. This period saw the people of England resist rationalism and place a higher value on religion and social values. These values were of course tied to the religion of the people which was Christianity. Hence any lifestyle that was against what the Bible postulated were considered grievous offences. This includes same-sex relationships.
As a matter of fact, the British Parliament enacted the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, section 11, known as the Labouchere Amendment, that prohibited gross indecency between males. It thus became possible to prosecute homosexuals for engaging in sexual acts. This period was right when the British were consolidating their hold on the people they had conquered in the region of Nigeria. It is hard to believe people who had laws like this, ‘imported’ the culture of same-sex relationships.
On the contrary, it seems the British were the ones who put an end to some of the lifestyle choices in pre-colonial Nigeria that did not sit well with their Christian morals and beliefs. Some stories and some of our traditional religious rights and practices tend to cast light on a forgotten past.
George Olusola Ajibade in his book ‘Same-sex relationships in Yoruba culture and orature’, made mention of a same-sex affair between two women that led to the birth of one of the major gods of the Yoruba pantheon. The story was garnered from his interview with an Ifa priest that spoke of Ofurufu-ko-se-feyinti who had an affair with a woman named Laarufin. This affair ultimately led to the conception and birth of the revered Yoruba god, Orunmila. There are many more examples of these seemingly ‘mysterious’ cases in pre-colonial Nigerian culture and folklore.
However, many Nigerians either play blind or do not actually know of these aspects of our culture due to the distortions mentioned earlier. These distortions ensured that not just cultural norms but traditional institutions change certain aspects to suit the Abrahamic beliefs brought by foreigners.
Will homophobia die a quick death in Nigeria if more revelations are made on historical facts about the queer nature of our ancestors?
It will however dispel that pesky notion of same-sex relationships and unconventional lifestyle choices being a foreign import.