The possibilities of Gender: Emeka Joseph Nwankwo, in conversation with Ayodele Olofintuade

Emeka Nwankwo

Emeka Joseph Nwankwo is a writer and digital media professional from Nigeria. He served as the communications manager (Africa) for Cassava Republic Press and is currently working on his PhD research. His writing has appeared on platforms like Popula, adda, NPR, The Republic Journal, This is Africa, and The African Report.

Ayodele Olofintuade is the author of Lakiriboto Chronicles: A Brief History of Badly Behaved Women (2018) and Eno’s Story (2010). Her short stories and creative non-fiction pieces have been published in several online literary journals. She is an investigative journalist and researcher, who has written papers about Queer African Feminisms. She runs an online feminist and queer e-zine, 9jafeminista.


AYODELE OLOFINTUADE

A common theme in two of your articles— The gender non-conforming spirit and How to kill an African City— is the Biafran war which lasted for three years, but its impact is still felt by survivors, their descendants and the Nigerian State, till date.

In The gender non-conforming spirit, you looked at the impact of the war on a gender non-conforming person, Area Scatter, who after the war not only changed his name but also her gender, while in How to Kill an African City you examined the effects of the war on a city, Aba. Its history of violence, its poverty and misrule.

This made me reflect on the fact that since the slave trade, the contraption that is presently called Nigeria has been a war zone. The violent manner in which the country was coupled together without the consent of the people that lived in its formerly independent city-states, the coup d’etats that were the norm up until the late 1990s, the present sham of autocracy masked as a two-party system, not to mention terrorism and so many other ways we visit violence upon one another.

I’m interested in knowing your views on the possible impact of these various forms of violence on people who have been designated sexual minorities, or ‘the weak’.

MAZI EMEKA NWANKWO

Obviously in all wars, in any violent place, minorities suffer the most—this often boils down to populism and political rhetoric that use the lives of minorities to obfuscate and distract from failure of leadership. The SSMPA is an example of this: a needless law that was intended to boost President Jonathan’s popularity. And all it did was endanger the lives of queer people and draw violent attention to a people who, hitherto, largely existed queitly. I’m reminded of the time in 2014, when a Dan Daudu was reportedly arrested in Kaduna on suspicion of being a terrorist, based solely on the fact that he dared present differently in public! I remember reading the mother’s defence of her son: that he was possessed by the devil and that he’d been flogged several times to cast the spirits out.

The reality is that violence—whether it is present or historical—is inherent in the black imagination, genes and reality. The first part of my essay The gender non-conforming spirit began with an Igbo adage that basically encapsulated the concept behind West African naming. The editor of the piece, Will Forrester, suggested that I close the piece with an Igbo adage and I wanted to use this: Egbe belu, ugo belu, nke si ibe ya ebena, nku kwa  ya. Which basically translates to “let the kite perch and let the eagle perch, whoever says that the other must not perch let its wing break.” Put simply, it means: live and let live.

I ended up not using it. But I spent a considerable amount of time thinking about the very violent nature of that proverb; how on one hand it preaches peaceful co-existence and on the other it employs violence as a tool for enforcement. Although it was in some ways poignant to the piece while adding a certain poetic elegance, it would have also been hugely problematic and can easily be misconstrued. Firstly, it presents equality as justice, violence as just desserts, and silence as healing. There is the inherent connotation that the way towards healing is to not speak of it, but to use retributive justice as a magical wand—a failure to address systemic structures that will provoke such unfair treatment of the other. But also it reflects how violence is weaved into language and how violence becomes structural through language. It is an extensive discussion, one that will show that the language used to describe the other, used to demand justice for minorities, is also steeped in violence.

In a general sense, Nigerians—and, by extension, our worldview—are shaped by violence. It is a marker that is deeply imprinted in this problematic union of nations, and it is present in how our forebears became British subjects. Years of silence towards the Biafra war hasn’t brought much healing. Instead it has left an open, festering sore that each generation passes to the next. Silence has been the default approach adopted by successive Nigerian governments towards healing. The problem remains that the peace we have in Nigeria is a peace that stands on one leg and could potentially crumble at the slightest push; the peace of a graveyard.

This is why I see the necessity of pride as a celebration of unsilencing and a continuous reminder that queer people exist as a way to disturb the peace. Because after you spend years believing you are a certain way and suffering the impact of a violent language and society, pride becomes an opportunity to exhale. However, for queer people in Nigeria, pride is an act of activism too. That’s also the impact of violence: it makes your living loud and proud, your every existence, an act of activism.

AYODELE OLOFINTUADE

‘African spiritualities’ have always been considered a monolith, and in the two major religions practised by the majority of Nigerians, the practitioners of these spiritualities are viewed with a lot of mistrust and suspicion, because everything connected to its practice is considered demonic. I am therefore fascinated by your discourse on the masquerades that you saw in your village while visiting. For example, during Egungun season in Ibadan, I have always been amazed by the fact that people travel from different parts of the country and the world, not only to celebrate the Egungun of their compounds, but also to participate in the major festival that signals the end of the season, Oke-Ibadan Festival, an oddity in the face of the high number of people who identify as Christians or Muslims.

I’d like to know your opinion about the cognitive dissonance involved in attending a masquerade festival on a Saturday, and on a Sunday morning turning up in church to worship a god that has declared other ‘gods’ false.

MAZI EMEKA NWANKWO

I had an ‘a-ha!’ moment when I read Olumide Popoola’s debut novel and I bagan to connect modern thinking to African practices. But most of the early thinking behind The gender non-conforming spirit started as a result of a conversation I had with my uncle who is a Catholic priest. We were in our village for a festival, and I’d gone to spend the morning with him—mostly because I enjoyed his stories and his memories of our family’s lore. Anyway, he invited me to help him sort out his personal library. While doing this, we found copies of some books and a thesis he wrote in the 1980s on Igbo spirituality and how the local diocese could evangelise better if they understood, appreciated and explored Igbo tradition. He went on to explain the impact of the books on the diocese and also parts of our culture, pointing out that the masquerade festival can in fact be Christianised rather than demonised.

Aside from being an interesting lesson on the history of my people, what stayed with me from that conversation is the amorphous nature of religion and how the dominant religions have persisted because of their malleability and swallowing of other concepts. Christianity, for instance, has several “pagan” ideas and concepts, but it has persisted because it adopts local concepts and tradition. And there isn’t a universality to the Christian expression. For a lot of people—certainly for my close relatives who are big-time Christians—attending a masquerade festival is a fun, immersive experience. However, they draw a line on certain practises that are deemed pagan and a violation of the Bible. Obviously, masquerade festivals are an ancestral event that are underpinned by rituals. What then happens is that they strip away these so-called pagan practises (the animal sacrificing, ancestral invocations and other things) and replace them with Christian rituals—like the mass. Can we call this imperialism; religious imperialism—because it bears all the markings of one?

Christmas is basically a celebration of the birth of Christ. However, many people who celebrate it aren’t Christians—some are agnostics or atheists who are indifferent or repulsed by the idea of a supreme, all-seeing being. Yet they celebrate Christmas. Can we also say that there is an element of cognitive dissonance there? I am keenly aware that a lot of our daily lives are paradoxical, almost hypocritical, and it’s important to make space for that. The problem begins when we vilify traditional and other religious practises that are different from ours; when Christians and their leaders burn down a place of African worship and declare it evil. That kind of violence isn’t progress. It is evil.

AYODELE OLOFINTUADE

I find this quite interesting because these practices are not like that in Yoruba States. All rituals are observed, the killing of animals, et al. I’ve been to several festivals where yams and palm oil offerings are given. People attending are fully aware that it is pure ancestral worship, or more likely, invocation.

MAZI EMEKA NWANKWO

There is a tweet I found the other day about the Yorubas and high religious tolerance. Obviously, I’m not Yoruba. But I agreed with that tweet, strongly. We Igbos aren’t as tolerant of other religions. Anything but Christianity is looked down on, vilified, and enfeebled structurally. Consider the New Yam festival common amongst the Igbos: it is still celebrated but the ancestral Igbo ritual practises are excised, replaced by a Christian practise. A lot of people still adhere to certain traditional religions and rituals, but they are a very small minority.

AYODELE OLOFINTUADE

The SSMPA, like most laws made in Nigeria in recent times, is an ill thought-out law, which basically strips away several human rights from members of the LGBTQI community, but this is not the first time such laws have been made and enforced. Unlike the anti-sodomy laws, and many others of its ilk made by the colonials in the early years of their rule, the Nigerian government seems to be reluctant to prosecute people under this law. It appears that the law has only empowered the police, other state agents, and citizens, to brutalize, blackmail, extort and in many cases, kill members of the LGBTQI community, without repercussions.

In your article The Gender Non-Conforming Spirit, you spoke about the rise and decline of Area Scatter, reflecting on how she was treated post-Nigerian civil war, juxtaposing her experiences with those of gender non-conforming Nigerians in present times.

What do you suppose went wrong? Do you have any theories concerning the seeming rise of homophobia in Nigeria or has it always been a thing?

MAZI EMEKA NWANKWO

When that essay first came out, I got an interesting feedback from a Nigerian author who I am inspired by, in their work and life. They pointed out that perhaps the reason Area Scatter lived so ‘freely’ was because what she was had no name; she was a rarity. Her life was not politicised—in the sense that she did not demand for a right or recognition. Perhaps if she did, things might have been different.

I think of this feedback often. And I recognise the possible truth to it. I’m also keenly aware that Area Scatter might have existed as a source of entertainment, a joke even, hence the attraction to her at the time. This might have lessened whatever social threat she presented. I do hope there are more critical explorations of this but unfortunately we don’t have enough information about Area Scatter out there. And what we have right now is the memory of our parents, but memory can also be a problematic source of data.

Things sometimes look better in hindsight—and it is particularly so for queer people because there’s a need to prove historicity—so there’s no way to say with certainty where things went wrong. I think that the law has increased the visibility of queer lives as many are now forced to live loudly, both as a political statement, and as activism. The SSMPA (and other such laws across Africa), while it gave rise to violent prejudice against LGBTQIs, had the unlikely consequence of creating more awareness about queer lives in ways that we’ve not had to do before. It created for a generation a list of heroes and stories. The signing of that bill into law is a watershed moment, one that will be integral in the conversation about LGBTQI people in Nigeria so that whatever theories or conversations will be sectioned around this like a before-and-after image.

Just as equally, the global response to SSMPA was not helpful at all. With Western countries using developmental aids and threat of economic sanctions as a tool to enforce their desire, the lives of LGBTQI became a subject of international moral football.

AYODELE OLOFINTUADE

Another interesting concept—this is different from my knowledge of gender non-conforming people in Southwestern states. An example are Sango worshippers who till date still wear their hair and clothing in the manner considered feminine.  There were also some people I personally came across while I was growing up, who were gender non-conforming, and lived in the society quite comfortably, with their humanity recognized until the rise of extremist religion in the 80’s.

MAZI EMEKA NWANKWO

Yes. For a while now I have been trying to find an article Funmi Iyanda wrote several years ago (in the early 2010s) on something similar. I believe it was originally published on Linda Ikeji’s blog. Do you recall the language used to describe these gender non-conforming people? And do you think people would have treated them differently if they demanded rights, equality and recognition?

AYODELE OLOFINTUADE

One of the precepts of language is that if something does not have a descriptive word, it does not exist. A lot of Nigerian researchers have tried to find out if there are words for LGBTQI peoples in local languages, and from my own research there seems to be no words for the people, although many are available for different sexual acts, which brings home the fact that there is a huge difference between identity, sexual behaviour (human sexuality) and orientation. Have you done any research on the relationship between language and acceptance of sexualities and identities, if yes, what are your findings? If no, what are your thoughts about these concepts of humanity?

MAZI EMEKA NWANKWO

I haven’t done any extensive research on this. But I disagree that a name must exist in the present for a concept to be valid.

AYODELE OLOFINTUADE

There are proofs that sexual minorities existed prior to, and even during, colonialism. That’s a reason for the proscription of same-sex marriages (in the late 1800’s and early 1900s) particularly woman-to-woman marriages in the Southeast and Southwest. What I believe is that the full humanity of minorities were recognized and that is why there was no need to label, just like there’s no label for heterosexuality in these languages.

MAZI EMEKA NWANKWO

This is such a good point to make, and I agree with it. There is still evidence of this practise till date but it is very low-key that a lot of Igbo people do not know about it and if they know, do not talk about it. The nations in Nigeria are distinct but they share several similarities too but one of the things that distinct Igbos from other nations is our record keeping and indirect rule under colonialism.

This is particularly sad to me as an Igbo man whose heritage is a culture where oral tradition held sway and many things were lost to tongues affected by the violence of colonised language and social conformity. There is so much we don’t know about Igbo society; there is so much lost and others unknown. And what we know now are the stories, memories and ideas we inherited from our parents whose worldview were strongly shaped by Victorian-era comportments and norms that were violently antithetical to several Igbo practises. There are also records kept by colonial anthropologists and ethnographers (which the platform, Uhuru, does a wonderful job curating). For me as an academic researcher, I find them interesting as historical artefacts and as an insight into what was. However, I am keenly aware of the possible existence of the researchers’ bias and racial prejudice which affects the language used and images taken.

I often wonder what else we lost to colonialism and imperialism, and how much easier the fight would be for minorities if there were an archive to invoke in the fight against prejudice and hate.

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