Natural Gestures

new internationalist
issue 201 - November 1989

Natural gestures
Young girls growing up in Nigeria easily engage in forms of
physical contact that might be labelled 'lesbian' in the West.
Yet African society is deeply hostile to homosexuality,
says Buchi Emecheta. She gives a personal view.

When asked about homosexuality in Nigeria my first reaction was to say it did not exist.

Then I recalled stories I had heard of young men committing suicide because they were impotent. In a society where one's life belongs to the community, it was considered manly to take your life for this reason. So it is not surprising perhaps that homosexual men would conceal the fact that they were unlikely to have children.

In church the closest we got to the subject was the reading of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as a Sunday text. You were never encouraged to enquire further into such subjects.

As children and young girls in Nigeria, both in the cities and vilIage, Sex to us meant actual male penetration. So touching and making fun of each others' shapes and sizes was simply regarded as play communication.

Girls wrestled. Girls danced together. Girls lay together holding and touching each other during the cold harmattan* Nobody stopped us. We thought it was natural.

Of course when you got married, your whole desire and comfort, confidences and hopes were channeled to your husband. Most of us remained sexually virgins but we knew how to play with each other as young girls. To us it was nothing. To us it was one human being comforting another. For instance in my culture, we do not kiss, but we do hug each other, we hold hands openly, all natural gestures for us. Nobody ever made it into a 'problem' - lesbianism - as you do in the West.

In rural areas in particular, most girls used to have baths in open rivers on their way home from farms. I remember one unfortunate girl who was born outside the country and whose parents did not circumcise her. How we made fun of her 'sticking out' part. Some more daring girls would volunteer to scrub her back for her and 'accidentally' touch her 'almost male part'. All this was done in jest.

Later, I would ask my Western feminist colleagues: 'What do lesbians do with each other?' I could not imagine how women could have sex together. Sometimes I imagined that maybe women from the West grew penises since they were not circumcised. I noticed friends just laughed when I said this. They probably thought I knew it was not so. But I did not.

Then, in 1987, I went to do a reading at a literary conference in Antwerp. Instead of having dinner with the other writers, I stayed in my hotel room so that I could watch my favourite BBC television programmes - Songs of Praise and Howard's Way. By mistake I switched on a paying channel My eyes popped out of my head. I let out a scream and quickly controlled myself when I realized that I was not at home in my own sitting room. It was unbelievable. I forgot about Songs of Praise and 'Howard's Way.

What I saw was naked women jumping on each other, kissing and doing all kinds of funny things in front of the camera. I gazed in horror. So this was lesbianism, I kept saying and nodding to myself. These women looked like paid performers. It seemed to me that they were playing at being children for money. I wanted to go downstairs and ask Fay Weldon, another of the writers at the festival, what it all meant. But then, not being African, she might not take it well, and anyway, she had probably seen it all before.

Now, I know that in the West two women may live together as a couple, but this is something I have never come across on Nigeria. What we did have, however, were cases of women marrying other women - but this was not a sexual union. It happened when a rich woman could not produce a son. Instead she would pay a dowry for the younger girl and marry her. The girl would be encouraged to take a lover and the child of such a union would belong to the rich woman. The younger woman was usually treated well; she would help her mistress in her trade and in most cases would inherit from the older woman.

One writer who has written about homosexuality in an African context however is the Kenyan Rebeka Njau in her book Ripples in a Pond. Her attitude towards the subject is clear. She tells the story of Selina, an evil and destructive prostitute, who appears to have a lesbian tendency towards her young and beautiful sister-in-law, Gicura. Selina has already destroyed her husband and her mother-in-law and is now imprisoning Gicura, the object of her infatuation. When Gicura falls in love with a young man, Selina strangles her in her sleep. The monstrous Selina then goes mad, howling from one hilltop to another and eventually kills the young man too.

While the story acknowledges that homosexual tendencies do exist it makes it quite clear that these are 'unnatural desires' and a woman like Selina must be mad and a murderess to harbour them.

The common attitude towards homosexuality in modern Nigerian cities is not dissimilar. Although the word 'Gay' (a Western import) is now well known in big cities, reactions to homosexuals are still hostile. When I was home in Nigeria in 1986 I read how prisoners in Lagos had clubbed to death an inmate who made advances to them. Though the man cried for help, warders pretended not to hear. No prisoner was brought to justice. People just preferred to ignore the matter.

On the whole the ideal life for most Nigerians involves husbands, wives and children. People are conventional. To most people homosexuality is very much alternative and abnormal sex. On some university campuses there are said to be homosexuals - but not like in the West. Most do not want to be identified as gays. As for seeking their rights - we are still a very long way from that.

Buchi Emecheta is a Nigerian writer, based in London. Her books Include Slave Girl and The Joys of Motherhood.

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