By Obinna Tony-Francis Ochem
The first memory of knowing my identity, I am standing on the assembly ground with fellow students lined up according to our classes. The occasional morning breeze settles on our heads. Now and again, I get quick glances from fellow students. Some of the teachers are standing, each gripping a stick and some are talking to each other. Spare the rod and spoil the child is the latter memory about my African identity and being a Nigerian. It was horrible being a student, especially the sight of a cane or the thought of a teacher sends shivers down your spine. Here, teachers are not our friends. We are molded into becoming scared of them. We are pushed into a shell.
We are lined up according to our classes on the assembly ground, singing the national anthem, each of our voices moving rhythmically and overshadowing the other. A lot of students barely know the appropriate words and lines. Their lips fluctuate and move through the natural rhythm. You dare not allow your lips to move, or else a teacher's gaze might move and stall at you, then you suffer the consequences. You will have to move in front of the assembly ground to sing it alone. Then, everyone will become aware of your knowledge of the National anthem and 'I pledge' lyrics. But we chorused with each other, and in social studies class, we were taught what it means to be a Nigerian. All our subjects border with being a Nigerian and existing here. From Social Studies to Agriculture, etc.
The bell rings and I sling my bag to my shoulder, off to home. The dusty roads and the rickety buses. There are women haggling prices. Their headgears are barely done well, and I admire how wrappers gripped around their waists. They remind me of Mama. Mama will complain about how things are getting out of hand in Nigeria. Then, when Papa returns, he will complain too.
“This country is not getting any better under Obasanjo's regime,” she says.
I sit on the sofa while munching my food and my gaze flickers all over the living room. The fan is swinging. I think it is swinging slowly which is unusual and I am slightly nervous about Mama's voice breezing out from the kitchen.
Having lived in Nigeria all my years, I see hollow bodies as they stroll in their emptiness. Their ribs almost gouged. Bodies that need love and to be tendered. Those bodies are riddled with grief. Those bodies with a sharp hollowness inside them. I hate that I am also inhabiting that body. Body of queer Nigerians. I didn't know that being queer was a crime, but I thought there was something different about how I felt and how my body responded to affections. My body responds to a male's affection and I try to withdraw this attraction to fit in with what society makes us be. Because it has the power to get me into prison. It's how my environment already conditioned me. Maybe because I didn't see someone like me growing up.
I knew I was different. It's why I love representation to make the underrepresented group visible in the media. They need to see people like them, to know their identities are valid. I didn't see bodies like mine exercising their feelings, and I assumed I was abnormal growing up. Then, I had not learned about the biblical context of queerness and how it's an abomination in God's sight and still thought I was different.
The exact day, in the catechism class, I am seated on the tiled pavement, on one of its various steps that lead into the magnificent Catholic church edifice. We are all sitting on the tiled pavement. Our presence is a conglomeration of different children, girls, and boys alike. There are a few men and women. Our tutor sits on an iron chair opposite us and her gaze stalls at each of us. I guessed it did. I observed how her eyes moved, trying to know if we were concentrating. On her neck is a rosary, same as her hand, wound tight. A Bible sits on her lap and a catechism book on her hand, resting soulfully. Her eyes are moving but somewhat immobile and her lips are obvious. She doesn't stop talking. Soon, we will move to our respective Reverend Sisters and Brothers assigned to us since we are done with catechism examinations.
The next step is to teach us about the Bible. It is where I will learn about how queer bodies are an inhabitation of evil. How Satan dwells inside our body. All my life, I have been learning that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. How did the devil usurp the Holy Spirit? For the kind of God who I believe is all-powerful. I know free will is given but I can't remember choosing heterosexuality. I have welcomed God all my life. How did this happen? I don't know what the devil looks like, but I was told they inhabit my flesh. When I finally came in touch with this hollow self, my skin constricted, and my body shriveled.
"Do you have a girlfriend abi you be gay?" They ask.
Who asks the question? Nigerians. 2014 was the year that queer bodies were criminalised in Nigeria. So, when they ask the question, I must be tactful with my answers. There are two options, be outrightly homophobic or deflect the question. The third option is steeped in privilege. So, it's not an option. Only a few Nigerian queer bodies can boldly twist this question, defend homosexuality and still be standing on the podium of not being queer but an ally. Privilege sucks. Privilege is watered in education/schooling. Self-education. You are very conscious of sociopolitical nuances. So, it boils down to class. Being a Nigerian and queer has been proven to be terrible.
I also love being a Nigerian. The culture to which I belong offers me diversity. I have enjoyed its beauty. I have enjoyed things that distinguish us. I know my cultural identity. When Mama is preparing the bitter leaf soup in the kitchen, the aroma fills the sitting room. I love the aroma of food and it's filling. Sometimes, I am standing in front of the kitchen door while observing her. Her demeanor and her waist swinging all over. Her head is sweaty and her eyes are fatigued. She looks exhausted. There are variants of soup distinct to Nigerian tribes, but the bitter leaf is my favorite. It can be used to cook Ogbọnọ or Egusi and can be cooked on its own. When Mama returns from the market, she usually buys the leaf and other soup ingredients. It takes several washings before the leaf loses its bitter taste. Then, Mama adds it to the soup, and the aroma slowly wafts into the sitting room. I sit and position myself to inhale this aroma. This aroma gives my olfactory lobe what is worth it.
When Papa arrives from work, he will love this. The other thing about being a Nigerian woman is that you handle the chores all alone until your children grow to help. You have to multitask regardless of whether you are also working to provide. Many years of unpaid labor but men on social media come to the internet to say Nigerian women don't offer anything except their private parts. When you read it, your eyes will water, soaking in the years of unpaid labor. Home chores don't matter in the scheme of things to them. Just little they contribute to the home front.
I love my bitter leaf soup with Eba – cassava flake fried in red palm oil, then made with hot water. I love the taste of it when I dip the molded ball of Eba into the soup. My molded balls are barely like a ball. I pick it with my hands regardless of the shape, before dipping it. The ball lifts some particles of dried fish. Dried fish gives the Nigerian soup their unique taste, coupled with Ogiri and other condiments. While I eat, I quickly forget about the queer bodies I inhabit. I forget the violence, and I allow myself to soak into this deliciousness. After, I sleep and wake the next day and my daily worries begin.
"Obinna, Obinna, Obinna," the low feminine voice calls outside the house. I move from the living room where I sit, and peep through the window. It's my friend C.
I walk to the door, open the hook and our gaze catch each other. She is wearing a flower dress; white, a little bit beneath her knee. She looks like she recently trimmed her hair. I love female companionship. They give me some gender surrealism I lack, being in the presence of boys. I am not entirely adrift from boys. I equally cherish their companionship as I will keep growing and appreciating the male part of myself.
May 27th, Children's Day is fast approaching. We discuss how this day will be celebrated. The sellers will patronize their food. Different schools are gathered at the center of the local government and march in front of the local government chairman. We will be representing our school in the march past competition to celebrate children's day. Outside the field, there are many people selling children's items. I like the Mallam that sells Suya. He is dark-skinned and his beautiful native attire matches his color. Sometimes, he blinks. I will use the money Mama and Papa gave me to buy one.
As we keep moving through puberty and coming in touch with adulthood, I understand female identity in Nigeria. Also queer identities. I have watched boys being perceived as gay bullied in school. I have watched parents victim-blame their daughters. So many laws discriminate against Nigerian women and girls. Same way queer bodies are illegal to exist as a whole human. Here, it's not debatable. We are an abomination. To exist as me is to constantly live in fear that I will be killed one day.
In the university, I became acquainted with a queer man. We sit at the university love garden, a place where the lagoon front sends a breeze from the Atlantic Ocean to meander one's body. A place where love birds cozy up, while giggling at each other. A place where when I am bored, I go to feed my eyes. A place near the faculty of Art. A place where he tells me he can't mourn his lover like every other person in Nigeria.
"Why are you sad?" I asked.
"I am heartbroken. I just broke up with my lover." He spoke.
The conversation goes like that, followed by a brief moment of silence and the assumption that a woman broke his heart. This is how erasure works. Queer experiences are erased and conflated with heterosexuality. So many times, I allow people to assume many things about me and keep going. My safety matters. I need my sanity. I need this protection. "Whatever floats their boat." But most times, their words are thrown at us scathingly. In Nigeria, you watch people demean you.
While I walk under the hot sun, my skin bristles as I walk down the faculty. Through the university road, students are going about their businesses. They are in ones, in twos and groups. I sit in the lecture theater trying to get a grip of myself before the lecturer comes into the theater and begin the first class. The light goes off immediately. There is heat inside the building. My body constricts. The lecture theater is not well ventilated. I know this is how the lecture theater will remain and the lecturer will walk into the classroom, then start teaching. Many of them don't care. They just stand, reading slides and flipping from page to page while ignoring many other things. The noises are aloud and students are chattering amongst themselves. I am still trying to get a grip of myself. I don't think I can get myself till the end of the class session. Half of my T-shirt is wet, soaked in water. The lecturer will arrive and lecture in the non-ventilated classroom. I will do my best to adapt to this. To make myself comfortable. I can't attempt to falter out of reality—faint— because it will become a stigma.
They tell us that's what we need to survive in the university—Nigerian public federal university experiences. If you survive in this rigorous system, you will survive anywhere because it trains one to scale under any circumstances. Yet, we barely do at the end of the day. We relearn in the labor market. We self-teach ourselves.
I am exhausted. I need my sanity back. The hostel is nothing to write home about. Private hostels are not affordable. I have to scale through the dilapidated buildings with other students in the hostel. A place that is supposed to offer comfort, becomes a place we do, "survival of the fittest." It is tiring. The bed bugs in the hostel, the torn nets that allow mosquitoes to come through the holes. Trying to struggle and fetch water and staying in the queue before my turn. The many processes to get through these rigorous activities.
"Guy, it's my turn."
"I came here before you."
"Wetin you dey do?"
Their voices vibrate, inside and outside the hostel. You have to know your rights, else you miss your first lecture or you have to make do with sachet water to clean up yourself before going to class. What's going on here? In this institution? I hate Nigerian experiences, especially the educational system. When I return to the hostel, I lay on the bed to immerse myself in another realm. The world, where I close my eyes and let sleep take control. Where I leave my body to float into the spirit world. Soon, my sleep is cut short. I am alone in the room. A lot of my roommates have not returned from lectures. I'm in the hostel because I want to forfeit the next lecture. A knock comes at the door and jolts me up from the bed. I blink and stare at the rotating ceiling fan. The room seems blank before I finally stand from the bed. My legs jiggle.
I stop at the door and my friend D, is standing at the door. He looks exhausted. He looks ruffled and tired as he walks into the room. "You are back to school from home?" I ask.
"Yes," he nods.
I take in his demeanor. They are quite telling. I position myself on the bed before asking the first question. "What happened?"
"It's SARS officials."
He looks like some SARS official has harassed him. He later tells me how it happened on his way from home to school. They pulled up, stopped him and began harassing him. His only crime is his implicating looks. Something they said looked like he is one of the internet fraudsters. His crime is that he looks good. Same as his phone's quality. Are we ever going to win in this system? I pray we do. I hate how he narrated his experiences. I cannot stand someone innocent being harassed. Being a Nigerian is killing. I know how teachers beat me on many occasions during my primary and secondary education for something I never did. Nigerian teachers, likewise, the parents, also believe in sparing the rod and spoiling the child. Our bodies were the bodies of pain. Cane sticks scared us. We committed petty crimes, occasionally, in some cases knowing the outcome and getting the usuals of this cane.
As usual, they made away with his money. He had to give in. His life is worth more than the money, no matter the amount. We live in constant fear. Most importantly, his sexuality is not questioning but queer bodies suffer more of this. Their phones become an abode of rigorous searches to check to read their conversations. I bet Nigerian experiences can write a book. I know. Lord help us.
Obinna Tony-Francis Ochem is a freelance writer navigating gender, class, sexuality, climate change, and shape-shifting monsters. He is an alumnus of the Lolwe Fiction Workshop facilitated by Zukiswa Wanner and SprinG '20 cohort writing mentorship programme. His works are published or forthcoming on Ynaija, Kalahari Review, Rustintimes, LivingFreeUk, Artmosterrific, Punocracy Longlist '19 & 20, Tush Magazine essay finalist/winner, Chinụa Achebe Essay Anthology, SprinG anthology, and The WorkBooth magazine. A finalist for Kalahari Review Igby Prize for Non-Fiction and longlisted for Second edition of Kitodiaries Prize for Literature. Also, he was a finalist for the '19 & '21 Quramo Writers' Prize for his manuscript, Deep Ocean and Living in the Ghetto. An Afire '19 Linda Ikeji Prize for Literature, for Living in the Ghetto. He is a graduate of Marine Sciences at the University of Lagos and has a link to his works, https://linktr.ee/obynofranc.