'Because it is not African': Conversations about gender identity with Africans

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Not so long ago, the incredibly talented Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explained that we need to destroy this idea that tradition is some kind of natural phenomenon and accept it as man-made. The sooner we do that, the sooner we can understand that there are some aspects of "tradition" that no matter how old, are detrimental to our progress.

So often I've had conversations with my African seniors whose opinions and insight I hold so highly, and I have allowed myself to turn a blind eye at their blatant homophobia or transphobia. They are old men and women, no need to fight them on their set ways after all.

But, here is the thing, I also find my generation of Africans echoing these very sentiments, and I can't help but think: Are these ideals; homosexuality, gender fluidity, feminism, truly "Un-African"?

I remember in my last year of university, I was writing a paper for my Women in Pre-Colonial Africa class, and my thesis was that colonialism did not bring feminism or "women's liberation" to Africa, but in fact interrupted it.

I stumbled upon an anthropological article by some random old white man that talked about female husbands among the Turkana people of Kenya. My Kenya? This was at 9:15 p.m. Canadian time, 5:00 a.m. Kenyan time. My mother had to be consulted, and time meant nothing.

My irritated, confused and half-asleep mother confirmed this phenomenon to me. Female husbands existed up until her childhood, she didn't know much about them, but she remembered asking her grandmother why an elderly woman was going to the old men's meeting, and getting a quick, silencing answer of "because she is an old man." My mother knowing better, let this line of questioning die.

Now, three things stuck me here:

1. I bet you all $9.21 in my bank account that the reason, a Turkana woman (my mother) knew nothing of this 'age old tradition' was because of the Christianity that was so heavily indoctrinated in her community.

2. Why in the hell did I have to learn about female husbands from some dead white guy?!

3. When did we decide that gender fluidity was "un-African", when we obviously accepted it as a part of life so recently?

There is a thin line that young, exposed Africans all over the world are facing, this crisis where we are so determined to be as African as possible in a world that only values our Ankara prints, and our uncanny ability to make their children eat their dinner because we are starving down there in Africa.

At the same time, we are blatantly aware that there are so many inconsistencies with our identities that reject Western Imperialism, and embrace African Supremacy.

Yet, we are also painfully aware that we are not truly Kenyan, Somali, Nigerian, Egyptian because we are not at home to fully experience the full complexity of our identities. It is at this point that we find ourselves questioning the ideals of our fathers and grandfathers, but we do so quietly and with gentle footsteps in fear of rebuttal.

Perhaps it's a matter of wording though.

My mother criticizes me for declaring myself a feminist, and yet she is the biggest feminist I know.

My great grandmother would probably roll in her grave if she saw me marching at a LGTBQ pride parade, but she understood, without confusion that that the elderly woman in her village had a wife and went to the men's meeting because she was 'a man'.

We refuse to accept foreign words, and yet have vague memories of traditions with the very same definition.

That makes me reach two overlapping conclusions.

There has been a gap, between my generation and the three before me. My predecessors truly, honestly, believe that the Africaness they know today is the Africaness that existed 100 years ago. They very loudly declare that we African children are too exposed to the West and its Satanism.

At the same time, they refuse to acknowledge that tradition is in fact man-made -- it is fluid, it can be altered when it is found to be dangerous to human life, human development and the attempt to just be a decent person.

These two conclusions will always be dangerous because it will always allow large communities within us to be silenced, murdered, imprisoned and forced to live in fear. We cannot hold our Africaness high and proud against foreign exploitation and local oppression, and yet refuse to accept that we are a people born from a much more complex ancestry.

An ancestry that included strong, respected female leaders, some who had wives, some who did not identify with any one particular gender, some who at some point in their lives became men, and some who were disabled. The very same ancestry that murdered twins, that silenced women, and that buried those who committed suicide in the dark of night out of shame.

These two histories are one in the same, and we must be very careful that the future we build is not one that carries on legacies of oppression and of systematic violence.

So I will continue to call myself an African feminist (and no that is not an oxymoron). And I will continue to cheer on Audrey Mbugua for suing the Attorney General in the fight to legally change her name and gender. And I will do this with not an ounce of remorse; I will proclaim these as the most African things about me.

I will disturb people's sensibilities, and I will get internet trolls all hot and bothered. They will call me a heathen, and uncivilized…but then again, I'm sure that's what colonialist thought when they landed in our continent and came face to face with our flawless melanin blessed skin and our female husbands.  


Sharon is a freelance writer, event planner and lover of all things African History. She spends the majority of her time volunteering with local NGOs and keeping up with the Kardashians to a troubling degree. Sharon is a Feminist, Anti-Racist, Anti-Misogynistic, Anti-Homophobic, Anti-Transmisognistic and Aunty to Tyvus and Neavah. Sharon lives in Canada and is constantly trying to navigate the world with fierce pride for her people, but with no fear whatsoever, of critiquing those very same people. Sharon also realizes she has written all this in third person and feels a little strange about it.

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