How do Senegalese talk about gay identities
Ricci Shryock | February 18th, 2014


A music video by Senegalese singer Ouzin Keita caused some online stir in Senegal when it debuted about a month ago on YouTube. “Beureung Barigo,” which means “rolling the barrel” in Wolof, is a mbalax style song with simple lyrics calling on listeners to ‘clap’ for the singer. Ouzin tells his audience that that he “doesn’t know anything yet, but I’m learning….” As of early February, the clip had been viewed more than 158,000 times on YouTube, discussed on local websites, Twitter and TV. But the attention to the video has more to do with denigrating Ouzin than with the popularity of the song. Here’s the video:

Many of the comments in Wolof poked fun and insulted the singer; a few called him “gordjiguène” (a Wolof word that translates literally into “man-woman”, and is often used as a slur for “homosexual”) and said that Ouzin is “going nowhere.”

I honestly couldn’t tell much of a difference between the quality of this song and many of the other mbalax tunes I’ve heard (though admittedly I’m not an mbalax expert), so I asked a few Senegalese friends and colleagues what the premise for the online backlash was. Although many of the comments attack the singer for the style and quality of the song and dancing (‘boring lyrics’ was one critique I heard), some are also aimed at the singer’s gender and sexuality (‘I don’t know if he’s a man or woman or gay because of the way he talks’ one online commenter said). Others said the singer was dancing in an effeminate way and speaking with a lisp, which is what I was told was provoking the “gordjiguène”-related comments.

The use of “gordjiguène” highlights an important issue regarding local views on homosexuality and homophobia here in Senegal. Historically there is no word in Wolof that translates literally to “gay” or “homosexual” as the words are commonly used in the West in the late 20th and early 21th centuries. And while some African countries are making headlines for various anti-gay laws, such as Nigeria’s recent passage of a law banning same-sex marriage and membership of gay rights organizations, the Raw Material Company gallery in Dakar decided to address the issue of homophobia in Senegal with an expo called, “Who said it was simple?” (named for the Audre Lorde poem of the same title).

When I spoke to the curator at the gallery about the expo, she told me the gist of the event is to explore how homosexuality, which is something that she says was traditionally accepted and integrated into society in Senegal, has become something that now often provokes vicious backlash. (According to the Associated Press, earlier this year, two men were arrested in Dakar for “engaging in homosexual acts” and sentenced to six months in prison; in January, four men were arrested for attacking and beating gay men in their neighborhood.)

The expo is made up of displays of Senegalese newspapers, illustrating how local media now treat the issue. A plaque at the entry declares that the “current radicalization” of homophobia is born from the tendency to now use “Western notions designed to define margins and minorities, while local systems of ensuring peace and social well-being remain erased.”

One of the points the expo makes is that it’s hard to discuss human rights in Africa “within an imperialist framework that imposes categories and creates identity where there were practices.” When I asked the curator for an example of what this meant, she told me that while there is no Wolof word for “lesbian,” there are multiple words for the practice of a woman having sex with a woman, or a man having sex with a man.

This way of recognizing “acts” without labeling the “actor” raises important questions: how important is it to be able to safely claim your identity in society? Is that not a fundamental human right as we are taught in the West? Does naming confer certain protections that are unavailable without the recognition of a specific identity, or does it simply create conditions for calling out difference?

To get back to Ouzin – while much of the backlash is outwardly aimed at the quality of the music, there is an underlying homophobic tinge to many of the online comments. While trying to analyze and address this issue, it could be helpful to remember the first words from Lorde’s “Who Said it Was Simple?” poem: “There are so many roots to the tree of anger.”

* HT @rcoreyb for the heads up on the “Who Said it Was Simple” expo.

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9 thoughts on “How do Senegalese talk about gay identities

  1. ‘recognizing “acts” without labeling the “actor”’ – merci là-bas ! Why is Western thinking so obsessed with creating (mutually exclusive) labels and categories? Why does a man who has sex with another man have to identify as gay? why do you have to be either straight or gay, man or woman, or MAYBE some suspect third category like bisexual or trans*?

    Interesting subject!

    I also think one reason many Senegalese complain about this song is that there is an idea that songs should always teach you something important (the history of important social figures, how to protect yourself from malaria, remember to respect your parents..) otherwise it is just a waste of time.

  2. I agree with you Lisa on the ways Western thinking clings to these categorizations and tries to apply them to all cultures and communities. Being a “goor jigeen” does not necessarily mean being gay. The Senegalese do not have a term for “homosexual” for the same reason they do not have a term for “heterosexual.” People are simply not categorized based on sexual orientation. They are members of the community who assume and fulfil several roles within it. I also think it is important to ask the question: “Why now?” Why are the Senegalese so inclined to engage in anti-gay propaganda now? It is not that homosexuality did not exist in Senegal. The Senegalese attitude toward homosexuality has been the same toward heterosexuality. Sex is simply not something that one openly discusses of flaunts. As a matter of fact until recently, Senegalese heterosexual couples would not show affection in public. However I disagree that this song does not teach anything. It has only two statements, but they are very powerful. This song actually DOES teach us something. “Roll your barrel” is a Wolof proverb that teaches acceptance. The lyrics translate: “Roll your barrel, if it contains something, it is a barrel (has potential) if it doesn’t contain anything, it is still a barrel, and it is yours.” This proverb is very much in line with the ways the Senegalese treated homosexual members of the community in the past. Being gay did not turn one into an outcast. The expulsion of gay people from family and social life is very new because the Senegalese did not look at members of the community based on a single dimension. Someone might have been gay but they were a brother, a husband, an uncle, the neighborhood cobbler, and so on. Therefore his lyrics suggest that people should not just judge him by this assumed “gayness” which he might or might not be, and that he is still “a barrel with potential” and an important member of the community. In Senegal, the label “goor jigeen” is often something that starts from childhood when a child is identified as being effeminate. It is very likely that this singer has experienced bullying on the basis of an assumed gay identity and this is his attempt at preaching acceptance. It could very well be that he is still figuring out his gender and sexual identity, hence “I have not done anything yet, I do not know anything yet.” His song is a “taasu” a panegyric form within which praise and criticism are difficult to identify. It is also a form where meaning is hidden and performers use the textual space of “taasu” to address past issues. Within the national discourse, there is no space for a “gay” person to safely defend their views and the “taasu” allows him to do so. On the surface the lyrics might suggests that he is referring to his nascent musical career, but based on the reactions to his song and the accusation of homophobia, I am certain that his song is a creative way for him to engage the society on acceptance and imply that people are too quick to label him when he is still figuring out who he is.

    • Thanks so much for this reply, Marame. Very informative. When I was speaking to people I thought it sounded like the lyrics were a metaphor, but no one said as much. Very good to know and appreciate the input!

  3. The term goor-jigeen has appearantly a long story and many men crossing traditional gender barriers – and for example participating to sabars or having access to meetings reserved to women – have been labelled as such, much before the influence of Western gay activism. Some Senegalese scholars have written on this, such as Cheikh Ibrahima Niang who has just concluded his doctoral thesis on this topic:

  4. Cet article traduit une malhonnêteté intellectuelle. Les critiques adressées à ce chanteur n’ont rien d’homophobe, et mêmes si elles l’étaient, elles sont formulées au 2nd degré. Vous pouvez faire votre propagande ou votre activisme en faveur de l’homosexualité mais ne détournez les propos des gens.

  5. Marame did a great job adding more perspective to this issue, and Azu’s point that the homophobia the author refers to, if homophobia there was, was secondary (to the main criticism of the music itself) is worthwhile. When this video was first featured here with the link to the aforementioned forum, most of the comments I did see addressed the musical deficiencies more so than any personally /sexually themed reactions. Yes, there were some, and although they were of the off handed, dismissive type common to any forum, whether online or not, where homosexuality/ male femininity is detected or suspected, to the one whose being is attacked, even just one is one too many.

    Cristiano introduces a great point that was missing in this conversation, the one regarding the nature/ meaning of the word gay when relating to Senegalese society.
    As for most traditional cultures, we find the presence in Senegal of a third gender as expressed through the tendency of some men to act, dress and live as women. Previously, the word Goorjiggen’s meaning would be closer to transvestite, not gay, as a transvestite may be straight sexually, though he dresses as a women. Although some of these transvestites were rumored to be visited by local men (some fathers to us children), their sexuality, or lack of,was never part of their identity. Rather, they were known as great cooks, and played a major role in societal celebrations such as baptisms and marriages, characterized by glamour, music and dance.
    This does complicate the debate a bit, because when a Senegalese uses the word Guoorjiggen, one knows not whether it refers to overt femininity or to overt or suspected homosexuality.

    To answer Marame’s question of”Why now?”, it is now because it is a reaction to a force, and that force is being exercised right now. Intolerance requires some level of fear and paranoia. Just as American racists were threatened by the Civil rights movement, and the Christian right needs to feel targeted by the liberal left, Jews and Muslims, homophobia requires one to feel that the”gays” are after the hetero, looking to change society and people, and impart them with their gay values, their gay agenda. Any force seeking to change the status quo will threaten the entrenched and the power base, because the empowering of the marginalized necessitates the voluntary or the forceful redistribution of power from the powerful to the powerless. As more gays demand a voice and make themselves heard, an equivalent, or enhanced push back will be felt from those threatened by those voices, and this across locales, religions and cultures (normal matter of physics, and sociology.)
    Homophobia, furthermore, requires the imagining of sexuality, the imagining of the “forbidden”, “taboo”, “abnormal” act of homosexuality. I have held conversations with various people regarding homosexuality, and to their tendency to frame the person according to the act, I always ask: if you knew that this man is attracted to other men, but doesn’t act on his attraction, would it change anything? Their reply then shifts to : ” yeah, but the attraction means that he will ultimately act on it”, turning an issue of being to one of potential doing, which then becomes about being anew.

    Finally, and musically, the genre that is mbalax is at its lowest, least meaningful form. it is true that senegalese music has the unstated motto of needing to impart some message, sometimes societal , sometimes religious, but sabaar, which is really what the style featured in the video expresses, was never bound to those rules. Sabaar is really just about fun and dancing, and is similar to hip hop at its inception, just about the music until the mc grabbed the mic and started chatting on it, which ultimately turned into rap, and in sabaar, turned into taassu. Now in the world of bad mbalax, which stills requires some rapping skills and charisma, Ouzin displays neither, and to be frank, after watching the video, I was left unsure as to whether he had some mental disability or not.

  6. I am wondering why we Africans have to put up with the white man’s evils by adopting yet another of his genetic cons.If the bible is true why then is there a promotion of another kind of sex which does not have a place in society the world over except in the homeland of white people.
    I believe this Gay Rights advocacy is yet another attempt to destroy the African population.Like slavery,this one will hurt the African race badly.We are either Man or Woman besides.What can be sweeter than a love affair between a real man and a real woman? No artificial instrument can replace us so white people go back to your caves and leave us to live in harmony with nature.

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