I told my son that he would get his first sense of things as soon as we boarded the flight. Planes bound for Lagos, I told him, were filled with black people and not just in economy but in first and business class too. Lagos, capital of the Black Atlantic and megacity of nearly twenty million people, was loud and theatrical with a noisescape of musical car horns and danfo bus drivers shouting out their destinations like racehorse commentators. He was going to see some crazy traffic, feel the sweltering heat, and experience the perpetual on-off-on-off of Nigeria’s power supply. He would also meet writers and artists, for I was returning to Lagos this time in my capacity as book juror for Africa’s first pan-African prize for debut fiction. In a nice twist of symmetry I had left Nigeria at the age of fourteen, which was now the age at which my son was visiting for the first time. I warned him that not every experience would be enjoyable, but I promised him a memorable visit.
Then, shortly before we were to leave, came the New York Times Sunday Edition with its front-page article about President Goodluck Jonathan signing a bill banning same-sex relations. “Nigeria Tries to ‘Sanitize’ Itself of Gays,” read the headline, and my heart sunk as I picked up the paper from our doorstep. An accompanying photograph showed a smiling bailiff lifting his whip to punish the condemned. My immediate response was anger and shame for Nigeria. Shame at the injustice of this law and anger that in a nation riddled with corruption and the related infrastructural, employment and educational failures, this so-called “gay issue” had strangely become a government priority. I was further outraged that those most targeted by the law lived in the north close to my home city of Jos, a city now blighted by ongoing ethno-religious fighting.
I grew up, the daughter of a pastor, to a British mother and a Nigerian father in post-colonial Northern Nigeria. At the time, as is still the case, homosexuality was viewed as a depraved way of behaving and deemed alien to African cultures. The only place in Africa where homosexuality was ever even acknowledged was in South Africa and there it was blamed on the large presence of white people, the majority of whom were already deemed reprehensible for their participation in apartheid. While my upbringing was religiously and culturally diverse, the only acceptable sexuality was heterosexuality. As a child I believed what I was taught about homosexuality and continued to hold to these views into adulthood. It would take me several years to overcome my prejudices and of this I am not proud.
A few days before boarding my flight to Lagos, I was sitting in a fashionable restaurant in San Francisco. It was Valentine’s Day and I overheard two couples lambasting Nigeria for its backwardness in passing the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Law. They were proposing an end to all direct flights from Newark to Lagos. In spite of my abhorrence for Nigeria’s new law, I found myself feeling irritated and defensive. The couples spoke of Nigerians as “those people,” as if we were all one homogenous bad lot. How easy, I thought, for these four men to sit in the comfort of tolerant San Francisco eating fancy fries and sipping oysters while excoriating other parts of the world for their backwardness. Were they forgetting that the same homophobic mentality still existed in many parts of America? That, as recently as 2003, same sex relations could be punished in some American states by life imprisonment and hard labor and that many states still carried laws criminalizing gay sex? Did they know that homophobia had been exported to Africa through colonialism and missionary teachings and most recently, via televangelists?
As my departure date drew closer, more stories emerged with graphic details of gay people being attacked and beaten. My earlier irritation now seemed almost immaterial and I felt a sense of emotional confusion made worse when I thought of what to tell my son. I didn’t expect him to fall in love with Nigeria but I wanted him to have a balanced understanding of the country. I didn’t want him to arrive and hear all about corruption and gay people being attacked and then decide to have nothing to do with his mother’s country. We would only be in Lagos for four days, which wasn’t long enough to experience much of the city, let alone the rest of Nigeria. Nevertheless I still hoped that from the little he would see he might take pride in his heritage even as my own pride in Nigeria was waning.
En route to Lagos we stopped in London where I saw family and expressed my concern over the news from Nigeria. I was cautious with them though, especially my father, who still does not accept homosexuality as being normal. I was surprised, therefore, when my father told me that on his last trip to Nigeria he’d faced criticism for stating that whatever Christians might think about homosexuality, gay people should not be criminalized. It was not a statement in support of homosexuality, but it nevertheless put my father at odds with many Christians in Nigeria. And this was not insignificant for a retired Vicar who these days felt more appreciated in the warmth of his motherland than in cold, youth-centered London where he now lives.
When we landed at Lagos’ Murtala Mohammed airport, the air was humid and sticky and other passengers unabashedly pushed us out of the way in their impatience with my son’s slow, loping way of moving. He was oblivious to the queues that might await and did not realize the privilege of being met by Daniel, a protocol officer, who ushered us through customs. Daniel, in contrast to those who previously pushed us aside, was warm and welcoming and when he heard that this was my son’s first visit to Nigeria he was ecstatic. “Welcome to the motherland,” he kept repeating. This contrasting reception – being pushed out of the way and being welcomed seemed, in retrospect, to be the perfect metaphor for the complexities into which we had just stepped. And certainly as we drove from the airport over Lagos’ modern bridges past sprawling slum dwellings and onto our luxurious hotel, I could see by watching my son’s face that he was beginning to perceive some of Lagos’ contradictions.
The day after we arrived I met with friends in our hotel lobby where we ate suya, drank red wine, and complimented each other on how well we all looked. But quickly, after the niceties, conversation turned to politics and in hushed tones my friends discussed Nigeria’s breaking news: Mallam Sanusi Lamido, Nigeria’s Central Bank Governor, had been suspended after exposing 20 billion US dollars missing from the state-run Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. Oil wealth going astray is a familiar story to Nigerians so nobody doubted Mallam Sanusi’s allegations, but it was a question of strategy, my friends were saying. Was this the right moment for Sanusi to have revealed what everyone already knew or suspected, just one year before the general election?
As my friends spoke of strategy I found myself thinking of strategies to discuss the gay law that had been the main news coming out of Nigeria as far as Americans were concerned. Under the new law, anyone seen siding with the gay community could be imprisoned so I did not push my friends to discuss this law in the public space of the hotel lobby. Yet I was brimming with questions – how had things been? What did they think? What was being done to protest the law? I didn’t have to wait long before they brought it up themselves, and when they did their tone was something I hadn’t expected. “You know Sarah,” one explained, “This gay thing is just another tactic of distraction. Soon everyone will forget it and there will be more laws, new laws to distract.” Then they told me that most of those attacked were not artists and intellectuals as I had imagined, but poor people more like roadside bread and akara sellers. The artists, they explained, usually had ways of fleeing the country. Another friend went on to list what he described as “gotcha,” rules created to catch people out, in particular the poor, while the most corrupt and those in power, “some of whom are even sleeping with men,” he added, were left alone. So the gay issue came down to strategies and tactics.
By the time the prize-giving night that had brought us to Lagos arrived, “Sanusigate” as it had become known, had taken another turn – Mallam Sanusi’s passport had been seized and there were rumours of a possible assassination. “Life is cheap here Sarah,” said the friend recently held at gunpoint in an armed robbery attempt. “Cheap.” And as she spoke, my thoughts returned to the so-called “gay law.” Was it really just another effort by government to distract people from the sort of corruption Sanusi was trying to expose? And could I possibly offer this as an explanation to outraged liberal American friends upon my return to the U.S.?
Then came the award ceremony itself, which was a spectacular event. A red carpet was rolled out and the fashions on display far outdid any of the Oscar outfits I would look upon two weeks later back in America. Youssou N’dour performed live and as he sang Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” everyone rocked to the lyrics of freedom. The first-prize winner, NoViolet Bulawayo, spoke with passion of an “excellent and necessary” prize. By the end of the night, in spite of all that deeply saddened and troubled me about Nigeria, I was feeling more hopeful.
I did not ask my son what he understood about the passing of Nigeria’s anti-gay law until we were back in America. I was surprised when his first response was to remind me that it wasn’t just Nigeria that had such a law but Uganda, too. I was worried that he would now dismiss the whole continent as so much of the world already did. But I should have given him more credit. They were studying civil rights at his school and glancing up from his textbooks he said, quite matter of fact, “Well the world itself is quite homophobic.” Gathering pencils and paper, he reflected for a moment on how some countries were just moving forward more quickly than others. Then he paused and proudly added, “and America is like at the fore of that.” I waited for him to say more, to expand, but he had said his piece and left me pondering our brief conversation. I realized then that he had answered more than the question first asked. I had been curious about his feelings for Nigeria and its anti-gay law, but he went beyond Nigeria to the rest of the world, to the bigger picture. He was not torn by family or national allegiances but looked squarely at the issues, as they deserved to be understood. It was not complicated for him. Nor did it need to be for me.
* Images by Victor Ehikhamenor