The way we were
In January this year, Nigeria signed an anti-HBTQ law which criminalizes public displays of affection between same-sex couples and restricts the work of organizations defending gay people. This law forced the Nigerian writer Jude Dibia to leave the country. His works are known for their controversial themes that address a number of issues from sexuality, gender roles, race to the stigma of HIV/AIDS in modern day Africa. In this short story he describes the though everyday life of a homosexual man in Nigeria.
You hate stories that end badly. This is why you avoid reading the news—too much pain, too much suffering and seldom hope. Everyday is a new challenge; you wake up, wear your mask and like a masquerade compelled to dance in the village square, you dance this dance of existence. Dance. Twirling round and round in a dizzying spin and life is but a merry-go-round of endless repetition. But you breathe, you eat and you sleep. With one eye open. Afraid. Always afraid that someone will wrench your mask off or it may slip off. And you are revealed for who you truly are. And then there will be blood. Blood like a river with no beginning and no end in sight. There will be no bad endings today if you can help it, but sadly you don’t control your fate. Tonight you will sleep with your two eyes open.
Tomorrow you will fasten your mask tightly around your face and go about your business. Your neighbors smile awkwardly at you and you smile back. Good morning you say to them. They nod and shuffle away. The women herd their children away as if protecting them from a predator. Masquerades scare children. You have no children of your own and you are aware of the whispers; why is a grown man not married? What kind of man does not have a female companion or visitors? The whispers have become louder since January. In January, a flock of your friends quickly rushed to the altar to proclaim ‘I do’. January was the month things changed. One morning in January you overheard people in your place of work praising the government for taking a bold step and giving the middle finger to the West and all countries that championed gay rights. In January, while you slept, someone snuck in and cracked your mask.
A young man died yesterday. He was murdered. His mother found him strangled in his room. She recalled he came home late at night with a male friend of his and told her he had already had dinner. She let him be and left him with his guest. In the morning when he did not come down for breakfast, she thought he had overslept again. She found him with his belt tied round his neck, lying in a puddle of his feces and urine. She knew he was gone forever.
You see the news on Facebook. You hide to read the sordid story. You are appalled that no one really cares that a young man just died, all people seem interested in is how come he came home with a man and why his mother let him have a man in his bedroom late at night. Didn’t she know better? Didn’t she know about the law that January brought? She was a careless mother. Her son obviously deserved what he got. He met a stranger online and brought him to his house. Every fool knew you could not do that anymore, not after January.
You want to go somewhere private and weep. Not just because a young man died, or that these wounding words come from the pious religionists but mostly because the source of many of these hateful comments online were written by people like you—like the victim. You realize your own people are far less forgiving than they should be. You realize why attitudes never change, why paradigms refuse to shift. No one is willing to take off the mask they wear and stand firmly for what is right and just. All everyone wants to do is dance. Dance. Dance until the sunsets. Dance until the river turns red.
The days pass and you hear of many more tragedies. Men are dragged out from their beds, stripped naked and made to parade the streets. People laugh and point at them. Their pictures appear online with lewd headlines, while the world sleeps and turns a blind eye to this; this is not big enough to grab the world’s headlines.
There was a video you came across on the web as well, of two men forced to engage in carnal intercourse while people whipped them and jeered at them, cursing them for loving themselves. Hating them for loving. ‘Can’t you see,’ their actions seem to say, ‘love died in January’. Love died while you were sleeping.
You don’t hear from your lover in many days and you worry. Is he ok? Was he ambushed like the unfortunate men you have read about? Against your will you are forced to check online for news of more lynching and entrapment of young men, praying you do not come across his name. You realize that most of the blogs and online forums run by people like you have mysteriously vanished. People are afraid and going far underground. It seems to you that they are digging graves to hide in. You search the regular news sites and read of another young man found dead on a campus. He hung himself the news stated. You wonder if he was like you. You wonder if he simply gave up.
It’s Friday and you get a call. You don’t recognize the number and wonder if you should answer it. The ringer is persistent and you succumb. It is him. He is safe. But your relief is ephemeral. He tells you he is getting married. He will get married before the January mob come knocking at his door. He had already had a taste of it when the police stopped him and seized his phone and laptop. He was told he looked funny, that his jeans were too tight for a man. They threatened to take him to the station for interrogation if he did not let them check the content of his phone and laptop. He escaped their intimidation by parting with a big bribe. But they took his cell number, to keep in touch they tell him, so he got a new one and retired the number you usually called him with. People were already talking about him. He could not risk being discovered.
How do our story end? You ask. We live, he tells you. We survive. But what if we take off our masks and fight? You say. He tells you your right to exist, was taken away in January. He says goodbye.
Goodbye to freedom.
January came and took everything away. Now, when you wake up everyday you wish for things to return to the way they were.