African Marginal Identities: Justifications and Reflections
(Part 2 of the Extract of the 2023 Audrey Richards Distinguished Public Lecture, University of Cambridge, June 7, 2023)
As stated in the preceding part of this piece, culture changes as perceptions evolve or get replaced over the years, and, as such, African conceptualization of things cannot outgrow change. While new ideologies and understanding emerge, society, through its old cultures and traditions, is expected to resist these changes and criticize them based on norms. Hence, two resistances are in place in the instance of marginal identities: the societal normative resistance; and the resistance of the minorities that form the marginal identities. However, during conflicts involving resistance, actions, and reactions, society’s overwhelming support often prevails over the will of minorities, which further highlights the issue of marginalization.
How has society reacted to new ideas and convictions such as consciousness for repositioning and redefining women, the freedom of LGBTQI+ persons, equality and “detribalization” movements, halting of modern slavery and pawns, the right perceptions about people with disability, people with albinism, hunchbacks, and children, the inclusion of secluded women, the redefinition of the place and duties of the youth and other discourses on marginal identities? While these aim to reduce the concentration of orthodox perspectives, certain factors have fueled societal resistance, forming rationalities and justifications.
The socioeconomic disparity is one of the fuels that keep the fires of marginalization burning. This is because the high concentration of opportunities and developments among a particular group at the detriment of others results in domination. African rural dwellers are mostly poor people, and since about half of the continent’s population are rural dwellers, it is obvious that the continent’s poverty rate may only worsen. The concentration of development elsewhere reduces changes in development in other places. In addition, deprivation of socioeconomic development among some ethnic groups through tribal preferences for people of one’s ethnicity is the core definition of racial marginalization. This deprivation goes into the root causes of slaves, pawns, refugees, stateless, and displaced persons. It highlights the silence among suppressed women and those who would love to be out of seclusion. The presence of socioeconomic disparity can never allow the continent to gravitate towards closing the gaps between the mainstream and the minorities; therefore, a crisis is bound to persist as everyone aims for survival.
Sexuality in Africa is sacred and has more collective relevance than personal benefits. While the continent does not deter individuals from sexual exploration, the act is often coated with secrecy and reverence. Society has grown to be watchdogs for sexual impunities, and examples can be drawn from among the Akan people of Ghana, the Hausa and Yoruba of Nigeria, the Kaguru and Nyakyusa of Tanzania, the Kamba and Kikuyu people of Kenya, and almost all parts of the continent. Because of this, sacredness generates norms and values around sex, which goes to the root of sexuality. Africa is sexually binary, as reflected in the cultures, the gods, and the institutions around each African society.
LGBTQI+ is seen as anti-traditional social norms, and society’s resistance is framed as culturally contradictory. While popular statements support this disposition, some have pointed out that there have been cases of persons who can be classified as the LGBTQI+ community, like King Mwanga II of Buganda, and concepts that demonstrate the societal consciousness of the community. Some have argued that the fact that King Mwanga II showed no resistance to his gay orientation means that African society, at some level, can adapt to the realities of the community. Individuals are gaining the courage to publicly proclaim their sexual identities. The collective sacred perspectives of sex and sexuality have also conditioned women’s relationship with men and their freedom of expression in African societies.
Furthermore, there is a growing awkward attribution of spiritual relevance and status to certain African individuals as the continent tilts toward spiritual symbolism. The conception is that the spiritual status of some people gives them particular ritual proficiency, making that class of people vulnerable and bringing Africa to negative light. Taking humans as ritual objects increases the rate of crime, violence, and ritual killings. Women, pregnant women, people with disabilities, children, twins, hunchbacks, and others have become the most sought-after ritual materials in African societies. As a result, ritualization should not be seen as some nonsensical belief but as meaningful violence that should have no iota of possibility of hiding under ignorance. Values are often placed carelessly. Nigeria, Uganda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, Malu, Liberia, and others are examples of countries where the ritualization of humans has become an issue.
Children and youth are kidnapped for ritual viability and proficiency in giving strength. One 80-year-old Mrs. Chidi and a 39-year-old Reymond Rejoice kidnapped three children in Anambra for rituals, resulting in the battering and breaking of their arms in 2019. In Ivory Coast, there was a report of the kidnapping of 21 children for rituals, with many of them found dead between December 2014 and January 27, 2015. The case is not better for women, as from January 2018 to December 2021, it was reported that about 150 girls and women were killed in Niger Delta. In Ogota, ten girls were victims of ritual killing in January 2022. Women are seen to be special in Africa, and their body parts are often given higher prices in the human parts market. Their fluids, menstrual wastes, private parts, virginity, and others are attractive elements for these ritual killers.
Stealing, selling, and ritualizing menstrual pads and waste has been a major issue for a while, and, at a young age, women are often taught how to keep those treasures from public views and others’ accessibility. It was reported that, at a point, people were ready to pay as much as R20,000 to R60,000 for stolen menstrual pads. In August 2020, a lady claimed that her boyfriend, Gbemisola Olufusi, a Yahoo Boy, stole her pads for a ritual at a pastor’s place in Ondo town, Nigeria. Women’s bodies are found with mutilated breasts around Africa, and concerns are not channelled to the right corners. Who knows the number of women in seclusion who have been secretly and violently abused and killed? This is why when discussions on the freedom of women and the relaxation of conservative social norms around their status are raised, it is not just to attack the ego of some prejudicial males but to salvage millions of them from physical and psychological damage.
Ritualization mentality often shows in the understanding of people with disabilities. Several of them, especially those who are psychiatrically and psychologically disturbed, are believed to always be conversing with some djinn, anjonu, or evil spirits. Their state of mind is thought to increase their ritual values and makes them scarce in the nebulous markets. More scarce ritually objectified humans are the albinos and hunchbacks, who are accorded more significant spiritual peculiarity. “Albinos is a spirit, and the hunch of a hunchback is of immeasurable value,” so they think. One Ifeoma Angela Igwe, was killed and got her hunch mutilated in 2011; Adeoye Dowo became a victim at the hands of a hunch-sourcing girlfriend and three other men; and the reports of ritualization of hunchbacks in the Ashanti region’s Bibiani town of Ghana leave little to desire.
Ritual relevance is a rationalization of the marginalization of the classes above. There is a de-secularization interpretation of modernity and development in Africa. While importing new culture and identity is seen as an expansion of developmental positivity in several other places, some of these changes are interpreted as the degeneration of cultures and social values that a doomsday could visit. It does not make “barbarians” out of Africans, as every society often has overriding sentiments reflected in their social values.
The epistemological understanding of the continent dwells so much on the duality of nature and reality–spiritual and physical. Therefore, the consequentialist perception of Africa is married solidly with spiritualism, among other things. From this perspective, secularized positions and development are de-secularized as degeneration and underdevelopment. It explains the reinforcement behind the recalcitrance in holding on to marginalizing ideologies. Hence, without conceptualizing spiritual understanding, issues around LGBTQI+, women, children, and others cannot be understood and addressed.
Also, the patriarchal nature of African societies underscores the institutional antagonism experienced in the continent. Often, a societally instilled domineering orientation pushes women down the ladder of social order. It subjects them to gender violence, apathy, discrimination, and several untold hardships. There could be patriarchal societies without necessarily putting women through inhuman treatment. However, when there is a backing of religious fundamentalism that stretches the distance between the two genders and puts one too far above the other, the extremes of patriarchy become overbearing. This is the case of societies that subject women to compulsory seclusions. In cases where it is the honest view and conviction of a woman to be in seclusion, it must be allowed, but African societies must look out for willingness in the social conditioning of women. This would be after attempting to expose these women to alternatives and leave them to choose the lives they want for themselves. Do not impose the veils on her if she does not want it! She is not a lesser human to anyone!
Mind you, aggressive cultural diffusion of these values that stop the marginalization of LGBTQI+ persons cannot be achieved without considering all the conceptualizations stated above. It means there can only be gradual injections of these values from critical perspectives that reenact social habits and norms. The film industry, media houses, social agencies, and opinion leaders are pivotal in stopping the incessant killings of innocents and inhuman treatment. To ensure social consciousness and awareness of diversity and marginal identities, one must go from the grassroots and stop the top-to-bottom approach.
Every person is human first before any ideological diversity or identity. These might be core to the definitions of human orientations, but it does not leave out the humanity in everyone. You can stay at the high towers of your religious fundamentalism or any form of hegemony; whatever values you attach to human lives will never erase the fact that they are human. Hence, all human rights and privileges must be enjoyed by all humans, even if they are gay, lesbian, queer, hunchbacks, women, albinos, or villagers. African governments and institutions must raise efforts towards enforcement of the laws that are dead in their letters.
People with albinism, hunchbacks, women, and other identities are not sacrificial lambs for aspirational mobility; they are humans and should be treated as such.