Tag: yan daudu

Does Caitlyn Jenner’s story mean anything for Nigeria’s Yan Daudu?

Caitlyn Jenner, the transgender Olympic champion formerly known as Bruce, unveiled her new name and look in a sexy Vanity Fair cover shoot in June. (Pic: AFP)
Caitlyn Jenner, the transgender Olympic champion formerly known as Bruce, unveiled her new name and look in a sexy Vanity Fair cover shoot in June. (Pic: AFP)

To understand the tasteless comedy that was the larger Nigerian reaction to Caitlyn Jenner, the woman Bruce Jenner introduced to the public on that iconic Vanity Fair cover, post-transition, you first have to understand the place of comedy in the country.

There is a lot that comedy placates in Nigeria. That we can laugh at our problems, that you can gather a broad class of Nigerians in a room and get them to laugh at class difference – the thieving politician sitting in the VIP section of that room is perhaps our most undervalued nationalistic tool.

A little more than a year ago, when the sexuality debate was sweeping through Africa, Nigerians felt it important to drawn clear boundaries. Yet for some reason, on this equally important humanity-defining issue, people largely chose the bliss of ignorance and comedy. For them, Caitlyn Jenner’s story was an America-is-crazy kind of thing. A problem with the world, but chiefly, other people’s problem.

And yet, the fact is in Nigeria, there are at least two public figures that disrupt the rigid boundaries of gender performance. Charles ‘Charly Boy’ Oputa is one of them; the entertainer who goes by the name His Royal Punkness regularly presents himself to the public as a person who exists in a gender flux; he wears make-up, a mostly punkish rock star kind. The other is Denrele Edun, a famous television presenter, who is even less subtle. He wears his shimmery gowns and long, gorgeous, sometimes outlandish hairpieces on the red carpet.

Nigerians, most of whom daily and with dedication watch Philipino love dramas where at least one character exists in a gender flux, are scandalised by these two local men who fearlessly dress across gender lines in a country where conforming to social expectations is almost non-negotiable. It is always interesting to read the classic Nigerian response to a Charly Boy photo shoot.

The common thread amongst people who live in this state of denial is God/Allah.

A majority of Nigerians construct their identities rigidly around religion. The world known to most Nigerians was created by God, filled by God with men, women and things for the men (to a large extent) and women to dominate. That world as it is known to most Nigerians is under threat from science in general and more specifically, people who think they are smarter than God. Anything that demands that their world be seen differently confirms the end of the world.

Asking that Nigerian to think of gender in the terms that Bruce’s transition demands is a threat. To find fun in it is the sane end of the stick, what lies beyond it can get scary. There is at least one reported case of the Nigerian public unleashing its wrath on an individual for not being ‘normal’. For being a man with woman breasts and, in essence, a witch.

There is a list of permitted ambiguities in the world as it is known to most Nigerians, and gender is not one of them.

From this convenient position, religion (and by religion, I mean Christianity and Islam) is the only accepted portal of history, and the past can be collectively rewritten. The very idea that people do not exist in straight categories of male and female becomes a dangerous foreign construct. Unfortunately, the idea of gender fluidity is not a new paradigm the free world cooked up.

The Yan Daudu exist. They are certainly not Nigeria’s only trangender people, not by a long shot, but they are the best evidence of a trans community in Nigeria. They have been part of the cultural fabric of pocket regions in Northern Nigeria for at least a century. They are pre-religion and have continued to exist post-religion. They cross dress, they take on complete female identities.

What Caitlyn should represent for them, is an audacity to claim the space of their individual realities. To make it anything more than a dying fringe culture.

And herein lies the question. Is what we have witnessed in the publicised transitioning of Bruce to Caitlyn a victory for the ‘global trans community’ in any real way? Does it mean anything for the Yan Daudu in Nigeria, or the Hijras in India?

“I am for people living in their truths” are words that have been increasingly used these past few weeks. I agree with the words. The only valid way to live in any case is in ways that are as truthful as one can muster. But as the world’s progressives cheer for Caitlyn, and we read the positive comments, can we also chip in a discussion on what this means to those small communities of people driven underground already by a witch hunt in places not the America? Is this too a victory for them? Are they, too, the earth?

Kechi Nomu writes from Warri, Nigeria. Her poems have appeared in Saraba Magazine and Brittle Paper. 

Nigeria’s yan daudu face persecution in religious revival

On special days, after dawn prayers at the mosque, Ameer, a father of two, returns home to put on makeup from the collection he shares with his wife.

Usually, however, he settles for a colourful headscarf of the sort worn by women throughout Nigeria. Ameer also uses the female version of his name, Ameera, preceding it with Hajiya, the honorific for women who have completed the Muslim hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.

Ameera is known as a yan daudu, shorthand for “men who act like women” in northern Nigeria’s Hausa language. The phrase means “sons of Daudu”, a fun-loving, gambling spirit worshipped in the Muslim Bori practice, whose trance and dancing rituals are traditionally associated with marginalised poor women, sex workers and disabled people.

For more than a century, hundreds of yan daudu were tolerated as part of an unremarkable but fringe subculture in the Muslim north, famed for their playful use of language, sometimes even accompanying politicians during election campaigns.

In this spirit, Ameera’s parents were accepting. “My parents realised all the things men like, I didn’t like. I didn’t like farming. I wanted to cook and sell things like women. Most of all, I loved braiding hair – I can do yours very nicely if you want,” said Ameera, with a dimpled smile and shrug of delicate, bird-like shoulders.

“They bought me a doll and let me spend hours braiding its hair,” he said, his soft voice almost drowned out by the screech of rickshaws and shouting tradesmen in a bustling, overcrowded satellite town outside the Nigerian capital, Abuja.

But now, with a religious revival sweeping Africa’s most populous country, the yan daudu are increasingly being persecuted. As Nigeria edges closer to passing a Bill outlawing same-sex marriage and targeting groups who support sexual minorities, many fear they will be driven underground.

“I don’t mind it when my friends call me yan daudu, but these days it sounds ugly [abusive] in other people’s mouths,” Ameera said.

On the plastic-covered walls hung miniature portraits of yan daudu colleagues, taken during a special trip to a studio so long ago the edges have yellowed. Many had previously lived in Kano, the north’s main city and a former Islamic sultanate that has long been a regional hub bringing together sexual minorities from across Nigeria and its desert neighbours.

“People were more tolerant then. Now people are more religious, we’ve had to change our outlook too. We can’t go out wearing brassieres and makeup any more,” said Salihu (Hajiya Sara), a yan daudu from neighbouring Chad, dressed in a sober black kaftan and so painfully shy he can barely make eye contact. He fled Kano in 2000, when Nigeria underwent one of its periodic “morality campaigns” and 12 northern states adopted Sharia law.

“It hurts my heart that people say, ‘May Allah reform you,'” he said, washing his feet in preparation for prayers.

As he hurried to the muezzin’s dusk call floating over the lamp-lit stalls, he added: “All judgment belongs to Allah, so if we are different it is because Allah made us different. All these clergymen condemning us should be careful though, because Allah can make one of their own children like us.”

Yet there remain some signs of acceptance. Dreadlocked mechanic Rodney Musa, repairing a motorbike in a patch of oil-stained dust nearby, isn’t bothered by his neighbours. “They’ve been here for the past 10 years – as far as I’m concerned we’re all just trying to earn a living,” he said.

Overhearing the conversation, a passing shop owner, Naz Nwakesi, reacted with horror. “They’re simply homosexuals with bad characters. They should try to reform themselves,” he said.

Amarchi, braiding hair at an open-air salon wedged between the Jesus is Trading hardware shop and Godz Power Barbing salon, said the yan daudu were embarrassing to women. “They should speak to God and ask God to make them women,” she added, before quoting a Bible verse that forbids cross-dressing.

At Ameera’s food shack, where around a dozen yan daudu find refuge working in an occupation normally reserved for women, these criticisms hurt. “That’s why my heroes are female prostitutes. There’s a kinship between us because they know what it is to be judged,” Ameera said. Though many yan daudu are gay, “some of us pretend to be gay just to feel alive – at least we know where gay people fit in the scheme.”

Whatever their orientations, few see being yan daudu as at odds with family life. Ameera is preparing to take a second wife while Yahuza (32), wearing a sparkling red dress and sandals decorated with bright diamante flowers, has three.

Monica Mark for the Guardian.