Boy, that night was energy.
It was the night that I’d last see C. Boy, for a couple of weeks later, in March, he would be found dead in his backyard. The night was full of energy. The kind of energy that Africa needs to reinvent itself. Fierce. Electrifying. Full.
13 January 2015. On the second anniversary of the day and year Nigeria signed the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act into law, I honoured an email invitation from C. Boy to attend a secret party for homosexuals he was hosting in a nightclub in Kaduna. The invite mentioned coming along with a partner who had enough discipline to keep a secret. ‘The partner may be “straight” but must not be homophobic; an artist is preferable,’ it emphasised. And beneath it was an NB that read ‘There will be a brainstorming session on the word “afro-modernism”. We are giving it a new meaning. Kindly pre-study the word.’
It sounded like a great idea, so I called a lesbian friend (a photographer-cum-designer-cum-blogger) and we headed to the nightclub, somewhere in Kaduna South, in a district known as Barnawa.
The year before, I had attended a dance concert curated by C. Boy in Gombe. It was meant to be a fundraiser, through ticket sales, for the gay club he had just founded. Though the event was a public show, the intention behind it was kept secret except for a few of his cronies. I was one of them. But it eventually turned out to be a total flop. It poured all day, and the hired loudspeakers and the improvised stage already set up in the middle of a primary-school field were destroyed. Later that night, we sat in the lobby of a cheap motel and talked over bottles of beer about the loss of funds put into the concert. He kept smiling in his seat, constantly rubbing his moustache, and joining the conversation in monosyllables.
C. Boy was from Adamawa, in north-eastern Nigeria. His father had sent him to Zaria to study engineering at the Ahmadu Bello University, because he ‘wanted his family to produce the first engineer in his home town’. But C. Boy had another plan: on arriving in Zaria he deferred his admission, rented a flat off campus and began learning software applications, website creation and concept development, all by himself. He did this until the following term, when he began his classes. But still, he wasn’t excited. Most of the time, he was out of Zaria, travelling by night bus to far-away Port Harcourt to visit his lover, a boy he had met and fallen in love with through Facebook just before he was granted admission to university. ‘My father was thinking I was the “obedient” budding engineer from his home town. But leaving his house was leaving his ways and dreams. Everyone got his drives. My father’s is not mine,’ he said to a group of students in his apartment one Sunday morning in 2013. We were having a Sunday brunch.
It was from his numerous visits to Port Harcourt that he found a gay community and thought of founding one himself in Zaria. So, that night in the lobby of the motel, he mourned the loss of another chance to fund the club. A club he held so dear.
That day, as I headed to the nightclub, I wondered why he sat in that lobby as though he had just lost someone close to him, and also why this particular party was not a ticketed event.
11 p.m. We arrived late. A friend dropped us off a street away from the club, and we begged him to return for us at five in the morning. He drove off, and we crossed the road to our destination. My partner led the way; I walked behind, carrying her camera, a notepad and a spare pullover. The harmattan was a bitch.
I swear. The bouncers at the doorway would scare the hell out of John Cena. They allowed us entrance when we showed an e-copy of the invite on my friend’s phone.
There was a check-in desk in the hall. We were issued tags. Mine read, we are the future democracy, and hers, in our father’s house, there are many loves. we chant it cos it’s so. Soon we walked inside to join the party.
C. Boy, our host, saw us from where he was standing by the DJ’s booth and started toward us, smiling. His jeans, dyed dreadlocked hair and dashiki matched the colour of wine in the glass in his hand: burgundy.
The party was pulsating. It was a festival of energy, of music, of hair, of ideas, of gays, of happiness, of fashion. Of language, love, meaning. A festival of dreams and assertion.
My friend headed to the bar for a drink, and I jumped to the dance floor to rock lost-but-found folks and long-time brothers.
I first met C. Boy on 14 September 2012. He had been invited to perform at a poetry slam I was hosting on the rooftop of a house in Samaru, a neighbourhood in Zaria. Apart from stealing the show with his epic spoken-word performance, he got in a fight with a guy who had performed a poem that mocked homosexuals. He was mad like a bull that night. He would have killed the guy if not for the crowd that fought to restrain him. After the event, I recall, he sat apart from everyone in a yellow plastic chair and wept like a child. We became friends and soon got to know each other well: I am bisexual, he’s homosexual.
C. Boy was the engineering student who could recite all the scholars in the humanities and their theories by heart. He had read the postcolonial texts and hated Walter Rodney’s theories. I heard rumours that he had dropped out. ‘Yes, I left engineering,’ he told me. ‘It wasn’t a dropout, it’s a changeover.’
Cliché, but the true nature of things: if you are found to be gay in Nigeria, you are on your way to prison, to rot away for the next six hundred and something weeks of your fucking life. And that’s if you’re lucky. Because you don’t always get it, you can’t always get it. Why? Because you are the demon that needs to be exorcised, lynched, stoned to death, hacked to death, burned to death, beaten to death, or done something to death. It doesn’t matter how: you must die, before the law manages to stroll by to see your predicament. So, to avoid rotting away in prison or getting killed, you take to secret love and/or a pretend heterosexual orientation.
All over Nigeria, your kind is harassed and troubled daily. From Bauchi to Zamfara, from Kano to Yobe, from Kaduna to Borno, from Abuja to Benue, Kogi, Plateau and Lagos, from Warri to Benin, all the way to Nnewi, your kind suffers public thrashings, stonings and judgements. They do. We do.
It was to reinterrogate this narrative that C. Boy dropped out of school. It sounded like a crazy and risky idea for a 24-year-old to be leaving school for such a project, but C. Boy had guts. All he wanted was to found a club that served LGBT people, a space where they could network and find expression. A warm brotherhood for people of ‘like passions’ living in a society that demonises them. ‘The club has to be an energetic underground space,’ he once told me. ‘They don’t see us, but we exist. It has to be this way until the crazies in the government reverse that fucking law.’
21 October 2013, on his birthday, he founded the club by hosting a party of fifteen people (all gay) in the small flat off campus that he was still renting. He named it Party BomBoy (PBB).
This party brought to eleven the number of PBB events I had attended. From concerts, open mikes, readings, exhibitions and symposia, retreats and picnics to poetry slams.
The DJ scratched the groove and it seemed the roof would come down on us. Highlife is energy. My dancing partner at the moment was Maima, a writer from Lokoja. We rocked on. Two prisoners just let loose. Energy.
It was that time in every party, that time when it turns into a whirlwind. Booze and Afrobeat-enhanced ecstasy. That time when you lose your partner to the crowd, indifferent to the loss because you are absorbed in rocking with someone else. Everybody becomes generous with his partner, his spirit, his smells and his sweat.
C. Boy and I left the party to chat a bit. Two months earlier, I had told him that I was writing about the gay movement in northern Nigeria and needed an interview with him. So, since we both were so overscheduled, we had arranged a brief interview for that night.
We sat by the doorway, on the seats by the check-in desk. We talked, sharing cigarettes and drinks. He appeared fatigued and slimmed-down. The bags under his eyes sagged in an unsettling way. ‘I am just battling depression, but trust me always, your nigga is fine,’ he said when I tried to find out what was wrong. We laughed; pecked each other. I asked for his permission to record our interview and he sipped his drink, smacked, and nodded. ‘You are asking that? Come on, dude; don’t make this nigga feel like a celeb. Come on.’
When C. Boy founded PBB he never knew the extent to which the club would play important roles in the lives of young men and women like him. He had only thought of using the money he made from designing games and websites to support and house in his small flat in Zaria seven to ten people who had been displaced because of their sexual orientation. He was shocked by the reality that surfaced soon after the club was founded. In less than a year, about twenty people showed interest and joined the club: young men and women, Christians, Muslims, students and non-students from across Nigeria. Most of them were scared to come out to family and friends, others had been disowned and driven from home, homeless, needy and hungry. C. Boy was in a fix: money, meeting tuition and housing costs were huge challenges.
I asked how he coped with the situation. He lit a cigarette and thought for a moment before starting to respond.
‘Man, it was fucking tough. You know, starting a group, a movement like this one is not like running a political party. It’s not a project anyone, including the NGOs here, wants to support. How can you register a group that is already criminalised and demonised even before its emergence? Man, it was fucking tough.’ He stopped speaking for another drag, tapped the ash on the ashtray and continued. ‘The solace was only in the reality that I could bring troubled people together so they could share their problems in a close but warm space. Survival was a challenge but you know, just as they say, a problem shared is half solved.’
Early in 2014, PBB was able to pay for two flats, in Kaduna and Zaria respectively, for any homeless and troubled member to live in. Both were equipped with studies, computers and Wi-Fi. PBB was able to pay tuition for twenty-three students of its ‘parentless’ and homeless members in different colleges and universities across Nigeria, and also provide living stipends from all these sources.
Though the main funding for PBB came from C. Boy, the club was able to diversify its sources of funding. Having paid to train some members in photography, film-making, fashion design and app creation, the burden of funding lessened. Almost everyone was a freelance of some kind. More funds came from tickets sales for open mikes, poetry slams, exhibitions and concerts. ‘These events are the major strategies through which PBB sends coded signs to society that homosexuals exist here, and are ready to continue existing regardless of any law against them,’ C. Boy told me. Most of the artistic outdoor events in Kaduna, Zaria, Jos and Gombe were hosted and managed by PBB’s team of concept developers. And of course, strict measures were laid down and followed to keep secret the identities of the people behind the events. ‘We are making society feel our energy by curating these events.’
C. Boy chuckled and shook his head when I asked why he wasn’t allowing PBB to reach out to foreign organisations sympathetic to the cause of LGBT. ‘I don’t believe in that bullshit,’ he began, rubbing his eyes. He stood up and scurried to the DJ’s booth, spoke into the ear of the DJ and returned immediately.
‘So sorry for that. Just reminded him to allow time for our brainstorming session. It’s important.’
He sat facing me, his back to the dance floor. I looked across his shoulders into the crowd to see if I could find my partner. I didn’t see her. It seemed like everyone had found the space and time to dance for the first time in their lives. The music blared, the groove kept on.
I lit another cigarette. C. Boy stared at me with those bored eyes. I reminded him of the question I had asked; he rubbed his eyes again.
He didn’t like the idea of foreign aid to Africa in whatever form or guise, particularly ‘using Africa as a sympathy tool to benefit from an organised system called “corporate responsibility” ’.
‘You see, it’s so easy to attract sympathy for this kind of cause. Internet and all that, you know,’ he said, snapping his finger to show how easy and fast it is to let the world know. ‘But the issue is this, we, these guys here, all of us, don’t want to be used as ads’ contents and objects. I don’t want any social media sympathy campaigns, especially those inspired and promoted toward Western organisations. Doing that would be objectifying our dreams, our passions and our bodies. It would be like organised prostitution. It’s cheap, and fucking cruel to what we are trying to do.’
‘We are learning to stop looking up there (to the West) by working out how we can help ourselves here. How long are we going to keep asking for aid and foreign assistance?’ He stopped talking, and reached for his wine.
C. Boy told me about his guests – stories defying mainstream narratives about LGBT people in repressive societies like Africa. Stories of pride, ambition and rebellion. There was Musa (not his real name), twenty-three, an Igala Muslim on the dance floor, whose widowed illiterate mother accepted his sexuality; he worked as a studio engineer to support his family. There was Kenny, twenty-seven, a graffiti artist and a born-again Christian who had left home two years ago in search of love. He was hoping for things to improve for gays in Nigeria so he could marry in a church. C. Boy showed me a girl, twenty-two, in a jacket and miniskirt and heels, who was studying biochemistry and working on a book on women, Islam and sexuality in northern Nigeria. She was yet to let any family member know her sexuality. Sitting round a table with friends was Joshua, a married 45-year-old man and a lecturer in a polytechnic. He was the oldest man in the club. C. Boy told me Joshua was preparing a divorce, and hoped to leave the country afterwards. He seemed to be the only one there seeking a new place.
Everyone here recognised the legitimacy of their sexuality. ‘We’ll be happy knowing this until death comes,’ C. Boy said in conclusion. ‘And we’re glad we know this. Our feelings are legitimate. Fuck whoever thinks otherwise.’
He sipped his drink, heaved the sigh of someone with a lot of things to say, facing huge difficulties saying them.
He lit a cigarette. Instead of smoking it, he held it between his fingers and stared at it glowing and slowly shortening.
Depression is so disrespectful, so harassing.
I once confided in a boy when I was at university about my battle with depression since childhood and he gave me this are-you-fucking-serious look. ‘Africans don’t suffer from depression,’ he said. ‘It’s one of those fashionable things black men say now to sound sophisticated like the white man, like being gay,’ he continued, to further undermine the genuineness of my feeling. His opinion broke me down for two reasons. One, the flimsy way humans treat each other. Two, he was a final-year student in social sciences. How could he be so stupid?
11.43 a.m. 11 March 2015, my phone beeped with this text: ‘It’s here today again. Like never before. Fucking me up like never before. I lost, lost today. Cowardly disappointing. That’s me. Sorry!’
It was from C. Boy.
The door was locked from the inside. We broke in. He was nowhere in the room. The windows were flung open. And when we reached the window by his bed and looked down, we saw him. He lay in a pool of coagulated blood on the concrete floor of the backyard. For all these hours he lay there dead with his split-up head, and none of his neighbours knew. He lay there and nobody knew. Death is a solo business anyway. Like depression, it is always a solo transaction. Always.
We called the ambulance. And when we reached his family, they pleaded with us not to reveal to anyone the manner of his death. ‘I’m an elder in the church, please protect our name,’ his father said on the phone.
The clothes on his bed, floor and chairs seemed like he had contemplated what to put on before climbing out that window and diving off. There were half-closed books on his bed and table, and pencils, dictionaries, notepads, papers, a teacup, ashtray, spoons, erasers, pencil sharpeners, spiral-bound manuscripts, wrapped weed, a Bible, devotional books, unfinished cards of paracetamol and aspirin, bangles and an HP laptop. He had been working on a book, a collection of essays reflecting on Africa’s future. ‘Dude, this book will shake this continent to its root. Fucking draggy, but I’m called to write this shit. You know, good books always drag,’ he said with enthusiasm one night in his flat. He had just returned from seeing his family in Adamawa. Two brothers and a sister and their father. He said he was going to reveal his sexuality to his siblings, and they would be fine with it.
From where I stood in the room I could see a paper pasted on the wall. I walked closer to read the words on it. It read africa’s future has no space for fucking stupid black men. He signed the statement with his name.
After two weeks in the mortuary, the burial was eventually held on a hot afternoon in Zaria. His siblings and his father didn’t show up.
About 3 a.m. A dance contest and spoken-word/rap battle were under way. C. Boy suggested we finally rejoin the party. I paused the recording. We moved to the dance floor. And for first time since we came, I saw my partner, in a sweat, on the dance floor, trouncing her challenger.
We are the contestants. In us, Africa finds its true rhythm to contest.
If you stepped in here, you would see all of us – gays, lesbians, bisexuals: oppressed people – refusing to mourn the anti-gay laws. We are making a mockery of it; mourning, for us, is not a virtue. We are reinforcing our passion and existence in this hall, right now, in our own way. Unknown to the world, we are buzzing in here with energy and stamina and dreams. We are laughs. We are smart laughing fires. Our feet are fires; so are our waists, our tongues, our eyes and our passions. You would see us blazing, emitting prophecies. We are fires: smoky hot fires, ready to choke to death the places and imaginations that threaten our survival.
If you were in this hall, you would feel how we assert ourselves through music, words, dance, hair, fashion, technology, ideas and spirits. We are spirits. If you were here, you would notice that we are not the demons roaming your cities and villages with evil and sin in our bosoms. We are not wayward, perverse, queer or funny lovers. We are children of our parents, children of this continent, children of nature, of imagination and of hunger. If you were in this club seeing the tears roll down our eyes, feeling the sweat on our bodies, pouring down our torsos to our pants, as we move to Afrobeat, Afropop, highlife and juju, you would realise that WE ARE CHILDREN OF OUR GODS. We exist.
We are buddies, roomies, comrades; breaking loose from our chains and jumping off the ships, sailing to places where our dreams and our existence would be lynched. We are the holy spirits, and we prefer battling and drowning in fierce oceans and keeping our prophecies safe than to be lynched by foolish black men.
We are children of Africa. And we care to be so.
The contests were concluded. We took a break for tea, for cigarettes, for booze, for toilets: for transition. We are the most prominent feature of Africa’s transitioning; in us Africa truly rises. Girls headed to the restroom carried handbags, toothbrushes and pullovers. The men seemed not to care; they loitered around, chatting, wine glasses and teacups in hand, wiping off sweat from their bodies, smoking. I grabbed my partner’s camera; I snapped anything and anyone I could see. Bottles, shoes, cigarette packs strewn all over the floor; silhouettes of couples smooching around the corners; guys mixing drinks at the bar and yelling at each other; the Afro or dyed or locked or Mohawk or plain hairdos, I snapped them all, the girls returning from the restroom and the boys rearranging the seats. I snapped them. Here, we are the photographs of Africa’s budding pluralities.
And when we settled down to begin the brainstorming session we all smelled of sweat, booze, cigarettes, confidence and excitement. This is the best part of every party, the time when you don’t complain of your neighbour’s smell because it’s a familiar smell, because it mingles with your own. Smells of mutual experience and lust.
Switching from party mode to intellectual discourse was a drag. Everyone whispered and yawned and chewed and belched: the hangovers from partying. The seats had been rearranged in a circle so we faced one another no matter where we sat. I ran my eyes through to figure our number. We were forty-one. Seventeen girls.
C. Boy and Jenny, the tallest girl and person in the party, launched the session with impassioned speeches.
I continued recording. We were talking about Afro-modernism.
Insights. Theories and counter-theories. Quotations and misquotations, and their debunking and deconstructions. Insults. Anger. Fierceness. Applause. Table banging. Wisdom. Foolishness. Completedness. Unfinishedness. Smelling mouths. Tongues of fire. Energy!
Africa is enlarging itself to become a CENTRE too. Africa is coming out to make visible its own CENTRES, headquarters, laboratories and metropolises. Africa is rising. Rising from the centuries-old folly of stupid black people. Africa is de-scribing itself, re-scribing itself and pre-scribing its future; it is reinventing itself through the mouths and imaginations of its babes and sucklings. For out of the mouths of babes and sucklings shall come forth mysteries and inventions and innovations and assertions.
We are babes and sucklings. And our tongues and imaginations are fire.
These are the various points and insights from the brainstorming session.
We are neither a theory nor a movement. We are open space: Africa’s newest genre. We are the unemployables, dissidents, techies, pan-Africanists, designers, etc., coming out, in the twenty-first century, in our different corners, to challenge the centuries-old notion that Africa does little thinking, trades badly and is even worse at buying.
‘Afro-moderns do nothing but look at and in and with and for Africa and its future, with the hope of reinventing and re-energising it,’ Baban Gida says. ‘We are economists, industrialists and investors renegotiating Africa’s trade terms and conditions. We are not white-collar aspirants or mere civil servants or lame creatives. Afro-modernism makes the case to stretch “all of this” continent to the space where it becomes the centre of the world.’ He concludes his point to thunderous applause and yells.
Afro-moderns are renegotiating and/or terminating the skewed contracts, contracts signed by our forefathers and their stupid descendants in power who are still ruining the continent today.
Afro-moderns know how badly their stupid forefathers performed in the past and are now refusing to mourn it. They know about colonialism and slavery and neocolonialism and imperialism and other isms unfavourable to Africa, but are not going to keep wailing over the deeds and greed of devilish, vile, horrendous and criminal white people like those idiotic postcolonial scholars did, the people who squandered a precious chance, before and after independence, to create a true continent. Afro-moderns are neither Afro-romantics nor Negritudes. They are not critics and insulters of white people, or the other kinds of crap.
Afro-moderns are interested in a non-romantic view of Africa. That’s how they hope to see it, and thereby recreate it. That’s how to create its new curricula, its new politics, its new arts and aesthetics, its new business, its new industry, its pluralities.
Afro-moderns are men and women whose only family, industry and business is Africa. And the constant pursuit is to expand, diversify, energise, imagine and reimagine it. We are farmers, engineers, artists, technocrats, industrialists, scientists, negotiators; professionals living and working for Africa with the sole aim of growing, raising and branding it. We are homosexuals, heterosexuals, bisexuals, transexuals and whateversexuals burning to rescue this continent from the ruins of stupid black men. We are not only the turning-point generation; we are also Africa’s hugest turning, biggest point and boldest generation.
Ishaku, twenty-four, was on his feet describing what he preferred Afro-modernism to be known as when one of the bouncers walked in to C. Boy and whispered something in his ear. They left for the door together, speaking in a low voice.
It wasn’t long. C. Boy hurried back into the hall, to the DJ’s booth and pulled out a bag. He put something that I didn’t see in his back pocket and walked back to the door. He looked troubled.
It was 4.15 a.m. Something was wrong.
One by one, everyone moved to the door.
We heard sirens blaring at a distance, approaching the club. There was a push at the door. A scamper, as everyone ran back to the hall. No one seemed to know what it was exactly, but the word ‘police’ was on everyone’s lips. ‘They’ve come for us. We are busted,’ someone, I don’t remember who, said.
The sirens were outside. Someone gave C. Boy a hard push from the door and he fell backwards into the hall. He quickly stood back on his feet, as seven masked policemen, armed with guns, walked inside. There was a huge silence. Another officer, without a mask or a gun, walked in after his men. The officers began searching the DJ’s booth, the restrooms, the bar and the dark corners here and there. It took ten to fifteen minutes.
They returned and, guns pointing, asked all of us to sit on the floor. We sat. Nobody dared to speak.
‘Who’s Marshal here? Marshal Dominic?’ the officer asked no one in particular.
There was no one. No Marshal here.
‘No one here goes by that name.’ It was Joshua speaking.
At this time, one of the policemen located a light switch to the brighter lights in the club and turned them on. The club’s laser lights were too weak to make out people’s faces. The officer had a photograph in his hand; he started moving from person to person, comparing their faces to the picture. He walked round and didn’t find a match.
He came back to where he first stood, and nodded to the policemen to move to the door. It was tense. I felt a pain in my chest. Everyone stared at him with eyes that spoke of fear of lynching or imprisonment.
He looked at the photograph again before bringing his eyes to us, searching. Then he cleared his throat. ‘This guy is a murderer and we got tipped he would be here this night. He clubs here.’ He moved closer to us, raised the photograph for us to see. ‘Anyone seen this guy?’
We shook our heads.
He walked out. They walked out. The sirens started again. And they left.
Fear of being caught as gay in Nigeria demeans one’s humanity. Fear of Nigeria’s police arresting you for being homosexual crushes every gut you have.
Jenny burst out crying. Joshua rushed to her, put his hand round her and started crying too. Leila joined in, Kenny was groaning, and my partner walked up to me and let out a loud cry. Then everyone began crying as if we had just turned orphans.
Tears taste like salt. Our tears. We are salts. Africa’s salt. And we are here shedding tears because we are trampled upon on every side. But these men don’t know this: that the more they trample upon us, the tastier we become.
Musa stood up, started for the restroom. As he turned to the door, he fell down. A heavy crash. We rushed to him. He was having a fit, the fiercest convulsion I have seen all my life. His hands and legs shook turbulently, like they had a life of their own.
There was commotion. We ran back and forth, with water from the restroom. We pulled off our clothes and fanned him with them. I ran outside, and our friend with the car was there waiting. I ran back in, and we carried him into the car. Joshua and Kenny sat in the back and we laid him on their legs. My partner sat in front. They drove off to the hospital.
It was 5.13 a.m.
Everyone sat about in the hall, fatigued and broken. C. Boy sat on the seat by the check-in. I joined him. We sat in silence.
I lit a cigarette and gave it to him. He refused.
‘Look at the boy, the poor boy. Did you see him?’ He started talking, his voice nearing a cry. ‘What had he done to be frightened in that way? For being something else?’ I didn’t answer.
‘We may have ended this event on a bad note, but I tell you we’ve made a huge statement. We’ve started something.’ He brought out a revolver from his back pocket and kept it on the table.
‘I can’t close my eyes and let anyone hurt any of these people. I can’t. Dude, I can’t.’
We sat in silence. A few people started to leave the club.
‘I need to go,’ I said. C. Boy didn’t respond. He stared down. I walked to the bar for water, and when I returned he was no longer sitting. He was on the floor, crying and asking, ‘What have we done to be scared to death like that? What did that small boy do to deserve such a scare? What?’
I didn’t answer. If I did, tears would start running from my eyes. So, I just stood and watched this 27-year-old man sitting on the floor and weeping because he was homosexual. I didn’t answer.
Boy, that night was energy. The night I last saw C. Boy.
Suicide is a means of taking flight to hibernate too, a means of kinetic energy too.
Fuck whoever thinks otherwise.
Artwork © Daniela Yohannes, No Poor Among Us, 2013