Adichie, Akwaeke and Area Scatter: Navigating Transphobia – Onyeka Nwelue

I chose this title, because of the beauty of it. I was far away in Port of Spain, when a couple kept regaling me with tales of a young writer, who they claimed is related to them and was in Trinidad & Tobago.

They took me to the beach; so the waves made me not listen attentively. They talked about this writer for a long time. How the writer’s book will shake the world. I was intrigued. The name of the writer turned out to be Akwaeke Emezi. 

My interest was piqued.

I have been warned not to write this piece by a few friends – who are writers, but having been to prison in Rwanda, for ‘publicly insulting’ President Kagame, I think I can now write about anything. Whether I get away with it, is what I do not know. So, let me go straight to the point. 

I lived in India for a larger part of my life. I spent time with the hijras, off and on.

Let me explain what Hijra means for those who don’t know. Hijra refers to a person whose gender identity is neither male nor female; typically a person who was assigned male at birth but whose gender expression is female.

There are lots of them in South Asia.

What drew me to Akwaeke, was their article on ogbanje and not even the story their ‘relatives’ in Trinidad told me. I began to wonder about their version of the ogbanje spirit and how it is different from what I grew up knowing in Ezeoke Nsu.

Our neighbour then, had given birth thrice and when the last one (who is still there today), arrived, my mother went over to help give her a mark. She stayed. She is the only child of her parents. Every ogbanje child I know, is an only child. As my grandmother and other sorcerers and sorceresses told me, ogbanje children do not have siblings. They never allow children come into the homes where they exist. 

So, Akwaeke’s version mesmerized me and I love the way they write. Beautifully. I began to wonder also, if the Igbo cosmology that I encountered in my anthropology practice is different. I belong to the dibia caste in Igbo caste system – which I strongly uphold – and my mother’s cousin, Akuzzor Anozia is the Chief Priestess of the Oguta Lake Goddess. She is famous. She has even met Wole Soyinka in Lagos. I dragged her to come meet him. She has been featured on BBC. They call her Ezenwanyi Ogbuide, but what I read later almost dismantled what I know from the roots. 

I have always, also talked about Ms. Adichie’s power and success. Someone used the word ‘bourgeois’ to describe her and I think that is totally off-key. Ms Adichie belongs to an Upper Class family and in Igbo land, Adichie is a diala name. Many Igbo people pretentiously say they do not practice caste system. We all do. Myself, not needing to sound modest, I know this, because if you don’t force an Upper Class person to speak, they will not speak.

What Ms. Adichie represents is bigger than what we see. When you attain her height, you do not need to bother about anyone hating you. I was at the Abantu Literature Festival in Soweto, when she appeared there in 2018. Her session was a filled up hall. When she disappeared, after taking pictures with many people, I spoke to some who told me that they don’t like her, because she is transphobic.

Again, I was at the Jaipur Literature Festival in India and spoke to some people who called her a Prima Donna. I would be a Prima Donna if I have achieved all she has achieved.  Not only that: a certain Norwegian diplomat told a negative story the details of which I no longer remember, because as long as I know myself, I have no qualms with Ms. Adichie, but he said something that was uncomplimentary.

The idea that she is transphobic is strange to me, because I know she is quite accommodating of gay people, but I will tell you why I find this fascinating.  

But first, I am dragging Area Scatter into this narrative. Long before Bobrisky became famous, there was an Igbo instrumentalist and cross-dresser, living in the East of Nigeria, called Area Scatter. From the 70s to early 80s, Area Scatter braided his hair, did make-up and wore beautiful fabrics and walked around in heels, playing music in the homes of the Upper Class. Then one day, Area Scatter disappeared. Never to be seen. Nobody knows what happened. The question is: what happened to Area Scatter? Was he killed by transphobes? 

We fear what we don’t understand.

People have told me to my face: “You look scary.”

My rings, my clothes, my hair and sometimes, I paint my nails. Some will tell me: “I used to be scared of you until I came closer.” Perhaps, I might have solved one problem or another for them, before they stop being scared of me. No matter how scary you look, once you help people, they forgive you. 

We can’t cancel Ms. Adichie because people say she is transphobic. We can’t cancel Emezi because they are ogbanje. I am even proud of Ms. Adichie that she can boldly speak her mind.

Her power aside, we all have the things we hate and things we like. Like me, I hate marriage and I think married people are weaklings – people who can’t stand alone – always looking for people to sleep with every night, cook for them, love them and kill them.

Ms Adichie is married; might she find my disgust for marriage disturbing? I also don’t like children and she loves children. She can’t also go about lamenting that because I don’t like children, I should be cancelled. Emezi has a cat and I am allergic to animals. What is it then that we Igbos say: egbe bere, ugo ebere, nke si na-ibe ya e bere, nku kwa kwa ya. (The kite and the eagle should share the roost. Whichever that attempts to deprive the other should lose its feathers.)

Tolerance and acceptance are things we lack as writers, no matter how intellectual and pseudo-intelligent we try to appear. Writers are still humans. Who will share your secrets and demean you, which is why I wouldn’t share a clique with them. 

What is the point of my rambling? That we should not crucify Ms. Adichie for, supposedly, not understanding trans-people and to not crucify Akwaeke for not understanding the Igbo cosmology; a traditionalist like me and a worshipper of Ogbuide and a practitioner of Voodoo like me, cannot make sense of their portrayal of the Ogbanje spirit.

Maybe they need to teach me more of this new dimension. 

Onyeka Nwelue’s The Strangers of Braamfontein is coming out in 2021 by Griots Lounge Publishing Canada. 

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