The Gender-nonconforming Spirit

Identity, Disruption and Performance in Igbo culture

by Emeka Joseph Nwankwo

A name is not just a name, at least for us West Africans. It is significant; a testament of something hoped for, a marker of something experienced. So it makes sense that when a person is reborn, to purge themself of their old self, they acquire a new name, one that bespeaks their new existence, their renaissance. Maka n’aguo onye aha chi ya anu – name a person and their god accepts.

Towards the end of the 1970s, just as the blood had dried into the earth from the Nigerian Civil War, an Igbo man in Southeast Nigeria, said to have been a civil servant before the war, disappeared into the wilderness. He’d appear seven months and seven days later, reborn, spiritually and physically, as a woman who claimed to have been endowed by the gods with femininity and preternatural musical gifts. Her name bore strong witness to this rebirth: Area Scatter – one who comes to disorganise a place, to shock and to reclaim; an eccentric fellow who has come to cause problems and change dynamics. And Area Scatter was true to her new name.

Save for a YouTube clip and an some album art, little is now known about Area Scatter – a gender nonconformist whose voice and acoustic sound once entertained eastern Nigeria, her fame spreading beyond. Over the years, swallowed by time, she disappeared from pop culture.  Today, no one knows for sure where she is – dead or alive. These days, when Area Scatter is invoked, her name has become just another signifier for a hyperactive troublemaker; it has been stripped of its context, its history, and the complex champion of gender who chose it for herself and for the purpose of disruption.

Area Scatter reintegrated into society after she reappeared, entertaining and performing on national television and at elite social gatherings. Her songs, mostly in Igbo, were folkloric, rich in morality and justice, in love and heartbreak, in praise for the rich but kind-hearted. I find digital copies of her LP on a blog, a reminder that nothing is ever truly lost in the age of the internet. I listen, over and over, to her mellifluous sounds, bolstered by percussion. She has a husky, almost hollow voice, the words rushing forth from her lips as if she cannot wait to say one word before jumping to another.

In the YouTube clip, apparently cut from a 1984 documentary called , Area Scatter is shown walking down the unpaved, red-mud streets of an Igbo town, heading to the palace of a local chief to perform for him and his council of elders. She is decked-out in womanly attire, complete with makeup, jewellery and a handbag. Her steps are effeminate. No one harasses her or throws insults at her. People on the streets are shown admiring her.

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Before I sit to write this piece, I video-call my mother on WhatsApp. She is small on my phone screen, her image and voice travelling through thousands of optic cables to get to me. We talk about Area Scatter. ‘He used to dance everywhere, all the time,’ she recalls, breaking into laughter every now and then as if the mere thought of Area Scatter amuses her endlessly.

‘I think he was from Owerri,’ she says, rubbing the edges of her hairline.

I am a child of the mid-1990s. Born in a time of hopelessness and pessimism and fear. The future looked bleak, even as there were, in some quarters, renewed energy in calls for a better, democratised Nigeria. Years of military rule, coups and counter-coups, corrupt civilian governments, and annulled elections had disillusioned Nigerians so that, while we hoped for the best, we expected the worst. During this era of hopelessness, fundamentalist strains of two Abrahamic religions – Christianity and Islam – provided a framework for understanding and explaining things that were different or outside the norm. Encouraged by Victorian-era laws and rhetoric, and western religion and practices, the Igbo definition of gender acquired a Euro-centric understanding of its nature and its performativity. This redefinition created a toxic culture, which has morphed over decades to become a near-institutionalised belief that feminine traits in a man are undesirable and must be avoided at all cost. Where previous generations may have embraced a figure like Area Scatter, her existence would have been unknown among most millennials and, if known, an object of ridicule and hate.

Whilst exploring gender and gender nonconformity in Igbo tradition and history, it is important to point out that this tradition and history is oral, leaving it open for change, misinterpretation and misconstruction. Determining the significance of traditional cultural practices necessarily involves interference from conservative Judeo-Christian beliefs, and from the aftereffects of colonialism that bastardised and rendered illegitimate many customs and traditions.

This piece is far more exploratory than explanatory. It asks whether Igbo culture understood and understands the need to create disruption within the apparent fixity of gender binary – to show that gender is as much a social construct as it is biological. This exploration is even more urgent in the face of arguments that queer identity is “un-African”, a lifestyle learnt from the West and absent from African histories and cultural practices. Area Scatter embodied femininity, lived in post-civil war Nigeria, and achieved fame for her music and artistry. Today, a genderqueer person like Area Scatter cannot walk that same street the way she did decades ago without taunts, insults, threats and, possibly, physical attacks.

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Inherent to Igbo identity is our spirituality; a strong belief in the divine and unseen; an acknowledgment of human limitation and the far reaching influence of forces beyond our control. But there is a thin line between Igbo spirituality and artistry. They feed into or work in tandem with each other as ritual performance, informing a long tradition of the performance arts of which Area Scatter, a musician and performer, is a beneficiary.

Besides Area Scatter’s claim, there are other instances of Igbo men transforming into women, acquiring femininity via a spiritual experience or exercise. It’s right there, before us, but we’d never talk about or acknowledge it, mostly due to the patriarchy and transphobia woven deeply within our contemporary culture.

Part of Igbo spiritual expression, identity, and visual arts is the masquerade or Mmuonwu (literally: ‘spirit of the dead’). Masquerades are the physical manifestation of the unseen spirit of the dead, returned to earth to pay final respect or to felicitate with the living, to purify the land, or, in some instances, to cause trouble. Ancestral spirits interact with humanity by possessing the mask and ‘mounting’ the wearer. This business of masquerading is a male affair: a secret cult, whose members must first be initiated and sworn to lifelong secrecy. It is an open secret that only men wear the mask, even as spectators feign ignorance, believing that the spirit, returned to earthly planes, is made visible by the mask. Each masquerade has a specific cultural representation and function.

Chiadikobi Nwaubani, a visual artist who curates Ukpuru, a digital platform that documents rare antique images and records of pre-colonial and colonial Igbo land, tells me that masquerade cults allow only men because of the ‘physicality of carrying masks, and because, in the patrilineal set-up, men are usually in charge of dealing with ancestral spirits.’ A particular masquerade stands out to me: the Ada mmuonwu (‘daughter’, or ‘maiden spirit of the dead’; also known as ‘Agboho Mmanwu’ or ‘Adamma’ in some parts of Igbo land). A female spirit that has possessed a man, she stands equally with other masquerades and is accorded full respect and recognition as a spirit from the great beyond. These days, she is quite rare, but she comes out occasionally for festivals and ceremonies.

The last time I saw an Ada mmuonwu mask was at a funeral ceremony in the late 2000s. My parents and I had travelled to our ancestral hometown for the funeral of an important person whose face or name I can barely recall. Funerals, in our hometown, are not somber events. They are loud, marked by the free flow of food and drink and music. This is further heightened if the deceased was wealthy or lived to a considerable age. Much like weddings, funerals are an opportunity to show wealth, to send the deceased to the afterlife with as much fanfare as possible. To not shame the dead. Nothing elevates the fanfare at a funeral quite like the appearance of a masquerade.

At this funeral, like a handful of other masquerades, the Ada mmuonwu came accompanied by a gang of men who belted out musical notes from the ogene and oja. The music was so delicious that it made you dizzy, and your legs excited, aching to move with the beats. Ada mmuonwu is, by all standards except biological, a beautiful maiden. Her dancing steps are careful and measured in an elegant, effortless, almost coquettish way. At the funeral, she danced to the ogene beats and answered when the oja hailed, her hands flailing in an exaggerated display of sensuous femininity.

The Ada mmuonwu is different to the male spirits; she is a female spirit standing shoulder to shoulder with the male spirits. Non-violent unlike other mmuonwu, her mask is painted in exaggerated female makeup and her hair is braided. The Ada mmuonwu mask is worn by a man embodying and performing femaleness and, seemingly, possessed by a female spirit. This man acquires femininity through a spiritual process, contemporaneously male and female – an other, a third gender.

Alongside the Ada mmuonwu, there are other masks that shatter the idea of a gender binary, even if they are largely performative – part spiritual, part performance art. It begs a question: does Igbo tradition and spirituality (Odinani) recognise and respect gender nonconformity, or is it yet another way for patriarchal power to perform its dominion over women, taking over the spiritual narrative and representation of women when masks are worn by men? Nwaubani offers an ambivalent explanation, one that points out the political deployment of masquerade as a tool used to maintain authority over men and women who are not members of the masquerade cult. He contends that although the Ada mmuonwu mask has a ‘sense of gender nonconformity’, the mask also seems ‘more a way of controlling female behaviour than embodying it.’

Tradition is contextual. Hence, if we attempt a contemporary or literal explanation of what the Ada mmuonwu means for gender identity, we begin to gain further insight into identity politics in Igbo culture and, by extension, other African cultures. Pairing this modern interpretation with the existence of a disruptive figure like Area Scatter, we become more aware that, littered across our histories and mythological beliefs, are numerous examples of otherness and gender nonconformity; unlike now, gender identity and expression wasn’t a fixed binary notion for previous generations.

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Art has always been a tool for reflection, expression, and the breaking of silence – often in contradiction to populist ideals. Today, Nigerian writers are using literature to beat down a wall and recover the narrative on genderqueer identity while offering modern interpretations of ancient cultural practices.

I had first begun to ponder the existence of queerness in Igbo spirituality after reading When We Speak of Nothing (2017), a novel by Nigerian-German author Olumide Popoola. Narrated by the Yoruba gender-nonconforming trickster god Esu Elegba, When We Speak of Nothing has as one of its lead characters a seventeen-year-old trans boy born in London but seeking to explore his Nigerian origins and build a relationship with his Nigerian father. In explaining the inspiration behind her work, Popoola points out that gender nonconformity isn’t a contemporary idea – that, much like the Igbos, the Yorubas, on the western coast of Nigeria, also have mythological figures that play with otherness and difference. Popoola writes that ‘Esu Elegba, the Yoruba god of the crossroads, was my writing patron for When We Speak of Nothing. Esu is widely accepted to be androgynous, simultaneously a beautiful woman and a potent man. If you thought through the mythology from a contemporary standpoint, with current discussions around gender in mind, it is easy to see Esu as a possible patron for trans persons.’

Then there’s the nonbinary Igbo-Tamil novelist Akwaeke Emezi, whose auto-fictional novel Freshwater (2018) offers more perspectives on gender identity and Igbo spirituality through the lens of an ogbanje, an Igbo spiritual concept of a malevolent gender-non-binary spirit born in human form. As Edwin Okolo, a Lagos-based writer whose work explores queer identities within Nigerian contexts, says, ‘Area Scatter is the physical evidence of Igbo spiritual practice: that not only can spirits like the Ada mmuonwu “mount” male bodies temporarily for religious functions, they can mount bodies permanently through predestination as Ogbanje in Akwaeke Emezi’s case, or as permanent invited guests as in the case of Area Scatter.’ Emezi, much like Popoola, offers a contemporary explanation of an ancient traditional belief, admitting, too, the impact of colonialism in reshaping a people’s history. Popoola seeks to reframe and reclaim the narrative that African societies were historically queerphobic or unaware of the complexity of gender; Emezi tells of the human body embodied by a genderqueer spirit, a marriage of the divine and mortal (much like the Ada mmuonwu). They bring the past into the present and future – recasting the often-intertwined elements of African mythology and history into reality, inviting readers to reconsider preconceived notions about gender, identity and spirituality.

 

Contemporary Nigerian literature is continuing the long tradition of artistic exploration of Igbo spirituality and gender-nonconformity. It is granting genderqueer people agency and recognition whilst Nollywood, Nigeria’s popular film industry, peddles popular conservative opinion, framing queer identity as a moral failing, the consequence of globalisation, a western disease that can only be contracted once the victim leaves Africa. Among the hundreds of films churned out annually, ‘Abba: Woman in a Man’s Body’ (2015) was the first to center otherness as its main plotline. But here the lead character, a trans woman with an American education, is presented as a caricature, whose humanity is ignored and whose body becomes a field for uninvited violence. Redemption and acceptance are only found through manipulation and eventual de-transition. Meanwhile, contemporary literature is presenting the fullness of humanity of queer lives, acknowledging the validity of their queerness.

Previous generations of Nigerian writers have sometimes treated otherness with silence or ignorance. This new generation of writers, emboldened by the internet age as a medium of connectivity and expression, are unmasking and untying the bind of silence, bringing otherness into the conversation while making a historical case to repudiate the idea that gender nonbinary identity is at odds with Igbo, Nigerian, African identity. One begins to wonder if there were other undocumented genderqueer people like Area Scatter – humans subverting gender roles whilst living and moving freely in postcolonial Africa. It falls on African literature to document today’s queer people, to establish a reference point for tomorrow, and to acknowledge the minority lives that no one else dares to speak of .

About the Author

Emeka Joseph Nwankwo

Emeka Joseph Nwankwo is a writer and digital media professional from Nigeria. He was born and raised in Aba, south-east Nigeria and moved to Lagos to pursue a career in the media and eventually served as the communications manager (Africa) for Cassava Republic Press. Currently working on a master’s degree at the University of Hull, […]

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