Sexuality and Gender Roles in Niger

-Laura M. Bacon, RPCV Niger, 2002-200

When I first met Amadou four months into my service in Niger, I felt unimaginable relief. Amadou was an enthusiastic, warm, generous Nigerien living in the rural village next to mine. He had a man’s name, a low voice, huge hands, facial hair, and was tall and built. Amadou also had painted nails, long braided hair, and wore high heels, make-up, and lots of jewelry. It was like a revelation meeting him. I had yet to find anyone in Niger, PCV or Nigerien, who fit into the L, G, or B category. But now I had discovered a T.

Amadou was the only Nigerien I ever met who did not fit firmly and solidly into an obvious gender category, and this came as a beautiful relief for me. I met him through my host mother, his distant relative. I often accompanied my mother on trips to Amadou’s place to purchase various herbs and spices. Amadou’s social circle consisted of a series of loosely-related, ostracized adults, ranging from childless women and effeminate men, to those with various disabilities and diseases. I never experienced anything from Amadou’s mini-community but welcoming, friendly, and selfless engagement. Consistent with the hospitality and generosity ubiquitous in Niger, I was showered with gifts every time I visited Amadou and his housemates. Although we developed a friendship throughout my periodic visits to his household, Amadou warned me when he happened to be in my village that he should never be seen near my home or talking to me. He didn’t want to tarnish my reputation within my village by “outing” our friendship. Apparently his was already tarnished.

Having spent most of my college career in a very queer and queer-friendly community at Harvard, and hailing from the liberal state of Massachusetts (which legislated same-sex marriage while I served in Africa), joining the Peace Corps was a bit of a shock for me. Of our training group of 45, not one person was out. In fact, there were fellow trainees who uttered hetero-normative statements, occasionally made homophobic remarks, and expressed the view that (says the Bible) homosexuality is sinful. In those first months, I began longing for my community from home. I even dreamt during training of a magical training session led by queer-friendly rainbow-flag-waving PCVs!

Little by little things improved. I met PCVs with more seniority who were out or very queer-friendly. I even met one volunteer who was planning on beginning his post-service life in the States with his Nigerien boyfriend. And, when new training groups arrived, they included a more vocal and prominent queer contingency than my group.

Although my faith in the sexual diversity of the Peace Corps was restored, there were other aspects of my experience in Niger that left me feeling empty, lonely, and closeted in other, more substantial ways. What I missed most, while serving in Niger, was not so much being around gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and straight-supportive individuals. I missed witnessing love as I’d always known it, sharing my own romantic experiences from the past, expressing my sexual desires of the present, and being in the company of those who felt free to do the same. I especially missed a societal ability to blur gender lines and avoid assumptions and role expectations.

When we received our Peace Corps welcome packets, there was an entire section on “special types” of volunteers for whom Niger may pose difficulties. This included those with disabilities, vegetarians, women, and LGBT volunteers. We were all instructed that, as PCVs in Niger, there were many things we may have to get used to, suppress, or even hide because of cultural norms. This was fine with me. I had certainly gotten used to the idea of covering my head, shoulders and legs. And I knew I should not drink alcohol in this Muslim country. However, I was unprepared to be barraged daily with:

  • the belief that I, as a 25-year-old unmarried childless woman, was a pathos-inducing anomaly or, at the least, a curiosity;
  • the practice of rigorously enforced gender roles, with women always seeming to emerge with less power and freedom; and
  • the absence of the following within my rural village: dating, monogamy, fidelity, expressions of attraction, gestures of romance and flirtation, and even displays of love between spouses.

It is hard for me to describe the culture of Niger and how much it differs from that of the States. Our Peace Corps Director, when asked to describe Niger, often compared the culture of rural Nigerien life to that of biblical times. I’m not sure if his analogy was entirely apt, but he had a point. The food is similar: starches, sauces, and occasional meat. Life trajectory is short, generally non-mobile, and filled with family and neighbors. Religion is devout; prayer almost constant. Work is hard, intensive and long. Marriages are usually arranged, and often viewed more as financial and familial unions than romantic manifestations. During my time in Niger we even experienced a plague of locusts, drought and famine, vividly recalling biblical stories.

My village was so different from what I was used to. I easily got used to eating millet with my hands, using the latrine, going without electricity and working in the fields. But I missed seeing women in power, girls in school, men and women working, praying, even talking together. I found it difficult that men wouldn’t shake my hand, wouldn’t look me in the eye. I resented the shame associated with sex and losing one’s virginity. I was astounded that, because of this shame, women would never speak their husband’s name aloud, nor the names of their in-laws and first child. Women and men sat in different parts of cars, stood in different lines for the health clinic and held separate meetings and ceremonies.

The girls in my youth group told me that they wanted to wear pants as their group uniform so they could run and play and work more easily. But they came back the next day, disappointed to report that their parents would not allow this. Pants would be too much like prostitutes’ attire. These same girls were promised and married off as young as thirteen.

I cannot explain how liberating it felt to travel to the capital, or parts of Bénin, Ghana and Burkina Faso. There I got to see women on motorcycles, women-owned businesses, men and women holding hands, people openly speaking about boyfriends and girlfriends, young people going out on dates, choosing their partners. In my Nigerien community, while I certainly never witnessed romantic gestures, flirtation, or expressions of love between two people of the same sex, I must say I never witnessed these between a man and a woman, either.

I loved my time in Niger. My work was gratifying; the people in my village unforgettable. The country was exquisitely beautiful. My PCV friends were loyal and became lifelong. My entire extended service was wonderful. I feel deeply and profoundly grateful to the Nigeriens with whom I lived and worked, and to the Peace Corps for allowing me such a transformative and wonderful experience. Yet I do not forget the isolation and frustration I sometimes felt during my service. Like Amadou, I often felt trapped in a body, a name, a role, and a culture that did not mesh well with my background or support my needs.

When I asked my host mother about Amadou (to determine which gender pronoun in Hausa was most appropriate, and to gain any insights on his/her gender bending), she answered in hushed tones that Amadou’s “manhood” had been lost. She said spirits had taken away his potency. Others whispered that too many drugs were the cause of his forsaken masculinity. Regardless of the reasons, I realized that Amadou’s dressing and performing as a woman was not a real choice. The binary sexual norms of his culture did not allow for a continuum of gender expression. Thus, societal pressures dictated that no matter who he really was – perhaps impotent, perhaps gay, perhaps transgender – he would feel and be treated as an outcast.

My host mother also mentioned that Amadou often became very sad, especially when no one was looking. Sometimes in the wider world, where (just like Niger) people become unwilling prisoners to societal expectations of gender and sexuality, I, too, become very sad.

You can contact Laura Bacon at lbacon@fas.harvard.edu.

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