Friday, 10 September 2021

Odogwu, the 'boys' that impress me

It is the women that decide our names. It is the women that acknowledge the paths that our spirits and bodies will take through the world. It is the women that see most clearly the fate the gods have attached to us. It is women that ‘see’ period. It was in 2020 that my mum named me Odogwu. I am not sure when she decided this but the first time I heard her say it to me she was happy. It gave me a very heady feeling. She was very impressed with the gesture that I made. It made her very happy and she danced. 

Odogwu is a very special Igbo word, a title. The Odogwu title is hardly ever addressed to young men or men generally unless they have done something that a credible mass of people refers to as incredible. Perhaps something continuous, beautiful, grand, exciting.  I do not know the literal interpretation of the title ‘Odogwu’. But I know that it implies that someone had become great. Great in the way of a legend. Great in the way that the person had crossed the line and that this person and the act done had become unforgettable, indelible, incredible. A good Odogwu metaphor would be Odumegwu Ojukwu and perhaps the fictional character of Okonkwo in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. So simply put, ‘Odogwu’ is a man, an incredible, extraordinary man.

Photo by Khris Kunta Kuntelais
I have met a few men that I have considered Odogwu in my life. Perhaps the bar is a bit low for me because, as my friends say and I have come to learn, it does not take much to impress me. But there is so much in our world to be thankful for if we open our eyes to the god in everything. Men impress me. Men have impressed me. So many men have impressed me. 

Growing up in Nigeria there was no accessible code on how to be a queer man. So this was the trajectory: get to puberty, realise that things that should happen chemically and emotionally that are not happening, wait, and just wait until someone else ‘wiser’ realises that you might ‘say ekaaro like that’ and then makes a move on you and opens up yourself to you in way that you are hardly prepared for. Perhaps queerness in a young boy is a bit too obvious because he is not like the rest of his peers, may not be autopilot hormonal, and is often clueless on where to look. This was the case for me. I was not sure, and there was nowhere to look until people started pointing me out. ‘You’re different’. ‘They will like your type.’ ‘You better be careful when you move into that hostel’. And then finally someone called me a homosexual to my face. I may have been 15 or 16 at the time, but I launched at him physically with everything that I could summon. I hit. I scratched. I threw the closest moveable things I could get hold of at him. He defended himself. An enraged man defending his masculinity is quite the danger. A queer man unaccepting of his queerness can be quite chaotic, bloody. The boy ran.  I paused. I shook all over in anger, then I cried. I picked up what I could from my locker and left the hostel. 

At this point, I had had a few trysts. I may have been smitten by the appearances of a few boys. But to be referred to as gay in public by another man was a jab at my pride. A few months after that experience I was terribly confused by the rise in the ferocity of my attraction to boys. Often I would curl myself up in bed and cry when the desire kept me awake. Some classmates and a certain staff at my high school had taken it upon themselves to fish out boys who may have acted on their attractions with other boys. There was a long suspicion-based list being compiled already and people were only looking for proof and compiling evidence. I heard cases of beatings, blackmail, and extortion from some boys that I had been with and other boys that I had known. Years later I would learn that my name was indeed on that list, but they had found no proof. Perhaps the investigators were as clueless as I was, and still am, as regards how to be a queer man, what to look out for in a queer man.  

Men impress me, and perhaps being queer is as simple as that. There is no telling. Of course, there are so many men who are either dead or invisible to me until becoming Odogwu, incredible. And so easily they can fall from that light, in my eyes, as well. There have been cases where men snatch the light as soon they come into my view, some take leisurely walks towards it, while others by their very nature repel being either respectful or delightful. Of course, I am me and my tastes are not universal. However, I have been fortunate to have been impressed by a few men that started out as strangers and then became Odogwu, and sometimes it was a case of being in the right place, at the right time, under the ‘right’ circumstances. Interestingly, most of the time, I find that although these men become such striking symbols for me I have no access to them romantically or sexually and vice versa. Being flesh, blood, and hormonal, I often imagine that this inaccessibility is a cosmic joke God enjoys playing on me. I have painfully learned to rationalise this as God teaching me that even as a queer man it is in my stars that so many remarkable men will build bridges into and across my heart that are neither for romantic or sexual purposes, but for very important and life-changing purposes nonetheless. I will share a few of these ‘cosmic jokes’.

At the turn of the millennium, short-hand was drummed into Nigerian secondary school pupils. However, short-hand fascinated me not because I thought that strokes and dots were exciting, but because my teacher was stunning. He was Fulani in the impeccable way that young educated Fulani men can be: soft on the eyes, androgynous, warm in demeanour and firmly grounded. In my first year at secondary school, I was one of those students who hugged the front row seats in class. I can still remember the fragrance of his well-ironed, sharply-edged military uniform because somehow he always ended in front of my seat where he thumbed through his lesson notes. At this time, I was 11 unaware of my queerness but fiercely drawn to his light and firm voice, how he stood firmly feet apart, and the ease with which he commanded the students’ attention in spite of his androgyny. His was not the softness of submission, it was a whiplash.  I was a big child, with swollen cheeks, sway in the hips, cherry red lips, ashamed of my girlishness and so frightened of other boys that I wanted to varnish. And there he was in my class every Tuesday and Thursday, a stack of ironies, but an Odogwu in his own right. Odogwu’s are comfortable in their skin and take their place in the world along with their gifts and grit. We never spoke outside of the classroom. I changed schools not so long after and I have not seen him since then, but for so many years my questions welled. The most pressing being, how can a man so soft so slender so young so beautiful be more ‘terrifying’ commanding twice the respect, interest, attention, and promptness than older stronger-looking men in his field.

I often catch myself believing that being ‘terrifying’ is an important aspiration for a Nigerian queer man who hopes to take his place in Nigerian spaces. This is not because ‘terrifying’ is such a virtuous thing to be. I clarify here there is a huge difference between being ‘terrifying’ and being a bully. While being can be deeply attractive, there is hardly a thing more foul, tactless, and unflattering than being a bully. Being terrifying as a minority often is sufficient insulation from violence not just for the terrifying person but for the community that he marches with. So what makes a man ‘terrifying’? What makes him that powerful? I was watching Bridgerton the other and the character Lady Danbury while addressing little Simon shares that she was coy as a little girl, but had to brace herself to take her space in the world by becoming ‘the most terrifying creature’ in any room that she entered. ‘Sharpened my mind,  my wit, and my wardrobe’, she said.

I once met a man who wielded a sharp mind, wit, and wardrobe. He was a boy when we met. We were both boys and in the same school. Throughout our time in that school, his name was on so many lips because he was richly gifted and in every way imaginable. His grace was woven through his bloodline. He was both an academic and social alchemist. It is usually difficult for a person to be deemed the one, over and over again but it was happening right before the eyes of hundreds of everyone. And the best part, they all agreed. I came quite late to the show because I transferred into the school in my second year, so I did not know what all the raucous was about. I had gone from being the front-row student to the student who was too unsettled by being in a boarding school to bother about the front row. When I finally met him, I did not see what the raucous was about. He had visited my class to speak to his brother in hushed tones in between the dust- harassed louver blades. Although the window was not so far off from where I sat, I heard nothing remotely incredible about how he sounded. 

In a few years we were in the same class. It was the era of boy bands and love songs in Nigeria. On one quiet morning after the morning assembly, the boys in my class began drumming on their desks and technical drawing boards in the corner of our classroom. They were taking turns on Psquare’ s Bizzy Body, Styl Plus Olufunmi, Da Nativee’ Draw Nearer. The classroom was on fire and boys from other classes poured in to watch. The boys in our class were having a fest, singing out there hearts in newly acquired baritone voices like they had just jumped out of romantic comedy films. Of course there were those of us who were backup singers providing the surround sound, and then there were those of us who pretended to have nothing to do with it while we tapped away under desks turning occasionally to check who the mic had passed to. It felt like Nigerian version Backstreet boys doing covers. In the heat of all that, Rackass boy began DJinee’s Ego. Now there are hardly a few solo artists who could weave the wind that Ego spun when it was recently released. Something about that song was electric. And Rackass boy sang Ego matching the snap of his fingers to the sway of his hips, to the crest of his pitch, to the throb of his biceps, to the oscillating bounce of his shoulders, socked toes pumping against the dust. Perhaps it was the song. Perhaps it was the beats. Perhaps it was the spirit of the artist DJinee, but that morning the boy came alive and it was like I saw him for the very first time. He did not become an Odugwu right away, but I got a sense of what the raucous was about. There was something incredible about him that was almost unmatchable, that would always make a way for itself and find a stage for itself across hearts and across the world.

As if by divine design, a few months later this boy built a bridge into my heart. Suddenly, we were together all the time. When we connected it was so intense that it felt like we were cramming five years of conversation into a few months and trying to fill each minute with catching up. At the time, the hormones were running amok. While my shoulders were yet to broaden and my voice yet to crack, my sexual desires were robbing me of sleep and focus. When the harmattan came, I would often feel the wind gush at me with dust, chills, raving testosterone through my blood with an unmistakable pull. And this pull was often only either a pull for a pulls sake, or it was driven this growing closeness to the raucous boy. raucous boy was reckless in the way that he advanced towards me through the months. No one could be more present, more attentive. I was reckless in the way I saw him, thought of him. His relations to me was quite a shock because it was sudden as it was. I did not understand it. 

It was nothing out of the ordinary that I had made a new friend. But being friends with someone who is himself the spotlight tends to attract a new number of eyes to the ‘newcomer’. From being almost invisible to being thrust into the glare of many eyes. I did not understand it. I terribly enjoyed his company, it gave me such a rush, it felt like a rebirth. With every time he stepped up to me in public, I felt like the sun had found me and wings were breaking free from every part of me. He was both an academic and social alchemist. Because he saw him, everyone else did. There was something incredible about him that was almost unmatchable, everything he ‘touched’ caught fire, and everyone he ‘saw’ turned gold. 

Some other boys in our class started talking. ‘One day we will know what is happening’ one of his friends said to me. ‘High-class babe’ another said. I knew what they meant. But I was not sure what cut me more, their intrusion or that they would wait till Raucous-boy and I were apart to approach me with their twaddle. Perhaps because I was a teenager with the valiance of toothpick. Raucous-boy knew what they were saying in his absence. We often traded this gossip when he caught me sobbing. But he carried on more visibly with me, more friendly with his everyone. At some point he moved from his original seat in the class to share a seat with. me. Reckless! He was giving everyone who had something to say a middle finger.  So while I was overthinking their comments calculating ways to avoid Rackass boy, not see him, not talk to him, he was drew closer and dared everyone to say pim! 

I would often blame myself for soiling his reputation with the suggestion of some ‘indecency’ with me. I sat with this guilt for most of our friendship and for a few years after he walked out of my life as suddenly as he walked in, breaking me a little. He took his bridge with him while I held on tightly to the wings, gold and sun. Raucous boy was an Odogwu. Odogwus are not afraid to stand out or make room for others. Odogwus are not afraid to make unpopular choices and curate their own social circles and destinies. Odogwus are not afraid to follow their hearts. It was in this friendship with Odogwu Raucous boy that my admiration for Pete Edochie was cultivated. It was in this friendship that I fell in love with Djinee and Paul Play Dairo. It is was in this friendship that I called the bluff of quite a number of bullies and began to grow more comfortable in my own skin, heart and love. 

 Navigating a man’s love is one of the most challenging parts of being male and same-sex loving in a world designed to eraicate queer persons. Same-sex love is quite the calculux because while there are books and movies and songs and poetry about the flaming passions between men and women, every instance of loving the similar feels like its walking into a cold dark space. You know, like the world before it became the world, before it had any value or meaning. In Nigeria the plot of same-sex love has to find its own way. When I began to think of a man’s love it was not because I was romantically involved with anyone - not counting the imaginary relationship with Paul Play Dairo  and Saint Obi on whom I crushed so much. It was not also because I relished the idea of intimate same-sex companionship. I began thinking more particularly of man’s love because of the men I saw in Nollywood movies, particularly the gang of Armadas and character of Ahanna in Amaka Igwe’s Rattle Snake.

It was 1995 and Igbo Nollywood video films were blowing up. Every Friday after work, dad usually brought home new colourfully packed video cassettes. At the time we had the family tradition of watching Nollywood films during the weekend, especially late into Saturday nights. You see, this was not every Saturday because power failure was more common than to have film nights and we did not have a generator. So whenever it was Saturday and the power was on, it was really special. I enjoyed that our Saturday film nights brought everyone together in the living room. I particularly looked forward to sitting my dad’s legs, my back pillowed by the sea-saw of his oscillating breathing belly. The first Rattle Snake video cassette he brought was a rented one. It was the first part, and looking back I could understand his resistance to buy one. We had just seen Nneka the pretty serpent and us kids were now too terrified of cats and of the dark. So it made sense that another snake titled movie would have to be checked before being bought. 

We came to find that unlike Nneka the Pretty Serpent, there was neither witchcraft, scratching nor shapeshifting in Rattle Snake. It was quite the opposite. There were several stunning men there.  Rattle Snake followed a young Igbo man, Ahanna, who had been dispossessed of his family wealth by his uncle Odinaka and had to make a living in Lagos by pickpocketing. His antiques endeared him to another Lagos boy, Peter, who then christens him ‘Snake’ because of how Ahanna sprint-slithers through the crowd while escaping from the hot pursuit of his victim. The impressed Peter, although well provided by his family, had a taste for truancy, so he teams up with Ahanna in his craft. With time Ahanna and Peter are arrested, convicted and serve an incomplete prison sentence. On their early release because of Peter’s father’s political clout, they had evolved into advanced criminals and went on to recruit more boys to form the Armadas gang. The Armadas gang blew up, they were a group of stunning and successful young arm-robbers who took on extremely risky high-end mission. The members of Armadas had a tight, intimate, almost homoerotic bond, more close shaving than male group movies that Nollywood had ever made before then and perhaps till date. Unlike Living in Bondage were the male cult members were portrayed constantly shrouded in fear, displays of wealth and surrounded by women, the members of the Armadas were men stripped to their most intimate vulnerabilities whenever they were together. Rattle Snake was made in such a way that the Igbo man’s masculinity was zoomed in on, especially on parts of him that are usually inaccessible, his heart, hurt and loving. It is no surprise that the making of this film was led by a woman, Amaka Igwe. It is the women that see. In my eyes, Armadas were portrayed as an army of lovers, co-creating, co-planning, and very good at communicating, particularly at listening. And no matter what was at stake in their missions, nothing was more important than each other. Did I mention that the members of Armadas were hot! 

With a man’s love comes evolution and the evolving Ahanna began to want more safety and stability for the Armadas and for himself. For him armed robbery was only a means to an end. However, for Peter armed robbery was the end and such an allure, he had a taste for crime and the chase. The only thing Peter wanted more of was to continue perpetually in his trade. The clash in the worldviews of Ahanna and Peter is what tore the Armadas. Ahanna used his armed robbery loot to educate his sister into a lawyer and his brother into a medical doctor. He built several businesses for himself. Ahanna went on date Peter’s sister Amara at some point. Amara got pregnant but Ahanna married someone else, Adaugo. While Ahanna, left crime, supported Amara financially while embracing his new life with Adaugo, Peter felts distraught, betrayed  and sought to draw blood. 

The journey and the relationship between Ahanna and Peter is charged. The group dynamic of the Armadas is charged. Expansive ranges of men’s love and emotions for and around each and those tethered to their hearts bloom explosively. In Rattle Snake, strong Igbo men cried, laughed, listened, got bruised, healed, fell in love, got distraught, fought each other, schemed to hurt each other, forgave at some point, basked in their unforgiveness at another. Most importantly, there were so many time that strong men did a lot of listening, being confused, being afraid and running away. A man’s love can be so complex, yet so simple, so human. As an Igbo queer man I am thankful that I have such references like Ahanna, Peter and the Armadas, Odogwus, as references for the scope of a man’s emotions, a man’s love and the dynamics of same-sex intimacy. Nollywood has not produced so many movies like Rattle Snake, so more and more the legitimacy of a man’s vast emotional range seems to be a myth. The older I get the harder it is to remember that a man’s love for another man can be deep, complex, vicious, protective, unforgiving and flawed. 

It is no wonder that I went through my twenties expecting that there was out there man who could give me the kind of friendship that Ahanna represented, the kind of friendship that the Armadas shared. This was a struggle in Nigeria and perhaps also in South Africa where I am presently in Nigeria, because the emotions of men are curated, by other men and even women, to hide. God forbid that men can love deeply and hopelessly and admit it. God forbid that a man can learn to acknowledge his fear or anxiety or attraction and just sit with it. God forbid that a man gets confused or crazy or demonstrates his submission.

I often find that I make an effort to disappear when my heart shifts and tears rush to my eyes like they do at my sisters’ weddings. The older I get the more I am inclined to cave into myself when I am stuck, constantly and increasingly underestimating the love of my family and others in my life. I am quick to fetch my cape and fly to the rescue when I am vested in a person or project but I am very untrusting, emasculated and ashamed when the same is done for me by someone younger or someone female. Also I catch my resentment welling up when someone older does not ‘move’  as firmly as I expect him to. This is all twaddle because in spite of my knowledge, exposure and travel I unconsciously still hold on to the notion of universal invincibility and supremacy of a man’s ‘masculinity'.

As if things are not bad enough as they are, I often find that even as a queer man in the unconscious assumption of my invincibility, I rob the women in my life the space to learn, to fall, to rise, to grow. And when they defy my ‘umbrella’, I feel alienated and hurt. Of course these are alongside other instances where my ‘rescuing’ and affections for women have pushed aside, not because the women in question want to grow or make their own mistakes, but because these women are aware of my queerness and as such untrusting of my masculinity. So at my best, I am lucid and very sensitive to my ultra-romanticising of older men and underestimating of women and younger persons. In these lucid moments my approach is to be present and while calm notify whoever is involved that my love may not be the truth but it is here for the having should it be ever needed. ‘I’ll always be here should you need me’, I have learned to say this and then I sit on my hands and look the other way, listen deeply while looking back at intervals depending on my perceived autonomy of this person and my proximity.

The demonstration of a man’s love besides being perceived as such taboo can be very dangerous to a queer man living in a context where the same-sex attraction is both criminal, immoral, and treacherous to the community. In Nigeria, the danger of a queer man’s love or the harm that it exposes him to is curated by his socio-economic class, communal affiliation, physically built, knowledge of self-defense techniques, proximity to defensive tools, and understanding the social psychology of dangerous people and contexts in his locale. To put it simply, very few people will walk into a visibly heavily guarded situation with the guts to harm or blackmail a queer person, even if the intention is there. Simply put, to be safe surround yourself with ‘knives’, a safety protocol, and make it clear that they can cut to the white meat if they need to.

So more often than not, while in Nigeria, I avoid walking into relationships where I am not visibly guarded by the public glare or at most the presence of my family. Anyone who cannot walk past these walls and comfortably navigate this curated intimacy is simply a high flying risk. I am now well into my 30s and I find that there is nothing more protective than introducing a friend that I want to take seriously to my parents. A friend that I can not bring home to my family is not a friend that I would be interested in. The implication of this is that in Nigeria where most queer men cannot afford to be seen in public with either their love interests or other visibly queer men, I have slashed my friendship pool by a substantial chunk. 

I am at peace with having access to fewer male friends with a higher chance at longevity and honesty. This is not because honesty and longevity are the most exciting things to aspire to in a relationship, but because queer men who have accepted their queerness and the legitimacy of their friendships with other queer men are not as hazardous to one’s mental and sexual health as queer men who are still at war with themselve. Not that a man accepting his queerness makes him any more or less of a man. I find that when it comes to building bridges there may be great potential but very little possibility for a heart yet chaotic and unbelieving.  

I made peace with my queerness a few years ago and came out to my family shortly after. Before my acceptance of myself, I viewed every emotional connection that I made as a mistake, a manifestation of a controllable flaw, of my failure. Whenever I realized a budding connection I would freak out and take it God on my knees asking for redemption, often prescribing my own penance. My acceptance of myself is a continuous journey even long after coming out to my family. But one of the most striking perks of my acceptance journey is that I am more open to and forgiving of many parts of myself as well as those of my family. 

It is no longer strange for persons that deeply care about me to resist the idea of my queerness or to even throw tantrums. It is not strange for me to be hurt from their resistance to my queerness or to interpret it as plain hostility. However, I am learning every day from the Igbo saying ‘Onye kwe, Chi ya e kwe’. The universe aligns where and when you direct it to, where and when you manifest, where and when you believe. Aligning may take a very long time and the pace of it is often outside our control but it is surely on the way. 

It would be fun to wake up to a world where everyone is aligned to inclusivity. It would great to not have to smile and sashay away when aunties ask me when I intend to marry a girl and make babies. It would be less tedious not to have to set up so many walls when I am seeking out companionship or even worry that I may not get a job when I return home to Nigeria because my CV visibly screams queer rights interests. However, I would not trade in the organic evolution that comes with being present in my journey as an Igbo Nigeria male person through academics, faith, work, and life. I am still learning about how best to be a man in the world. I am still learning about how best a man can love another man in the world. Navigating a man’s love is one of the most challenging aspects of being a same-sex loving man. A woman’s fury is nothing compared to the chaos of four traumatised scrotums in a relationship. Nothing has terrified me more. But I am open to becoming more and more an Igbo man growing and evolving into his masculinity, queerness and love. This trajectory of becoming has played a great role in enhancing my experience of love, both mine and the love of others directed at me. Increasingly I thaw and grow in places that I did not know existed for me.

In some of these growing places, men impress men. So many of these men I hold close to my heart and they continue to inspire the man that I am and the one that I am becoming. So many of these men have built bridges into and across my heart and some of them so far sexually and romantically from me, but yet firmly holding and marching with me. In 2020, when my mum called me Odogwu, years after I came out to her as queer, it meant the world to me that we as family were marching on amidst all the chaos that Nigeria can be queer persons, to the point where my masculinity is as legitimate and incredible as those of all these men that impress. 

Auntim Jane...She always begins with ‘hmmm, look at you.’

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