Athropologist Kwame Edwin Otu on Normative Collusions and Amphibious Evasions
Kwame Edwin Otu, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia's Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies, recently spoke on campus about queer African studies, a Sager Series event.
In his research, Otu explores issues of sexual citizenship, gender, human rights NGOs, and neoliberal racial formations in postcolonial Africa, traversing the anthropology of Africa, race, gender and sexuality, queer of color theorizing, critical human rights studies, revolutionary forms of blackness and black aesthetics, and Afrofuturist practice. The study of race in postcolonial Africa is central to his work, as are critical inquiries about race in the African diaspora.
Otu completed his Ph.D. in cultural anthropology at Syracuse University (2016). In addition to his academic work, Otu has collaborated with Akosua Adoma Owusu, the award-winning Ghanaian-American filmmaker, to produce Reluctantly Queer, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year and was featured as part of the New Director New Films series held under the auspices of the Film Society Lincoln Center and MoMA. The film was screened during Otu’s visit.
Otu is currently working on his book manuscript, Amphibious Subjects, an ethnographic investigation of how self-identified effeminate men (sassoi) navigate homophobia and the increased visibility of LGBT human rights politics in postcolonial Ghana.
“Since the subfield of queer African Studies is still in its nascency, this presents an opportunity to highlight its dynamism and vibrancy," Otu writes. "There's a lot to talk about, then, regarding the contours and trajectories of the field in the age of neoliberal globalization and transnational LGBT human rights politics.”
Co-sponsors of this event include the Black Cultural Center, Black Studies Program, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program, and the Intercultural Center.
Before I actually proceed to talk about my paper today, which is entitled, "[Title of paper 00:01:13]". I'd like to share with you a brief anecdote...something that actually happened another Christmas break. I was back in Ghana to conduct a [inaudible 00:01:22] from the University of Virginia, and apparently my cousin who is actually a professor at the [inaudible 00:01:30] University in [inaudible 00:01:35] was also in town. He's a professor of economics. I have a film called, "Reluctantly Queer." Professor Harrison clearly made you aware of that. My cousin had actually, we've [inaudible 00:01:45] for 10 years. Somehow he had gone online to Google me. Ask the Google and you can find whatever you want, right? So, he enters my name, of course, in the search engine and whatever comes up had to do with a film like that. And, of course, the [inaudible 00:02:00] on LGBT human rights politics. My cousin somehow takes a screen shot of the trailer of the film I made, which is a section in the trailer where I am taking a shower, literally lathered in soap.
My cousin shows my family, my mother and my father, this image of Kwame in this naked pose showering. Immediately my parents thought I was actually, [inaudible 00:02:36] act in pornography. And not just pornography, I was actually [inaudible 00:02:43] porn. What immediately happens, what my parents are telling me, that my cousin tells them that I'm an embarrassment to the family, a disgrace to the family. Immediately my family calls me to call [inaudible 00:03:00]. My cousin has said, "It's true." Now, think about this. This is a cousin who has never reached out to me, or we've been out of touch for 10 years. And he has been out of touch with my parents for 10 years. He works at the University in California and you would think that, because of his pedigree, that he has some kind of critical consciousness around issues around homosexuality. But goes and tells my parents that I'm an embarrassment to the family. And for which my parents are truly troubled about the narrative. So, what do I do? It was Christmas. That was when the family got together. At that moment, I told my parents that we can't talk about this. [inaudible 00:03:44] And why is it that you trust my cousin more than I?
I wanted to begin with this anecdote just to highlight the ways in which in my desire, or as part of my desire to present this familial unity, I back into hetro-[inaudible 00:04:04]. I use "backing in" here as a heuristic. In what ways can we think about backing in in communities that are oppressed? How do you call oppressed communities in some instances, "backing" or oppressive ideologies and oppressive practices. With the story I'm going to tell you, although the work is an ethnographic narrative amongst the community of self-identified effeminate men in Ghana called Sassoi. So what I'm going to share with you is going to be more like a journey that I invite you all to join me in having.
In summer 2013, I returned to Ghana to conduct long-term, ethnographic field work among a community of self-identified, effeminate men, known collectively as "Sassoi." Sassor is singular. Sassoi is plural. A few weeks into field work, Coby, one of my team foremen asked me to accompany him to an Outdooring in Jamestown, the primary site of my field work and an old suburb of Accra. Jamestown is actually like a communal suburb. Here you can see Accra, the capital. You know where Ghana is, in West Africa. And now this is a little [inaudible 00:05:21] and how it looks. It's a coastal community, which means they have a lot of fishermen there. What is very interesting about this community is just the various [inaudible 00:05:33] of masculinity. Not only of the fishermen, it's also a pugilist community so most of them are boxers, coming out of this community.
Let's just think about why it is that the men are steady, who are self-identified effeminate men, choose to live in this community, which has such strong masculine presence. And thinking about how these multiple masculinities are not just entangled but how they navigate each other's presence. Formerly a colonial outpost, Jamestown is predominated by the Ghana ethnic group. And among them the ceremony is referred to as Pugermo. Repeat after me, "Pugermo." It means: going through the step or doorpost, the threshold of the door. It's introducing the baby, the newborn child to the world.
Coby was elated about the event, revealing that, and I quote, "It would be very Sassoi in character as the couple for whom the ceremony is being organized as Sassoi. They are renown for their wealth in the community and also for their industriousness [inaudible 00:06:42]." Surprised, I responded, "If they are Sassoi, then are they men that have sex with men or merely self-identified effeminate men?" Now here is [inaudible 00:06:52]. No, they are a male and female couple. I know it sounds strange, however the man is very feminine and the woman, very masculine. She was an outstanding footballer, by which she means a soccer player while she's in secondary school. Here in Gemstone, she's known for her past achievements in soccer. Her husband runs his own business franchise in the community, which includes a provisions store and a little restaurant.
Now, they have their third child, a baby boy and we are all very proud. The couple has done such an amazing job taking good care of their children and the community seems to enjoy their accomplishment. The event will be well attended because of how much respect and status they've accumulated. The Outdooring is special because, you know, we invest a lot of attention and money into these events if you want them to be breathtaking. So this was what Coby is telling me. And Coby, mind you, is a self-identified effeminate man.
Here is how Gemstone looks. Gemstone is actually a former colonial trading post. [inaudible 00:07:54] Here we can actually see, it's a former slave fort. This is here, too. And the fact that you do have this historical edifice, in this particular space, says a lot about the contiguous or the durability of enslavement and colonialism in this particular space.
At the time, I [inaudible 00:08:22] to be an effeminate man. Therefore, copies for a friend to female Sassoi and, in fact, a seemingly heterosexual couple appear to be contradictory to me. Indeed, [inaudible 00:08:33] revelation challenged my initial assumptions about Sassoi subjectivities and linguistic conventions, it equally revealed the fluidity and diversity of those experiences and identities, indexed by the term Sassor. Up until then, my knowledge of Sassoi was limited to self-identified effeminate men who are increasingly becoming targets of the Ghanian state and [inaudible 00:08:58] LGBT human right regime. I was later to understand based on intensified ethnographic interactions and observations that masculine men and even non-feminine men were also [inaudible 00:09:12] of Sassoi universe.
The Outdooring event represented one of my earliest interactions and experience to the complexity to the community of self-identified effeminate men. And those who share relations that orbited around Sassoi lives, has that the Pugermo, or Outdooring, as a ritual domain ostensibly presented Sassoi opportunities to collect and connect. Evidenced by the orchestration of the ceremony from scratch. Then, what outsiders myself would have figured, as only imaginable such as the bonds between heterosexual bodies and non-heterosexual bodies were made possible. From the Master of Ceremonies to the service, from ushers to [inaudible 00:09:55], the event literally ran on the backs of Sassoi, joined the ceremony. Sassoi subjectivity just refracted like that.
A low income community, Gemstone has such rich history, embodied by colonial and ritualized relics, [inaudible 00:10:12] castles, dungeons, and a former colonial trading post. In other words. Post-colonial Gemstone best[inaudible 00:10:18] traces of colonial times, evidenced by the durability of physical [inaudible 00:10:23] together with cyclical economic and cultural estrangement, which are visibly present in the lives of the suburbs residents. In spite of these colonial afterlives are left to us with post-colonial tragedies, citizens in this space, among them Sassoi, navigate the [inaudible 00:10:40] effects of the new liberal and new colonial collusion to utilize [inaudible 00:10:44] terminology very carefully. Evidently, Gemstone functions as a [inaudible 00:10:51] terrain, inhabited by a post-colonial subjects who undeniably lead and embody crumbled lives.
Here is an example of an Outdooring. Here you have the man and the wife. For the most part, [inaudible 00:11:08] Sassoi [inaudible 00:11:10]. You cannot talk about a ritual like this without having Sassoi involved. Because their involvement requires a certain degree of disparity. They are imagined as people who are [inaudible 00:11:22]. One thing they are there to do is to make your event or the ritual very vibrant. So just imagine how these self-identified effeminate men, who in this case are regarded as [inaudible 00:11:36] gender as male and female are so integral to [inaudible 00:11:44] ritual, a ritual in which a child is gendered. [inaudible 00:11:49] And it is at events like this that is where I become gendered. You have these queer bodies who are literally [inaudible 00:12:03] who's services are here for this event to be successful. And it's not that I'm trying to think about when I say [inaudible 00:12:11] participating in real rituals. Here this guy has become a [inaudible 00:12:21] so he is also transitioning from being a loving bachelor dad. These are some Sassoi who actually were at the event and they were to sing. The [inaudible 00:12:35] they were rhetorical masters. They are so good at using language. When they come to these places, their presence is intended to invite their guests to donate more money to them. [inaudible 00:12:50] or it is a funeral of the bereaved family.
Javier was born in Jamestown and when I first met him in 2011, he had lived his entire life until he secured a job to local and [inaudible 00:13:06] rights and justice [inaudible 00:13:11]. At the time of my field work, [inaudible 00:13:14] was one of few organizations in Ghana to address LGBT human rights issues. Coby's job therefore provided him with the means to live in a different suburb. [inaudible 00:13:23] Jamestown, which income he used to personally support his family. As self-described Sassor, Coby vacillated between identifying as gay, Sassoi and on occasion suspended his affiliation to these liberals altogether. For example, at his modest residence, he never discloses homoerotic proclivities or even details of the activities he undertook [inaudible 00:13:52].
In this presentation, I invite you to join me to take a short ethnographic excursion into my book project, which is an ethnographic examination of queer [inaudible 00:14:04] in new liberal Ghana. In the book, I explore in what ways the presence of self-identified effeminate men who currently inhabit the nexus of LGBT human rights politics and ideas. And the nation that polices sexual citizenship disrupts monolithic assumptions about sexuality. "How do [inaudible 00:14:23]" I ask. [inaudible 00:14:25] Ghana nations stakes imagination of a country as a heterosexual nation. How does LGBT human rights organizations also produce monolithic identities as homosexual? [inaudible 00:14:38] we need to think about. And how to rituals like the Outdooring [inaudible 00:14:43] complicate our understanding of how Sassoi navigate their re-identification as homosexuals. [inaudible 00:14:50] as vulnerable bodies amidst civil society's onslaught.
So what I'm trying to say is that, in Ghana, what we have written [inaudible 00:14:59] in the past decade, since 2006, when [inaudible 00:15:03- 00:15:59] Now I have a Muslim word in here, just to also think about the ways in which you do have these effeminate men dressed up and going to weddings. And Muslim [inaudible 00:16:08]. When we think about Muslim places as very conformative. Why is it that these men [inaudible 00:16:16] is because we have the [inaudible 00:16:18] to the bride and the bride invited them. And the bride knew that their presence there would actually make the event or the ritual of the wedding very vibrant.
After the black transition rituals [inaudible 00:16:30], I show in the project that they also model the boundaries between hetero-erotic and homoerotic desires and practices. In that regard, I think of our life transition rituals in the sense discussed by the French ethnographer and folklorist Arnold van Gennep, who described these events as rites which accompany every change of place [inaudible 00:16:54] and age. And because I'm a anthropologist, I really valued the way in ritualized spaces themselves are very paradoxical. In these spaces [inaudible 00:17:09- 00:17:13]. So I'm trying to basically understand or amplify the ways in which the kinds of rituals I observe in the field serve as a plot on which to think about the ways in which hetero normativity and homoeroticism which are actually imagined as polar opposites, somehow have these really interesting unimagined alliances. I maintain that the outdoor [inaudible 00:17:37] led to timid and transgressive selves, an unlikely relationship.
Secondly, I tend to a [inaudible 00:17:47] notions of personhood. [inaudible 00:17:49] African philosophy can be harnessed to make sense of queer self making in new liberal Ghana. Engaging, in particular with a Ghanian philosopher Kwame Gyekye, who asserts that the Accra people of Ghana construct personhood amphibiously. I aim to unsettle the racist dichotomy that puts African homophobia against western sexual tolerance. To be clear, a ritual such as the Outdooring [inaudible 00:18:16] how Sassoi in the era of the increased visibility of LGBT politics and [inaudible 00:18:21] homophobia amphibiously navigate the [inaudible 00:18:25] on which their lives are vested.
Sassoi subjectivities are therefore contingent on several factors, including ritual spaces, Outdoorings, and working in [inaudible 00:18:37] like this. Here, this is a [inaudible 00:18:40] event, so I'm trying to make the sense that the way Sassoi actually engage in their own self-fashioning or self-presentation is contingent on this [inaudible 00:18:49] find themselves. So at this [inaudible 00:18:50] event which are held at different parts of the city, we were very careful to dress up properly because we didn't want to draw attention from the community in which the organization was having an event for themselves. So they have to somehow master the identity by [inaudible 00:19:09]. So we dress officially to go to this event.
The space of the [inaudible 00:19:16] afford Sassoi the opportunity to embark on transgressing flexible gender boundaries but the space of the NGO, which is actually to help them talk about these things. Sometimes it produces the very gender boundaries that they are actually contended. They are transgressing in the rituals spaces. Now since [inaudible 00:19:36- 00:19:44] failed to account for the numerous occasions of queerness. I'm trying to use my work to intervene in these fails. I'm saying that anthropological [inaudible 00:19:55] like colonial documents and missionary accounts have actually contributed to this discuss of African heterosexuality. So the emergence of pre-African studies is basically to disrupt this narrative by grounding the accounts and experiences of queer bodies such as Sassoi.
I argue, therefore, that the birth ceremony I observed was evidently one set moment in which the scenes of homoeroticism and hetero-eroticism entwined. There not only was cohesion forced upon members of society but across members of the community. And for Sassoi, the Outdooring lent itself as a location for strengthening bonds that policed the non-normative and sexual subjectivities. This is what forced [inaudible 00:20:41] part time worker at a local NGO tells me about the ways in which the Outdooring ceremony is useful for them.
While we attend an Outdooring, a wedding or a funeral, we do our very best to add color to it. We do almost everything in unison and concert, and when he says "we," he means Sassoi. For example, only Sassoi can bring some touch of sophistication. Nobody else can do what we do. The styles we will present are unique. We wear our outfits, sometimes share the same fabric to appear uniform although they are sewn differently depending on the wearer's preference. Whether we are invited or not to an event, our presence implies simply that we are going to steal the show. So, here [inaudible 00:21:25] This is them. And when they arrived they look very gorgeous. The ways in which they immortalize [inaudible 00:21:35- 00:21:41] But what I also want to say is that the conditions in Ghana in a place where [inaudible 00:21:46] allow them to play these dynamics. So they are drawing on these [inaudible 00:21:53] to do something for themselves in ways that straight communities wouldn't do. [inaudible 00:22:02] Sassoi, by adding style or color he implies the provocative dances and the dainty closed up [inaudible 00:22:12] adorn. Animated, he declares, "Our attires speak for us."
These embodied expressions in addition to the [inaudible 00:22:20] in acts of gender non-conformity while distrusting the feminine-masculine binary, I also am likely to be condemned in these spaces. In non-ritual spaces, however, they are aware that such expressions might invite negative attention and responses such as the NGO. We have to very careful when we are in these spaces. Sassoi [inaudible 00:22:41] space. Event and time inform embodied self-presentations. They also highlight the contingencies defining Sassoi modes of self-fashioning and how the space of the ritual emerges as a set of conditioning hetero-erotic activity and hetero-eroticism. Sassoi active participation in rites of person parallels activities that occur during the liminal phase of the ritual process. Introduced by [inaudible 00:23:09] Ghana, the term "liminality" was popularized by anthropologist Victor Turner, which captures the threshold in the ritual process [inaudible 00:23:17] ambiguities that engender and destruct our possibilities, come to have a life of their own. The suspension of order enabling fluidity, malleability, and flexibility in this space, is therefore a pre-show feature of anti-structure [inaudible 00:23:30]. I insist, therefore, that Sassoi be seen as embodying gender nonconformant dispositions that are themselves [inaudible 00:23:39] of liminality.
My argument is that in this liminal space where the hetero-normative other is suspended and that's paradoxical because the ritual is a ritual that somehow conditions hetero-normativity. That somehow Sassoi, by being involved allow me to see the product [inaudible 00:24:00]. That in this space, although it is a hetero-normative ritual, the Sassoi embold is acceptable for them to embody their effeminate selves. It's really okay for them to inhabit this space just as everyone else. [inaudible 00:24:15] Sassoi subjectivities are strengthened in their [inaudible 00:24:18] to show thresholds that define rituals. In these ritualized [inaudible 00:24:22] effeminate subjectivities paradoxically come to acquire legitimacy. It can therefore be [inaudible 00:24:29] contribute to a particular social algebra that is constitutionally principal on which the success of the ceremony is measured. And in the cases of success include, but are not limited to, the grandness of the event, how good the food was, the [inaudible 00:24:46] sophistication of the emcee who is Sassor, the amount of drinks guests enjoyed, and the duration of the event. All of these are actually done on the backs of Sassoi.
The Outdooring I witnessed with Coby was [inaudible 00:24:59] a space where Sassoi felt the need to be effeminate with our [inaudible 00:25:03- 00:25:06] sanctions commonly instituted by hetero-normativity [inaudible 00:25:09] and forced compulsory heterosexuality. Furthermore, identifications as LGBT were less likely to be ferreted in these domains. Moreover, Sassoe as a construct are referenced as self-identified effeminate men and there were several transitions in this space. Basically what I'm trying to say is that the ritualized space actually forced us to have a [inaudible 00:25:32] understanding of Sassoi not as a homogenous category.
Here is an Outdooring where the woman [inaudible 00:25:40] masculine. The husband of this one is effeminate and also Sassoi. [inaudible 00:25:47- 00:25:52] of this universe. It's a very complicated universe. That just was [inaudible 00:25:56] as Sassoi only describes the effeminate man, is to miss the point which is why ethnography is so very important. Those [inaudible 00:26:02] we are going out there to basically live in the thicket and understand the fact that mess is part of how we live. It's good to be messy. It's a very messy universe. I'm trying to basically use my work to show the ways in which the nation state, the government of Ghana, tries to make this universe homogenous. Just ask LGBT human rights organizations also say they are queer. I'm like, but then you're not just queer, you're acting very complicated. It's a multi-verse out there and we need to understand that.
So Sassoi is there for a contested set of identification that challenges the idea that Ghana is a heterosexual nation. When you arrive at Ghana's airport, there's this big banner. So this was in 2011. When I arrived there was this big sign at the airport. Once you go through immigration [inaudible 00:27:01]. It says, "Welcome!! Akwaaba!! Ghana warmly welcomes all visitors of goodwill. Ghana does not welcome paedophiles and other sexual deviants. Indeed Ghana imposes extremely harsh penalties on such sexually aberrant behavior." So I make the argument that the presence of the Sassoi community, if you will, somehow disrupts this notion of the Ghanaian nation as purely heterosexual. Also, it calls into question LGBT human rights and [inaudible 00:27:33] liberals. LGBT becomes very tyrranizing because they refuse to accept or to understand that complex histories behind why Sassoi are who they are, how they navigate this space, and the kinds of culture they have created for themselves in the face of homophobia.
Accordingly, Sassoi also participate in the [inaudible 00:27:54] interventions to homogenize them as gay men in some context, while actively rejecting them as [inaudible 00:28:01]. The categorical imperatives of [inaudible 00:28:03] LGBT rights significantly impacts this reality. For example, in 2014, a LGBT human rights called [inaudible 00:28:13] in Kenya released a documentary that exposed the community of Sassoi in Jamestown titled, "I Didn't Want to Bring Shame on My Family; Being Gay in Ghana," highlighting the tragedies faced by men who have sex with men, MSM. Just understand the public health category. I'm not talking about getting out there, I'm talking about MSM. [inaudible 00:28:35] are so frigid in the video, [inaudible 00:28:40] openly declared that he was both gay and lived with HIV. Not taking into account how the Sassoi pictured in the video beside him would respond, Hilary flaunted his homoerotic inclinations in the public's fear.
[inaudible 00:28:55] in Jamestown, regarded then as one of the premier centers for minorities in gender non-conformity individuals, the video sent some Sassoi into hiding. Sassoi does inhabit a complicated zone where they fashion themselves as [inaudible 00:29:09] as non-normative in the cultural context in which they are situated. Simultaneously, however, Sassoi self-making strategies also challenge our understanding of normal, drawing from uncomplicated established values and practices of their communities. Little surprised, therefore, that the term Sassoe in [inaudible 00:29:28] interweaves several alternative parts of speech: noun, verb, and adjective.
I basically want to show here how involvement in many African nations have been helpful but then I also [inaudible 00:29:45] a down side. For example, I recently [inaudible 00:29:48] a video produced by BBC. The video was called "The [inaudible 00:29:53] to Be Gay." [inaudible 00:29:55 - 00:29:58] And the rejection of Uganda and what that revealed is so interesting. Talking about Uganda as the worst place to be gay. Somehow, to be worse than the worst, what if they say about Uganda about the world's worst place to be gay is really [inaudible 00:30:15] to think about Uganda as an entire complicated continent. So then Uganda becomes a center for [inaudible 00:30:22] which means that if you go there, the world's worst place to be gay, then Africa is the world's worst place to be gay.
But what this also [inaudible 00:30:29] in this narrative is the fact that if [inaudible 00:30:32] what if Africa becomes a type of homophobic government? These are the kinds of narratives I'm trying [inaudible 00:30:43] Sassoi tells you a story themselves. Yes, there's more phobia there but we shouldn't sort of...I mean Africa is [inaudible 00:30:54] homophobia. [inaudible 00:30:56] the fact that it was not a homophobic [inaudible 00:30:59 - 00:31:04] homophobia was important to Africa. History will tell you that. I'm trying to show the ways in which these [inaudible 00:31:11] navigating the vulnerabilities that are imposed on them or instigated by these NGOs.
I would like for use to see the ways in which Sassoi is a very complicated category. Now, in the universal Sassoi, you do have Sassoi as self-identified effeminate man but Sassoi itself means "[inaudible 00:31:44]". I'm trying to understand why these men choose to call themselves Sassoi which logically doesn't mean self-identified effeminate man. But then I hear the story down the line that they see themselves as effeminate or somehow [inaudible 00:32:04] nonconforming. [inaudible 00:32:06] so they are equal. So they are pro-equality originally to call themselves self-identified effeminate, [inaudible 00:32:22] any experience in that category. They shed our relationship and for [inaudible 00:32:27] they call themselves Sassoi. So, I'm interested in the ways in which Sassoi is not just a noun. It's also an adjective. And it describes men who are actually not just in family but choose [inaudible 00:32:40] and sachets around and they also call them [inaudible 00:32:44] sisters. So let me just read you a short anecdote for you.
Disrupting the idea that Sassoi are homogenous constituency, [inaudible 00:32:52] that all Sassoi are not the same. We have different styles and we express them differently. While most importantly we are people. We are human. We feel, too. And [inaudible 00:33:02] I argue, suggest the impossibility of uniformity while stressing the collective humanity of Sassoi expressed here as a noun. Does one [inaudible 00:33:14] in Jamestown describe Sassoi as a man who sachets around, swinging their wrists in a twirling fashion, twirls around the wrists effortlessly without fear or functions, and possessing the gate of immortal, I'll call such a person a sister or better an auntie. Sassoi are like that. Sometimes to well we exaggerate as like you see in RuPaul. Some of us like that show.
So also think about the ways in which we have ingested these words and ideas of queerness. So when I talk about the ways in which these Sassoi, it's not authentic. It's also a blend of other forms of queerness that we need to understand are circulating within what is called the "queer international." There's one [inaudible 00:33:59] in capricious understanding our queer identity from the United States. [inaudible 00:34:03] descriptions of gender non-normative men. [inaudible 00:34:11]presents an archetypal reality of Sassoi self-making. It may appear that effeminance is a significant reference point among Sassoi. However, there are moments in which an overly effeminate presentation of the self invites rebuke from both Sassoi who prefer to cloak their effeminance in secrecy.
In the Sassoi universe there is also men. Heretofore called street-acting men or men who are the town [inaudible 00:34:39]. And these are usually somehow intersected along the lines of class. We have gentles and larks. Gentles are the gentlemen and gentles are mostly married men who somehow have these [inaudible 00:34:52] changes to Sassoi. And there are the larks. The larks have a [inaudible 00:34:57] in Jamestown. They are mostly dependent on Sassoi because Sassoi tends to be very industrious.
Now, let me tell you a story. [inaudible 00:35:07 - 00:35:23] Then the woman tells her that, "My husband [inaudible 00:35:29]. I want you to sleep with him." This is a married woman [inaudible 00:35:35]. My friend went, "Oh, okay. How do you go about it?" Apparently, the woman was looking [inaudible 00:35:46] in Jamestown, in particular, is that the woman is very aware that homosexuality is a criminal act in Ghana. Ghana inherited this [inaudible 00:36:04] to its constitution whereby it criminalizes homosexuality. [inaudible 00:36:09] to a man instead of a woman because a woman is much more likely to break down a marriage [inaudible 00:36:27]. So these are some of the ways we need to think about how hetero-normativity best preserved by this kind of [inaudible 00:36:35] alliances. And after I want you to think about intangible answers, we need to look at the normativity of the [inaudible 00:36:45] that somehow there are moments in which [inaudible 00:36:50] contingent on homoeroticism. I'm trying to use this experience among Sassoi to show the multi-fareiousness of hetero-normativity itself. That it's not just [inaudible 00:37:08] hetero-normativity so whatever the peripheral of marginal normativities there are, they also need to be accounted for.
One of my central arguments in this work is to argue the Sassoi subjectivity making is not only queer, but also particularly Ghanaian. And much like the anthropologist Gloria [inaudible 00:37:30] who argues that [inaudible 00:37:31] practices in [inaudible 00:37:32] resurrected aspects of West African programatology and personhood, I maintain the view that Sassoi express affective registers affected by colonialism, Christianity, and ritualized capitalism. The [inaudible 00:37:47] terminology deployed by the Ghanaian philosopher Kwame [inaudible 00:37:51] subjects who constantly engage in the practice of amphibious identification. So that's [inaudible 00:37:59]
For [inaudible 00:38:00] the modality of self making exudes, and I quote, "Features of both commonality and individuality in this order argues [inaudible 00:38:12] life is lived in harmony and [inaudible 00:38:15] of others. A life of neutral consideration of aid and interdependence but simultaneously, [inaudible 00:38:21]for the fulfillment of the individual [inaudible 00:38:25]...proceeds to explain just how, "the Africans who show that all is needed purely commonalistic or individualistic." [inaudible 00:38:39] does insist that the individuals within the Sassoi order are not entirely crushed by their community as they have latitude for the sole obsession required to define their humanity and personhood. To justify the logic and the burden why and how they can particularly articulate on amphibious identification for making sense of their self-making. [inaudible 00:39:01] highlights that motley assortment of proverbs that is [inaudible 00:39:04] modes of self making among their kind.
So here are some of the proverbs. When a man descended from heaven, he descends into a human society. [inaudible 00:39:14] involvement of man depends upon his fellow man. So just think about [inaudible 00:39:18] man so it's very [inaudible 00:39:21] from afar appear to have it all together but which would be seen just standing individually when closely approached. Now, these problems are trying to retrieve or resurrect the significance of African philosophy for theorizing queer subjectivities in Africa. Because there are very few queer theorists of African descent who use African philosophy. My goal is to basically show the ways in which these existing African philosophical delineations can help us [inaudible 00:39:56] also complicate the ways in which men like Sassoi embody queer self-fashioning in new liberal Ghana.
[inaudible 00:40:05]proceeds to reference [inaudible 00:40:06] which translates as Siamese crocodiles to explain his thesis of amphibious identification. The Siamese crocodile is a crocodile that is double headed yet conjoined in the belly. For [inaudible 00:40:22] this symbol is consititutively a metaphor that not only captures amphibious self-fashioning but also the [inaudible 00:40:29] that define the self-styling process. Here, the crocodile has two heads. That's one head and that's the other head. We have one belly. They are both fighting. The two heads are constantly embroiled in a battle over food that goes into one belly. What [inaudible 00:40:47] is saying is that because Africa is imagined by colonial anthropologists are very [inaudible 00:40:53] that narrative by asking that [inaudible 00:40:58] amongst our difference, there is commonality and the individuality and that these two forms of being are always the exception. He uses this to basically capture the ways in which [inaudible 00:41:12 - 00:41:23].
I use this metaphor to basically capture how Sassoi also embedded in multiple universes. [inaudible 00:41:32] How do the Sassoi navigate the [inaudible 00:41:41] modes of self-identification amphibiously. On one hand, the LGBT man [inaudible 00:41:49] come into Ghana and tell them you are gay. And on the other hand, the [inaudible 00:41:53] to tell them you are heterosexual. How are they navigating these tensions and just precarious speech? By sampling [inaudible 00:42:02] I contemplate for a moment, just how Sassoi life [inaudible 00:42:06], the gay man I mentioned earlier, positioned themselves with vain against and on the frontiers of colonial Christianity and post-colonial identifications and queer liberal categorizations. Sassoi life was consistently shown that these categories are unsteady. For example, by articulating the identity and the documentary produced by AIDS Span, Hillary draws on queer nomenclature, just so the language is familiar to Ghanaians. Yet he also carefully struts the muddy terrains of the subjectivities in their conversation I had with him in the summer of 2012.
My question to him: does your family know about your sexual encounters with men? And this is Hillary's response to me, "It's really hard to tell. I don't tell them that I do Sassoe." Mind you, he says, "I don't tell them I do Sassoe." Because Sassoe, those men who are called gentles and larks, they are called Sassoi because they engage in the act of homoeroticism, not because they are effeminate. So here, the act of homoeroticism becomes engaged in homosexual activity. "I don't tell them I do Sassoe, they only know that I am Sassoe. I respect them so when I'm around them I'm very careful about what I say or what I do. I am comfortable joking around my friends about my sexual encounters, however, I have to be sure that jokes about my sexual encounters with men are muted when I am around members of my family. It is very difficult to even tell my mother that I'm a peer counselor for men who have sex with men at the NGO. She only knows that I work in HIV related projects. As for my sister, I believe she's aware of my homosexual encounters because she has two old friends who sleep with women and are also my good friends. However, I believe she understands as a sister. On the other hand, my mother is very humble and a respectable member of my family and the community and I don't want to break it apart."
"Kwame, many Sassoi are in the same shoes as me. Most of us don't talk about our lives with men. Those who have done it, the consequences have been grave. Would rather live a life under the carpet rather than live openly as a gay man. You know all of this is out of respect because once you say you are gay in this community, it reflects not so well on your entire family and community. People will talk and insist about your family. And most of us want to avoid the consequences that our homosexuality can bring so I'm better placing it in secret." This is where Hillary seems to be bugging in with hetero-normativity, but doing it in a way that is also tactical. And, mind you, I actually get the term "bugging in" from the Turkish feminist called Denise [inaudible 00:45:02] who talks about picture called [inaudible 00:45:05]. How me men in places of patriarchy somehow have to bug in the partiarchy but then we need not think about the act of bugging in as oppressive but as a strategy and a tactic to navigate and to prove to the patriarchy that it [inaudible 00:45:22] institution and not so wicked.
We need to view Hillary's responses [inaudible 00:45:30] how he embodies selves that were at once contradictory and coherent. These selves, which I call them [inaudible 00:45:37] are neglected by [inaudible 00:45:40] together with a nation that criminalizes homosexuality. In the above narrative, Hillary articulates the self deeply embedded in his family in which he masks his engagement in homoeroticism or his [inaudible 00:45:53] for MSMs. Although his family partially relied on him for financial assistance, derived from his participation at a local NGO [inaudible 00:46:03] his LGBT organized activities in these organizations were shrouded in secrecy by him and those who knew about the details of his employment. Sassoi as a community are themselves very protective of their secrets in the societies in which they are embedded. In Jamestown, the community knows that these men engage in homoerotic acts. It's like a public secret. But the one that [inaudible 00:46:31] intervene, it becomes a public knowledge and these are the kinds of tragedies they are having to navigate.
And cut in the fact that Hillary may have been navigating the landscape amphibiously, the Aids [inaudible 00:46:43] video rendered a subjectivity homogenous and simultaneously queer, victimized and plagued by HIV. Hence I stress here that we move beyond narratives of queer victimology and as gay men as [inaudible 00:46:59] of HIV, which often reinforces African phobia. To reconfiguring Hillary's subjectivity as possessing multiple competing contradictory and even liberatine selves. More about these Sassoe on location are fully incomprehensible to his family, the [inaudible 00:47:18] of Jamestown [inaudible 00:47:19] the ethnographer. Hillary embodies [inaudible 00:47:23]. Particularly as he moves among spaces, among people within organizations, and while enduring a painful immunodeficiency disease. By drawing on the tragedies of the self which I describe as amphibious subjectivity, Hillary collapsed the constitution of Sassoi as a verb, noun, and adjective. [inaudible 00:47:44] at an NGO, Hillary was his subject of access to a salary job and connections to western human rights NGOs. Such organizations in Ghana are perceived as inflated American dollars and European euros, [inaudible 00:47:58] affiliation of or cessation of the respectable in the public's fear.
In conclusion, then, I maintain that Hillary ultimately straddled the realm of respectability and unrespectability. For instance, Hillary's access to the trickling streams of queer dollars situated squarely in the race towards fully competence which, of course, [inaudible 00:48:20] is contingent on biological father whose marriage amends to productive capacities. So what I'm trying to say is, by virtue of his proximity to these [inaudible 00:48:31] that were literally inflated queer dollars, Hillary elevated his class teachers. Such elevation made him masculine. But some masculinity was undercut by his effeminacy. We really need to understand the ways in which gender class and all these somehow make complex Sassoi dispositions. However, his own marriage stages the shifting meanings attached with effeminate issue and [inaudible 00:49:03] opined him to reprimand.
Overall, what is identity? One may ask for Hillary, who is worked between the transnational LGBT human rights movement and the nations that in a civil society that continues to police and make bleak prospects for queer citizenship. This is, perhaps, as question I respond to in my book by highlighting how Sassoi navigational queer politics and hetero-national politics make us understand the utility or usefulness of our previous self-making. Hillary's identity, much like the identity of the colonized subject described by [inaudible 00:49:41] theorist. It's from them that, and I quote, "The uncivil point where the unspeakable stories of subjectivity read the narratives of the history or culture and since he or she is positioned in relation to cultured narrative which have been profoundly exprocreated, the colonized subject is always somewhere else but be marginalized, displaced always other than wehre he or she is or is able to speak from." And it's that kind of position or location, that's where Hillary oppressed from.
Thank you very much.
Anachelle: I think that when we study oppressed communities so often we can get into trying to present narrative but not trying to amplify them. That is something I'm learning more of now and my idea of how I think about black men, it's not oppressed. It's a different thing that has. So how did you come to making this framework? How did that occur to you? I think that is something that is really unique and stands out in here in your presentation so what made you come to that realization and what is it gay?
Edwin Kwame Otu: I was interested in cultural entities.
It has to do with [inaudible 00:51:20]
It's also derived from how these men speak for themselves. What do we have to learn from the people we study? I'm challenged by that question all the time because we invariably go into these communities and [inaudible 00:52:50] are going to rescue them. And I don't want to participate in [inaudible 00:52:54] politics because it is a very violent and [inaudible 00:52:57] state. Moreover, what I want to do is have them teach me their ways, their language [inaudible 00:53:04]...to the people I spoke to. They are the people who taught me to think about [inaudible 00:53:14]....to make everything clean. My goal is to make everything messy. [inaudible 00:53:51]
[00:54:11]These are the kinds of things I've learned from the community [inaudible 00:54:12]
Speaker 4: [00:54:36]I have a question. You spent a lot of time at the University of Ghana, I'm curious to know how students, graduate students there, how they navigate this position.
Edwin Kwame Otu: That's a very good point. To look at the space of the University are very different because [inaudible 00:55:01]....
[00:55:30]So what I'm seeing in my research is the ocntentions along the lines of class and education, between Sassoi and these gay men who are [inaudible 00:55:43]. So at the one time, they are all so [inaudible 00:55:50] So there are tensions in the field between [inaudible 00:56:02] and the Sassoi because the Sassoi felt he was pretty detached from the universe. Somehow the students at the university are [inaudible 00:56:12]
[00:56:45]Then gay becomes like a strategic nomenclature, or LGBT [inaudible 00:56:50]
Speaker 5: I was just curious for the next part of this in places like Jamestown, where I'm sure they still have some traditional government system, how does that impact persons who are allowed to hold positions in a community?
Edwin Kwame Otu: Jamestown is interesting because it's where I came from. I always [inaudible 00:57:35] because Jamestown, as it were, is still a very masculine space. It's a fishing community so then [inaudible 00:57:52] but we also understand that Jamestown has a very recent history of boys cross dressing. So an elected official in the community will go on their fishing expedition with boys who have cross dressing. [inaudible 00:58:12] These cross dressing boys are assumed to possess supernatural power. And that allowed for Sassoi[inaudible 00:58:31]
They believe the young men but they believe the spirits after them are female. So, the cosmology is somehow flexible such that [inaudible 00:58:55] or presence of these men is essential except that [inaudible 00:59:00]....
Speaker 6: [inaudible 00:59:34] I was thinking of those two images, one at the beginning of the [inaudible 00:59:40] and the sign prohibiting sexual deviance and about the history that connects them, and I was thinking of the [inaudible 00:59:47] where the families were broken in the 18th century and 19th century Ghana was colonized and then 20th century afterward presumably during the post-colonial time, they are setting up this sign that ostensibly protects your family again from outsiders. So I was wondering, first of all, what kind of rule the 18th century slaving past, definitely Ghana's history plays into [inaudible 01:00:16] over sexuality and also about the laws. The laws you are referring to in the signs are they still relics of those codes? And finally, also the questions [inaudible 01:00:32] that are coming, who [inaudible 01:00:35] whether that sign, is it directed at them?
Edwin Kwame Otu: [inaudible 01:00:43]
[01:04:10] In Ghana, it's all about the family. But then the family, like the nuclear family in particular, because that is what Ghanaians see as the [inaudible 01:04:18].
[01:04:32]These competing identities and this is why Sassoi want to navigate carefully [inaudible 01:04:39] spaces in ways [inaudible 01:04:41].
Speaker 7: I'd like to ask you a question about your approach and your method in the field, and part of what I'm thinking about our students who are considering perhaps doing field research. But I'm also thinking about you as a person, you as an ethnographer, and I'm also thinking about myself, too and how sometimes I know I'm going to a particular place with a different culture, I will prepare myself by packing certain things. I'm going to pack stuff I think that are modest clothing to go to my Islamic countries. Or I might bar myself from certain words or say I'm going to take these words out of my vocabulary. How do you prepare [inaudible 01:05:31], going to Ghana on Monday, and in what ways to you package yourself so that you can [inaudible 01:05:39] conversations with folks on the ground and hear what they are saying.
Edwin Kwame Otu: [inaudible 01:05:47] I don't even dress like this because to dress successfully would actually announce who you are and what you do [inaudible 01:06:05]...
[01:06:18]She's a woman and she's queer. So she goes to Ghana, she's a white woman, [inaudible 01:06:23] and she's walking through the market and she [inaudible 01:06:27] and she could hear the women of the market asking, is that a man or a woman? [inaudible 01:06:37] has some breasts. And then she [inaudible 01:06:43] . [01:06:51]Yeah, I have to prepare myself for [inaudible 01:06:56] it's also the fact that I've been here for 11 years so I'm very very [inaudible 01:07:01] is to call to question the notion of the [inaudible 01:07:10]...
[01:07:32]So just go. Just go there and explore. [inaudible 01:07:36]
[01:07:52] Just let yourself go. Really.
Speaker 8: [inaudible 01:07:58]
Edwin Kwame Otu: [inaudible 01:08:14] I'm going back to my notion of public secrecy that people do know that these kinds of [inaudible 01:08:26] choices exist. [inaudible 01:08:31] So I'm thinking about the ways in which [inaudible 01:08:35]
Speaker 9: [inaudible 01:09:35]
Edwin Kwame Otu: [inaudible 01:10:00]