It is rare, if ever, that trans Africans get to write their own story. Author Akweake Emezi not only told the story of her transition, she forces readers to consider that there is yet another dimension to the contemporary understanding of gender—one that is couched in African spirituality.
“My surgeries were a bridge across realities, a spirit customizing its vessel to reflect its nature,” she wrote for New York Magazine’s The Cut on January 19. Emezi is a Nigerian and Tamil writer and artist, whose highly anticipated first book Freshwater is available later this year. Emezi’s public profile has steadily increased, most recently in a shoot with her photographer sister Yagazie by renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz, in the February issue of Vogue.
Emezi’s essay is intensely personal as she recalls the pain and discomfort of reducing her breasts and removing her uterus. It is also an account of a spiritual understanding that is often left out in stories of transition. Specifically, it uses the language of African spirituality in a conversation where African perspectives are usually left out or silenced.
“I’ve never heard of anyone like this,” the surgeon told me.
He was an old white man who had performed many surgeries on trans patients, from breast augmentations to double mastectomies. “Male to female, female to male, fine. But this in-between thing?”
In defining what it means to her to be trans Emezi begins to understand that she may be an ogbanje, a spirit child that lives between cycles of reincarnation. Found in the Yoruba, Igbo and Urhobo cultures, ogbanje are “born to die”, children born to torment the family by dying young only to be born into another child.
The possibility that I was an ogbanje occurred to me around the same time I realized I was trans, but it took me a while to collide the two worlds. I suppressed the former for a few years because most of my education had been in the sciences and all of it was Westernized — it was difficult for me to consider an Igbo spiritual world equally, if not more valid. The legacy of colonialism had always taught us that such a world wasn’t real, that it was nothing but juju and superstition. When I finally accepted its validity, I revisited what that could mean for my gender. Did ogbanje even have a gender to begin with? Gender is, after all, such a human thing.
The simplest myth (pdf) goes that ogbanje were the souls of children who gave up on life because it was too hard. Heaven’s gatekeeper, angered by their lack of zeal, sent them back to the world, where they refuse to live life to adulthood. In some definitions they are evil or malevolent, while some modern understandings have categorized ogbanje as a personality disorder of someone who is not following their given nature or talents.
In Wole Soyinka’s poem Abiku it is a metaphor for grief and hopelessness, while Ben Okri ogbanje character in The Famished Road is held in the physical world by the love of his parents, even as the spirit world tugs at his true nature. In Emezi’s understanding, they need not be male or female because of their rebellion against man-made norms.
In an essay on the transition of a nonbinary trans writer, this exploration of the metaphysical seems at odds with the clinical descriptions of doctors rooms, surgery and recovery. What makes the essay remarkable is that it challenges western notions of gender and looks at it through an African lens. There is no easy language to explain Emezi’s experience but that is because there are so few accounts of being LGBTQI and African.
In many places in Africa being gay is illegal, and occupying an identity on the broader gender spectrum is unfathomable in many communities. Still too often, Africans who do not conform to a traditional male-female relationship (preferably a union sanctioned by the church and family) faces being ostracized and even death. Acknowledging that there existed an alternative, pre-colonial, nonbinary view of gender is almost sacrilege.
It is why Emezi’s essay is important, because it forces the reader to think beyond the western notions of gender. To Africans, it’s a reminder that our understanding of gender was never binary, much less exclusionary.