while the nigerian government wants to silence the love of lgbt people in the country, they continue to love. the following is from my book, "illegal citizens: queer lives in the muslim world"
love in lagos
Nigeria. Just the name of it brings up so much. In Africa when we think of this beautiful country, it is always the population that first comes to mind. It is the most populated country in the continent with an estimated hundred- and-forty million people, which also ranks it ninth in the world. But population is not the only wonder. Nigeria has the largest African cinema, often called Nellywood—popular as far as Japan and Australia. The country is also one of the oil-rich soils in the world.
Here, the rivers Niger and Benue come together... hold hands... and follow each other into the Gulf of Guinea. Not far from there lies a city called Lagos. It is the former capital, with nothing ‘former’ and everything current. It remains to be the largest city in the country, with more than fifteen million people. It is most certainly one of the fastest growing cities in the world, and happens to be the largest in Black Africa.
Bolaji was born here, to a Muslim family of Yoruba-Hausa background. His great grandfather came to Lagos in the early 1900s as a young man to work in the city, which was then beginning to become a success. He was Hausa and hailed from the north. Once in Lagos, the man fell deeply in love with a Yoruba Christian woman. Without his family’s knowledge or approval, he married her. By the time they found out, she was already a Muslim.
Bolaji’s story is somewhat similar, with a bit more heartache.
“When I was little, my neighbor boy and I used to play with each other,” says Bolaji, with a smile. “It was innocent. Nothing mischievous. Then once in secondary school, everything become mischievous, of course,” he adds, with a very distinct laughter.
That boy is Yarow. Yarow is actually not even Nigerian. When Bolaji was five, seven year-old Yarow’s family moved to Lagos from Kampala, Uganda. A prominent Christian family, they fled the oppression of Idi Amin and sought refuge in Nigeria. “I feel lucky that his family chose to live next to us,” says Bolaji.
Whatever childhood fun they have had, the young men thought perhaps it would be dangerous to continue doing what they were doing. “Then I told him that I loved him,” says Bolaji. “He did not like it and ran off. I hadn’t seen him for months. Then, one day he turned up. He said he could not get away from the feelings. He was in love with me, too. I was so happy.”
Everything was good.
“Then came the ‘Now what?’ of course,” says Bolaji, “we were both from wealthy families. Our culture is horribly homophobic. People in this country hate you for no reason. Any expression of love between two people of the same sex is considered horrendous. We did not want anyone to suffer because of us.”
They tried to live secretly, quietly without giving any hints. Bolaji says that did not work at all. The men were so in love that it had become clear to everyone who spent a minute with them.
“I come from a very business-minded family,” says Bolaji, a now 32-year- old architect, “from both sides, but especially on my father’s side. We are a business people, and business peoples have no time for religion. We are culturally both Muslim and Nigerian. We go to the masjid [mosque] but as a cultural meeting place, and we also go to our spirit dances. But Yarow comes from a devoutly Christian family. We knew exactly how they would feel about homosexual love.”
The couple went to Bolaji’s mom. She did not deal with the news as well as they had hoped. She became very angry, turning extremely manipulative by telling the boys they could either leave town or that she would expose them to the rest of the family. When they tried to use the “we have no money” trick, she provided money—and lots of it.
Afraid of what might happen if they stayed, the young men decided to leave. “We had no choice,” says Bolaji, “we had to go. Yarow’s family was very well connected in Lagos. We both remembered how they sent one of their own sons to prison for charges of corruption at the church he was maintaining. Who knows what they would do to us?”
Not wanting to find out, they decided to go to Port Harcourt. Another city by the waters, Port Harcourt was not a familiar town to either of them. All they knew was a common friend from their high school days. And unlike Lagos, this new city proved to be a bit hostile to the young men.
“The first day we arrived, we lost two bags,” says Bolaji, laughing. “And I got punched in the face when I laughed at a man making a funny face. And Yarow lost—well, it was stolen—his Rolex watch. On our way to the hotel, my hat flew away. Just not good way to start out in a new city.”
Within a week, they were back in Lagos.
Outraged by their return, Bolaji’s mother vowed to tell his father after the Ramadan, which was two months away, had passed. This gave the couple time to prepare for the worst. “We were ready,” says Bolaji. “We didn’t care anymore. This was our home city. We were not going anywhere else. If mother wanted to out us, we would deal with that.”
When Ramadan had passed, the mother decided not to expose the young men. Instead, she begged and pleaded for her son to stop being gay. After a while, Bolaji says the mother had come around when she realized she was unsuccessful. While she did not accept the relationship, at least she stopped taunting Bolaji about it. She had also agreed to keep their secret from the father, who was battling diabetes and high blood pressure. Bolaji thinks everyone else knows but pretends they don’t know.
In the meantime, the couple moved in together in one of the suburbs— Ikeje, a somewhat quiet district. Bolaji now owns his own film business in Surulere, a district that never sleeps. Yarow, like many in this city, works in the business district of the Lagos Island. They go about their day, frustrated with traffic like most Lagonians. At night, they come home to each other.
“It is a cruel, repetitive life,” jokes Bolaji, sharing a laugh with Yarow, “I love this man but he won’t let us be more adventurous. I would rather we travel the world and worry about where we will find an eatery next. Do you not think it would be nice to get lost in Australia or South America? But now we have a typical, predictable life. Maybe one day I will convince him to live out more!”
In a country with a majority of violently homophobic people, Bolaji says he wishes things were different. “It would be nice to be able to show affection in public and not get persecuted for it,” he says, “within our circles of friends and colleagues it is okay. This society is not ready. Everything is against us here.”
For now, living in love—however quietly—seems to be plenty.