Homophobia in Senegal

While there is no Wolof word for “lesbian,” there are multiple words for the practice of a woman having sex with a woman, or a man having sex with a man.

Still from the music video of Ouzin Keita's "Beureung Barigo."

A music video by Senegalese singer Ouzin Keita caused some online stir in Senegal when it debuted about a month ago on YouTube. “Beureung Barigo,” which means “rolling the barrel” in Wolof, is a mbalax style song with simple lyrics calling on listeners to ‘clap’ for the singer. Ouzin tells his audience that that he “doesn’t know anything yet, but I’m learning….” As of early February, the clip had been viewed more than 158,000 times on YouTube, discussed on local websites, Twitter and TV. But the attention to the video has more to do with denigrating Ouzin than with the popularity of the song. Here’s the video.

Many of the comments in Wolof poked fun and insulted the singer; a few called him “gordjiguène” (a Wolof word that translates literally into “man-woman”, and is often used as a slur for “homosexual”) and said that Ouzin is “going nowhere.”

I honestly couldn’t tell much of a difference between the quality of this song and many of the other mbalax tunes I’ve heard (though admittedly I’m not an mbalax expert), so I asked a few Senegalese friends and colleagues what the premise for the online backlash was. Although many of the comments attack the singer for the style and quality of the song and dancing (‘boring lyrics’ was one critique I heard), some are also aimed at the singer’s gender and sexuality (‘I don’t know if he’s a man or woman or gay because of the way he talks’ one online commenter said). Others said the singer was dancing in an effeminate way and speaking with a lisp, which is what I was told was provoking the “gordjiguène”-related comments.

The use of “gordjiguène” highlights an important issue regarding local views on homosexuality and homophobia here in Senegal. Historically there is no word in Wolof that translates literally to “gay” or “homosexual” as the words are commonly used in the West in the late 20th and early 21th centuries. And while some African countries are making headlines for various anti-gay laws, such as Nigeria’s recent passage of a law banning same-sex marriage and membership of gay rights organizations, the Raw Material Company gallery in Dakar decided to address the issue of homophobia in Senegal with an expo called, “Who said it was simple?” (named for the Audre Lorde poem of the same title; hat tip to @rcoreyb for the heads up on the “Who Said it Was Simple” expo.).

When I spoke to the curator at the gallery about the expo, she told me the gist of the event is to explore how homosexuality, which is something that she says was traditionally accepted and integrated into society in Senegal, has become something that now often provokes vicious backlash. (According to the Associated Press, earlier this year, two men were arrested in Dakar for “engaging in homosexual acts” and sentenced to six months in prison; in January, four men were arrested for attacking and beating gay men in their neighborhood.)

The expo is made up of displays of Senegalese newspapers, illustrating how local media now treat the issue. A plaque at the entry declares that the “current radicalization” of homophobia is born from the tendency to now use “Western notions designed to define margins and minorities, while local systems of ensuring peace and social well-being remain erased.”

One of the points the expo makes is that it’s hard to discuss human rights in Africa “within an imperialist framework that imposes categories and creates identity where there were practices.” When I asked the curator for an example of what this meant, she told me that while there is no Wolof word for “lesbian,” there are multiple words for the practice of a woman having sex with a woman, or a man having sex with a man.

This way of recognizing “acts” without labeling the “actor” raises important questions: how important is it to be able to safely claim your identity in society? Is that not a fundamental human right as we are taught in the West? Does naming confer certain protections that are unavailable without the recognition of a specific identity, or does it simply create conditions for calling out difference?

To get back to Ouzin – while much of the backlash is outwardly aimed at the quality of the music, there is an underlying homophobic tinge to many of the online comments. While trying to analyze and address this issue, it could be helpful to remember the first words from Lorde’s “Who Said it Was Simple?” poem: “There are so many roots to the tree of anger.”

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.