The gay taboo in Nigeria: "I don't lose sight of the struggle"

It’s now nearly nine years since Bisi Alimi made the decision to come out as gay on national Nigerian television. He hasn't stopped fighting since.

Bisi Alimi had trouble getting people to come and talk to me: “When I sent a text about this interview people asked if you’d have a camera or would take their names. Still people wouldn’t turn up. Most of these people are miles from home but you can feel the impact on their lives, even in a liberal country like the UK.”

In the end, only one has shown up: a young man called John* (name changed). He came to England from Nigeria as a student in business management: “I started to think I might be gay when I was 11, in Nigeria. I never discussed it with my family. I discussed it with them when I was in London. They just don’t think that’s what I am. They think I have to be normal, get a girlfriend. It’s a disgrace to them. It’s difficult to change - I enjoyed being gay in England. I’m proud of myself. If I want to go back I have to pretend to be straight. That’s the difficulty with my life.”

It was a meeting with Alimi that helped him: “Bisi welcomed me any time I needed him - always advised me to call him. He’s just always been there for me. He’s also pushed me to speak up: I can be who I want to be.”

It’s now nearly nine years since Alimi made the decision to come out as gay on national Nigerian television: “I’ve talked about it over and over again - it was about wanting to save myself the pain of being outed by an organisation bent on writing falsehood about me - I could either take the power from them or let them write about me in destructive language. It was also about me wanting to break the silence on sexuality. The time was right to stop pretending this doesn’t exist. The backlash was horrendous. It almost cost me my life. I was lucky enough to escape in 2007 and I ran to the UK. I got asylum in 2008 and have been living here since then.”

The guilt of his flight, he says, never leaves him: “My friend David Kato was killed in Uganda, and another friend was killed in Cameroon. They were brave men who could have run. I look back and I say maybe I should have stayed. But he who fights and runs, lives to fight another day. I’m still fighting. I didn’t lose sight of the battle. I’m still involved in the struggle. The Nigerian media won’t talk about this issue without reaching out to me, so I must be doing something worthwhile.”.

Alimi senses a change is coming: “Ten years ago Nigeria didn’t understand sexual orientation and gender identity. Now people are challenging the language and challenging their pastors. There’ll be a time - like in the UK - where gay rights could be a winning ticket for a politician. You forget it was only 40 years ago homosexual acts were decriminalised in the UK - most African countries are only 50 years old. We’re expecting so much from them, despite the fact they’re beclouded by the struggle of colonialisation. Our identity was eroded by years of colonial manipulation - we expect countries to change because there’s social media, American sit coms and British dramas, but it won’t happen overnight.”

From England, Alimi is doing what he can to help recent immigrants: “With time we started to get people who were black British who didn’t recognise themselves as Africans so we changed our name to Black Gay Men’s Initiative. The whole idea was that this was something we wanted for ourselves - not some organised NGO attempting to rescue people. It’s run by everyone who attends the meeting. Even the refreshments involve contributions from members and that’s what matters to me.”

The main aim, he says, is to improve people’s confidence: “I remembered when we started in 2012: there were eight of us: and I remember we were going to take pictures. Half the men didn’t want that. The core of conversation that day was the struggles they were going through with sexuality and identity. The group has grown and the conversation is moving on. I feel like I can share what I feel and get more support from them. It comes back to the issue of confidence because there’s so many intersections. Now you have to keep them quiet.”

In the future, Alimi wants to move beyond the sole issue of homosexuality: “I look forward to a day where there’s a conversation of sexuality and race which takes on this gay group and also lesbian and trans people. I want politicians and policymakers to start developing an interest in issues that affect this population. Our challenge is to talk about sexuality from the black perspective. The question of why you’d want to become a woman or a man - these conversations are hugely influenced by religion. In that context it’s hard to have a rational conversation.”

And Alimi tells me that this influence can make the kind of charitable work he does more difficult: “Most organisations that provide social services for Africans in the UK are religious. A lot of them don’t want to get involved because of religious doctrine - groups are afraid of being involved with the larger picture because of the fear of stigma. We need to engage with people more.”

John seems much less shy when Bisi’s with us: “We’ve gained the confidence to speak - we feel like this is our family,” he says.

To learn more about Bisi Alimi’s initiative, visit http://www.bisialimi.com/

Gay pride activism in London, where Bisi Alimi is now resident. Image: Getty

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

Getty
Show Hide image

A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear