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Udoka Okafor Headshot

What It Was Like to Be Gay in My Secondary School in Nigeria

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It was the middle of the night, and I was lying down, half asleep. My eyes flustered and every couple minutes, my hands made an involuntary move to my back to sway away the mosquito that incessantly bothered me. This was one of the mundane nights that dominated my ninth grade experience. At least, it was supposed to be. I was 11 years old at the time and I was to naïve to process what was about to happen. However, my naivety was coupled with something far greater, inquisitiveness.

In the boarding school that I went to, there were about 72 people in one hostel and each person slept on a bunk bed. So, naturally, everyone had a bunk mate and a side bunk mate -- the persons who slept in the bunk beds beside you. It was my side bunk mate that was involved in the event that I am about to reiterate to you, and for the sake of her privacy and that of the other persons involved, I would not reveal anyone's identity.

After about an hour of turning uncontrollably, hoping to drift away to the somber rhythm of the night and the mosquitos buzz, the screaming began. "I have caught two of them, I have caught two of them," someone yelled repeatedly. At that point, everything began to materialize very quickly. I immediately knew what that meant, so the events that followed were no less surprising than the constancy of the mosquito's disturbance, despite the warning attacks by my hands, that it stay away.

Before I continue the story, there is one key thing you should know. I went to an all girls private, catholic school situated in Lagos, Nigeria, and at the time, the boarding house was involved in a lesbian hunt. People were on a sharp look out for gay persons in my school. In my country, the norm was to repress your sexuality if you were homosexual or identified as any sexuality that was not heterosexuality. However, and understandably so, it became much harder to do so when you were in the boarding school of an all girls secondary school. If you were suspected of being a lesbian, hawk-like eyes watched you closely and never gave you a moments break from their judging stares. And, if you were caught in the act, you were immediately expelled from the boarding house. So, when someone yells, "I have caught two of them", everyone is at an alert, running keenly to the sound of the voice, hoping to scope out their next prey.

My side bunk mate at the time was the person that was caught. She was in grade ten at the time and she was very close to a student in grade 12. There had been suspicions about the true nature of their relationship, but on this night, the uncertainties about their relationship proved to be answered. Since one of the persons involved was in grade twelve, everyone that was not in that grade, was expected to return to their beds. At this point I was still lying in bed, my eyes wide open, peering down with unanswered questions, and unanticipated pity.

When everyone one with the authority to be there arrived, the interrogation began. I call it an interrogation because that is the only word that comes close to describing the experience that you face once you have been verified as a lesbian in my school. "When did you to start this relationship, "when did you start feeling this way about each other", "when did you become sexually involved," why did you not seek out help when you found out you were sick," these were a few of the questions that were thrown at my side bunk mate and her partner. For every question that they did not answer or that they stuttered at, they were slapped or hit continuously until they answered. My school thrived on physical and psychological abuse to "control," "dominate" and "discipline," its students, but that is a story for another day.

Thirty minutes into the interview and they were broken. They had been hit and insulted so many times, that the breakdown was inevitable. My side bunk mate had broken down in tears and began apologizing for being gay.

When I was starting secondary school, I was nine years old at the time, and my mother pulled me to the side and warned me about homosexuality. She reiterated how evil it was, how homosexuals were animals, how it was against the Bible, and that I should stay away from them. At the time, I did not understand what she was talking about. But, in this moment, my mother's conversation was put into context. It was not simply my mother who felt this way, but as it turned out my school did too, and I would learn later on, that the majority of Nigerians did as well.

However, in that moment, when my side bunk mate started crying, it was not hard to reach in and confront her core humanity. At that point, I did not know anything about homosexuals, but I resigned myself to the thought that no one deserved to be treated in this way. No one ought to be forced to apologize for being who they were. No one deserves to be repeatedly hit and abused for something they did not seem to have control over. I looked into the eyes of the persons involved in their interrogation and they were blank, devoid of emotions. All they cared about was that my side bunk mate and her partner were gay and thus, did not deserve to be treated as anything more than they were being treated now.

The next day, they were reported to the school authorities, and in the days that followed, they were effectively expelled from the boarding house. My side bunk mate kept to herself the next couple of days, as she parked her bags in lonely despair. Her parents were waiting for her outside, and one could only wonder what waited for her at home. As she was walking through the door of the hostel, everyone looked at her with judging eyes, others looked passed her as though she did not exist, and many looked away from her saddened eyes. By all accounts, she was a good person, and her sexuality did not reduce her to the "animal" that everyone seemed to think she was. As she walked away, she looked back at the life she was leaving behind, and then, all of a sudden, she was looking at me. The sadness in her eyes was immeasurable, and so, as an act of protest, I smiled at her, and as a last act of deviance, she smiled back at me. And then, she was gone.