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GH2013

Once Upon a Time, Men Held Hands in Ghana

My earliest memories of Ghana are centered the market. “They” must’ve taken me there often in order for these memories to be so indelibly printed in my mind. Or perhaps a singular visit left such an impression that my imagination has created multiple visits.

I have memories of a muddy ground.
Nkatie cake cut into sharp-edged rhombuses.
A girl who towered over me serving me cool water from a an enormous brown bowl and being corrected. “It’s not a bowl. It’s a calabash.” Money was exchanged – 8 pesewas, if memory serves correctly – and the girl and her magical calabash disappearing into the throng.
A kiosk where an elderly woman fussed over my sister and I, chattering excitedly in a language I’d previously only heard my father speak with close friends in the living room in our home in Ohio, but now surrounded me on all fronts. “Are you speaking Tree?,” I asked, interrupting the elderly woman who was conversing with my grandmother. She laughed loudly. “It’s Twi,” my grandmother said in loving correction. Nevertheless, I was embarrassed by my error, overwhelmed by the bodies pressed and moving against one another and above all, hot. My sister never spoke back then, so I decided to emulate her example by settling into a muteness that was uncharacteristic.

This didn’t last long, of course.

You learn a lot about people by watching them, but much more if you converse with them. Everyone and everything in the market was fascinating, and a child such a myself couldn’t help but ask questions.
“Why do people carry things on their heads?”
“Because it’s easier.”
“Why do we eat food with our hands?”
“Because it makes the food taste sweeter?”
“Why are those two men holding hands?”
“Oh! That means that they are good friends.”

Because they are good friends…
I wondered if I’d ever make a friend in Ghana, my new home, who would want to hold hands with me that way.

******

Ghana has become such a deeply homophobic country that you might think I’ve made this memory up. So ferocious is the opposition to the expression of affection from one man to another and so fearful that any physical contact between men might signal sexual attraction has become that I doubted the veracity of these memories myself. This morning, I sent a message to ask my father about the custom.

“Do you remember a time in Ghana when men used to hold hands, Daddy?”
“Yes. But it didn’t mean anything to us! I even used to do it. (inserts several emojis to shield his embarrassment.)
“I know. It was just a nice custom I wanted make sure I was remembering correctly.”

My father quickly changed the subject to his health. My dad is a ‘good Christian’ African man and as such has embraced his homophobia with his chest. There would be no further conversation about men and myriad expressions of affection between them.

******

Yesterday a draft version of MP Sam George’s Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Bill was made public. The bill proposes broad sweeping suppression of any form of sexual expression, sexual identity or sympathy for sexual minorities. It even goes so far as to criminalize intersex people at birth, stipulating that they undergo surgery to correct any ‘anomalies’ that place them outside of binary expressions of male/female. It further proposes jail terms for any adult who instructs/teaches/explains human sexuality to children outside of heterosexual relations. The bill is a eugenicist’s wet dream; and if it passes – or rather WHEN it passes – it will set a dangerous precedent that gives the Ghanaian government unfettered access and control over the bodies of ordinary citizens and even go as far as giving the government the right to define who is human and who is not. This is the same thinking that justified the trans-Atlantic slave trade, an evil enterprise from which the continent has yet to recover. His proposed bill employs much of the same language used in previous Acts and Laws keep races segregated, disenfranchised and dehumanized. It is very much an apartheid bill.

What is most astonishing about this bill, suspected to be backed by right-wing elements in the US and Europe, is that is uses the notion of “Ghanaian values” to buttress its many poorly made points. The concept of Ghanaian identity is a young one, only 64 years old. As a nation, we have not truly come to define what it means to be a Ghanaian. The cultures, norms and mores that make up the face of the nation are too vast, and there has been no consensus on what makes us, US. Journalist Nana Ama Agyemang Asante put it to me best when she said, “What defines me as an Asante woman is completely different from what defines me as a Ghanaian woman.”

As an Asante woman, she expected to be verbose, proud and opinionated. But a Ghanaian woman, as we know, is supposed to be demure, servile and satisfied to sit under boot of patriarchy. What then are supposed to be the common things to bind such two differing definitions of womanhood? Is coherence between the two even possible?

******

In Sam Goerge’s and his bigoted NDC cohorts’ version of Ghana, it would be a criminal act for two men to be seen in public holding hands. This, they say, is a contravening of our mores and customs. But only some 30 years ago, men strolling hand-in-hand was a high expression of friendship, kinship and camaraderie, demonstrated in public without shame. This changed when Ghanaians embraced more western values, found themselves humiliated by any practices that did not mirror or suit the white man’s gaze, and a gradual, willful forgetting of who we were. And if we’ve forgotten who we were, how can we discover whom we are meant to be?

What then does it mean to be a Ghanaian, in the mind of a man like Sam George and his supporters? Is it to be an oppressor? A tyrant? Someone so intolerant of the many human realities that exist that you would criminalize the birth of certain children? Is this the nature of the God you claim to represent? Is this righteousness, or are you rather the brood of vipers Christ Himself decried?

I put to you that the men and women behind this bill, fueled by their xenophobia and informed by their western religious fanaticism, neither know or understand what it means to be Ghanaian at all.

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