By Charles Gueboguo
Words are what make us human. When we speak, we should make sense everywhere. But how do you say, briefly and locally, “homosexual” in a place where homosexuality is neither understood nor accepted? I would like to explore this question in the Francophone African countries I have visited – Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Senegal.
During my stay in Burkina Faso, I learned that in one of the main local languages, Moré, “homosexual” and “homosexuality” is called “pouglindaogo.” Literally: man and woman together. This is in origin a reference to hermaphrodism, and by extension “pouglindaogo” means the effeminate man. Socially, it is the belief that he somehow contains both biological sexes. It is a form of therapeutic explanation of what appears to be strange or foreign. It is always “others” who label gay people using such words and, of course, we take it as an insult, yet in the gay community, men who play both the insertive and receptive role are called “double sided.”
I do not remember a term for women who have sex with other women. In the imagination of many, homosexuality can only be male, and it is rejected because it breaks down the barriers of genre. Hence, the emphasis in popular culture is to reduce the reality of homosexuality to the physical aspects and to effeminize it. Thus, in Dioula, another local language, to talk about homosexuals pejoratively, people say “tchiété moussoté.” However, I also noted that young people use the French words.
Within the gay community in Cameroon, male homosexuality is translated as “nkouandengué.” This is a new word whose main purpose is to camouflage the gay subculture from people outside the community. The male partner who plays the dominant role during sexual intercourse is called “koudjeu!” This is an onomatopoeic expression of manhood, equivalent to “ho-hisse!” in French. It is the cry men make when lifting heavy loads. The “koudjeu”, therefore, is the individual who, sexually speaking, is able to generate enough force or energy to bring the receptive partner to explosive orgasms. Partners who can play both roles in the sexual act are called “both sides” or “skirts”. The dominant model in this sexual identity construction seems to derive from the dominant male role in the heterosexual world. Female homosexuality is translated by the word “mvoye,” an Ewondo word meaning “good. Lesbians are thus proclaiming to their detractors that this sexual orientation cannot be anything other than something that is wonderful, even paradise.
The language system of young gay men in Côte d’Ivoire is based on a slang they call “nouchi,” a lively mixture of French and local languages. Here again, homosexuality is deofscribed in terms of the passive/active split derived from a heteronormative model. The insertive or active partner is “Yossi,” while the receptive or passive partner is “woubi.” These two expressions are borrowed from the Senegalese Wolof words “Yossi” and “Oubi,” which have the same meanings in the homosexual community in Senegal. The partner who can play both roles in the sexual act is called “cassette,” because he can “play” both sides. A “cassette” is not a bisexual. They are called “yossi famo,” while a gay-friendly heterosexual is called a “famo.” Lesbians are referred to as “toussou Bakary.” “Toussou” in the local language means a girl. Transvestites are called “contemporary women.”
In Senegal, the receptive partner is called “oubi,” which in Wolof means “open.” Obviously, the association is with the labia and, by extension, with the supposedly open (to penetration) and “submissive” nature of women in general. Another term, “gor-jigeen,” literally means “male-female” and is used as an insult, to suggest that the homosexual is not be a separate entity but an odd thing in between, a social identity as a woman in a man’s body. There is also an association between the dominant role. Older, more affluent homosexuals are referred to as “maamar,” while younger ones who often do not have money are called “mbéré” and are socially expected to play the passive role.
The categories identified here, how they identify themselves or how others identify them, each enunciates a specific mode of speaking about homosexuality. For some, this is the mode of stigma, where homosexuality designates the male-female or intersex, necessarily pejorative in social representations. For others, it is the mode of revaluation, where claiming one’s femininity becomes a statement of power and freedom. It is therefore a double male domination that invests and colonizes the arena once reserved exclusively to the female in order to reclaim it. Masculinity in all these environments refers to a relationship of superiority. The model of the heterosexual man dominating over women is taken for granted. The insertive partner can only be the “koudjeu” or the “yossi,” the manly partner capable of Herculean sexual prowess.
And because they are the dominant partners, in Senegal “yossi” rarely consider themselves gay. They also often have sex with women and rarely suffer the designation “goor jigeen.” Here, masculinity is synonymous with breath and power, symbolized by the vitalizing sperm.Within the dominant culture, homosexuality can only be expressed as strange and foreign, but within the gay subculture, this can also express a concrete decision to be an actor of one’s own freedom. The interlocutors make sure they use the same codes, the same vocabulary, or the same syntax – “kouandengué,” “toussou Bakary,” “Yossi,” “goor jigeen,” – but the metalinguistic meanings can bow to the demands of empathy, that is to say, the complicity between the transmitter and receiver based largely on the involvement of a collective imagination within the group.
Because the categories are intended to speak to each other, these designations are interconnected. They rely on feedback and create social links. Thus, what may appear to be conflicts based on language form the basis of a social dynamic and the unity of “sociation”, that is to say, of society understood as a process, not as a ready-made building. The effects of these designations, both within and outside the homosexual community, are the same. They encourage changes in thought patterns and perceptions and enable long-invisible categories to become visible and to commence the constant “tinkering” that circumvents normativity. Saying homosexuality is therefore to bring it to life. Even naming by denouncing is to give the thing denounced a reality. We can only denounce what is real, we can only say what we want to rationalize.
About the Author
Charles Gueboguo is a young sociologist specializing in LGBTI issues in Francophone Africa. He is the author of two books The Issue of Homosexuality in Africa, The Case of Cameroon (2006) and AIDS and Homosexuality in Africa (2009).