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I came across this blog post about the number of countries in Africa (54) after reading about world birth rates on the CIA World Factbook site. In looking at a list of the countries in the world with the highest birth rates, I saw that with the exception of Afghanistan and East Timor, all top thirty were African countries. Niger has the highest birthrate in the world (and is considered the poorest by most measurements) and Nigeria is ranked #13. Seeing those 28 slots taken by African countries made me think that that must be over half of Africa, and it is.
Originally posted on Blogala Maho:
The UN membership roster contains 54 African states, and that of the African Union contains 53. While the AU list includes suspended members, it does not include a count for Morocco, who has decided to stay out of the AU. Thus AU’s implied total can also be said to be 54. Of these, 48 states are found on the actual continent, while 6 are island nations.
However, Africa is about to get a brand new country. Within less than two weeks, South Sudan will hold a referendum on whether or not to secede from the rest of Sudan. If it does secede, which currently seems likely, it would mean that the new total will soon be 55, right? Well, no, because the current total of 54 is true only to some degree.
Before I go on: what’s a country, anyway? I’m going to be somewhat untechnical here and use ‘country’…
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Fortunately, the issue of gay rights in Africa, in Uganda specifically, seems to be cropping up more frequently. Uganda has a reputation (with Nigeria following close behind) for being one of the most oppressive and dangerous countries for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Africans. Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill that proposed death for H.I.V.-positive gay men and prison for anyone who didn’t report a known homosexual was aside for now, but politicians are currently drafting a new version. An impetus behind their decision to table it was the brutal murder of famed LGBT rights activist, David Kato, who was bludgeoned after a local tabloid calling for the murder of gays published his name, photo and address. He was head of SMUG, or Sexual Minorities Uganda.
His story was covered fairly well in the Ugandan and domestic media, with The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Economist highlighting the crime. There was such much attention that two Americans debuted a documentary about Kato and the Ugandan LGBT, or “kuchu,” struggle called “Call me Kuchu.”
Most prominent international non-profits, such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Oxfam publicly decried his murder and the Anti-Homosexuality Bill as one would expect. Surprisingly though, while doing research on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations’ Subcommittee on African Affairs, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that helping improve LGBT rights in Uganda is on the agenda for the U.S. Congress in the upcoming year. Hillary Clinton has made public statements voicing support for improved protections for the LGBT community in Uganda, a pleasant compliment to Obama’s watershed reference to gay rights in his recent Inaugural address. The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations has immense sway in coloring some aspects of public policy in sub-Sahara, and hopefully their focus on this issue will be an example of positive influence.
Despite such an effort at improving human rights in Uganda, an immense challenge comes from staunch conservatives in the U.S., specifically Evangelical Christians. According to filmmaker Roger Ross Williams and Ugandan religious leaders who support human rights, fundamentalist Christian churches are investing huge sums of money into backing the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, supporting pastors who preach anti-gay sermons, and financing revivals and classes with heteronormative messages.
In researching human rights in Uganda, I couldn’t help comparing the situation to observations I made in Nigeria about anti-homosexuality legislation (and fundamentalist Christianity imported from the U.S.). The Nigerian Anti-Gay Bill that passed in the fall of 2011 prescribes 14 years imprisonment for convicted homosexuals. I was less surprised by the legislation than by the widespread support it seemed to enjoy among my neighbors and friends. Truly, I didn’t meet anyone who didn’t seem to advocate it, usually based on totally erroneous ideas about what same-sex relationships are all about. When I would bring up sex-related rights issues that seemed pressing for me, such as rape and child prostitution, the Nigerians I spoke with felt that homosexuality was far more alarming. I couldn’t imagine how a consensual relationship between two adults could be troubling, let alone more troubling than child sex trafficking, but for many I spoke with it was.
During my field research in Ogoniland I came across a cultural practice I haven’t encountered anywhere else in Africa. In some Ogoni communities of Rivers State the oldest or only daughter in a family is not permitted to marry or leave her father’s house, and she is socially (not physically) wedded to her father for life. She produces offspring with one or several male community members, offspring who take her own father’s name and become his heirs. The purpose of this is for her to have as many children as possible so they can work the family’s plot of land. Children are labor, labor generates income, and so fathers’ keeping their daughters at home is an income-generating practice. The tradition is called “Sira” and these daughters are described by some as having “Sira syndrome.”
I have spent some time thinking about the origins of Sira. I briefly hypothesized that perhaps in past generations male mortality rates were so much higher than that of women that there simply were not enough men to go around as legal husbands for single women, which is the historical explanation for the implementation of Islamic polygamy after many Muslim fighters died in religious battles in the 7th century. But if this was the case, why didn’t the practice spread to neighboring communities with a similar sex imbalance? Also, I think it is safe to say most men would like more family income, so why is it a uniquely Ogoni tradition? I haven’t found any answers to this question of how it originated.
Currently, the dynamics of the Sira households with which I am familiar vary. The woman may or may not have say over with which men she procreates, and the woman’s own father may be the one to make the decision. In some instances Siras freely take on one informal “husband” who fathers all or most of her offspring, while in other homes Siras have different fathers for each of her children. It is my understanding that in some communities, men may bring an offering or there can be a ceremony when a Sira “matches,” while in others it is strictly a numbers game in which the greater the sexual partners the greater the chance she will have many labor-producing progeny. Since such courtship is a delicate matter to discuss so I wasn’t able to learn much about how Siras match with their sexual partners.
It did seem fairly clear to me however that the practice is slowing dying out. Like most social changes I observed in Nigeria, rapid urbanization undermines such a tradition. Women moving into the city of Port Harcourt for work would be logistically unable to maintain the institution of Sira, and such a life experience would possibly alter their views of their filial obligations to stay as the social property of their fathers. I have noticed that rural-to-urban migrants also may distance themselves from traditional practices they consider too “bush-like” (their term, not mine). The gender differential in rural Rivers State, in which men have left farms in droves to seek city employment, may also affect how Sira is practiced, as women outnumber men in rural areas. Additionally, some I spoke to described the Sira practice as unchristian, as in, “This village stopped practicing Sira because we are Christians and the Bible says one man and one woman should marry.”
The practice of Sira presents a paradox in which culture is simultaneously a constricting but in a sense almost (but not quite) privileging force. It fundamentally violates the daughters’ right to choose their partners and have autonomy over their bodies. It is an oppressive practice because it infantilizes adult women. Being socially married to their fathers limits their choices, and for students of development theory, choices = development. Having their fathers’ determining their sexual partners violates their dignity, and for students of human rights theory, dignity = human rights. Yet at the same time, being a Sira did not appear, to me anyway, to be considered shameful. Ogonis did not speak of Siras in derogatory terms, nor did Siras complain to me about their status (although a life without many life choices often teaches us to accept our lot). I have met Siras with university degrees, some who work white-collar jobs, and others who have led protests and are politically conscious. Could these particular women have actually experienced more personal freedoms because they did not have a legal husband making demands on them? It also occurred to me that being a Sira could be a partially beneficial status because it is a purely Ogoni practice, so perhaps this status makes such women symbols of their ethnic group’s character, unique bearers of collective identity in their communities. As a self-identified feminist I maintain that the practice is detrimental to the status of women and I look forward to a time when the institution no longer exists; however, I have to admit that there are plenty of women in Africa and across the globe who have freely chosen their husbands and currently live under more subjugating conditions than some of the Siras I encountered.
The lesson for me: The tradition of Sira and similar practices of controlling women’s sexual behavior does not oppress such women on its own, but rather poverty, lack of education, misogyny and patriarchy combine to oppress women, and such practices are actually an effect of such oppression and not a cause.
Thoughts? I would love to learn more from my Nigerian readers who might be able to add any detail or illuminate any of the questions I asked above.