LGB RPCV NewsLetter - May 2007
Sexuality and Gender Roles in Niger
- Laura M. Bacon, RPCV Niger, 2002-2005
Our Peace CorpsDirector, when askedto describe Niger, oftencompared the culture of rural Nigerien life to thatof biblical times. I’m notsure if his analogy wasentirely apt, but he had a point.
When I ﬁrst met Amadou four months into my service in Niger, I feltunimaginable relief. Amadou was anenthusiastic, warm, generous Niger-ien living in the rural village next tomine. He had a man’s name, a lowvoice, huge hands, facial hair, andwas tall and built. Amadou also had painted nails, long braided hair, andwore high heels, make-up, and lots of jewelry. It was like a revelation meet-ing him. I had yet to ﬁnd anyone in Niger, PCV or Nigerien, who ﬁt intothe L, G, or B category. But now I haddiscovered a T.Amadou was the only NigerienI ever met who did not ﬁt ﬁrmlyand solidly into an obvious gender category, and this came as a beautifulrelief for me. I met him through myhost mother, his distant relative. I of-ten accompanied my mother on tripsto Amadou’s place to purchase vari-ous herbs and spices. Amadou’s socialcircle consisted of a series of loosely-related, ostracized adults, rangingfrom childless women and effeminatemen, to those with various disabilitiesand diseases. I never experiencedanything from Amadou’s mini-com-munity but welcoming, friendly, andselﬂess engagement. Consistent withthe hospitality and generosity ubiq-uitous in Niger, I was showered withgifts every time I visited Amadou andhis housemates. Although we devel-oped a friendship throughout my peri-odic visits to his household, Amadouwarned me when he happened to bein my village that he should never beseen near my home or talking to me.He didn’t want to tarnish my reputa-tion within my village by “outing” our friendship. Apparently his was alreadytarnished.Having spent most of my collegecareer in a very queer and queer-friendly community at Harvard, andhailing from the liberal state of Mas-sachusetts (which legislated same-sexmarriage while I served in Africa), joining the Peace Corps was a bit of a shock for me. Of our training groupof 45, not one person was out. In fact,there were fellow trainees who utteredhetero-normative statements, occa-sionally made homophobic remarks,and expressed the view that (says theBible) homosexuality is sinful. Inthose ﬁrst months, I began longingfor my community from home. I evendreamt during training of a magicaltraining session led by queer-friendlyrainbow-ﬂag-waving PCVs!Little by little things improved. Imet PCVs with more seniority whowere out or very queer-friendly. Ieven met one volunteer who was planning on beginning his post-service life in the States with his Nigerien boyfriend. And, when newtraining groups arrived, they includeda more vocal and prominent queer contingency than my group.Although my faith in the sexualdiversity of the Peace Corps wasrestored, there were other aspects of my experience in Niger that left mefeeling empty, lonely, and closeted inother, more substantial ways. What Imissed most, while serving in Niger,was not so much being around gay,lesbian, bisexual, transgender, andstraight-supportive individuals. Imissed witnessing love as I’d alwaysknown it, sharing my own romanticexperiences from the past, expressingmy sexual desires of the present, and being in the company of those whofelt free to do the same. I especiallymissed a societal ability to blur gen-der lines and avoid assumptions androle expectations.When we received our PeaceCorps welcome packets, there was anentire section on “special types” of volunteers for whom Niger may posedifﬁculties. This included those withdisabilities, vegetarians, women, andLGBT volunteers. We were all in-structed that, as PCVs in Niger, therewere many things we may have to getused to, suppress, or even hide be-cause of cultural norms. This was ﬁnewith me. I had certainly gotten used tothe idea of covering my head, shoul-ders and legs. And I knew I should notdrink alcohol in this Muslim country.However, I was unprepared to be bar-raged daily with:* the belief that I, as a 25-year-oldunmarried childless woman, was a pathos-inducing anomaly or, at theleast, a curiosity;* the practice of rigorously enforcedgender roles, with women alwaysseeming to emerge with less power and freedom; and* the absence of the following withinmy rural village: dating, mo-nogamy, ﬁdelity, expressions of attraction, gestures of romance andﬂirtation, and even displays of love between spouses.It is hard for me to describe theculture of Niger and how much itdiffers from that of the States. Our Peace Corps Director, when asked todescribe Niger, often compared theculture of rural Nigerien life to thatof biblical times. I’m not sure if hisanalogy was entirely apt, but he hada point. The food is similar: starches,sauces, and occasional meat. Life tra- jectory is short, generally non-mobile,and ﬁlled with family and neighbors.Religion is devout; prayer almostconstant. Work is hard, intensive andlong. Marriages are usually arranged,and often viewed more as ﬁnancialcontinued on page 6