Bisi Alimi is a Nigerian gay rights activist, who became the first gay man to come out on National TV in Nigeria. Born and raised in Lagos, Bisi worked in the Nigerian community raising awareness about HIV/AIDS and sexual health for gay men.
In 2004 Alimi appeared on Funmi Iyanda’s talk show New Dawn with Funmi and stating his sexuality, asked for social acceptance from the Nigerian public. Alimi was disowned by his family and friends and lost his home and job. After an attempt on his life, he decided to leave Nigeria and emigrate to the UK.
Living in the UK, Bisi has continued to be an advocate for gay rights within the African communities in diaspora. Blanck caught up with him to find out more about his views and his vision of homeland.
What is home to you?
To answer the question “what is home”, I have come to understand that home is the one place I feel safe, loved, feel that I can contribute to issues and exercise my civic rights, where my human rights and my dignity are not just protected but respected. Looking at the different challenges we face in this world as human. Whether because of our gender, our race, our class, our educational background or in my own case, sexual orientation, the inner longing to find home is ever nagging at the back of ones mind.
Since I moved to the UK seven years ago, I have to some extent found London to be my home. I feel welcomed, I feel to be part of the London community, I made my contribution and though London is not totally free from all the things I listed above, the mere fact that I can still seek social justice and find it makes living in London.
Do you miss Lagos?
Do I miss Lagos? Do I miss Mushin? I will be lying if I said I don’t. I really miss the fun I had as a child; I miss the buzz of living on the street and the fun of overcoming those unexpected dangers that come with living in a place like Mushin. I miss my friends, my families and the neighbourhood.
However, I won’t deny that in as much as I do miss Lagos and Mushin, I also realised that Lagos broke ties with me when I came out as gay and it was very hard then and even harder now to really relate to Mushin as home.
When last did you go Home?
Since I left Nigeria in 2007 I have never been back, it’s not a safe place for me. It would be sheer foolishness on my part to go back to Nigeria after the failed attempt on my life or the ever ending run-ins I had with the police. It is one thing to be a matyrr and another to live to fight another day and I think I would rather want to live so I can keep fighting.
Can you go Home?
The simple answer is NO! Unless otherwise I want to take a risk and sometimes I have said myself, is it a risk worth taking? I am not sure I know the answer.
What has been the impact of your sexuality and your coming out been in Nigeria?
It has changed the conversation around same sex relationship and identity in Nigeria. The fact is, do your research and you find that prior to 2004 when I came out on New Dawn, there were hardly any conversations around such issues. A few months before my coming out, Obasanjo was busying spreading false messages about no homosexuals in Nigeria. To my recollection of things, that was the first time same sex issues were making mainstream news. The media were reporting it and it was really getting airwaves. However, there was a narrative that was missing. The narrative of the real people. We were considered invisible by Obasanjo and there was that need to create visibility.It was a great shock when on the morning of that October, a guy sat on the sofa with Funmi Iyanda and talked about being gay. I mean in Nigeria? Till today I still received emails from Nigerians saying I must be mad to have done that.
Today we have a law that criminalises same sex relationship in Nigeria. The law came into effect because I spoke up and others have not kept quiet since then. Whichever way we look at it, the act of 2004 changed the discourse in Nigeria.
How do you view Nigeria when it comes to self-expression and being a gay man?
There is a culture of lack of self identity in Nigeria. I look around on social media and watch Nigerian movies and music and really can’t see anything Nigerian anymore. I mean I remember growing up with music from Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Sunny Ade, Ebenezer Obey, Victor Nwaifo, Christine Essen Igbowkwe and many other amazing musicians. Those were the days you can talk about “Nigerian” music inspired by Nigerian identity. I remember television series like Tales by Moonlight or watching “Arrow of God”. Real and authentic Nigerian drama without the noise and the over acting. Now we have lost the essence of what really it means to be a Nigerian. We are suffering from cultural disillusionment and that has led to lost of pride and reality.
An average Nigeria lives his/her life through the prism of euro-american lifestyle. The authenticity of being a Nigerian has been compromised with the desire to dress, act and sound American which is quite saddening.
As for the “gay” identity, I find it really liberating that more and more Nigeria gay and Lesbian are now becoming self identifying, coming out and even living in a loving relationship. Many will argue with me that yes this is an impact of the euro-american culture and I won’t to some extent disregard with that. However, it is very bold to step out in such a country like Nigeria.
Do you think homosexuality can be accepted in an African society?
Yes I do. I do because Africans are not idiots or senseless. It really angers me when in the discourse of accepting sexual orientation and gender identity that Africans are liken to some dangerous species. History in Europe as regards LGBT people is not that far away. I mean homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK just over 50 years ago. It is important to note that Nigeria was just coming out of colonial rules when Britain was decriminalising homosexuality. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not making a case for homophobes in Nigeria or Uganda or any other part of Africa. What I am saying is, the question that generates a sense of hopelessness as regards LGBT rights in Africa is only playing to the irrational discourse that Africans are not rational people. We know that contrary is the case.
It is important to understand the impact post colonial religious movement is having on the continent. Yes, homosexuality will be accepted in Nigeria if we stick to the positive narrative of same sex relationships. If we step up the game and let Africans remember the basis of the African society, one built on the principles of “umbutu” and not on greed as perpetrated by religious entrepreneur who are constantly ruining the continent with the support of their politicians, who disregards democracy and the wish of the people.
It is not only homosexuality I see being accepted on the continent, I see good governance coming on as well. I see the people’s wishes coming true. I see respect for women and girls. I see the end of marriage rape and child marriage. I see education becoming a right and not a privilege. I see healthcare being people orientated and I am see an Africa like David Diop said in “Africa”, a continent “Whose fruit bit by bit acquires the bitter taste of liberty”
What does the future hold for Bisi Alimi?
Haha…. I will be 40 in January and every time I look in the mirror I see a 20 something year old. I have learnt a lot at the school of hard life and I think the next 40 years (if I am that lucky) will be to start putting those lessons to action. I secretly hope to settle down one day, am happy with an amazing guy now. I am very hopeful and positive about this considering how quite unlucky I might have been in the past when it come to relationship. I also wish to have a family. For my 40th birthday project is the setting up of an endowment fund for LGBT people in Nigeria. That is what I want to spend the next 40 years pushing. In my own little way, I want to see the end to poverty that is caused by ones sexuality.