Hidden in Plain Sight: Observing Queerness in Abissa Traditions
This blog post is adapted from a conversation with Esther Appiah, an additional member of the 2021 ETA cohort.
Esther is a queer, Ghanian scholar and recent graduate of Trinity College where she studied International Studies major with a concentration in African Studies and a Religious Studies minor, specializing in African religions.
One of the highlights of my trip so far was attending the first day of Abissa, an annual celebration of forgiveness, rebirth, and spiritual life that comes from the Nzema people in Grand Bassam. The festival was an incredible time, but my friends and I noticed an interesting tradition. As I mentioned in my Abissa blog post, on the first night, the men wore wigs and dresses, or otherwise traditionally feminine attire. And these weren’t colorful party wigs or parodied outfits; it looked like they’d raided their mothers' closets, found a 40-inch Brazilian wig, and decided to make the festival their personal runway. Esther saw men with makeup and actually participated in drag for the first time the following day.
As she celebrated on different festival days, she noticed another shift. In our experience so far, women in clubs tend to gravitate towards tables and bars, leaving the dance floor to be consumed by men and foreigners. But during Abissa, everyone let loose. Discussing both the women dancing freely and the men in drag, Esther mentioned that, “[i]t’s like that one time of year where everyone is just who they are without this community pressure or judgment..you feel it in the air”
This divergence from traditional gender roles and gender presentation seriously surprised me. I can’t say that a 6’5 bearded guy in a baby blue cottage core dress and a beach wave wig dancing anywhere in Côte d’Ivoire, but particularly a nonexpat area, was on my 2021 bingo card. And yet there he was, surrounded by hundreds of men doing the same.
It’s not as though the tradition itself shocked me, but how open and public it was, considering the protection I know queer people here often need. But Esther, in her wisdom, said something that reframed how I thought about it:
“Often when we think of drag and queer mannerisms we leave out Africa and African communities…[but] the origins of humans civilization is on this continent, human behavior at any point in time has roots...in Africa”
My shock at this practice is a reflection of my own internationalized exclusion of Africa, even as an African. Just because the locals might not call this practice by the same name as I do, doesn’t make it any less queer.
The encoded queerness in this Abissa tradition can be considered a case study of a larger issue in African studies: the chasm between language and concepts. What I mean by this is that just like with Abissa, we as Westerners may observe or identify familiar concepts that locals would not categorize in the same way we would. I see it all the time with climate change. Maybe the fishermen I speak to won’t mention the words climate change, but they’ll talk about the shifting seasons or how the fish are behaving oddly this year. However, because they may not use those keywords, whether it be climate change or queerness, it can initially seem like these issues don’t exist there. Esther and I have complained about the overreliance on written records when studying Africa. As she argues, people are so intimidated by the linguistic barrier that they completely forgo talking to living breathing Africans.
And on the rare occasion that they do, this absence of cookie-cutter concepts can limit their work. But simply because a culture does not share or even have language for a concept doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Take moose for example. One day I thought it would be funny to show my Ivorian friend a picture of a moose and ask her what she would call it. After staring at my phone for a little while, she turned to me and said “this animal doesn’t exist on the African continent, I don’t know what to call it.”
This is an oversimplification, but the principle remains true: just because locals wouldn’t call Abissa’s tradition queerness doesn’t mean it isn’t. But it also does not limit the practice to just queerness either. Studying across cultures demands that we recognize the limitations of translation, but also accept those limitations within our own language. My identification of Abissa’s traditions may simply be one piece of a larger puzzle, but one that could not have been started had I simply sat at home and read about the festival from afar. So while for some people, maybe even Native Ivorians, drag doesn’t exist here, it does, and it is hidden in plain sight during Abissa’s wonderful celebrations.
cover photo found on ngadismart.com. check out their "Faces of Abissa (2016)" work here