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Looking for Solace Queerness, Colonialism, and the Power of Trust in Accra, Ghana

In Ghana, as in the rest of West Africa, queer people are subject to considerable repression, which may assume social and legal dimensions.

The Solace Initiative is an LGBTQ+ advocacy organization based in Accra, Ghana. In 2017, I worked with Solace on a research project investigating health risks, experiences of abuse and violence, and general quality of life in the LGBTQ+ community in Accra. This research aimed to help document the experiences of people in the community and to find ways that researchers and other partners could collaborate with the community to improve conditions for Accra’s LGBTQ+ community. Most research about LGBTQ+ people in Africa focuses on Men who have Sex with Men (MSMs) and HIV/AIDS. This research sought to expand that focus, to include people assigned female sex at birth and people of a wider range of gender identities and sexual orientations.

In Ghana, as in the rest of West Africa, queer people are subject to considerable repression, which may assume social and legal dimensions. Ghanaian law, for instance, criminalizes ‘unnatural carnal knowledge’ between consenting adults, and homophobic attitudes pervade Ghanaian society. The Pew Research Centre, in a 2013 survey, found that 96 per cent of Ghanaian respondents thought that society should not accept homosexuality. These attitudes are relics of colonialism, and of the criminalization of homosexuality in colonial-era British law; and these attitudes are reinforced by the hostility towards homosexuality in certain understandings of Ghana’s largest religions, Christianity and Islam. Outed queer people in Ghana face social ostracization, public humiliation, and varying degrees of physical violence.

I am a straight Nigerian man, and I grew up between Nigeria and Jordan, both places where homophobic attitudes are similarly pervasive. My upbringing in Jordan and my experiences of anti-blackness in that Arab context made me particularly sensitive to discrimination in all its forms. This sensitivity helped me recognize my own privileges, including the privileges associated with my sexuality. My college years in the US, during which I had my first experiences of social activism, solidified this recognition into staunch ally-ship and pushed me to consider ways that I could use that privilege to amplify queer voices in my home country.

At this point in time, however, working in Nigeria was not an option. The US travel advisory placed against Nigeria in the wake of Boko Haram’s North East insurgency meant that my institution could not fund undergraduate research in any part of the country. Because of this, I turned my attention to Ghana, another Anglophone West African context, with many of the same attitudes towards queerness. In reading around Ghana’s queer community, I found a piece in the UK’s Guardian newspaper that covered the Solace Initiative and their advocacy in Accra, which included providing legal support for queer Ghanaians targeted by the police, as well as rights education and training to queer Ghanaians and members of the police alike. I was surprised to find such a vibrant and successful activist group in Accra and reached out to the Solace Initiative with a vague idea of the work that we could do together. A few email threads, a grant application and a couple of months later, I was on my way to Accra.

Being in Accra felt like a type of homecoming. Though it was my first time going back to West Africa in almost a decade, and my first time ever seeing Ghana, I was struck by how familiar the city felt. I found this familiarity in the broken pavements atop roadside gutters filled with still dirty water, in the sight of street hawkers selling drinks, pirated movies and bofrot (puff-puff) in dense traffic, and in the taste of the meat pies that I spent many a cedi on. I lived with a family in Newtown, a largely Muslim and Hausa-speaking part of the city. I found an unexpected sense of belonging here—in hearing my language spoken around me, two full countries away from home, and in the savoury smell of freshly roasted suya wafting down the road on my treks home from work. This belonging was, in and of itself, a colonial relic, and the legacy of the Glover Hausas, a group of primarily freed Hausa slaves that the British hired as mercenaries and brought to the Gold Coast to help pacify its indigenous people.

I was even more surprised to hear my boss, the co-founder of the Solace Initiative, speak Hausa, and do so more fluently than I could. Like me, his paternal ancestors were Nigerians from Kwara state who, like mine, left their homeland for greener pastures: mine to nearby Kano, his to what was then the Gold Coast. Again, I saw the legacy of colonialism in West Africa, but also saw something of the agency that Africans have had, during and since colonialism, to work around that legacy and build movements that assert African humanity in its face. Abubakar Sadiq Yusuf, my boss, an openly gay Muslim LGBTQ+ activist, was the human embodiment of this agency.

Every day for a month and a half, Sadiq and I met at the Solace Initiative headquarters to interview members of Accra’s queer community. Sadiq recruited our participants from the Solace Initiative’s network, and I conducted our interviews, sometimes pulling in a Solace Initiative member to act as a translator. We asked participants about some of the most intimate aspects of their lives, including their sexual behaviour, relationships with family and their communities, and experiences of trauma. Here, I met gays, lesbians, bisexuals, trans men and women, as well as people who rejected the gender binary altogether. I saw the full gamut of experiences, from people who reported being completely open about their sexuality, and to never having experienced any type of abuse, violence or stigma, to those who exercised extreme discretion with regards to their sexuality, and others who were nearly lynched and killed by their families for attempting to come out. I spoke to devout Muslims, faithful Christians and decided atheists, had interviews conducted in Standard English, pidgin, Twi, Ga and Hausa, and met queer Ghanaians at almost every level of income. This was the diversity we saw in a sample of just 100 people and speaks to the diversity of Accra’s queer communities.

The level of access I was given to these people’s stories was afforded only by the trust that community members placed in the Solace Initiative. Because of the fact that our participants came from Solace’s network, each and every one of them had a story to tell about how the Initiative had touched their lives, such as linking them to queer-friendly healthcare professionals, providing free HIV and STD testing, advocating for them against an unjust legal system, and providing them with love and community. Again, I was awed by how much a relatively small, but intensely driven team could do for their community.

This awe expanded as I learned the extent of the Solace’s national and international involvement. The Solace Initiative is one of at least nine LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations currently operating in Ghana, each of which serves distinct geographical areas and functions. Any of these other groups spun out of or were otherwise inspired by the Solace Initiative, which was the country’s first such NGO. I met leaders and representatives from these groups at a meeting between Ghanaian queer advocacy groups, representatives of the police, and Ghana’s Queen Mothers, who are female traditional leaders who have held cultural sway in the South of the country for centuries. It was a privilege to witness this type of interaction between community, tradition, and state.

I saw some of these leaders, again, at international conferences on queer rights that the Solace Initiative hosted in Accra. The first of these brought together activists from West and East Africa, and here, I met queer activists from my own country. A story that stuck with me was one about a group of gay men in Northern Nigeria who were caught and arrested by the police in the middle of a commitment ceremony and were now being represented by a Nigerian advocacy organization. I did not expect to be brought back to thinking about my home in this way and was heartened to learn that, even in the extremely repressive context that is Northern Nigeria, good work was being done.

The second conference was much larger and included groups from every part of the African continent. At this event, representatives from Solace and a Western embassy led a workshop on avenues that advocacy organizations could use to better document, report and address the marginalization and abuse of the communities they represent. The delegations here came from countries such as Algeria and Botswana and were at different points in their experiences of queer advocacy. Botswana, for example, had already registered the country’s largest LGBTQ+ advocacy organization as an official NGO, and its High Court was just a few months from ruling it legal for Batswana to change their legal genders. Just two years after that conference, the country’s High Court would strike down all laws criminalizing homosexuality in the country. This type of progress is incredibly inspiring to see.

I spent my last two weeks in Ghana giving back the community, through drafting official emails for the Solace Initiative and organizing a fundraiser to enroll 100 members of Accra’s queer community on health insurance. I left for Europe soon after, to start another internship. I last spoke to Sadiq on the 27th of November, 2017. We spoke about my plans to publish our findings, and he told me he had been feeling ill but was starting to feel better. Not more than two weeks later, I saw a post on Facebook saying that he had passed. Though this loss threw the community into a deep period of mourning, Solace was soon back on its feet, with new leadership, and unaltered dedication to their cause.

My friendship with Sadiq, and the welcome that he and Solace gave me into their community, taught me more than I could have possibly imagined. Honouring these relationships, and this trust, to me, means persisting in my ally-ship with queer communities in Ghana, Nigeria, and throughout Africa, until we rid our continent of an injustice that was never ours to begin with

This essay was submitted to Fieldwork, our new column exploring the realities of studying and conduct researching in African contexts. Submit an essay to this column by visiting this link.