They wouldn’t exactly call it gay conversion therapy. No. To them, it was just Juju, Ogun, ‘cleansing out the gay’, and “mu-ile” is the local phrase for swearing at the shrine. The subject is so taboo that there’s no official word in the language for a homosexual. Looking back, I think I was more annoyed with the way he worded it. “Are you a gay?”

No uncle, I’m a faggot. Of course, I didn’t say that. I was shocked, but not because they knew. I think I was more surprised that it took them so long to realise. Underneath the panic, there was a sense of relief—a sense of finality. But I wasn’t expecting them to unleash the gay conversion therapy, Yoruba style.

I’ve always believed those closest to you are the ones who see you the least. The Chinese supposedly have a saying about how every human has three different faces. One for friends, one for family, and one for our personal self. So, maybe, I hid the gay well enough for a while.

They asked me a few more questions, most of which I don’t remember now. But I’ll never forget a statement he made. “If you don’t stop this lifestyle, you won’t be welcome in my house again. I have to think about my son.” That’s when I knew this shit had gotten real.

I went to bed. Not even sure about what would happen next. Just knowing that my whole life had changed.

The next morning, I woke up to a missed call from Alfa. For those who don’t know, an “Alfa” is the Yoruba word for an Islamic cleric. Not really like an Imam, but someone who helps people with prayers and such. I guess the closest thing in western culture would be a combination of fortune teller and television evangelist.

I called him back, and he asked me to pay him a visit. That he had something to discuss with me. Funny enough, I didn’t relate it to last night’s episode. Alfa and I had already been discussing a few things regarding my future, and I felt that’s what he wanted to talk to me about.

Gay conversion therapy: consulting with the babalawo
Consulting with the Babalawo.

Getting to his place, he sat me down and held my hand. Very melodramatic. He pointed to the Quran on the table and asked me point blank if I was sleeping with men. In Yoruba, of course. I denied it. But then, he told me to swear on the Quran. That’s when I broke out in tears.

I was hysterical. In my whole life to this point, the biggest issue I ever had was with my sexuality, it was the religious aspect of it all. I mean, who wants to burn in hell?

So, I confessed. How I couldn’t help myself. How I tried for so long to deny my urges, my wants, my needs. I tried to explain how it wasn’t about the sex. He asked if I was being paid to do it. That was a funny one. Even now, I still find it humorous. The fact that he couldn’t understand why I was who I was, and had to explain it away with prostitution, some monetary gain.

Eventually, the questions stopped. He asked me to come back to receive prayers. I had to return to school, which was about 6-hours away in another state, and I told him I didn’t think I could be back anytime soon. Then I left.

During the last few days, I hadn’t heard anything from my mother. I assumed they hadn’t told her, my aunt or her husband. But I knew it was only a matter of time. Obviously, they were the ones who told the Alfa, and at that point, I was already panicking as to who else had found out. Who else knew my secret? I packed my bags and went back to school.

A week went by. Foolishly, I began to hope that the worse was behind me. My mother still hadn’t called. And I was too nervous to reach out myself.

About 10 days after getting back to school, I got a call from my aunt in the United Kingdom. This aunt isn’t the same one who went through my phone, in case you were wondering. It was around 1 am, and she was yelling. According to her, my mother had fainted and was rushed to the hospital. The last thing my mother supposedly said was my name.

My aunt threatened that if my mother died, I would be held accountable. The emotional blackmail had begun. She hung up, and a few minutes later, Alfa called, asking me to come back to Lagos immediately.

I couldn’t even think straight. No pun intended. It never occurred to me that this was some elaborate gay conversation therapy plan put into place by all of them. The whole night I couldn’t sleep, and once dawn came, I grabbed a couple of things and headed back to Lagos.

Alfa had told me that I was coming for prayers, but the next morning, he woke me at 4am and said we were headed to Niger state. Niger state, for my non-Nigerian readers, is in a part of the country where Sharia law is practised. For perspective, Sharia law approves gay conversation therapy, flogging, stoning to death and amputation as ways of curbing “sin” and “unlawful practices.”

Some of you are probably asking why I didn’t refuse or why I allowed myself to be driven over 10 hours to an unknown place. You’re probably shaking your heads at my stupidity. But remember, I had just been told that my mother was in the hospital because of me. All I wanted at that point was to make sure she was fine. If that meant travelling 10-hours to Niger, then to Niger, I would go.

Gay conversion therapy mud hut beside a river (nigeria)
Mud hut (beside a river), Nigeria. Image courtesy Wikimedia Foundation.

We got there early the next day, and I was taken to a hut. A literal hut. The ones made of straw and mud. Alfa pointed to a mat and told me to sleep. Of course, by now, I had no choice but to do what was told me. I was at his whim.

A few hours passed, I was awakened by Alfa. I sat up and noticed two other men. One was very old. He looked like how you’d expect an African shaman to look. Turns out he was the Babalawo. He began to speak. Nigeria is a country with over 100 spoken languages, and I had no idea which one he was conversing in. Alfa did, so he translated.

I was there to be cleansed of my sin. I was given a choice to either stop sleeping with men, or to lose the ability of having sex at all. They would ensure whatever choice I made would be a smooth transition. I shudder to think what would have been done if I had picked the second option.

They created a concoction for me, composed of my urine, the grinded bone of a dog, and multiple herbs. A concoction which I drank. They took me to a river. I was shaved completely bald, and stripped naked. They gave me a sponge made of straw, red palm oil, and black African soap. I rubbed the palm oil all over my body, and stepped into the river. As I was bathing, I was jeered at. The Alfa in particular made a comment about my butt size. He said it was why I was probably popular with gay men. It was humiliating.

I stepped out of the river, and was draped in a white garment. They led me to a stone statue behind the shaman’s hut. This statue they said, was one that had been created by his ancestors. The statue was his God. He told me to bow and swear that if I went back to the life of homosexuality, then I would die.

Still, tears didn’t come. I guess I had cried enough already. Or maybe I was still in shock. During this whole experience, I was receiving calls from my aunts. So definitely they knew what was going down. I still hadn’t heard from my mother. I guess that’s part of the reason I continued to the end.

I’m still growing. Unfolding. And that’s fine. Like my fellow Nigerians will say, after any problem occurs in their lives, “we move.” And move, I shall.

That night she finally called. She immediately started crying. Wanting to know why I planned on killing her. She told me that my father had appeared to her in a dream, in tears, that he had no peace in the grave because of my sins. The emotional blackmail continued.

Thinking about it now, it’s kind of funny. That they went through such lengths. But living through the experience, I was terrified. All I wanted to do was die. But I promised her. What else could I have done? I promised to leave it all behind. To switch off the gay. To be converted by their therapy.

The next few years were a series of “relapses”, prayers, more of their gay conversion therapy ideas and naked bathing in rivers. I won’t go into all that now; there’s just too much to talk about. I do honestly appreciate everything I went through, though, because it made me who I am today.

Gay conversion therapy nigeria

Sure, you might see me and wonder who exactly it is that I am. And I guess I wouldn’t have a concrete definition. I am happy, though. I’ve told my family to fuck off. I have a shaky relationship with my mother, but she seems to understand that this is who I am. Who I always was? No amount of gay conversion therapy would change that.

I’m no longer a practising Muslim. My experience of gay conversion therapy in Nigeria turned me from religion. I do believe in God, and I live life with the philosophy of “do unto your neighbours as you would do unto yourself.” I believe that should be enough for any benevolent creator.

I’m still growing. Unfolding. And that’s fine. Like my fellow Nigerians will say, after any problem occurs in their lives, “we move.” And move, I shall.

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Paul Boakye
March 25, 2021 2:50 pm
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Funny and harrowing at the same time–that’s a skill. Thank you.