Amphibious Subjects: Sassoi and the Contested Politics of Queer Self-Making in Neoliberal Ghana
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Susan S. Wadley
Human Rights, LGBT Politics, Neoliberalism, Race, Sassoi, Sexual Citizenship
Social and Behavioral Sciences
“Welcome!! Akwaaba!! Ghana warmly welcomes all visitors of goodwill. Ghana does not welcome paedophiles and other sexual deviants. Indeed Ghana imposes extremely harsh penalties on such sexually aberrant behaviour. If you are in Ghana for such activity, then for everybody’s good, including your own, we suggest you go elsewhere.” This sign greets arrivals at Ghana’s Kotoka International Airport, the main port of entry by flight into the country, drawing their attention to the proscriptive and prescriptive values around sexuality and sexual practices. In red font, sexual deviance is left ambiguous, leaving the reader to interpret (signify) the sign.
“Amphibious Subjects” is an ethnographic investigation of the lives of self-identified effeminate men in urban postcolonial Ghana, collectively known in local parlance as sassoi. A study exploring the hidden transcripts beyond signs like the one at the airport, it also critically engages assumptions about Ghana as simultaneously heterosexual and homophobic, oppositional views parroted by the nation-state and international LGBT human rights organizations such as Aidspan and local NGOS such as Bring Us Rights and Justice (BURJ). Drawing on my personal interactions with sassoi, participant observation, autoethnography, research at an NGO, archival sources, and critical analyses of documentaries on homophobia in Africa, such as the BBC’s “The World’s Worst Place to Be Gay,” I examine the racialized image of Africa as the ‘heart of homophobic darkness’ in LGBT human rights rhetoric, engaging with the literary critiques of white humanism proffered by Chinua Achebe and James Baldwin.
Echoing sassoi stories and their experiences in relation to NGOs that claim to highlight their precarious situations, the nation-state, and their immediate communities and families, I argue that their subjectivity is analogous to what Kwame Gyekye, the Ghanaian philosopher, calls “amphibious identification.” Gyekye stresses that amphibious personhood among the Akan ethnolinguistic group of Ghana is embodied by the adinkra symbol, funtunfunefu-denkyemfunefu, —the Siamese crocodile, which epitomizes how self-making is neither reducible to the individual nor the community. Thus, for him, the individual, while embedded in a group, has room for self-assertion. At a moment when Ghana, like the African continent, is under pressure from western governments to embrace LGBT visibility, there has been a backlash against such push from the nation-state, civil society, and conservative religious and moral publics. In these shifting milieus, sassoi, who are corporeally effeminate, adopt practices of the self, parallel to Gyekye’s amphibious subject. Some of the spaces in which they enact effeminacy include rituals of transition such as birth ceremonies and even birthdays. The significance of these events for sassoi practices of the self is often elided in the debates spurred by LGBT human rights discourses.
Against this backdrop, I draw on the amphibian as an analytic to unpack the convoluted ways in which sassoi play with and along LGBT NGOs desire to highlight their tragedies, while rejecting such organizations’ efforts to identify them as LGBT. Their forms of queer self-making thus occur in the ‘nervous conditions,’ to use Tsitsi Dangaremba’s felicitous metaphor, that are coterminously palimpsestic and contemporary. “Amphibious Subjects” stages those complexities that lie beyond the pavlovian construction of Africa as a homophobic safari in LGBT rhetoric, a racialized projection, and as primarily heterosexual in heteronationalist discourses, an uncritical anthropological fallacy.
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Otu, Edwin Kwame, "Amphibious Subjects: Sassoi and the Contested Politics of Queer Self-Making in Neoliberal Ghana" (2016). Dissertations - ALL. 630.
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