The Three: May 2020 Edition
Cultural happenings that caught my eye this month
I hope everyone is all safe and healthy! The first month on Substack went pretty well, I have to say. Thanks so much for subscribing and sharing this newsletter, and thanks for, y’know, opening the emails :) I moved this to a newsletter because I’m a big believer in finding your tribe in all things, so if you like what you see feel free to share to others who might as well.
“I WANT READERS TO ALWAYS SEE WHERE THE PEOPLE WE INTERVIEW ARE COMING FROM”
I’ve been a fan of the Sex Life page on Zikoko for awhile, and have really admired the way their stories have driven online conversation. Because these stories are very specific to a person’s individual experience, I notice that it encourages a different kind of engagement; readers often wade through the different aspects of this person’s experience and try to engage with the stories as if it were their own. That’s the goal, isn’t it? Anything that make us even a little more empathetic and gives us windows into people’s lives and struggles — in and out of the bedroom — is pretty much always going to get my love.
Daniel Orubo is a senior editor and producer at Zikoko, whose work focuses on music and lifestyle. He is also the main man behind Zikoko’s Sex Life and Blin Date series. In this interview, Daniel and I chopped it up and sex and sexuality in Nigeria, what the series tells us about who we are, curating stories, and the aim of storytelling.
Thanks so much for agreeing to speak with me! OK, let’s get into it. How did Sex Life series come about?
I rejoined Zikoko in October of 2019, and one of my first big goals was to create another series that could have the same impact as Naira Life. The idea to make one around sex eventually came to me when I was spitballing with my managing editor, Ope Adedeji, and we immediately knew we had a winner on our hands.
Ope and I were totally in sync regarding the vision for the series, so much so that we decided to work on it together — we alternate stories every weekend. From the start, we knew we wanted it to be informative without being preachy, sexy without being crass, and most importantly, as inclusive as possible.
I’m always fascinated with storytelling projects in Nigeria, especially because we’re not always the most self-effacing people on sex, love, and vulnerability. What’s the hardest part about curating these stories? For example: is it hard to earn people’s trust? How do you make people comfortable enough to let you in? Or is it something else?
Even I’m still surprised by how forthcoming people have been. After the series became a modest hit, a lot of people actually started hitting us up to do interviews. I’ve never considered myself to be a particularly good interviewer, but a lot of the people I’ve spoken to said I made them feel comfortable, so that’s nice.
A handful of them also said sharing and eventually reading their stories — ranging from sexual assault to sexual awakenings — felt almost therapeutic. So, I guess that might be the appeal for some. For me, the hardest part has been finding stories that are varied enough. I don’t want to tell the same kind of story twice, so I find myself having to turn some people down.
The stories on Sex Life are never just about sex, they’re really about people’s lives. Was there something you’ve learned about being Nigerian that you never thought about enough before until you started doing the series?
I’ve always known that the average Nigerian adult grew up with next to no form of sexual education, but since that wasn’t the case for me, I never actually thought about the effects that must have had on them. Writing Sex Life has opened my eyes in many ways, and our generation really needs to do better.
I’ve interviewed so many people that were assaulted as kids, and they didn’t even realise it until they were adults. I’ve also interviewed people that still struggle with a warped view of sex because of what their parents did or didn’t tell them about it. The series has been eye-opening in many ways, but this has definitely stuck with me the most.
There’s a lot of stories that show the impact of abuse, but also about other ways power affects relationships. For example, a lot of the stories also feature transactional relationships. In our cultural imagination, this tends to be flattened into a Runs Babe/Sugar Daddy thing. What would you say are some complexities you’ve noticed in the stories you’ve been privy to that you think could bear some more engagement?
I’ve interviewed subjects that had romantic and sexual relationships with people that were much older than them. Even though a lot of them were technically of age when it happened, there were still dynamics that hinted at a clear imbalance. I think we need to look beyond the legal age limit when discussing who should be allowed to whom.
Indeed. Was there something you’ve learned about sex and relationships that you never thought enough about until this series?
I’ve always been a pretty vanilla guy, but the series has definitely made me a lot more sexually adventurous. I always figured that once you find something that works for you, you just stick with it. Since I started Sex Life, I’ve spoken to a bunch of people that reminded me that something good can always be better.
What’s your approach to these stories? Is there something you set out to achieve with each edition?
My goal with each edition is to get people to see beyond their experiences. I love when a Sex Life story sparks a conversation, and that has been the case for a fair amount of them. I personally don’t need anyone to agree with the choices of the people I interview, but I want the readers to always see where they are coming from. That’s what I optimise for when I’m asking questions and editing the final draft.
You’ve been doing this series for a while. Is there a trend to the stories that you notice over and over again? Or does it take you by surprise every time?
With regards to the stories, it breaks my heart just how many people I’ve interviewed were molested as kids. Most of the men I’ve talked to were assaulted by a housekeeper when they were little boys, and what’s even sadder, is just how many of them swear it wasn’t a big deal. That’s a fucked up trend I’ve noticed.
With regards to audience engagement, I’m always shocked by how well stories about queer people perform. When I wrote the first story featuring a queer person, I was a little afraid of the kind of reception it would get. The reception ended up being so much better than I could have imagined, and that has been the case for most of them.
What story (or stories!) has most mirrored your personal experience?
The story about the man who had his bisexual awakening at 27. I’m a 27-year-old bisexual man, so that’s definitely the one that has most closely mirrored my personal experience. Granted, I realised I was bisexual when I was 18, but the way the dude reacted to those new feelings was similar to how I reacted to mine. That’s probably why it’s one of my favourites.
… And what story has been the most fascinating for you, perhaps because it’s so different from your experience?
The most fascinating story for me is easily the one about the woman living with vaginismus — a condition that makes her vagina impossible to penetrate. I had only just heard about the condition through the Netflix series, Sex Education, so when I got a chance to interview someone living with it, I jumped at the opportunity.
I loved how the final story turned out, and so did she. The “thank you” message she sent after it was published made me cry. I also got a lot of DMs from women with the condition, thanking me for writing about it. It’s honestly one of the most fulfilling experiences of my career so far, and I hope I get to do more stories like that.
Issues like vaginismus and even more intimate details of women’s sex lives are not usually things that men get to hear. In the social media space, we see a lot of stories of women’s experiences and how sometimes it often devolves into defensiveness and talking past each other. How do you think we can create healthier conversations on issues concerning women and men that are actually respectful and move things forward?
I think empathy is the most important thing. There seems to be an almost pathological need to always be right on social media, and I think if we can all get past that and just learn to listen to each other, without feeling the need to posture or center ourselves in everyone’s experiences, we’d be having healthier, more beneficial conversations.
It feels like you make a deliberate effort to decenter straightness with the stories on Sex LIfe. Is this a form of activism for you with regards making LGBT Nigerians and their experiences more visible?
I’m definitely deliberate about it, but activism isn’t my intention. My motivation is actually selfish: I just want to see more stories about people like me. That’s it. I think we have more than enough stories about the straight experience. So, this is just me trying to do my own little part to balance the scales.
What has this series done for the way you approach storytelling in general?
I think it has made me a much more thoughtful and patient interviewer. It’s also taught me to remove my own personal bias when telling stories, which is something I never used to worry about before. All in all, I’m very proud of the series, and I hope I get to keep finding and writing these kinds of stories.
AFRICAN FEMINISTS AT WORK
Especially with #MeToo movement globally but also with the many activist moments last year, these last couple of years has shown how much we have progressed and the distance yet to go on issues concerning women. Feminist advocacy — indeed, advocacy on just about anything — is a gruelling slog, and many of the people actively engaged in it often do not talk about their work as much as they should. That is why I was really excited to learn of the Talking Back: African Feminists in Dialogue series that’s currently ongoing on the Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE) and in Africa is a Country. Of the series, Senegalese writer and activist Rama Salla Dieng who is conducting the interviews says in her introductory essay:
This series discusses such issues with young African feminists who are theorising their feminist practice. The series focuses on the connections and disruptions in African feminist thought and practice. It asks a simple question: How are young feminist scholars using their experiences and lives as a source and resource for theorising their feminism? In attempting to answer this question, a deliberate effort will be made to reflect on the politics of gender, ‘belonging’, and knowledge production since delineating these concepts also require a focus on the power dynamics at play.
These interviews zoom in on the mechanics of building collectives and zoom out on the issues of larger societal impact, giving readers a close look at what feminist activism across the continent looks like offline. Social media can make one feel like people are essentially stuck in reaction mode when sociocultural issues in general are concerned, so this focus on the actual work of building community and raising awareness is pretty refreshing.
Social media advocacy on issues concerning women also creates space for conversations where women’s voices can be amplified and also drives conversation on and offline, so I definitely think it’s great that more and more people are using these platforms. A lot of what makes movements successful and impactful, though, are about how creatively offline platforms are used to build trust and forge real alliances. While social media can help you find your tribe, I’ve learned through my civil society experience that offline engagements help you keep them.
Fittingly, the interviews show how activists are hopscotching between offline and online spaces to spread their message. This Tiffany Kagure Mugo interview on her work as co-creator of the Hub of Loving Action in Africa (HOLAA) community shares how the pan-African hub is navigating the challenges of trying to build a sex-positive space for all sexualities. I love that they also shouted out Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah’s work with Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women and how Nana influenced their approach to building their community.
A vision for community building and support is important whether you’re implementing projects or giving grants, so I enjoyed Program Director of the African Women’s Development Fund Jessica Horn’s interview on how AWDF creates space for women to “bring their full selves” to their work. Her interview was about art, religious fundamentalism, the origins of the African Feminist Forum and her approach to supporting women’s rights organizations across the continent.
I also really enjoyed reading Dieng’s interview with Ruth Bush on decolonisation, use of language, and the work of Senegalese women activists over the years. This is the first time I’m hearing about AWA: La Revue de la Femme Noire, a francophone glossy aimed at women that ran through the 60 and early 70s with readers across the Francophone diaspora. I found it fascinating, especially how they did not explicitly claim feminism, while taking care to urge their largely elite readership towards creating space for celebration and advocating female empowerment and achievement. I also do not think a lot of grassroots-driven women’s rights organisations in immediately post-colonial Nigeria (1960s-1970s) would have called themselves feminists, either. Much like AWA, an early Nigerian women’s rights organisation Women in Nigeria (WIN) also featured a lot of men, including some who we would regard as Nigerian civil society leaders.
Especially with how much young voices need to be amplified throughout the continent, there is a lot to be somber about in terms of the uphill climb a lot of feminist activists face to build movements that can make change. Reading these interviews, though, made me excited for the future of women’s rights activism on the continent. I can’t wait to see how women continue to use tools available to them online and offline to make our societies more gentle places to live.
READING, WATCHING, LISTENING
Music, art and television have been a real saving grace for me this quarantine period. Heres some of what I’m been reading, listening to, and watching that’s lifted me recently.
I’m slowly but surely making my way though Ocean Vuong’s novel On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous. The prose is poetic and full of hard-earned wisdom, and I find the same can be said for the man himself. Vuong was interviewed in an episode of the podcast On Being recently. As I listened to him talk about how much he is shaped by the war his family lived through and his relationship with language, I thought of how much a people’s history is manifested through personal and collective trauma.
Speaking of personal trauma, Wana Udobang has a new spoken word record Transcendence that both shatters you and pieces you together. It is unflinching in her engagement on self-love, family and how to thrive in spite of everything. Have a listen. And hold on to a box of tissues just in case.
Odunsi the Engine’s new EP Everything You Heard Is True just came out today and WurlD’s new EP Afrosoul comes out on the 15th. Both of these guys have shown that there’s more than one way to make a name for yourself in the Nigerian music scene. I Love Girls with Trobul was an unexpected gem, and Sarz laid the songs on a canvas that was just familiar enough to a Naija afrobeats (I hate that word) audience while being ridiculously refreshing. I’m also a fan of Odunsi’s work, and consider his first album Rare to be one of the more eclectic, experimental and self-assured records I’ve heard from a Nigerian artist in years. As I write this, I’m giving a listen to his latest EP. You should do the same, and tell me what you think.
If you guys are nice to me, I’ll include a playlist in the next edition. Until next time.