Over the past couple of years, there has been a rise in the number of cross-dressers in Nigeria. In September 2017, an article in Sahara Reporters raised that Abuja residents were concerned with the rise of this ‘trend’ in Nigerian youths, citing social media influencer, Bobrisky and television personality, Denrele Edun’s as popular examples. The article also describes cross-dressing as “scamming as some of the men that dress like women dupe rich men that they meet at bars and hotels.”
On social media also, there have also been discussions on where it started from and its rising acceptance. Perhaps, the most common response of all is that the blind acceptance of our coloniser’s culture and values is to blame.
However, cross-dressing is arguably not exactly a new phenomenon, at least to Africa. In various tribes on the continent such as Meru in Kenya and Ambo in Angola, men have been dressing as women and vice versa since time immemorial. Prior to Western colonisation and intensive missionary activity, there have been various forms of unlabeled identities and expressions that people have ascribed to.
In the Northern part of Nigeria, there is the Yan Daudus which is shorthand for ‘men who act like women’ and shun traditional male roles. Likewise, there was “Area Scatter”, a very popular musician in the 1970s known for his rich smooth voice and fascinating dance steps. In his way, he was able to shatter gender boundaries and portray an accurate representation of how fluid sexuality is. Eventually, one would come to realise that cross-dressing isn’t exactly a fringe concept. It may not have had a name to be called then, but there are valid doubts that it is not entirely a foreign style practice.
More to the point, one just needs to take a look at the burgeoning industry of Nigerian Instagram comedy, and how the cross-dressing stick and aesthetics have percolated through the craft. Most of your favourite Instagram comedians, who are arguably funny sometimes wear wigs and dresses as a means of expression. This has undoubtedly given cross-dressing more cultural visibility.
There is also the Adanma masquerade which is a case of drag queen cultural identity. Adamma is a contemporary maiden spirit mask worn by men and particular to some villages in the South Eastern part of Nigeria. The ceremonial masquerade is named after Adamma, a name loosely translated to ‘beautiful woman’ and reserved for the first daughter of a family. She is always gorgeously dressed in colourful attires and dances so beautifully that most times, people wonder whether it’s actually a man under the mask. Unlike a host of masquerades in Igbo culture, Adamma has no spiritual connotation and has been described as a performance of femininity in a glamourised and controlled manner.
Generally, Mmanwus or masquerades have never been reserved for the womenfolk and the Adanma, which is feminine is no exception. She is a complete belle: well made-up and gives enticing looks whenever you see her, entertaining and tries to charm the men she meets on her way.
According to Mr Linus, an indigene of Ogidi in Anambra state where the Adamma masquerade is popular, he particularly enjoys the masquerade because of its flamboyant nature. He says, “The Adanma masquerade typically moves around with her family and has a predominant theme of Adanma being a young woman who refuses to marry any of her suitors but eventually gives in.
For Mr Linus’ younger daughter, Chioma, it’s the energy rush that fascinates her about the masquerade, how Adanma is able to dance and gyrate to the accompanying sound of the Ogene while being gracious at the same time.
One may argue that these men who wear the Adamma mask are just culture custodians trying to do their bit not to let it die and so they go out of their way to become women for a while. However, for a couple of people, it definitely feels otherwise for them: it’s a lot more than the culture. The Adamma mask is them being allowed to hide the possession of masculinity, thereby, averting the reprisals expected if they were to be found to possess it.