Written by Audrey Obuobisa-Darko
When I was in high school – a highly acclaimed all-girls school in Ghana that will not be named, although I very badly want you to guess the name, and if you get into trouble anywhere, it was not me who told you the name – I had many loves. For each of these girls, whose names I do not want you to know, I felt that bone-marrow-syphoning, with-reckless-abandon, your-name-engraved-herein type of love that only a teenager can explain. Oddly enough, however, I did not realise until many years later that it was a genuine romantic love I’d felt. Fatuous love, I should call it. We had a harmless vernacular term for our precious little relationships – ‘a-girling.’ Unbeknownst to us, it was a nicely-wrapped covert tool which was instrumental in the erasure and invisibilisation of women-loving-women experiences.
A short vocabulary lesson before we proceed.
a-girl /??g??l/ [verb] – to date and end up in a serious romantic relationship with another girl at this boarding school, on the condition that neither of you ever admit or realise that it’s a serious romantic relationship
:I saw this Form Three basketball sister the other day and I want to a-girl with her because she’s so cool.
:I heard that Fosua and Francisca have started a-girling although Francisca has another girl.
a-girling /??g??l??/ [gerund] – (see above, a-girl1)
:A-girling is the only thing keeping us sane in this hellhole.
girl /?g??l/ [noun] – your girlfriend, basically, but never admit it, because nothing like that exists anyway, and your real boyfriend is in an all-boys school in Accra
:It’s visiting day today and my girl’s boyfriend took an exeat from his school to come visit her, so I will avoid her all night.
It was the best thing in the world to have a girl. And no, this person wasn’t your ‘school mother’ or best friend; they were your girl. You’d hide a note under her pillow, send it through a friend if you’re too shy, walk her to class, pick her up from class, decorate her bed on Valentine’s Day, sit with her during Entertainment Night, squeal when you spot her from a distance, pray fervently for her (we were ridiculously hyper religious for some godforsaken reason), get royally jealous if she spent too much time with another girl, and, if you were a hopeless romantic like me, write several bad poems and journal entries in your diary to give her every weekend. If your girl happened to pass by your classroom window one day, everyone would giggle and look your way. Consider yourself crucified if she were the senior assigned to oversee prep in your class that night. Occasionally, one would a-girl with another girl in their year, but the common case was to a-girl with someone a year or two above or below you.
There was a stage play one time. Sister P acted as an attractive male character in a sappy romance drama. The school turned upside down for a few months after that. Heads turned everywhere she walked, girls would giggle and blush if she spoke to them or so much as passed by, handwritten notes were in abundance, and people would daydream about being her girl (…unless I’d imagined all this?). Another wild memory I have is of a dramatic showdown between two girls after the visiting day following February 14th, one of whom had her boyfriend visit. I need not narrate the rest of the altercation. A lot of our behaviours were very heteronormative, in retrospect. Curiously enough, never once, ever, did anyone frown upon our romance. Hardly did any teacher, chaplain, or admin chastise us from being so openly queer. It was only years later that I understood; it wasn’t because they didn’t find anything wrong with it, but because our love was never seen.
There exists a lot of conversation around the overt discrimination and violences meted out against queer people. For queer womxn in particular, we can name a laundry list of issues: corrective rape, harrasment, murder, discrimination in healthcare and the workplace, barriers to various legal rights, and so on. On another hand, I have been thinking a lot lately about a more subtle colour of violence; our queerness not being acknowledged in the first place. I have heard many interesting things said about women-loving-women experiences, a classic one being, “every girl is a little gay, so what you’re feeling is nothing deep,” or, “you just haven’t had good D yet.” It’s pretty paradoxical to me, that our queerness is first acknowledged in some way, and then invalidated in the same breath. A dreadful expression of this paradox is the fetishisation of sapphic sexual passions, when the only time queer women are ‘accepted’ or seen is when we are sexualised for the male gaze. I’d internalised this notion of my love being ‘invisible,’ thus negating all of my queer experiences, despite having had several from as far back as eight years old. I came out to myself only about two years ago.
In Knowing Women, Serena Owusua Dankwa explores same-sex intimacy among women in postcolonial Ghana. She talks about supi, a native Ghanaian term for a fellow girl lover, and its prevalence and polyvalent manifestations in secondary boarding schools. From her animated conversations with older lesbian ‘aunties’ at Accra Central, to her study of religious literature that demonises supi among Ghanaian schoolgirls, Serena paints a picture of the very real queer relations among women, which have long been a significant part of Ghanaian history and culture. I was intrigued by her work, particularly as it was one of the very few sources of information that validated same-sex experiences among women—Ghanaian women at that. She expressed that during her study, while it was common to find colonial research on intimacies and data among men, those on women were minimally visible.
The ways in which our queer experiences are deliberately unseen are alarmingly insidious, and this instigates much more danger to queer women than we might realise. If we are not seen, then the harms against us are not seen, and if these violences are deemed non-existent, we are essentially excluded or marginalised in advocacy and representation structures, even in feminist spaces. There is the constant deliberate erasure of the few existing media, documentations, and LBQ+ movement tools. Consider speeches like Dr. Beverly Ditsie’s 1995 UN Beijing Conference speech being scrapped from the internet, and Wanuri Kahiu’s film, Rafiki, being banned by the Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB) in 2018. With such aggressions towards queer women’s advocacy, the issues we face will continually fall through the cracks.
But how can they say we don’t exist, when we feel our love so tangibly; when I see my partner, and my partner sees me, and our love is so palpable between us, so real? Why are we only seen when it is time to be sexualised, or harmed? Some people argue endlessly about the very blurred lines between normal feelings of affection, emotional closeness, and romantic attraction in relationships among women, using that as a basis to nullify these queer passions. Does the form it takes really matter for it to be validated as a real romantic connection? Granted, some of these experiences I had in the-school-which-shall-never-on-earth-or-in-heaven-or-hell-be-named were really just profound female friendships, but for some of those too, if you know, you know.