Decolonizing Queer Sexualities: a Critical Reading of the Ogbanje Concept in Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater (2018)


  • Tina Magaqa
  • Rodwell Makombe


In some African societies, there is a perception that queer sexualities are an invention of Western modernity and that they do not have a place in indigenous ways of being human. Oftentimes, such perceptions draw on anti colonial discourses and nationalistic rhetoric that essentialize Africa as a different geographical space that does not share the cultural practices and ontological inclinations of the West. In this article, we appropriate Stuart Hall’s ideas on the fluidity of cultural identity, Judith Butler’s concept of gender performativity, and Maria Lugones’s notion of the coloniality of gender to analyze the representation of sexuality and queer identities in Emezi’s Freshwater (2018). Freshwater deploys the concept of the ogbanje (spirit child) in Igbo culture to problematize not only the idea of being human in Igbo cosmology, but also to foreground the fluidity and social constructedness of identities in general and sexual identities in particular. The protagonist of the novel, Ada is a part-human part-spirit being that lives inbetween two worlds—the human and the spiritual. As an ogbanje, she is inhabited by (and thus lives as), different spirit beings that manifest different sexual orientations in her body. The article has two objectives. Firstly, to explore how Emezi deploys the ogbanje concept to delineate the complexity of Igbo ontologies in relation to sexuality. Secondly, to investigate how Freshwater uses the ogbanje as a framework to locate queer identities and sexualities in African cosmologies. We argue that Emezi’s novel does not only locate queer identities within African cosmologies but also debunks culturally sanctioned misconceptions that portray queer sexualities as both inhuman and abnormal.