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Chapter 5 attends to the notions of siblinghood between female friends or lovers of the same age group. Drawing on the idealized closeness and harmony afforded to uterine sisters, especially among the matrilenal Akan, a same-sex lover can be invoked as a sibling in order to front a non-sexual connection. Among insiders however, claims to being “of the same blood” signal emotional and sexual attachments. Thereby everyday practices such as bathing, washing, and eating together over extended periods of time emerge as the crucial markers of these familial intimacies. Conversely, it examines the spectre of incest that lingers among same-sex lovers who do share lineage ties and are thus both metaphorically and genealogically related. The chapter argues that female friends who raise children together, take care of each other’s elders, and build joint networks that include male husbands and relatives, do much of the work afforded to (queer) families.
Chapter 3 examines different narratives of female same-sex love with the aim of elucidating varied notions of erotic selfhood. The women whose stories are recounted here often construe themselves, implicitly or explicitly, as “masculine” or as “man” and are ungirded by economic notions of men as “providers.” Such claims to manhood are relational and hinge on the question of which partner is more experienced or more senior in status than the other. In contrast to Euro-American notions of gender expression, their masculinity is not threatened by their quest for male husbands and children. Rather it is their precarious economic reality that curtails their ideals of being able to provide for a female lover. The personal “styles” deployed to make up for this deficiency require a careful look at the situationality of gender in West Africa, as outlined by African feminists, and at the Akan figure of the ɔbaa barima, or “manly woman.”
The introduction situates the book in relation to academic and activist developments concerning same-sex cultures and intimacies in Africa at the turn of the century. Prominent among the key terms concepts it introduces, is the African feminist critique of the “ethnopornographic” colonial gaze on Black women’s sexual bodies and the queer destabilization of categories of sexual identity and its attending LGBT identity politics. The epistemological challenge of researching female same-sex desires from a queer postcolonial perspective, is illustrated through a discussion of the conflicting African and queer feminist representations of “women marriages,” a historical institution found in a variety of African societies. Considering the few anthropological references to female same-sex practices and to the historical practice of “friendship marriage” in colonial Ghana, it highlights the conceptual potential of friendship and kinship, as opposed to and alongside sexuality for an intersectional feminist analysis women’s erotic desires and intimacies.
Chapter 2 explores the genealogy and meanings of supi, a polyvalent term for an intimate girlfriend in coastal Ghana. It distinguishes between supi as an intimate same-sex discourse emerging from the bonds between schoolgirls and adult same-sex lovers, and public representations of supi, including derogatory cinematic portrayals of “supi-supi lesbians” bonded to the water spirit Mami Wata. Focusing on the recollections of women of different generations, the chapter examines the notions of gift exchange and the homosocial spaces by which supi practices are informed. In these narratives supi is framed as an introduction to the ways in which same-sex passion can be known, negotiated, and celebrated in disguise. Invoked as a form of knowledge, supi amounts to an intimate sozializing and learning process. Despite the tacit character of the knowledge at stake, it is constitutive of the bonding networks of those articulate same-sex desiring women identifed as “knowing women.”
Examining media and historical texts as well as interviews with activists and business-owners, Chapter 1 describes the uproar that ensued when Ghanaian politicians, clerics, and journalists conspired to circulate claims about a supposed “homoconference” that was alledgedly planned by a local LGBTI activist. It lays out the cultural, political, and historical landscape in which (homo)sexuality has been called into discourse. It then considers the failed activist attempts to form a self-identified lesbian group and shows how same-sex desiring women resist, re-signify, or perform the global language of sexual rights activism and human rights. These women’s reluctance to label and “out” themselves in sexual terms, a practice deemed essential to empowering LGBTI subjects across the globe, calls for a close consideration of the indirect language of allusion, spoken within the informal networks of female friends and lovers, who may or may not identify as lesbian.
Inspired by the paradigms of feminist anthropology, the prologue situates the author’s trajectory and the book’s epistemological and methodological premises upon which data was collected and transformed into analysis. It sketches out the main sites of research and how exactly the body of empirical data was generated. It critically discusses the scientific desire for knowledge about sexual practices and same-sex cultures in particular and the place of the erotic in the history of anthroplogical fieldwork, in which erotic relationships, whether or not consummated sexually, have been epistemologically productive.
Given the absence of a public language about “lesbianism,” the process of locating women who love women in Ghana was lengthy and difficult. By analyzing initial encounters with potential research respondents, the chapter illuminates how this process took shape through a series of constitutive misunderstandings that required the “unlearning” of pre-conceived notions of sexual identity.
Chapter 4 examines motherhood as a metaphor for intimate bonds forged across considerable differences in age and social and economic status. It takes up from the mother-daughter terminology deployed among female football players who consider each other “team mothers” and “team daughters” and praise themselves for having a market woman as their “sugar mama.” This requires a closer look at the world of female football, at the figure of the market woman, and at the materiality of love. The chapter touches on the reciprocities as well as the dynamics of exploitation and inequality within relationships that include a “sugar mum” and a “small girl” or an older “giver” and a younger “receiver.” Through practices such us giving each other to potential lovers, friendships are probed and tested. While these circular practices limit the togetherness of twosomes, they also contain and bind them into informal same-sex bonding collectivities in which love emerges as mode of sociality.
The conclusion contextualizes the gendered materiality and the provisionality of same-sex love under precarious, postcolonial conditions and within informal female friendship networks that are largely marginalized from the global economy. It situates the meanings and shifting grammar of supi, the Ghanaian term for a same-sex girlfriend, in the wider context of Africa and its diasporas in a postcolonial world. “Doing supi” implies a capacity to “hustle,” improvise and operate on different registers. In this context where fixity in word and action appears to be both undesirable and unaffordable, a practice of negotiating multiple positions and identifications is vital to carving out personal space and foster wayward intimacies and subjectivity. Within this social fabric, the erotic emerges as a powerful resource and site of knowledge production. Thus, approaching the discursive culture of “knowing women” requires the decolonization of disciplined categories of knowledge with their inherent power relations.
Knowing Women is a study of same-sex desire in West Africa, which explores the lives and friendships of working-class women in southern Ghana who are intimately involved with each other. Based on in-depth research of the life histories of women in the region, Serena O. Dankwa highlights the vibrancy of everyday same-sex intimacies that have not been captured in a globally pervasive language of sexual identity. Paying close attention to the women's practices of self-reference, Dankwa refers to them as 'knowing women' in a way that both distinguishes them from, and relates them to categories such as lesbian or supi, a Ghanaian term for female friend. In doing so, this study is not only a significant contribution to the field of global queer studies in which both women and Africa have been underrepresented, but a starting point to further theorize the relation between gender, kinship, and sexuality that is key to queer, feminist, and postcolonial theories. This title is also available as Open Access on Cambridge Core.
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