“Gala”, Silence, Denial, and the Culture of Sexual Violence in Ghana

When I was growing up in Tamale, I had often heard my friends talk about “gala” in reference to girls they slept with en masse. I can vividly remember these stories because they were quite prevalent. I can remember some of the places they went to have the gala. In my experience, from what I heard from my friends growing up, gala was often something they did to girls who were considered ‘sluts’ and needed ‘proper fucking”. There were a few times this strayed into the ‘supposed good girls’ who were caught up in this gala thing. I am saying ‘strayed’ because the idea of gala was often laden with overtones of teaching girls bitter lessons, so when they did it to the ‘good girls’, it was supposed to be seen as an aberration.But, that culture where we use sex as a weapon of patriarchal gender norms has dire consequences. So comments about girls’ behavior regarding rape cases are null and void because what needs changing is the way we see girls, not girls’ behavior. Now, because we teach girls to see sex as shame, we’d never had any reports of rape in my community that I can remember (I might be forgetting something). But these gala stories abounded.

When I read the story of the four boys gangrape of the girl on JoyFM, a guy named @Chris Tetteh commented this to a couple of laugh emojis—“The time we dey play gala this is not the right way…we buy fried rice for the girl before chopping😂😂. This boys no organize the thing well 😂.”

IMG_0080In Ghana, when you complain about sexism and Patriarchy, men say you’re making stuff up and that women are not oppressed and that—if you’re a woman—you have penis envy. These things are real. There were other comments like Chris’ on the thread. I know for a fact that some people would be reading my story about my childhood experience and immediately say ‘he’s embellishing it or he’s lying or it only happened in his hometown and not mine.” But Chris and I didn’t grow up in the same hometown. We grew up at different ends of the country. But he knew about gala just like I did growing up.

So you see something, Chris is probably now in his late 20s or early 30s and probably already married, and probably with a kid or two. Chris is not an aberration. He’s probably the guy you sit with in church or knock knees with at the mosque. I am angry at myself for the response I gave earlier to this gangrape story because my response presumed I was shocked by it. That is a lie. I am not shocked by it. I was immersed in it. I know people right now who talked about playing gala when we were teens. So to speak of these boys in the video in terms expressing shock is to lie to myself. To speak of Chris as if he’s a unicorn is to lie to myself. I know many many Chrises and I’m still on good talking terms with them.

If not for the strict and often annoying hard and heavy-handed parenting my grandfather gave us, I probably would have played some gala myself growing up. You see, my grandfather made sure to lock the compound gate at 8pm or latest by 9pm. The time when the gala games were going on were the times I was locked at home seething with anger at the old man for preventing me from ‘having fun’ and socializing with my friends. I am not advocating heavy-handed parenting but now that I remember it, I see it might have saved me from a lot of experiences the boys in my neighborhood had. So I most likely would have become Chris but for this thing my grandfather did. I have often said that poverty can often lead to bad parenting because unlike my grandfather who had a little more resources than most people in our community and could impose his iron fist parenting on us, including when we had to be home and sleeping, most parents in Tamale live in open homes with little or no chance of locking gates to their homes. So in essence, we raise children like we raise our animals: free-range animal rearing. They learn all sorts of values and ways of living mostly from their peers with whom we have no control over. That is what happened in my community (Jisonayilli, a suburb of Tamale) where very young girls were the victims to this, where a number of them were pregnant teens. And we were even better than the neighboring communities because theirs was even worse. But for my grandfather, I would have joined what boys in Tamale call gattos (a bastard of the ghetto) where boys form cliques and socialize together. I never got into any clique so I was spared the worst that came from these ghettos.

When I fractured my right arm in my first year in Junior High School, my life changed dramatically—both for good and bad. To this day, I still have a deformed right arm putting me in the class of “the disabled” in Ghana. I was just on the cusp of puberty when this happened. And I had my puberty years and socialization dealing with and coming to terms with being a disabled boy in Tamale. This meant a drastic change to the way I viewed myself and the way others around me viewed me. This meant, in a culture where we still see people with disabilities as not worthy romantic partners, that I was off the market for dating both as a personal countermeasure as well as an imposition by the forces that be in our lives. To that effect, I almost entirely switched off from trying anything sexual all through my Junior High School and Senior High School years. This meant that my socialization into the sexual politics in our community was experienced at an arm’s length. This meant that I only heard stories of sexual escapades from my friends instead of engaged in them myself. I am telling you this to make a point: that it could easily have been me making the comment Chris made if not for this extenuating circumstance. [A side note: I fell from a mango tree plucking some plum mangoes I was hoping to gift to this girl (Antwiwaa) in our class—you can say she was my first crush, a prepubescent love that didn’t materialize after she went back to Accra after JHS. She really was my first love. She showed me my first porn movie 😬, and when I went home with her in her very miniskirt, my super Sunni grandfather was livid 😂 but behaved himself till she left before he unloaded on me 😩. But we were just kids so nothing happened other than a touch here and a touch there.] But my fractured arm and subsequent disability changed the trajectory of my dating habits and differentiated me from my friends.

To be honest with you, I was a most likely candidate to be Chris but for my fractured arm. I am not saying this to boast but I really was. I was almost always topping my class. I played soccer decently. I was a cocky little bastard and was always full of myself. I was brash and I thought myself handsome. So I was the quintessential jock but with a little more brain power. So I was definitely going to be in the middle of everything ‘boys boys’ would be doing. But my fractured arm changed things. I started spending more time alone in my room to a point my grandmother started referring to me as a soothsayer. I always hated that word but I love my grandmother though. Spending time with myself allowed me to be a bit more reflective and thoughtful. I think it really did help me become a better student. But more importantly, it prevented me from joining the area boys in their daily shenanigans, including their sexual escapades. I probably would have had my own personal stories of playing gala but for my fractured arm.

The general use of sex as a form of punishment in our community is neck deep in our psyche. To my Dagbamba friends, do you remember when, and I dare say it is still a phrase in use today, men saying “ni nyaba ka a dulim dulim” as a form of threat to women and girls? Because we’re so ignorant about sexuality, we even use something that’s supposed be beautiful as a threat. For my non-Dagbamba friends, the phrase roughly translates as “I’ll fuck you till you urinate.” Now, given that we have no proper idea of women’s ejaculation or women “coming” to use the street term, the height of some female orgasm occurs when they have some fluid release just like the male orgasm but because we don’t know this properly, some men think it a just pee. So some men use it as a threat to girls to “put them in their place.” They do this because they think the woman squirting during sex is a form of punishment. So they use it as a threat.

These are things we hear in our everyday lives. But when some boys film it and share it on social media, we feign outrage and make them look like outliers. But to me, in my estimation, given my experience growing up, these boys are not outliers. They are us. They are what our society is. We are just embarrassed that they’ve been dumb enough to record it to show to the world. We have been socialized into that toxic environment. You and I can feign outrage all we want, but until we acknowledge that this is not an outlier but a deep social problem, we’re never going to solve this. Until we, in every walk of life, start seeing women as equal to men, we’ll never solve this. I still struggle with my own views about women. I still strive every day to see women not as sex objects or second to me, but as equal partners in this thing we call life. I am not always successful on all occasions or at all times, but it is a personal struggle I’m willing to never stop working at. Gala is our language, we need to own it so as to be able to dismantle it. Chris is me, and I’m Chris. But I can improve. I can become a better person for my mothers and aunties and sisters and girls friends and fiancé and wife and a better father or uncle and most important of all, a better human being. They deserve better than what I am now.

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