Bisi Alimi made history in 2004 when he became the first Nigerian man to come out as gay on live national television. During the interview, he called for Nigeria to be more accepting of the LGBT community; he was met with death threats, and after being disowned by the majority of his friends and family, was eventually forced to leave the country.
Last year, Bisi went home for the first time. His return to Nigeria is the subject of an upcoming documentary, ‘The Boy From Mushin,’ directed by filmmaker Joe Cohen. In a telephone interview, Bisi and Joe shared the serendipitous story of how they met, and how the project came about.
They first crossed paths briefly at a club night in London, and then reconnected shortly after on a gay social network. “I had my antennae open for a story,” says Joe. “I’d recently finished film school, and I wanted to make a feature.” Bisi and Joe became friends, but it wasn’t until nearly a year later that Joe raised the idea of shooting a documentary. “Neither of us wanted to make a documentary about the past,” he says.
But as Bisi’s profile grew, the story became more about the future. They began to film “in bits and pieces,” telling the story of Bisi’s childhood in a Lagos slum, his rise to fame as an actor in Nigeria, that now-infamous watershed TV moment, and his subsequent life in exile. When Bisi was invited to return to Nigeria in 2015 to speak at an arts festival, Joe hired a local crew to capture it.
Bisi’s activism takes him all over the world, but he remains committed to improving the lives of LGBT people in his home country, where homosexuality still carries a criminal sentence. The Bisi Alimi Foundation aims to achieve change on the ground through research, advocacy, training, and engaging businesses. Nigeria is Africa’s second largest economy (South Africa recently retook the top spot), and Bisi is deeply passionate about making it a better place to live and work.
He tells me how, when his acting career was going well, he was able to support not only his family, but also his friends in the LGBT community. When he came out, he lost his house and his income, and became reliant on his mother. Going from financial independence to a self-perceived “burden” opened Bisi’s eyes to how Nigeria is cutting itself off from potential prosperity.
“If the LGBT community has the freedom to create and manage wealth, it flows back into the economy,” he says. “But if you deprive them of the ability and the freedom to create wealth, they depend on their friends and family to make their living, and the little money they have gets shared among people, and doesn’t do anything for the economy.”
In short; if it is possible to change the economic narrative of LGBT people, then it is possible to change the economic narrative of an entire nation.
Of course, while financial motivation will change some minds, it won’t be enough to overcome generations of learned bigotry. “No matter how much investment we put into eradicating prejudice, it isn’t going away,” says Bisi. “People will hold onto beliefs that are harmful to society. But we can curtail and reduce the impact of prejudice.”
“I hope that LGBT people in Nigeria will be able to watch this film and be inspired, and be empowered, and be encouraged,” says Joe. “Not just through Bisi’s story, but through other people in the film as well, and their courage. I’d like it be a tool of empowerment to people in Nigeria, but I’d like to have an impact in the West as well. I think people need to be aware of the horror of the legal situation, I think people need to be aware of the need for international solidarity and campaigning. So I hope that this film will be a window into that world.”