When I woke up to International Women’s Day celebrations, the first thing on my mind wasn’t politics, but the personal connections I didn’t know I would forfeit the minute I stopped wearing skirts, traded in my long hair for a frohawk, and fell in love with a woman. 

I used to have a very close-knit circle of female friends; we defended each other from perverts at crowded bars, cried on each other’s shoulders, told each other we were beautiful whenever the world made us doubt that we were, and gave each other relationship advice, regardless of the gender of the person we loved.

We were sisters. It didn’t matter if we were tomboys or not. We were sisters. It didn’t matter that some of us wore skirts, and some of us wore shorts. We were sisters. That was all that mattered. Right?

Wrong. The second my gender presentation transitioned from straight girl femininity to queer masculine “inbetweener,” I lost most of my sisters. I’m a different kind of woman now. And all of a sudden women I used to call my sisters don’t know how to interact with me. I’m still a woman, but the reactions to my expression of womanhood have changed, drastically.

This is the kind of experience that informs my work as a media activist. I’m always thinking about which perspectives are missing from political conversations and representations in pop culture: who is being excluded? why? how can our political movements become more self-reflective so that we can identify who among us is being left behind, and become stronger advocates for the kind of progress that includes them. Incidentally, in the fight for women’s equality, the people most frequently excluded from consideration and celebration, often enough look just like me.

It’s been a few years since I wrote about the experience of being forced to wear a dress to my friend’s wedding (even though she knew I was tomboy). Yet, despite the political successes the women’s movement is celebrating today, not much has changed for me, professionally and personally.

Even within the open-minded, women’s activist spaces in which I find myself for work, I still have to endure not just the endless hours about boyfriend/husband talk (as though women can’t bond around any other topic), but also–after I attempt to contribute–the prolonged, awkward silences that follow once they realize my partner is a woman. 

My straight girlfriends–bless their hearts–enjoy inviting me to their favorite (straight)  nightclubs so they can maintain their perception of my being “normal”, but have no clue how uncomfortable it is to be a tomboy in a venue with a dress code policy that insists, “Ladies wear heels, Fellas button-downs and hard soles.” So, they’ll usually abandon me on the dancefloor to go to the ladies room for a “touch up”, or worse,  disappear into the post-nightclub meat market, leaving me exposed on a street curb as a prime target for drunk dudes to take out insecurities about their masculinity: “Was that your girlfriend? What, you think you’re a dude? You like pussy? I like it,too. I got a dick though.” 

Yup, that happened. I broke up with a friend over such an incident (and more since then).

I can’t tell you how many times my masculinity has been used to absolve other women (and men) of the responsibility of advocating for me; whether in the face of harassers on street corners, the gender-ed aisles of mainstream clothing stores, or even within the women’s movement itself, it’s as though people automatically assume I’m “stronger”, physically, mentally, and emotionally, just because I shop in the men’s department.

“Don’t worry about her. She can take care of herself.” 

But I have never experienced physical aggression from the world to the degree that I do now. From constantly dodging men who take it upon themselves to “put me in my place” to being ignored by women who’ve subconsciously decided that I’ve chosen “the other side,” I’ve never felt less safe and more in need of protecting.

Hence, in light of international women’s day, I can’t help but note how often my masculinity is the unspoken reason I’m excluded  from women’s spaces, and denied access to the very same sisterhood that nurtured my unwavering dedication to every woman’s empowerment. 

Since losing access to “the sisterhood,” I’ve been rebuilding my support network from scratch, one in which the full spectrum of “womanhood” isn’t just acknowledged, but celebrated: African feminists committed to building cross-movement alliances, queer ”brown bois” leading national conversations about healthy masculinity, and progressive women of all shades and stripes, interested in seeing gender justice done in the media.

I am fortunate. But today, I’m also aware of just how fortunate I am to have experienced even this yearning for a sisterhood that I did have–at least at some point. Even as a tomboy/woman whose gender presentation is more masculine, though inclusion in women’s spaces plays out in odd and hurtful ways, my identity as a woman has never been questioned. But some of my sisters have never known that privilege. I know transgender women (born male, now living as women), for instance, that have never known the comfort, loyalty, and power of a female friend circle.

But, we are still sisters. It shouldn’t matter that some of us were born male and some born female. We are sisters in blood and numbers, in shared missions and shared struggles. That’s all that matters. That’s all that should matter… Right?

I’ll end with an excerpt from my contribution to Ms. Afropolitan’s Women’s Day post: a roundup of comments from African women responding to the question, “What Does Women’s Day Mean to You?“ 

When I remember how my mother celebrated International Women’s Day–as part of a community of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of African women, dressed in bright colors, often laughing and dancing, holding hands–I think about how many African lesbians have been evicted from their sister circles, how many transgender women have never experienced unguarded female friendship. Women’s Day inspires me to keep writing my story so that my African sisters can get to know me, and to keep advocating for queer Africans like me who are still fighting–not just for women’s “rights” but for women’s community, sisterhood, Love.

Women’s Day should be a reminder to all of us to keep advocating for every woman’s right to love and be loved, even long after we’ve found sisterhood for ourselves.

Have you experienced being excluded from women’s spaces due to not fitting in to a heterosexist idea of womanhood? If you’re someone who believes in the importance of women’s spaces and sisterhood, how do you make sure to enact that ideology in your personal life? I believe masculinity is suffering from an estranged relationship with womanhood. What do you think?

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  • unoma

    Wow! This is an eye-opener. I am guilty. I tend to tell my tomboyish-dressing friends to “tone” it down, so as to avoid any unwarranted attention from the “straight” world. Little did I know that for each “tone it down” uttered, I kill their spirit. You’ve made me a believer….in the all-inclusive women’s identity and self-expression. Though we come in all shades and form, we’re one: human. Thank you Spectra for spreading this Love evangelism!

    • http://www.spectraspeaks.com/ Spectra Speaks

      Thank YOU for this offering! Your comment means EVERYTHING. Your sentiments are exactly the reason I so militantly cling to the power of empathy, compassion, and LOVE, in my work. Ultimately, I want us all to connect, to care, so that we *want* to readjust the minute we realize we could be doing better. Thank you for sharing what this meant to you; it’s encouraged me to keep going! BIG love to you.

  • http://twitter.com/graceishuman Grace

    Love this post! Moving and thought-provoking. One of the things I love about your writing, Spectra, is how it manages to be intensely personal and specific to you, but not in a way that feels like I can’t relate to it, or find broader points to take away.

    One quick thought: saying trans women were “born male” can be really triggering for some and sounds like people are literally changing gender from male to female rather than transitioning from one social role to another. Perhaps “seen as male/female at birth” works as plain language for the gender people are assigned at birth?

    Back to the main points of the post. Definitely making me think. I think I took for granted that how I see you is how other women with similar perspectives/experiences would see you, too, which is a dangerous assumption! I’m I’ve definitely seen a lot of what you point out about the exclusion of trans women from “women’s” spaces, and what you say about the assumptions that women who present or are perceived as masculine don’t need advocacy or protection…I just hadn’t quite connected the dots to how that can mean exclusion from sisterhood for more masculine women.

    I find myself, as I often do with your writing, reflecting on my own experience and social position when i read your writing, which is so interesting. Maybe that’s precisely because your writing is so personal, or because I’m always comparing notes with a fellow queer Nigerian, lol. Anyway, I really appreciate it.

    In this case I find myself thinking about how my gender expression and presentation is in this halfway space between recognizably masculine or feminine…I like the phrase “tomboy femme” for it. I’m “feminine” enough in presentation to be accepted in most women’s spaces, but “masculine” enough that I sometimes feel some distance on my end from other, more femme women. A not quite knowing where I fit, if that makes sense. So I felt I could relate to some of what you said, but that you experience this at a much greater degree given your presentation.

    • http://www.spectraspeaks.com/ Spectra Speaks

      Wow… Thank you so much for your very kind, thoughtful, and encouraging comments, @twitter-167426475:disqus! It’s funny, most people know me for my “political” writing/thought pieces, but I’m actually much better at literary nonfiction and fiction. I value those forms greatly for the space they create for the writer to draw from personal experiences while making larger critiques, creating connections to more complex societal problems. Yet, it’s hard to avoid feeling like you’re just over-sharing/being self-absorbed. There’s a balance to be struck for sure, and so I deeply appreciate your comments because it means I get it right often enough. Such a relief! Thank you :)

      Re: “born male”, I actually shared your concern when I was writing this piece. I struggle with how to talk about ideas to my audiences (who come from all walks of life and are often using my blog to learn) without resorting to jargon/insider-speak. In this case, I ultimately came to the decision that not all my trans friends agree on language, either. Some are perfectly fine talking about being born male but experiencing life as women. For those that don’t, I do empathize; it’s certainly uncomfortable for anyone to have to relive /cringe through aspects of an experience they don’t connect with–whether that’s the gender you were assigned at birth or a name that no longer reflects who you are–but I write for a very wide audience, and what’s most important to me, as an activist who also happens to be a writer, is that they understand the *feeling*, the *ideas*, and that they *connect* to what I’m saying, vs get boggled down/confused by the politically correct term of the hour.

      That said, and for the purposes of folks reading (not you lol), male as a term refers to the “sex” (most closely associated with reproductive organs) of a person, not their “gender”, which is experienced through society/made up, kinda like the way I’m “female” but society experiences me as masculine; and because we have strong ideas about “gender”, I get aggression because my “sex” doesn’t match the way I’m perceived the same as males who cry or don’t play sports, or “dress like girls” do. As such, to mention that someone was born male then transitioned to being “female” (at least in the context I was mentioning, where surgery isn’t always involved) wouldn’t be too accurate; perhaps better to say they were born/termed male and transitioned to living as *women*, if that makes sense. (If it doesn’t sorry! This is why I avoid these things, and linked to a Trans 101 site, where someone can explain it better.)

      Lastly, I feel you on the halfway. I used to call myself “Futch” lol. But I gotta say that I LOVE the term “femme tomboy”! Can we please put that on a T-shirt? I think what I love about my experience is that even though society makes it challenging to find community sometimes, I do get to have a LOT of fun exploring who I am and ways to affirm my identity in ways that I don’t think the average person feels like they’re allowed to, and for that I am grateful. Thanks again for always reading and engaging! #fellownaijalove

  • LoriVK

    Reading this post makes me wish I had sisterhood and women’s spaces in my life. Thank you for sharing your experience and your hope.

    • http://www.spectraspeaks.com/ Spectra Speaks

      You are so welcome, @LoriVK:disqus! I encourage you to create one of your own; that’s what I did. There are so many women who will love and appreciate you just as you are. #afrofemlove

  • blkcowrie

    LOVE.

  • http://www.facebook.com/aydan.papi.rodriguez Papi Junior

    thank you, for writing about the unspoken truth and for revealing a world that most ‘bois’ keep to themselves. i’ve been out for 10 years now, and even as an adult, find at times that there is this deep emptiness, a hole of some sort, because of the path that i’ve choosen. not only as a lesbian, but for my masculine appearance. the feeling of abandonment from feminine women (gay and straight), and acceptance from men only if it benefits them in some type of way. even within our own community, there is still a feeling of disgrace, when there should be comfort. lesbians who dress more feminine bashing tomboys, butches, studs, etc for not being a “true” female, while your own circle of ‘bois’ are too busy trying to prove that they’re more masculine than you, and becoming people you cannot trust, biased because of this insecurity that it’s each “man” for themselves…literally. an endless cycle. i thought i was the only one left in this funk. it’s nice to finally acknowledge that i’m not the only one who pains this way…

  • blueowl

    Throughout junior high and most of high school I was excluded from a lot of “girl cliques” because I was such a tomboy. I often wore combat boots or sporty shorts. (Even a a child I would wear my older brother’s clothes). I was even made fun of because of it and it really made me question who I was even through college. I felt pressured into wearing cute, girly clothes and I ended up just looking ridiculous. It got worse when I started getting tattoos. I was no longer seen as feminine but something else. I’ve never really had a group of girl friends but in recent years I’ve been lucky enough to find a couple of gal pals who really don’t care how I dress and aren’t ashamed to be seen with me in any venue. Be strong women, every woman, we need you!

  • http://www.msafropolitan.com/ MsAfropolitan

    Thanks for directing me here (although i would have found my way anyway!)

    While African feminism is now experiencing a boost (right?) I also want us to think about why especially in Africa & diaspora feminisms we suffered a great lack of focus in the 80s & 90s. From much of what I’ve researched, it seems to me that one of the biggest obstacles, if not “The” was that not enough heterosexual feminists demanded unity with queer sisters, in fact many opposed lesbianism and trans women. For instance, I understand this was the case with OWAAD, an otherwise revolutionary organisation of African women here in the UK. This must never be allowed to happen again. We are all sisters in the same struggle. And it IS the ONLY thing that matters.

    Love and respect

    • http://www.spectraspeaks.com/ Spectra Speaks

      Thank you, @MsAfropolitan:disqus! I’ve been fortunate to meet many African women who express similar sentiments. But I’m sincerely grateful for how outspoken *you* are since you’re such a strong agent of African feminism, and the women’s movement in general. Thank you for your voice, for your advocacy, and for your friendship. Much love.

  • http://twitter.com/alisonrose711 Alison Rose

    Thank you so much for sharing this with the world. This – and you – are beautiful and amazing. We need MORE love and acceptance and solidarity in order to be better feminists, better humans, period.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=629571638 David Bikman

    Powerful writing. Thank you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/valyn.faer Valyn Faer

    Firstly, I want to thank you for including us transwomen in this conversation and acknowledging how this issue affects us. In fact, I have had a similar experience to this. I found that most cisgender women were far more inclusive of me when they thought I was/saw me as a gay man. When I came out as a transwoman, though, that all completely changed and they didn’t know how to interact with me. They quickly “Othered” me, and I was moved to the outside. Whereas, previously, they had no problem including me in all the things you mentioned, now most ciswomen are uncomfortable around me and don’t know how to interact with me, even though my sexual orientation and gender identity are obviously still the same. The irony is not lost on me, either. You would think coming out as a transwoman would have the opposite effect, but it didn’t. And I feel like this exclusionary tendency is something that is not really talked about much in general–regardless of what form it takes. So, thank you for writing this.

    Also, I would like to note that it’s not entirely accurate to say we were “born male,” though. While we were assigned a male sex a birth against our will, we were also born with female gender identities. The research does seem to suggest that people are born with hard-wired gender identities that can and, of course, do vary from one’s bodily sex (sex development is a complicated, messy process). This means that we were, in fact, born trans female, not male. To say we were born male, which, unfortunately, has been the dominant way of talking about transness, is to only focus on our bodies to the exclusion of our gender identities, our womanhood, and our very transness. What has always struck me as a tad odd, is the way our society now has an easier time accepting that cisgender gay people were born gay, even though the dominant gay narrative is not one that involves cisgender gay people knowing they were gay as far back as they can remember. However, that is the dominant narrative for trans people, with most of knowing, to one extent or another, ever since we were really young, that our assigned sex was not accurate. Again, thank you for writing this.

    • http://www.spectraspeaks.com/ Spectra Speaks

      Thanks for this comment, Sis! I stand firmly by my trans sisters. Our experiences of womanhood vary (as they should! the women’s community is more powerful because of our diversity, not in spite of it), but you’re all my sisters just the same.

      Re: language/”born male”, as I mentioned to another commenter, I tend to write for a broader audience and thus, in an attempt to avoid confusing people with jargon/insider-speak, use language that’s easier for people to follow, especially in hopes that others with more to say on the topic will chime in and expand the conversation. The LGBT community (including the trans community) rarely agrees on language, thus I’m wary of universalizing one framework/labeling over others, especially since I know trans folk who wouldn’t disagree with the separation of “sex” from “gender” (even at birth, and using the two, albeit limited ‘boxes’ there are: male and female). However, as I don’t share that experience, and merely take my cue from folks I have relationships with and/or follow, I sincerely thank you for engaging me and offering this new insight (i.e. around being born “Trans female”) as I’d never heard it before. As media advocacy/storytelling are my chosen tools for advocacy, I’m open to hearing more about how to educate mainstream audiences on this idea (given that many of them don’t even have a basic understanding of trans identities to begin with). As much as I appreciate the complexities of our experiences and the language we’ve developed to hold on to them, I’m a firm believer of accessibility, and meeting people where they are, especially in my writing, and on this blog. Thus, if you have examples of this being explained in a way that’s easy for people to digest I’d really love a link / reccs for blogs to follow. Thanks again for sharing your comments. #afrofemlove to you :)

      • http://www.facebook.com/johanna.neustrom Abby Oster

        I always present it from the perspective the AMA rather than in the ever-evolving references and descriptions in the LGBTQ. The stance supported by AMA is that transgenderism results from a combination of genetics and anomalies in the first trimester of fetal development. All concede that far more funding of research is needed but that it is definitely a condition based in biology rather than psychology. Further, on sexual orientation I like to cite recent research showing that gay woman share brain structures and pheromone responses similar to straight men and that gay men share structures and responses similar to straight women. Here again, that research just begs more research to understand the vast nuances across gender identity and sexual orientation. However, it is clear (to me at least) we truly were born this way. In the case of being born transgender, science posit a metaphor for internal endocrine system (including the brain) civil war. When Harry Benjamin began prescribing HRT over 50 years ago it was to relieve tension in the body resulting hormonal discord. Transgender women are “wired” for estrogen and testosterone levels on par with cissexual women. The converse is true of transgendered men. This explains with both feel such amazing relief from depression and anxiety, feel a sense of inner peace when they begin HRT treatments. Julia Serano writes to all of these topics and the implications for identity, feminism, and sexuality in her book “Whipping Girl.” She’s far more articulate than me so I’ll leave it at that.

  • Pavlov’s Cat

    I’m sorry if this is out of place and not the kind of thing you were talking about. I recognise that many women have to deal with issues relating to pregnancy, abortion, childcare and menstruation. I don’t mind that a great deal of time in women’s spaces generally and feminist spaces in particular will be taken up with discussion of them. In my feminism I stand by anyone who identifies as a woman in the face of whatever issues they face as women. I just wish I felt they all stood by me. I wish that when some of them make statements that imply you must have the ability to become pregnant or that you must menstruate to call yourself a woman, and I gently and politely point out that these things are not true of all women, not true of me, I would get a little less of the ‘well of course I didn’t mean it like that, you’re being divisive, now apologise for bringing that up and let’s get back to talking about the really important issues the rest of us have’. No, I’m not the one excluding people from my definition of womanhood based on blatant falsehoods. That’s divisive.

  • http://www.facebook.com/raya.darcy Raya Darcy

    thank you for your frank piece. it’s such a relief to read about someone else who “has” to buy clothes in the men’s aisles because the clothes in the “womens” sections fit neither our minds nor our bodies.

  • Bobbie!

    Spectra, you know how much I love and respect your work. Thank you for putting this out on the table in such a validating way. There has to be a way for all of us to be respected at the table. I was reading someone’s comments about your piece on another page. I really, really wish we could stop invalidating others’ experiences just because ours don’t look the same. Thank you for being so inclusive in your language and in relating your experience to others. There are many ways a lot of us don’t fit, feel left out of the conversation, invisible and demeaned, put down because we don’t fit someone else’s idea or match someone else’s experience – so of course, it can’t possibly be true! Thank you, Love for being who you are in the world and for raising the conversations we all need to have about acceptance, inclusion and identity. I really appreciate you today.

    • http://www.spectraspeaks.com/ Spectra Speaks

      Thank you for this, Bobbie. It seems we’re always in sync. I was having this very same conversation with folks on Twitter/FB yesterday. It’s unfortunate that people often silence other people’s testimonies under the guise of pushing for ‘solidarity’ and that they invalidate others’ experiences via immediately responding with “not me.” That said, I’m grateful that there are many people who found this piece affirming/enlightening in some way because it’s why I wrote it. Thank you for seeing that. As a writer whose work I admire, you know I deeply appreciate your support for my work :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/johanna.neustrom Abby Oster

    Extremely powerful piece of writing, thank you. I am one of those transgendered women who “passes” in the feminine circles and many of those women I do count as friends. Yet, my “otherness” sits with me quietly, always. It is like an invisible shroud of shame I mostly ignore for sake of my own sanity and in favor of connection. I am also gay. Talk of boyfriends and husbands abounds in women’s recovery meetings I attend. I do not begrudge that, straight women have no more choice in the matter than gay women. Body shame also plays into it for me. I always knew I was gay which added a special layer of revulsion toward my body, still does to a degree. When I out myself as transgender now (which I do often), the responses are akin to “no way!!” When I out myself as a lesbian, sometimes the air leaves the room briefly, some pull back. If I out myself as both, I feel like I should join a leper colony. Living in Seattle, often that has much more to do with the layers and layers of shame I carry than with the women in my life. They seem far more OK with me than I am with me. In the lesbian community, it is different. That is where rejection can be palpable and where I do sometimes fear for my physical safety. It doesn’t help that my brain tends to be attracted to masculine or androgynous lesbians. I’d no more confess or let that attraction be known than to willingly go pick a fight with a football player. I was told once by two friends on different occasions that there was a time when they would have hated my guts, that they once despised women like me. In one case, it was because I was femme, in the other it was because I was born transgendered. More often though, I know my fears have far less to do with how I am actually received than with my own rejection of myself as valid, of worth as a legitimate gay woman, as a woman period. As much as I might stand proudly to outsiders, as an activist, as a friend, as a human being, inside the words of Cathy Brennan and those like her resonate daily, strike anytime I am feeling happy, whole, connected…”but really, you are just a medically mutilated male.”

  • Marie

    You say in your post “my masculinity,” referring to a different way of dress/presentation. I think this is a shame (not on your part, but as a reflection of our culture), because you are a WOMAN, no matter who you love and how you dress. Beautiful piece… rooting for you as a sister from afar.

    • http://www.spectraspeaks.com/ Spectra Speaks

      I LOVE this comment because it’s so true. I’ve always resented how character traits such as assertiveness, ambition, etc have been characterized by male traits. I grew up in a context where that wasn’t atypical of women at all! But in an effort to communicate ideas about how I’m treated as compared to the “traditionally” feminine, I’ve had to adopt such limited language. It’s frustrating all round. Thank you for noting that, and for your encouragement. #afrofemlove to you.

  • https://www.facebook.com/ehenninger04 Emily Henninger

    I’m a trans woman who has never known unguarded female friendship. Thank you for bringing this issue to light! Hopefully transmisogyny will end in my lifetime.

  • george

    Wow. I feel all the same things. I was gay bashed in broad daylight while people stood by and watched. I relate to all that you say.

  • heja

    Thank you for this article! I think, it really empowers a lot of women who are in the same or related situations- it has for me. And also let all those who (unconciously) blame tomboyish-dressing (or other kinds of not-fitting-in) people think about it and maybe change their minds. Keep writing!

  • Akudo

    I have read this post for more than 3 times and finally i have decided to stop reading it. It makes me sad cos i thought i was so alone in this. I am a woman, i feel deeply like a woman, i love to wear my make up sometimes(dont know why) but i also shop in men’s sections, wear a short hair and love my partner (woman). I used to be able to hide in my heels and skirts although i used to feel so horrible and tired. Immediately i started wearing freer jeans, t-shirts, sneakers, and ties i lost it all. My straight girlfriends started avoiding me cos they dont want their Boyfriends to see them with me, they only hang out with me at night when they want to show me off to their other straight friends, who will have plenty annoying questions, my male friends are lesser comfortable leaving me with their girls/wives or even inviting me to their homes. They always look for a way to over power me, to show me they are the men, seize my arms or lock my hands daring me to set myself free even when i urge them to stop.

    As a feminist, i cant talk abt gender equality for 3 mins without someone asking me if i am a man hater cos the way i look not the things i said. Maybe they would have listened better if i was wearing a skirt and pump shoes.

    In the LGBTI community, i still am the odd one. I am not a femme and definitely dont feel like a man or my girlfriends husband or replacement for a man. I cant hang with my hommies cause i am odd and i cant hang with the femmes either. It is sad when i have to explain to everyone that I am a woman, I still am a woman.

  • ButchU

    Cool to read a good writer espouse this subject…

  • Candacey Doris

    I’m not a tomboy but i used to have a tomboy friend. Until she met other tomboys and ditched me. I as more than fine with her being a tomboy, i have only a few close friends and cherish them. But having tomboy friends was very important to her. After she left i checked my behavior to see if there was something i did, like the things your friends did to you, to see if i made her uncomfortable or inconvenienced her in some way. Finally i asked her and she said she just felt better with other girls like her. That really hurt. I like reading about the issues you face because i think it will help me in the future though. Write on.

  • http://www.notjusthappenstance.com/ Kitty

    How have I never come across your writings before? Always wonderful to find other alternative (for lack of a better word) West Africans. :) Time to dig through your archives!

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