Browse Category: Afrofeminism

Shishani, Queer Namibian Songwriter

African Women Musicians: Queer Namibian Songwriter Shishani Launches Debut Album Campaign

Shishani, Queer Namibian SongwriterHere’s some fantastic news from one of my favorite African women musicians: queer Namibian songwriter Shishani, has launched an Indiegogo campaign to fund her debut album!

Diaspora Art and “AfroSoul”

I rarely post about media that isn’t in the form of a review, but after seeing her perform live in Namibia last year, and hearing some of the tracks that’ll be included on the LP, I strongly recommend you give her music a listen.

Earlier on this year, I interviewed Shishani about her experience growing up away from her home country, Namibia, finding inspiration within its thriving art and music scene upon her return, and contributing to the movement to end racism, homophobia, and all forms of discrimination through her music.

In her popular single, “Minority”, Shishani calls for the world to embrace differences by acknowledging that each of us, in some way, is a minority. The video of the song earned a Namibian Music Awards nomination earlier on this year, and Shishani hopes to use the momentum to successfully fund her debut album.

Here’s a short note form Shishani:

“An African proverb goes, “It takes a whole village to raise a child” – I need your help to raise this one of mine.

I’m an independent artist and activist. In 2011, I started my solo career in Namibia – travelling back and forth to the Netherlands (where I’ve been based) and studying Cultural Anthropology & Musicology in between. After winning the Last Band Standing competition in 2012 (a Live Band version of “Idols” in Namibia), I started working on my debut album. I’ve been working on my album for the past 2 years. And it’s been a journey ever since. Now, all the stars have aligned – it is time.

My song, “Minority,” got nominated for “Best Single Non Album” at the 2012 Namibian Annual Music Awards. And recently the “Minority (Jazz Remix)” was nominated for Best Music Video at the 2013 Namibian Annual Music Awards. This song advocates for Human Rights, Equal Rights, Right to Love throughout our societies. Through social media this song has been able to spread, and I hope to reach even more through the release of my album.”

Shishani’s Indiegogo campaign goes till June 15th, so supporters of indie musicians have about a month to contribute.

The perqs include the usual: digital and hard copies of the album, T-shirts, other signed merchandise, and private performances. Undoubtedly, even newbies to Shishani’s music will need no convincing; her songs are, at once, catchy, sensitive, and inspirational. If Bob Marley, Nneka, and Tracy Chapman could birth a child together, she would be it. If you have any doubts, listen to the music that soundtracks her campaign video: pure talent, pure heart. The debut album will feature Shisani’s most popular singles, including “Minority” and “Raining Words”.

Support LGBT African Artists and Media Makers

If music isn’t your thing, and you stand more for movement, take pride in knowing you’ll be supporting an LGBT African icon in the making. Shishani is not the first queer Namibian or African artist to produce music or rise to stardom; there are other LGBTI African artists who have for obvious reasons have stayed mum on the subject of the persecution of gays on the  African continent.

As an outspoken member of the Namibian diaspora, Shishani graciously acknowledges that she stands on the shoulders of musical and revolutionary icons who weren’t afforded the same privileges she has, yet paved the way for her as an artist whose work is political. Still, it would be remiss of us to ignore the fact that her outspokenness is a risk to her career and thus, she is deserving of our respect and support as advocates for justice and freedom for everyone, everywhere.

Watch the Campaign Video

I’ll be getting my copy of her debut album, and I encourage you to do the same here. Note: Shishani plans to have completed production of the album by July 2013. For more information, check out her video campaign below, and visit her IndieGoGo campaign page.

 

Love and Afrofeminism: 5 Core Self-Care Principles Every Activist Should Live By

AfrofemLoveIn March, I shared my philosophy about using self care as a tool to creating sustainable movements in a piece I wrote following an appearance: Celebrating Audre Lorde with Jamaican Feminists: Media Activism, Self Care, and Virtual Sisterhood.

The responses I received–both at the event and around the post–were overwhelming positive. But the subsequent requests for practical day-to-day advice for caring for oneself while caring for community prompted me to reflect on what it means for activists to really practice self care… not just as some fluffy theoretical concept reserved for the privileged, but as an accessible set of principles, applied consistently towards a healthy, sustainable lifestyle.

Incidentally, it was around this time last year that I launched my popular Love and Afrofeminism (#afrofemlove) series, through which I explored gender, sexuality, and race issues through the lens of empathy, compassion, and self-love.

Hence, I couldn’t be happier to relaunch my #afrofemlove series with an offering of the principles that have guided me in my own journey thus far. The following principles can certainly be used by everyone, but I especially hope they resonate with my fellow activists, people whose work revolves around the practice of loving so many others that, too often, they forget to love themselves, and each others.

Here’s to no more of that.

5 Core Self-Care Principles Every Activists Should Live By

1) Self-Care Requires Planning 

Plan the pampering ahead of time. Okay, to be honest, it’s often not “pampering” I’m doing; I’m recovering, resting, slowing down. The truth is I’m a workaholic; if I don’t plan or schedule my self-care ahead of time, it’ll never happen; I’ll just keep going and going, until I crash. It’s a shame, but after years of teetering on the verge of burnout, I’ve learned to stop denying that I have a problem, and have learned to work around it. 

For instance, as a way of punctuating my non-stop work schedule with “rest stops,” my partner and I now plan at least one semi-sized vacation every 6 weeks or so, and about six months ahead of time. The rest stops could include anything from visiting family for a long weekend to traveling overseas. I apply the same planning effort to my weekly and monthly schedules as well: mid-week lunches with friends and lunchtime runs are my favorite. The best part? I usually that forget I’ve planned ahead.

Nothing beats getting a vacation calendar reminder (“France Vacation in 5 Days!”) right in the middle of a hell week, receiving a text from a friend confirming that we’re still on for cooking dinner together the following evening, or even taking a “Disney sing-a-long” break for 15 minutes on Youtube during my lunch break. Laugh all you want, it puts the biggest smile on my face and it costs me nothing, which brings me to my next point…

2) Self Care Doesn’t Have to Cost Money

Yoga retreats, spa days, and island getaways are awesome, yet, despite perceptions, they’re definitely not the only way to practice self-care, and they’re certainly not always accessible (or sustainable); such  luxurious activities require that you interrupt your regular schedule (and budget) to “recharge”, but not everyone can spend money on a last minute getaway.

As a child, I remember always being able to create fun in and out of any environment–my leftover food, bedroom walls, my mother’s lotions. Then, adulthood happened, and I went from being the child whose imagination could fill an entire afternoon to living as a young professional who only saw fun in five categories: shopping, clubbing, movies, dining out, and gyming. And whilst, I enjoyed those activities, when I left the steady paycheck for the life of a social entrepreneur, I experienced a serious decline in my mental health because I could no longer buy my way into feeling stronger or healthier.

The sudden change in income was probably the best thing that happened to me now that I think about it: after years of belonging to a gym, I learned to run outside; after years of late night takeout, I discovered the joy of cooking new recipes I found online; I got back into playing music (guitar); and most importantly, I got back into reading, writing, and in the case of no internet, singing entire segments of my iTunes library by choosing a random letter of the alphabet. (Don’t judge). The best part? All my favorite hobbies are free.

3) Self Care Doesn’t Have to Cost Time, Either

A few months ago, an important, provocative (albeit insensitive and condescending  article titled, “An End to Self-Care” sparked debate in activist circles about the elitism and individualism in self-care (vs community-care). I was pissed, yet, I must admit, the article forced me to reflect on the ways  in which I practice self-care as a lifestyle (vs. a quick fix when I’ve been “bad”); I practice integrating self-care into my everyday and approach it the way I do brushing my teeth, eating lunch, even using the bathroom–not as activities that ‘cost’ me time, but as necessary aspects of every day, healthy living.

That said, as a business owner who works *all the time* (’cause when I stop working, I stop getting paid–most startup entrepreneurs don’t get paid time off), coming up with accessible, every day self-care practices that I can seamlessly incorporate into my day has been critical. Sure, there are days on which I can afford the time,  and thus choose working out, taking leisurely walks, playing video games, watching films on Netflix etc. But I have many more “hell days” when I’m up  at 6 am and can’t stop working till 9 or 10 at night. How to sustain myself then?

Several simple ways, actually. For one, I make sure that I enjoy my workspace. As this is a room in my home, I need to make sure it’s tidy, organized, and flowing with clean, fresh energy, since this boosts my productivity. I build in a reward system into my workplan (e.g. “Once I turn in this article, I will make myself some yummy honey-ginger tea!”); this may seem silly, but it keeps my work outlook positive, and based on successes (rather than failures), which reduces the risk of stress.

4) Self-Care Doesn’t Come in a One-Size Fits All

Quite often, when I mention that I’m feeling overworked or managing stress, people will tell me to do yoga. “Yoga is awesome. You should really try it. There’s nothing better. Om Om Om. Namaste.” I love asking other people what they do to recharge, how they integrate self-care into their routines, and what new home remedies I can try out for myself, precisely for the reason that not every “revolutionary self-care practice” will work for me.

Take yoga for example: one cannot deny the benefits, but I’m not disciplined enough to practice yoga on my own and attending group sessions filled with white women dressed in fancy yoga garb (and who repeatedly give you weird, othering looks) only reminds me of my work as an activist–fighting racism and classism everywhere, even in a damn yoga class. This is not my idea of relaxing. But, when I voice this to others, I’m often told, “You haven’t tried it long enough… Find another class… Trust me, it really will do wonders for your mental health.”

But the truth is this: I tried yoga for ten years. I prefer a good, sweaty run outside to sitting still and breathing any day. On cold, rainy days, dancing in my living room to Afropop music for 30 minutes works just as well. For nurturing mindfulness, I write in my journal while listening to epic movie scores, such as my favorite from Lady in the Water, “The Healing.” And for a sense of “inner peace,” I sit on my porch next to my favorite tree, Sanchez, and daydream. Sometimes, I draw my daydreams–stick figures mostly; I trace out scenes from my life as it is and call forth the future I want using colored pencils and magazine clippings. See, what works for others, won’t always work for me, and that’s okay; caring for yourself means taking the time to learn what your self needs.

5) Self-Care and Community Care are Interconnected

There’s been quite a bit of debate between proponents of self-care and community care, but they needn’t be oppositional forces. In fact, I’ve found but personally and professionally that both are critical for sustainability and survival.

The fact is this: If group spaces practiced mindfulness more intentionally, I wouldn’t have to retreat into ‘self-care defense mode’ as often I as do. If all my bosses respected vacation days, if meeting facilitators integrated more 5 minute breaks, if activist leaders extended their principles of self-care to the management of their teams and partners, if companies — hell, I’m on a roll here — reimbursed gyms alongside all the fancy dinners and booze, we’d all be better off; we’d all feel better supported in our own efforts to take better care of ourselves. 

So that’s it folks–my work in progress: 5 self-care principles to help guide (y)our practice, and help ensure that we’re living and sharing self-care and community care tips, advice, and tools that are accessible to as many people as possible. I hope you find them useful. 

What other core principles would you add to this list? 

A Gay Zulu Wedding and the Danger of a Single LGBT African Story

Male and Married: The Gay Zulu Wedding and the Danger of a Single LGBT African Story

In case you missed it, a few weeks ago, two gay black South African men tied the knot at their 200-guest traditional wedding in KwaDukuza, the first of its kind in the old Zulu capital.

Gay Zulu Wedding LGBT AfricaLove birds Tshepo Modisane and Thoba Sithole, both proudly Zulu and Tswana, have made their union a part of South Africa’s history by deciding to go public with their gay African traditional wedding ceremony, with a few twists:

In place of the customary lobolo (bride price or dowry), via which the husband customarily offer’s the wife’s family money and/or gifts, they’ve decided to opt for gender parity and, instead,  offer gifts to each of their families in thanks for raising them. They also plan to use the hyphenated version of both their last names, Sithole-Modisane, and are planning to start a family soon using a surrogate (though this report says they’ll be adopting.)

In the video report (below), the couple shares, “It’s against this idea that being gay is unAfrican… Being gay is as African as being black. We are a part of our culture. Thoba is Zulu and I’m Tswana. We’re rooted in our culture and very excited about it.”

On paper, South Africa boasts the friendliest constitution, which protects its lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) citizens from discrimination based on race, gender and sexual orientation. Yet, the country’s struggle to shift cultural attitudes towards acceptance for this marginalized group of people, especially in rural areas and townships, remains.

According to this Human Rights Watch report, “Black lesbians and transgender men in South African townships and rural areas face an overwhelming climate of discrimination and violence despite protections promised them in the country’s constitution.” It’s no wonder, then, that the mere optics of the “first gay traditional African wedding,” warrant its celebration as a historical milestone for gay Africans everywhere.

Denis Nzioka, founder and editor of Identity Kenya, a news organization covering sexual and gender minorities in Kenya, remarked in an interview, “The gay Zulu wedding was epic, if not pioneering. Having seen the video and photos and customs I was amazed at how the two mixed their love and celebrated it in an ‘African’ way.” And in response to what’s become a slogan amongst anti-gay African leaders, “Homophobia is unAfrican,” Nzioka insists that “the fact that two African men can fall in love and wed, despite a homophobic society that frowns on same-sex relationships counters what many Africans [have been] saying’.”

The Danger of a Single LGBT African (Male, Middle-Class, and Marriage-Focused) Story

The Danger of a Single Gay African LGBT StoryChimamanda Adichie, a celebrated Nigerian writer said in her famous TEDTalk, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes, is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”

Hence, as the media continues to hail this single occurrence as a milestone, it becomes critical that supporters of the LGBTI African movement for equality consider this single narrative exists within the context of many others.

For instance, the video report states that the two gay black men are based in the metropolitan city of Johannesburg and are working professionals in the fields of financial services and IT. That’s not to imply they’ve been in any way exempt from experiencing the debilitating impact of societal discrimination–far from it; the effects of homophobia (compounded with racism, as the couple is black) on the livelihood of people presumed to be LGBTI can result in workplace discrimination, prejudice in health care, not to mention depression, anxiety, even suicide.

Still, there’s a huge difference between the experience of being a “regular looking” cisgender male employee, at a “Big Four” financial consulting firm, in a  fairly liberal city that boasts the largest gay pride in the country, versus the harsh reality of a trying to make ends meet in a poor township, while also fearing rape for being a lesbian, or murder for being an effeminate gay man.

In a piece written for a South African LGBT publication last year, the author shared comments from a young, black, gay-identified male, who disagreed with South Africa’s reputation as a progressive state (emphasis in bold added by me):

“When you have money, it’s quite easy to set yourself free from discrimination and danger,” Junior says. “Many of the white gay and lesbian people here can afford to reside in a safe and progressive area, but the majority of us live in townships. In openly embracing your sexuality there, you run the risk of getting abused, raped or murdered.” Junior’s statement emphasizes that gay and lesbian equality in South Africa is strongly mediated by race and class, and that sexual freedom is often available to those who have the racial and literal capital to afford them.

In light of the struggles of LGBTI Africans, the desire to celebrate any kind of progress – especially when it comes in the form of a gleeful Zulu wedding – is understandable; the vibrant ceremony presented a sharp contrast to the media’s grim and, at times, gruesome depiction of violent homophobia on the African continent. However, it is dangerous to assign wide-sweeping gains to all LGBTI Africans based on the perceived victory of a few. 

What of gay Africans who view marriage as the least of their problems – young people, for instance, who have been disowned by their families and, above all, seek a stable alternative to homelessness? What about transgender women who experience rejection (and violence) from both gay and straight communities alike? And lesbians–forced to live in fear of so-called “corrective rape”–will marriage mean social acceptance for them, too?

If we’ve learned anything from criticism of the same sex marriage equality movement in the U.S., it’s that too much emphasis on marriage as a pathway to acceptance could only end up benefiting a small segment of the LGBTI community (e.g. gay men, or members of the middle class–while the groups most at-risk e.g. women, youth, transgender people, etc.–are likely to go unheard, and even unfunded.

A Nigerian lesbian activist (who prefers to remain anonymous) remarked on the unwillingness of many global human rights funders to support ‘less popular’ LGBTI programs:

“If you’re not doing HIV/AIDS work, forget it. Funders are mainly interested in gay men because of that. With women, we are not seen as much as being affected by these issues. And there is no research on Nigerian gay women to suggest otherwise, so we are at a disadvantage. Our organization provides a safe haven for lesbians and bisexual women to be out, be themselves, meet other women. We organize social events, movie nights, you name it. I know it is saving lives. But the funders don’t seem to feel that way because we are not in the news.”

Nigeria’s recent move to further criminalize homosexuality has no doubt sent even more LGBTI Nigerians back into the closest, making the need for safe social spaces even more critical. In this country, a publicly staged wedding is punishable by imprisonment for up to 14 years, and in the north, death. Hence, before the media declares the gay Zulu wedding as progress for the LGBTI African movement, it must ask itself, “What does progress for LGBTI people in other African countries (or even different groups of Africans within South Africa) look like?”

LGBTI African Activists Propose a Multi-Country, Multi-Issue Approach to Advocacy

Florence Xhaxas, founder and director of the gender justice organization, Young Feminist Movement, Namibia, warns against zero-ing in on the struggles – and progress – of a single African country at the expense of others:

“As much as I feel [the wedding video] is great for South Africans, the feeling isn’t shared by all LGBT people across the continent. The truth is that [South Africans] have mastered the art of amplifying their voices and documenting cases.”

To Xhaxas’ point, while stories from South Africa and Uganda continue to shape western media’s narrative about the LGBTI African movement, other countries experiencing their own share of hardships and progress go unnoticed. For instance, the murder of Ugandan LGBT rights activist David Kato sparked global outrage while the brutal torture and slaying of a gay Tanzanian community organizer, Maurice Mjomba barely received attention. Similarly, while South African women are perpetually victimized via “corrective rape” coverage, uprisings by lesbians in other countries, such as Namibia, and Malawi, aren’t likely to make headlines.

Says Xhaxas, “How can we improve documentation [in other countries]? How can we make sure that media hype is created for all the struggles we go through? And hold other states in the lime light of the global community’s responsibility to protect all citizens?”

To be sure, the cultural significance of the gay Zulu wedding video — the power of media, itself–cannot be ignored; LGBTI Africans all over the world were able to see their relationships affirmed in the media – a rarity. Denis Nzioka puts it best when he says, “Greater positive media portrayal of LGBT Africans has been proven to change people’s perception. As one of my close friend lesbian friend once quipped ‘Kenya’s often mild acceptance of homosexuality can be attributed, in some small way, to two persons – Will & Grace.’”

Given the impact a single video has had on recent conversations about homosexuality in Africa, among Africans at that, it goes without saying that proponents of LGBTI equality on the African continent, should more intentionally support LGBTI African media advocacy organizations and initiatives – the writers, journalists, digital media producers, and artists that risk backlash for daring to critique the world as it is, while imagining and inspiring the future as it could be.

Jabu Pereira, founder and executive of director of Iranti, a media advocacy organization based in South Africa emphasizes the importance (and threat) of LGBTI Africans using media to influence change:

“We must end the ongoing ignorance of states who continue to encourage systemic violence, we simply can’t afford this. We must not stop documenting the human rights violations we experience as LGBTI persons in Africa.. even when we are threatened…”

The media frenzy around this milestone should in no way serve as a distraction from supporting less visible, less “newsworthy” forms of activism. It should, in fact, galvanize allies to support more LGBT African organizations across the continent – not just South Africa or Uganda – that work on behalf of constituencies who fight for the most at-risk of their communities, and whose victories and milestones comprise the mundane of daily survival.

 Watch the Video Below:

What Kind of African Doesn’t Speak Any African Languages? Me.

AfropolitansLast year, I attended a conference that brought together African thought leaders. In a session about African identity, we explored the question of whether one could claim to be African without being fluent in any African languages. A passionate, and near disruptive debate ensued almost instantly.

What Language Do You Speak? (aka Do You Speak “Us”?)
I’ve had this conversation about language and identity time and again with Africans I meet on my travels. My afropolitan (i.e. world citizen) accent throws them off – a mix of American, Nigerian, and what’s often mistaken for British diction, simply because I enunciate my Ts.  (Perhaps it’s the remnants of attending a British-run primary school; not likely though.). Bread-breaking usually comes to a halt until the matter of my accent (origin) is cleared up. They simply must know which language I speak so that they can place me in one of two boxes: one of us, or one of them.

When I tell the cultural gatekeepers that I’m from Nigeria, and my accent is the result of living in the states for the past 12 years, they’re still not satisfied. “Are you sure you weren’t just born there?” they ask, “You don’t sound like you grew up in Nigeria.” I usually respond by asking them what a Nigerian who grew up in Nigeria sounds like, then hear some variation of “Like the people in Nollywood movies.” And when I tell them, I’m sorry to disappoint, I’m not an actress but an activist, I’m Nigerian through and through–I just went to the states for university, they deliver the kicker, “Well, prove it. What language do you speak?” The minute I respond with English (“Oh…”), it’s all downhill from there.

To Speak or Not to Speak: Assimilation vs. Accents
African ImmigrantsFrom tensions in Spain over mandating Spanish (versus indigenous languages like Catalan) to U.S. debates over bilingual education and attempts to ban speaking Spanish at school, the issue of language is a sore spot for many communities. Such language restrictions are often seen as direct attacks on minority cultures, especially for black immigrants who struggle to affirm their cultural heritage in the absence of their native language. Yet, ironically, immigrant parents in the U.S. are less likely to teach their children their native languages, for the purpose – or rather, the sake – of easing their assimilation into English-speaking culture.

The latter scenario resonates deeply with me. I grew up with a father who wasn’t fluent in his mother tongue, Agbor (a region-specific dialect of Ika), because his father had outlawed the language being spoken in the house. My grandfather–who worked as a civil servant during Nigeria’s colonial era–had valid reasons for doing so. In those days, speaking “proper” English meant you got the “good jobs,” which meant increased access to resources, and an improved livelihood for one’s family. Sadly, even though my father openly resents never having learned his family’s language, his wife–my mother–refused to teach me her native tongue, Igbo, for a similar reason.

nigeria educationColonialism did a number on Nigeria’s education system; as I was growing up, public schools were plagued with lack of resources, frequent strikes, cult violence, sexual harassment, and prostitution. Hence, my mother’s desire to see me succeed meant equipping me with tools to ensure I could thrive outside of the country I called my home. For instance, I would attend an international British-run private school, where white teachers would single out the only other black kid in the class for not pronouncing “stomach” correctly ( “stuh-muck”, not “stoh-mack” apparently); only an American or British university would do; I would not learn my native tongue until I spoke English “perfectly” and no longer risked picking up a “bad, Nigerian accent” that would make it harder for me “over there.”

You see, both my parents studied in Los Angeles in the 70s; on top of the (incomprehensible to me) racism of the time, they also faced American imperialist views and discrimination against “foreigners.” My mother was repeatedly rejected by employers for speaking too “harshly”, eventually forcing her to give up pursuing her dream career in television. It’s no wonder that every morning in my early childhood, my parents would wake up at 5 am to tape Satellite episodes of Sesame Street…They believed (or hoped) that watching British and American English programming would teach their children to speak “properly,” so they wouldn’t have to give up on their dreams.

The Blame Game: Colonialism, Forced Migration, and “Bad African Parents”
The Warmth of Other Suns - Black MigrationFor a long time, I resented my parents for robbing me of learning both my native languages. Later, I resented Nigeria for being so poorly-run that my parents couldn’t see me thriving anywhere but outside of it. Now, as I think about the players who created the environment I was raised to escape–who concocted a system so cruel it culturally orphans children for its own purposes, it’s become much harder to keep directing anger at my own family, and my own people.

My parents shouldn’t be crucified for acting in full awareness of the unjust systems that police indigenous cultures: the colonialist rubble left behind in Nigeria by the British Empire, and the resentment of Britain’s imperialist younger brother, the US of A, towards foreigners. Their fears were rational. Even today, my Puerto Rican partner, who manages a Spanish-speaking client support team at work, comes home at least once a week to vent about some caller’s rude reaction to a supervisee’s accent, dismissing them as un-educated, or ill-equipped to perform their jobs because they perceivably don’t speak “proper English.”

Still, while many immigrants are forced to sacrifice native language fluency, it’s important to note that similar negotiations around language, identity, and yes, accents, don’t just play out within the context of the migrant Diaspora. Many Africans living on the continent don’t speak their native languages, either. And, their reasons aren’t so different from their estranged brethren.

Black Immigrants in the US | Source: AP

In Nigeria, for instance, as a Delta-Igbo person living in a state dominated by Yorubas, I experienced much discrimination at school: regular tribalist diatribes from Social Studies teachers, punctuated by stereotypical Igbo impersonations from classmates.

The ethnic tensions that permeated my school dated back to when Igbo people had attempted to gain independence from the political mess the British left in Nigeria post-independence. These attempts, the result of colonial powers leaving certain ethnic groups in power over others, led to the Biafran war and genocide. The war had a lasting legacy: many Igbo students at my school didn’t speak their language (openly) for fear of being socially ostracized. Speaking, or at least understanding even broken Yoruba was a way of appearing more socially acceptable, to assimilate and survive.

Policing Africanness: Language, Globalization, and Cultural Access
African Colonialism

As is the case with many other colonized African countries, in South Africa, for example, the 12 official languages are the result of white men sitting down at a table, drawing squiggly lines around the region they wished to claim. They didn’t care about the diversity of peoples living there: not when they declared Afrikaans the official language of schools during apartheid, and not now when discussing the “under-achievement” of black youth while ignoring the impact apartheid’s indifference to Africa’s diverse cultures and languages has had on the struggle to reform education.

By the way: Afrikaans is not an indigenous African language, its origins date back to Europe settlers who spoke Dutch. Yet, there are South Africans (coloreds and blacks) who only speak Afrikaans or English due to similar circumstance e.g. migration, globalization, interracial adoption, etc.  Are they “less African” than the Black South Africans who speak indigenous languages such as Xhosa? Or Zulu? What about white people who migrate to Africa and learn to speak local languages? Are they now “more African” than Africans who do not, yet have been living in Africa  since birth?

Chill Out: Language is Just One Aspect of Culture

Contemporary Africans and African Diaspora in Design and Culture

My purpose isn’t to debate who is more African than whom based on language fluency (or even geopolitical circumstance). On the contrary: I don’t understand how anyone can cherry pick a single aspect of our culture as the arbiter of “authentic” African identity: Language. For sure, it’s important. But so is indigenous spirituality, traditional garb, family values, the arts. Culture comprises many elements, thus it makes no sense to police cultural belonging– cling to such a divisive hierarchy, based on the single factor of language, especially considering the lasting effects of our colonial history, and the impact of globalization on contemporary African culture.

I am also not using colonialism as an excuse to lessen the importance of learning our native tongues; language offers us a very obvious, easily detectable signal that someone is either part of our community, or not. You know this if you’ve ever walked into a Dominican bodega and had to ask for something in English, then watched as the eyes computed, instantly: “not one of us.” Furthermore, in many African cultures, the parts of our history that haven’t yet been erased or revised are passed down to younger generations, orally. In political protest, Fela Kuti, father of “Afrobeat”, and one of Africa’s most celebrated music icons, wrote most of his songs in pidgin in order to connect with the lay man who didn’t speak “proper English.” His son, Femi Kuti, has carried that tradition forward, and with that, Fela Kuti’s legacyIndigenous languages safeguard our stories in their hidden meanings and subtext, so much so that the mis-translation of a single word can create a completely different interpretation of history as we know it, and we’d literally lose ourselves.

Rise of the Afropolitans: NNEKA

Perhaps that’s why we stubbornly stick to fluency in “our mother tongues” as the yardstick for measuring “Africanness,” “our-ness,” “us-ness.” Perhaps the tune about real Africans being able to speak their mother tongues is only sung in protest against the hegemony of our colonizers’ languages. But is spiting them reason enough to spite each other? By perpetuating the use of a single cultural marker to create an hierarchy of Africanness, aren’t we simply deploying the same tools colonizers used to divide and conquer? Aren’t we essentially continuing the work the British Empire started?

We can do better.

There are a myriad of other identity markers that reveal the extent of both our sameness and uniqueness and make up the diverse African cultures that span the globe. Africa is complex–Africans, even moreso. Let’s not trade in our shared heritage for the exclusivity of an unjust social hierarchy. Let’s not , as our colonizers did, draw borders around poorly constructed monoliths. Our just protest for an Africa with linguistic agency must not turn us into the same masters of imperialist dogma we’re still yet to hold accountable.

——-

Update: Line which initially said there exist South Africans who only speak English or Afrikaans has been updated to contextualize loss of indigenous/mother tongue language fluency happening due to globalization, migration, cross-cultural adoption, and other factors so as not to perpetuate that as the norm. (Thanks MR for helping me clarify!)

Losing Access to Sisterhood: Tomboys, Masculinity, and the Unmaking of a Girl

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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