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African Women’s Organization Partners with Nigerian Artist NNEKA to Promote Women’s Rights Through the Arts

Originally published at Gender Across Borders.

On Thursday, February 16th, 2012, the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF) hosted an event at their headquarters in East Legon, Accra, Ghana to officially ‘out-door’ musician and activist, Nneka Egbuna (“NNEKA”) as their Ambassador for the Arts.

Invited guests included Professor Ama Ata Aidoo (internationally acclaimed feminist African writer and academic), Nana Oye Mansa Yeboah, Chairperson of the Akuapem Community Foundation, and a diverse number of African women artists including Yasmeen Helwani Nsiah, Lady Jay Wah of Pidgen Music, Anita Erskine, Sherrifa, and Stephanie Benson.

Women’s rights organisations were also well represented including Adowa Bame of WISE (Women’s Initiative for Self Empowerment), Lucy Mensah of WUAGG (Women United Against Aids in Ghana),  and Patricia Blankson-Akakpo of NETRIGHT (Network of Women’s Rights in Ghana).

The African Women’s Development Fund was founded 11 years ago by three inspirational women – Hilda Tadria, Joanna Foster and Bisi Adeleye Fayemi, who was also AWDF’s founding Executive Director until last year. They created an amazing organisation aimed at supporting women organisations in their work to make real change in women’s lives – to ensure the recognition and implementation of ALL women’s human rights (economic, social, cultural, political etc) across Africa.

Their continuous, dedicated efforts, despite the immediate concerns facing women in Africa, are commendable. Their milestones speak for themselves; in partnership with numerous organizations, AWDF has provided over 19 million dollars in grants to more than 800 organisations in 42 African countries. Yet, AWDF continues to push the envelope; their decision to include the Arts and Sports as two new thematic areas is just one of the ways that this organization demonstrates their commitment to implementing long-terms solutions in Africa.

In her welcome speech, interim CEO, Theo Sowa, emphasized the potential impact of leveraging the power of music and the arts as a platform for change:

The arts can be powerful catalysts of such individual and collective understandings. Artists can produce works that translate dusty words into clear and heartfelt understandings of issues and ways of dealing with them. Art can touch the souls as well as the minds of countless people, inspiring passion, anger, joy and other emotions that can catalyse action in ways that court cases and academic lectures and even protest marches may never achieve. Art can bring information and meaning into lives in ways that can be more real, more grounded and more influential than any number of texts. Arts – traditional or modern – are integral to our cultural lives… and changes in social, economic and political arenas will never truly take root without parallel changes in our cultural norms, beliefs and practices.

Photo Credit: Emmanuel Bobbie

According to Nana Sekyiamah, Communications Office at AWDF, the decision to invite NNEKA to be the organization’s first Ambassador for the Arts, was in part due to her “incredible passion, and commitment to using her gift of music as a means of provoking social change.” Sekyiamah added that “Nneka’s message is hard hitting in the issues she addresses (corruption, exploitation, the environment) yet its a message of one love and hope.”

The daughter of a Nigerian father and a German mother, NNEKA was born in Warri, Oil City in the Delta region of Nigeria at the height of its new found wealth in the mid 70s. Her lyrics reflect much of her history and life in Nigeria as well as her time spent in Western Europe. Her songs stress the issues of capitalism, poverty and war and are often loaded with moral and biblical messages and references, with some music commentators comparing her to Erykah Badu, Neneh Cherrynd Floetry.

Yesterday, NNEKA performed during the event and shared her thoughts on becoming the AWDF’s Arts Ambassader via a short video interview. During the interview, she shares, “It’s easier to use music [to promote change] than to stand up at a podium,” thoughts similar to that of Ama Ata Aidoo, who closed her speech by recognizing the power of music and the arts to change people’s lives.

I have seen traumatised children respond and come to life in music workshops; have seen communities that have been fighting for years come together over games of football; have seen the power of film to touch people’s hearts and change their thinking; have experienced writers whose works have changed my life and motivations.

Learn more about the Africa Women’s Development Fund (AWDF) at their website,

Africa, Make Up Your Mind: Kenya Expels Girls for “Lesbianism,” Permits Same Gender Marriage Between Older Women

Kenya’s views on same-gender relationships involving women present quite the dichotomy. 

Just last week, I stumbled across this video report from NTV Kenya about the suspension of twelve secondary school students due to allegations of “lesbianism.” The girls were sent home by the principal upon receiving information of their “abnormal” behavior from the rest of the student body.

According to a statement made by the principal, Dorcas Kavuku, “these particular girls were not behaving according to the school rules. They practiced lavish touching and kissed each other which is not normal for people of the same gender,” and so she’d sent them home pending further investigation. A similar story was reported last year involving over fifty girls being questioned for “lesbianism and devil worship.”

Is expulsion on the grounds of homophobia “lesbianism” becoming a more popular trend? One would certainly hope not. Given the number of societal challenges that already bar young girls from receiving basic education in Kenya (e.g. early marriage, pregnancy, harassment by male teachers, etc.),  a country in which girls drop out at a higher rate than boys, denying young girls the right to remain in school hardly makes any sense, even with Kenya’s views on homosexuality.

Incidentally, as convinced as the principal is that same gender relationships between girls are wrong, Kenya’s constitution doesn’t necessarily reflect this sentiment. Sections 162 to 165 of the Kenyan Penal Code criminalize homosexual behaviour and attempted homosexual behaviour between men, not women, a loophole Kenya’s Prime Minister Odinga disregarded in 2010 when he called for lesbians to be arrested along with men to protect the “cleanliness” of the country. Still, lesbian relations are not currently prohibited in the law, which makes sense given Kenya’s long-standing tradition of permitting women to get married in the absence of a male partner.

According to a BBC news report published yesterday:

Homosexual acts may be outlawed in Kenya but there is a long tradition among some communities of women marrying each other.

This is hard to fathom in a country where religious leaders condemn gay unions as “un-African” – and those who dare to declare their partnerships openly often receive a hostile public reaction.

But these cases involving women are not regarded in the same light.

If a woman has never had any children, she takes on what is regarded as the male role in a marriage, providing a home for the younger woman, who is then encouraged to take a male sexual partner from her partner’s clan to become pregnant.

Her offspring will be regarded as the fruit of the marriage.

“I married according to our age-old tradition, where if a woman was not lucky enough to have her own children, she got another woman to honour her with children,” says 67-year-old Juliana Soi.

This customary same-gender marriage arrangement – practised among Kenya’s Kalenjin (encompassing the Nandi, Kipsigis, and Keiyo), Kuria and Akamba communities – has come under the legal spotlight recently because of an inheritance case currently before the courts; some relatives are fighting to inherit a large house which would, by law, pass to the spouse of the late wife.

As the report gleans, if the court rules in favor of the same-gender spouse, it would challenge the patriarchal approach to family relationships, and give woman-to-woman marriages a stronger footing in the modern world. And modern is the key word, since traditional same-sex marriages have been a historical part of Africa’s culture — in over 30 different populations, including the Yoruba, Ibo, Nuer, Lovedu, Zulu, and Sotho — long before colonialism imported homophobia.

In this light, the dichotomy of Kenya’s views towards same-gender relationships involving women isn’t so confusing; it represents Africa’s struggle to find a balance between preserving the old and embracing the new.

Black History Month Rant: We Are Not All Black in the Same Way

Warning: This is a rant. AKA I’m pissed (enough to write about it), and don’t feel the need to explain myself further than this:

I’m Nigerian. I’m African. I’m Black. They don’t compete, they complement, which is why when I’m asked to silence one for the sake of the other, I don’t. This rant is a response to ignorant statements I’ve heard all month, like these: “It’s Black History Month, not Nigerian History Month,” “The reason one would cling to ethnicity is that they’re victims of internalized racism; self-hate for being black,” “Why do you feel the need to differentiate yourself by calling yourself Nigerian?” (wow).

So, I’m done with the placating diplomatic internet speak (for now). I think it’s healthy to reserve the right to throw a tantrum every once in a while. We’re all human. Especially when there’s this sanctioned idea that it’s okay to rant against white people but not ‘your own’ — which in itself is why I wrote the piece. Who decides who ‘my own’ should be? Who decides where I belong?

Dear American / Black Person / Over-Educated Academic, Who Seeks to Educate Me about Race,

Please don’t tell me I relate more to my ethnicity than my race because of internalized racism. I can’t tell you how infuriating this is. Displaying pride and passion about my cultural roots isn’t — and should not be taken as — an affront on anyone else’s. I’m proud to be Nigerian, period.

When you imply that the US framework for discussing race is the only framework that matters, you invalidate my experience as an African woman. I didn’t grow up here — by speaking as a Nigerian, Igbo-Rivers woman, I am merely staying true to myself and honoring where I came from, the same way I believe it’s important to never erase the history of slavery, colonization, apartheid, and other chapters of “black” history. It all matters, regardless of where or how my history has happened, and so I honor mine.

My mother’s people were killed for being Igbo, not for being black; I was bullied in high school for being African, and having an accent, not for being black; and while I won’t deny that I’ve experienced racism in this country for being a black woman, and would never downplay the solidarity I feel with women of color, racism is not my whole story.

I still get black people making derogatory comments about my “mandigo” African heritage. I still hear black people saying stupid things about immigration. I will not re-center my narrative to fit into your western framework about oppression from white people, because black people — and the idea of monolithic blackness that erases my cultural heritage — have been just as oppressive.

I am so very perplexed at your view that “north” american (since you keep forgetting that south america exists, and have appropriated “america” to mean just the US) discourse is and should remain the center of all conversations about race (a la “Let’s stay focused — it’s the US we’re talking about…”) especially since there are so many migrant groups in this “melting pot” such as (Black) Latinos, Haitians, African immigrants, other Caribbean folk etc who have also had to submit to the dogma of Blackness just to “fit in” to your imposed, binary conversations about race; one that perpetuates the unhealthy idea that the monolithic black american community has suffered the worst kind of oppression — that there’s an hierarchy of oppression in the first place; one that maintains that, if we are to engage in any discussions about racism, we will have to identify solely as “black” for the purposes of presenting a “unified front.” Forget being Nigerian, or African. Hell, forget being a woman. But f**k that.

I wasn’t viewed as black until the age of 18 when I arrived for school; I was Nigerian before then. Even still, I’ve only been Nigerian for as long as the history of colonization, but I’ve been an Igbo/Rivers matriarchal warrior way longer than that i.e before Africa’s colonizers draw squiggly lines on a map, designating me “Nigerian” for the purposes of dividing and conquering. And though you may not see it, being “culture-blind” is just another form of being “color-blind,” which we all know is just another way for oppressors to avoid talking about how they are actively or passively partaking in a racially oppressive system. It is no different for conversations about ethnicity. I won’t sit down and be black for the sake of fake solidarity.

Diaspora immigrants like me have our cultural reference points along the axes of nationality and culture — not just race — so please stop with the xenophobic, nationalist view of blackness, brownness, race etc, because we come in multiple shades, ethnicities, languages, and histories etc, and as a direct result, multiple and varied perspectives about oppression. It is burdensome to keep having to remind you about this, and I am so over it.

I’d rather teach race 101 to white people, than have to explain to one more person of color — the people who really should get it already, the people who I assume would be able to understand the pain of being continually silenced — that we are all not brown in the same way, in the same “American” way. I’d rather bury my head in the sand than listen to one more black person tell me “you need to learn your history,” when you know nothing of my heroes — the Margaret Ekpo’s, Ojukwu’s, Soyinka’s, Ngugi’s, and Adichie’s of world black history as I know it. We are not all black in the same way. Ethnicity matters (at least, to me). Can I get a month — say, Black History Month — off from having to explain this? That would be awesome.


Over-Black-Dogma, Spectra

African Women in Film: New Screen Adaptation of Chimamanda Adichie’s Novel, Half of a Yellow Sun

There are plans underway for a major screen adaptation project based on one of Nigeria’s most treasured novels, Half of a Yellow Sun.

Half of a Yellow Sun, published in 2006, is an award-winning novel by a Nigerian woman author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It tells the story of two sisters, Olanna and Kainene, during the Biafran War, which began when the Igbos tried to secede as the Republic of Biafra due to political and ethnic struggles among the major ethnic groups — the Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa, and Fulani.

The war lasted for about three years, during which Nigeria cut off all humanitarian aid to Biafra, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Igbo people due to starvation and disease. The effect of the war is shown through the dynamic relationships of four people’s lives ranging from high ranking political figures, a professor, a British citizen, and a houseboy. After the British left Nigeria, the lives of the main characters drastically changed and were torn apart by the ensuing civil war and decisions in their personal life.

Half of a Yellow Sun is undoubtedly one of Africa’s literary gems as it — for once — tells the history of the Nigerian people from the perspective of its inhabitants, and in particular, women and gender during political unrest and times of war. From the novel’s New York Times review:

Like Nadine Gordimer, she likes to position her characters at crossroads where public and private allegiances threaten to collide. Both “Half of a Yellow Sun” and Adichie’s first novel, “Purple Hibiscus” explore the gap between the public performances of male heroes and their private irresponsibilities. And both novels shrewdly observe the women — the wives, the daughters — left dangling over that chasm.

“Half of a Yellow Sun” speaks through history to our war-racked age not through abstract analogy but through the energy of vibrant, sometimes horrifying detail. A refugee flees the north by train, carrying in a bowl her daughter’s head, still bearing its delicate braids. Famished children in refugee camps find themselves unable to outpace and catch lizards. A child soldier, nicknamed Target Destroyer, uses “words like enemy fire and Attack HQ with a casual coldness, as if to make up for his crying.” A girl’s belly starts to swell, and her mother wonders: is she pregnant or suffering from malnutrition?

Africa has had much of its history depicted through mainly male characters; the on-going plight of women and children during times of war has often been reduced to b-roll (i.e. supplemental or alternate footage intercut with the main shot) and fast-cut action scenes portraying sexual violence, it seems, mainly for shock value — as in rape scenes in films like Tears of the Sun and Hotel Rwanda. There are also rarely prominent African women characters who exist beyond their relationship to men. It isn’t often that movie-goers get to experience African women on screen as full, complex characters in the context of their every day lives. Hence, Half of a Yellow Sun, an intricate and emotionally honest story told through the lives of two very different Nigerian sisters, being adapted for film could mean a huge leap for the preservation of Nigerian women’s history, as well as the portrayal of African women in film.

The movie is currently slated to be shot in Nigeria and will be backed by UK producers Andrea Calderwood (The Last King of Scotland) and Gail Egan (The Constant Gardener). Nigerian writer-director, Biye Bandele, has had a hand in the development of the script, and actors Thandie Newton (who is of Zambian heritage) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (Nigerian) are part of a UK cast. So, it seems the film version of Half of a Yellow Sun will take a cue from another recently released black war epic and feature a prominently African cast, which will steer the production crew clear of re-centering the book’s naturally authentic narrative in order to cater to a white and/or western audience (a tactic too frequently deployed in Hollywood films about the diaspora).

There have been complaints about prominent actors from Nollywood (Nigeria’s booming film industry) being missing from the cast, as many Nigerians share the sentiment the potential international reach of the film should be used to promote talent from within the country. There’s even a petition to replace Thandie Newton with a Nigerian actress, who may be better equipped to handle all the Igbo that is spoken in the book. Nigerians may not be as pleased with not having Nigerian actors center-staged, but many agree that the story of Biafra — a story that Igbos have fought to protect from erasure by the Nigerian government, and is in further jeopardy of being forgotten entirely due to the passing of one its great political leaders — is a story worthy of a pan-African effort; it simply needs to be told.

One Year After the Murder of David Kato, Uganda’s Parliament Resurrects “Kill the Gays” Bill

 It’s been a little over a year since the brutal murder of David Kato, an LGBT activist who was hailed by many as the father of the gay rights movement in Uganda. David was bludgeoned to death in his home on January 26th, 2011, shortly after winning a lawsuit against a magazine which published the names and photographs of alleged gay rights activists (including David) and called for them to be executed.

The newspaper article had taken a cue from Uganda’s 2009 “Kill the Gays” bill, also known as the Anti-Homosexuality Bill (AHB), which prescribes the death penalty for the “crime” of being gay or HIV-positive, and prison sentences for friends, family, co-workers, and acquaintances who believe someone is homosexual but does not immediately report them to authorities.

Many feared a genocide of LGBT Ugandans were the bill to pass, and thus the murder of David Kato sparked international outrage. Human rights activists all over the world put pressure on Uganda’s government to dismiss the bill (which ran out of time before it could be voted on in parliament). The call for a “credible and impartial investigation” of Kato’s murder was answered with a small measure of bittersweet justice when Sidney Nsubuga Enoch received a sentence of 30 years for the crime.

But now, the draconian bill which began the chain reaction that led to David Kato’s death is back. A copy of Uganda’s Parliament Order Paper, dated February 7, 2012, has been making its way around the internet. Though, the government’s official spokeswoman maintains that the Ugandan government is “not interested” in the bill and that Cabinet had made its stand on the bill clearly last year by rejecting it, David Bahati, the senator who is sponsoring the bill, claims that the Ugandan government cannot influence his bill because it is a private members bill and as such, property of parliament and not Cabinet.

The return of the “Kill the Gays” bill is a major concern for Ugandan LGBT activists, but many have vowed to continue their struggle:

Amid the fuss over the re-introduction in parliament of the bills on Tuesday the activists put up a spirited defence for inclusion of homosexuals in the country’s National HIV/Aids response.

The HIV bill was challenged in April 2011 with a petition to Parliament by gay rights activists, contesting the exclusion of homosexuals from HIV/Aids prevention and control programmes.

This contentious bill was reintroduced alongside the anti-gay bill on Tuesday and has been put on the Parliamentary Order Paper that outlines priority Bills for discussion.

As the ongoing battle for LGBT tolerance in Uganda continues, activists abroad are also lending their support by leveraging media to spark critical conversations about LGBT rights in Uganda.

For instance, Val Kalende, a Ugandan journalist who was fired from her job for speaking out against the bill and was forced to relocate to the United States, reflects on her blog:

The death of David Kato has galvanized a breed of new activism and synergies in the Ugandan LGBT community. On my recent visit to Uganda, I met and interacted with a number of young activists and organizations whose joining the movement was a response to the death of this great activist. The movement has certainly grown bigger and stronger thanks to ongoing organizing by the Uganda Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law. It is encouraging to know that what began as a make-shift entity to respond to the Anti-Homosexuality bill has not only become proactive in action but more grounded in a multi-dimensional sexual rights advocacy. Members of the coalition feel that it is time to move Beyond the Anti-Homosexuality bill and build a movement of sexual rights activists who will influence policy and change repressive laws that hinder the freedom of sexual minorities.

Meanwhile, on February 11th, Call me Kuchu, a film by Malika Zouhali-Worrall and Katherine Fairfax Wright about David Kato’s life as the first openly gay man in Uganda will premier at the Berlin Film Festival:

Call Me Kuchu examines the astounding courage and determination required not only to battle an oppressive government, but also to maintain religious conviction in the face of the contradicting rhetoric of a powerful national church. As we paint a rare portrait of an activist community and its antagonists, our key question explores the concept of democracy: In a country where a judiciary increasingly recognizes the rights of individual kuchus, yet a popular vote and daily violence threaten to eradicate their rights altogether, can this small but spirited group bring about the political and religious change it seeks?

Via a series of presentation and panel discussions, the filmmakers have already been using the film to facilitate critical conversations about Uganda’s LGBT movement’s strategy. One of their hopes for the film is that it will become an accessible platform through which human rights activists from all walks of life can engage policy makers — perhaps even the “Kill Bill” sponsor, David Bahati — and hopefully arm LGBT Ugandans with the tools to fight against further criminalization, not just from a legal perspective, but from a human one as well.

Check out the trailer:

Call Me Kuchu – Trailer from Call Me Kuchu on Vimeo.

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