There are a number of things that are confusing in life- taxes, getting one’s period for the first time and trying to figure out sexual identity. Navigating these confusing times can sometimes be tackled with a good amount of Googling and a series of in depth conversations with peers. The key is sourcing the information that demystifies the tricky terrain. This is a fairly easy task if one is trying to search for ‘how to put in a tampon’. The same cannot be said for ‘what is the Xhosa/Kikuyu word for sexual orientation?’ which has few search results.
When there is no one to talk to, very little online outside of American and Western-based sites, the only information one gets is ‘Homosexuality is not African’ you begin to think that you are making a lot of things up in your head.
The Orlando shooting shows not only the need for safety but for community with some of the most powerful images and statements coming from a place of support and love, that such a tragedy has brought. The world has had to stop and think about the violence faced by LGBTI people because it was so visible. No longer was it hidden in back streets with small instances of homophobia.
But there are many LGBTIQ persons around the world who face violence and no one knows. As one Nigerian queer woman wrote ‘being invisible can be dangerous‘ because when violence happens to you in a silo, there is no one around to hear your screams. As an African queer woman on a continent rife with violence against LGBTI, this is a reality that could not be more real.
Many African queer women go (and continue to) through the search for this safe familiar. It is sometimes difficult to reconcile the academic theories, wisdoms of Audre Lorde and fun ‘L-Word’ type experiences to one’s lived experience here on home soil. There was (and to some extent still is) a need to see someone ‘like me’ in our public sphere. This coupled with the alienating language framed in human rights instruments leaves one out in the cold when trying to build the framework of life. The fact is that when trying to figure these things out, there is a cluster of problems and no answer when your grandmother asks if Foucault is your husband after you try to break down queer theory to her.
Years of running HOLAA! (co created with Siphumeze Khundayi and Christel Antonites ) has showed me the need for community, the need to be able to see yourself out there so you can figure out what is going on inside. It is in learning from those around you.
So the last six months, I started a digital media project as part of an Open Society Foundation Youth Fellowship that focused on allowing queer African women not only the space to tell their stories through HOLAA! but also through material and spaces they create themselves. We have partnered with a number of organisations including 1 in 9 Campaign (an organisation began to support the victim of the Zuma rape trial) and LEGABIBO, the first registered LGBTI organisation in Botswana. The project seeks to map out and teach the ways in which one could utilise the online space to add to the cacophony that is the multiple voices on identity in the world. From digital media training to training on social and digital marketing to a series of artistic publications (the first of which is in partnership with Q-Zine) it is all about making sure that these women are telling their own stories and showing themselves to themselves and the world.
The idea behind this ‘business of sexuality’ is to diversify the narrative that has been only about ‘corrective rape’ and violence and bolster it with stories of everything from work, family, sex and pleasure, disability, religion and identity.
It is about building the story with videos and podcasts, tweets, Instagram selfiesand blog posts. From poetry to short stories, to diary entries to a line or two of erotica, it all adds to the flames. It is about finding yourself online, be it through semi nudes posted on our #MyInstaHOLAA take over or simply a post about meeting your girlfriend at a crowded matatu (public transport minibus) depot. It’s about making sure that people are not speaking on anyone’s behalf but equipping as many people as possible with tools to tell their own stories. It is about finding a narrative that’s yours, finding that mirror of yourself in some way, shape or form. No matter where you are, be you in a village in Limpopo or commute to Kikuyu, be you living in Abuja or simply visiting Kinshasa.
The building of a narrative is not only about adding to the conversation but also about building community and claiming visibility. That way in during the confusion, or the good times and even during the height of internal and external violence you can find somewhere to go. Even if people are simply silently retweeting something, giving it a thumbs up on Facebook, double tapping on Instagram or simply reading an article, the ability to go somewhere and see yourself live and in living colour and know you are not alone.
That you are visible, present and heard in the world, because there is safety in numbers.