Letter 2 – MASHOGA: A journey from AMANDLA

AMANDLA is a Zulu word that was popularized during the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. In the famous speeches given by anti-apartheid revolutionary and political leader, Mr. Nelson Mandela, the crowd would respond to his chant “Amandla!” with “Ngawethu!” meaning Power! It is ours! A more popularized response to this chant is Awethu! meaning to the people! Amandla Awethu! Power to the people! Shoga on the other hand is a Swahili word meaning friend that was transformed and weaponized as a slur against Queer people in Kenya and Tanzania. In translation, the life of the Queer in these two countries has been reduced to insignificance, therefore predisposing Queer Kenyans and Tanzanians to discrimination and abuse.

As I curate the stories of Queer people across Eastern and Southern Africa, I am learning that colonialism and educational inaccessibility are core issues at the root of the queerphobia that affect TLGBIQ+ in these regions, like many colonized regions. In naming our radio show MASHOGA, we are paying homage to the legacy of  many pioneer African leaders who spoke ardently on the value of education to a rising Africa by giving power to the most marginalized group of Africans, the Queers. Speaking at Madison Park High School in Boston Mandela said, “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” In this way we can see how he viewed education as a pathway to power that would bring Africa to the top. However, even past his time, Africa is still always considered to be rising but never risen – what Abebe Selassie, termed as the “Africa rising narrative”. A critical evaluation of this narrative reveals that Africa can never rise given the neo-colonial structures built around a global capitalist mode of production. This ensures that Africa remains  an industrial hub full of exploitable resources that cannot benefit the African, and that Africans are seen as cheap labor to the global market that excludes them from equitable and accessible trade, travel, and most importantly education.

Education is the most important step to restoring AMANDLA to the African, especially to the Shoga (Mashoga in plural). African revolutionaries need to be critical of the neo-colonial systems that impact us, especially in education. As Tanzanian anti-colonial intellectual and political theorist Mwalimu Julius Nyerere said, “education is not a way of escaping poverty, but a way of fighting it.” Education is certainly the key to power. I would add that education holds the power to remind the African about the value of every life, especially the Queer life that has been disregarded over time. On our journey to a Pan-Africanist future, Queer Africans- MASHOGA -must be at the forefront of this revolution. By continuing the legacy of these revolutionary thinkers, my project hopes to challenge Africans to engage critically with our education system. I see this as a mandatory step in the liberation of Queer people across Africa and the diaspora. AMANDLA is a Queer storytelling platform that seeks to educate and advocate for the liberation on Queer people in Africa and the diaspora by restoring the life that we are constantly denied. Under AMANDLA the QueerAfricanNetwork (QAN) will launch MASHOGA Radio which seeks to amplify the music, stories, and arts of Queer people in Africa. It will be available on Youtube and other platforms including our website.

I interviewed Kedolwe Waziri, a Queer abolitionist and organizer in Kenya, who expressed her political journey as one that was necessary. “I was taking university classes that taught the benefits of colonialism and slavery,” she said, “and that is when I knew that I had to change my major”. Later on, Waziri was mentored by renowned Kenyan lecturer and writer, Dr. Wandia Njoya. Waziri spoke of how critical she has become of the Kenyan education system that actively serves to pacify Kenyans. The neo-colonial education system idealizes the Western geographies, mode of production, technologies and politics, thus limiting our academic to what Nigerian-American actress and comedian from hit show Insecure, Yvonne Orji, describes as becoming “a doctor, engineer, lawyer, or a disappointment”  I deeply agree with her as I often witness the disappointment that riddles my kin’s faces after I tell them that I am studying Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies (GSF) and International Comparative Studies (ICS); “…on the pre-law track” I add, much to their relief. “Wakili,” they celebrate, “a whole lawyer, that’s wonderful.”

I was set to go through the 8-4-4 Kenyan education system before coming to America : 8 years in primary, 4 years in secondary, and 4 years in university. Launched in 1985 by Former authoritarian President Daniel Arap Moi, some of the aims of 8-4-4 are to foster nationalism, patriotism and promote national unity. Furthermore, they also hope to promote social, economic, technological and industrial needs for national development. Lastly, they seek to promote sound moral and religious values. However, to be critical of our education system is to hold accountable the neo-colonial influences that inform our education system. These influences can be traced in the law that relegates Queer Kenyans to secondary citizenship by upholding colonial penalties against them. Even worse by failing to offer protections to Queer Africans against ‘citizens’ who violate them under the misguided rhetoric of nationalism that is taught in schools – the position that queerness is unAfrican. The neo-colonial education system in Kenya, and many African nations is  modelled to ensure that they are seen as productive to the global economy. This relegates them to a third-world and forces them to aspire to become “developed” like the first-world who maintain their colonial power years after Africa’s independence. They fail to realize that their position as developed countries is founded upon Africa’s neo-colonialism that maintains their under-development. There is much to be said about structural adjustment programs that negatively impact Africa to date, and did you know that 14 African countries continue to pay colonial tax to France? This is only a tip of the iceberg. Africa is an integral part of the global economy, yet we are still miseducated to revere and assimilate to our colonizers’ system, in the present just like in the past.

Yet, there is merit in Western education. I normally say that in Kenya I was schooling – my brilliance only measured depending on how much I could reproduce what the teacher taught – but in America I became educated – forced to think on my own. In his brilliant memoir, Born A Crime, Trevor Noah honors his mother for doing what school didn’t; “She taught me how to think.” Like him, I honor my grandfather for teaching me the greatest skill, storytelling, through which I have been able to cultivate a passion for education. A passion that took him to school under a colonial regime to the point of even becoming a teacher, just like Nelson Mandela, one of his biggest inspirations. It is what made me unwilling to settle in any universities in Kenya that refused to critically engage with Queer theory. Yet even my first semester in a Kenyan University was cut short due to queerphobia that was founded upon nationalism. I was illegally imprisoned for three weeks after standing up for a non-passing transgender woman who was being harrased by the police. Like in primary school and highschool, where I endured bullying, beatings, and ostracism for my queerness due to a failing education system that could not protect me, the police, a neo-colonial system also failed me.

At Duke University, I have found what I was looking for especially in my departments. That said, I am still critical of Western education for so many reasons. While it has the power to educate, not everyone is educated, even those at top national universities. My time in America, and the UK where I briefly studied at Oxford University during my freshman summer, I have witnessed abhorrent ignorance about racism and colonialism that is the result of historical erasure within their education system. By promoting nationalism and embedding it into their curriculums, Western nations teach revisionist national and world history. Many generations remain unaware of the implications of ‘history’ on their present in the West and across Africa unless you have access to elite education such as the one I receive at Duke University as a GSF and ICS double-major. That even in America, despite the protections offered to Queer people, we still are affected by Queerphobia in the form of racism, sexism, transphobia, LGBI-phobia, among others. As I talked to George Barasa, better known as Joji Baro, a gay Kenyan activist currently residing in Canada, he expressed his disappointment in the complicated ways of the West that he has seen imposed in Kenya over time – what he calls“an obsession with papers.” He has been a Queer activist for as long as I can recall thinking about openly gay people in Kenya yet because he has never been accredited through school, his work goes discounted as unprofessional. He is currently enrolling in college to pursue studies in the field of Human Rights.

Queer liberation cannot happen in Kenya and many African countries without an overhaul of the education system. Queer Libertion cannot happen in any Western nation without an overhaul of its education system. A complete overhaul demands an abolition of this mode of production to better facilitate community learning. What good is the frontier if the current living situation of people across the world is deplorable? What good is a Mars exploration that I know will only increase inequities among people, with Africans at the bottom and MASHOGA at rock bottom? Erased. Erased in history, violated in the present, and locked in this colonial perpetuity forever. The more I write this project,the more I realize what Mwalimu Julius Nyerere meant when he said: the African is not ‘Communistic’ in his thinking; he is — if I may coin an expression – ‘communitary’. Often conflated as both philosophies center land through the abolition of private property, they are different in that communitarianism’ may allow us to account and resolve the legacy of injustice and violence of the past through reparative actions that vary from community to community. Yet while this seems overly simplistic or ideal, it is certainly something that our current education system in Kenya cannot comprehend as it is hell bent on glorifying Western ideals and systems that it refuses to center the life and land of its own people, especially MASHOGA. That to fully decolonize, means to center the land and the relationship between the land and the people, an abolition of private property, a re-evaluation of “money” under this capitalist mode of production – and this is often seen as communistic. Therefore, I must become a storyteller. In my activism, my academia, and in my life.

This is why MASHOGA will be an activist radio station that centers education among Queer folk. Lessons taught by other African Queers on the continent and the diaspora. This simplistic model of teaching, native to my heritage, will go a long way in championing for Queer people in Kenya. I hope to move non-TLGBI+ people from a point of sympathy to a point of empathy by showing them that we are not only like them but also that in the grand scheme of the world positioning of bodies, they too can be interpreted as Queer. The TLGBIQ+ struggle in Kenya is the struggle for independence from colonizers. The queer struggle is the struggle for independence in Africa and beyond.  I am using my fellowship to give visibility to TLGBI+ Africans, MASHOGA, starting with Eastern and Southern Africa in the first issue of AMANDLA Magazine. By empowering Queer voices, QueerAfricanNetwork hopes to empower all Africans on the continent and the diaspora through education. Our radio station will offer power to the masses in five programs to begin with:  QueerReading where we discuss Feminist theory on air by analyzing Queer Media and art from across the world, Storytime where we interview Queer people across the continent, and Sisterhood where we discuss art and media by Queer Africans, as well as playing music exclusively by TLBGIQ+ musicians and African women throughout the program. The radio show will be named MASHOGA and will follow our magazine, AMANDLA. Through MASHOGA Radio, we will be giving power back to the people! In Kenya, in Africa and to the world. Amandla Awethu ! Power to the People! Power to the Queer People! MASHOGA AMANDLA

Letter 1 – AMANDLA: A journey to PAN-AFRICANISM

It has been over a year since #Repeal162 was trending amongst Kenyans on Twitter — a virtual revolution against article 162 and 165 of the Kenyan Penal code that punishes homosexuality with up to 14 years in prison. On 24th May 2019, a large crowd assembled outside the Milimani Law Court in Nairobi awaiting the ruling by the High Court of Kenya that included Queer activists, lawyers, artists, and even Queer students like myself. However, there were also anti-queer people in attendance such as church leaders, lawyers, the police among others. The High Court ruled against decriminalizing these articles and as I stood by the door, barely able to hear all that the judge was saying, I saw a woman holding a Bible say aloud, “Glory to God.” I left the court greatly disappointed and wept on the matatu[1] ride back home. I wept for the weight of the world that had descended upon my shoulders and felt unbeaarable. I wept for my life, and that of others like me, was deemed unworthy, I wept for my friends – closeted and out, and for their partners and lovers. However, later that evening I decided that I had to do something to follow in the steps of all the Queer leaders before me who were at the forefront of this battle against the state. As Queer Kenyans, we are always constantly battling against Kenyans’ understanding of our bodies imposed upon us through the systems that were set up during colonial times. These systems have evolved over time under a neo-colonialist global network that Kenya, like many Sub-Saharan African, nations at large, mimics from the West — what Kwame Nkurumah described as the “African problem” writing on neo-colonialism as the final stage of imperialism in 1965 . “The essence of neo-colonialism is that the state which is subject to it is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty.” He writes, “In reality its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside.” It was therefore no surprise that the presiding judge declared a lack of evidence of extensive discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity throughout the country. This was an uncritical ruling that did not take into account the violence that occurs within the colonial institutions that Kenya continues to uphold: gendered boarding high schools, the church, the police and corrupt government. Queerphobia in Kenya perpetuates violence behind closed doors while simultaneously erasing it from the public as these colonial institutions refuse to document it as violence or offer protections to the victims.

This moment was a turning point for me as a Queer Kenyan. I decided to use my education and skill as a storyteller to empower other Queer Africans by enabling us to develop stronger networks amongst ourselves. Therefore, after returning to Duke University for the fall semester, I was able to advance my knowledge of feminst theory as well as get involved in various art communities on campus. All my favorite readings and books were the ones that explored theory through real-life events; material through which I was able to be critical of systems, and history. I enjoy reading Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Franz Fanon, Saidiya Hatrman and Edward Said who transformed my understanding of history to be a contemporary perpetuity inextricable from the past. While they write extensively on different topics, their work enabled me to be critical of historical epistemology by encouraging me to always ask’ how come?’  This has enabled me to see how the past is heavily interconnected with the future.  I learn a great deal from Judith Butler, Kimberlee Crenshaw, Donna Haraway, Angela Davis, James Baldwin, Anne Fausto-Sterling and Sarah Ahmed who informed my perspective on race and queer theory. My perspectives on African politics are greatly informed by Dr. Wandia Njoya, Albert Memmi, Kwame Nkurumah, W.E.B Dubois, Aime Cesaire, Achille Mbembe, Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Merged together, all their works provided me with a new understanding of the world — it was like they gave me a pair of glasses through which I now see and understand the world I currently navigate as a rising junior student in America. It allowed me what many years of schooling did not, the ability to question and think critically about identity, world history, and creatively about problem-solving. This is the potential of education. In transitioning from the theory I studied in the classroom to praxis, I was especially fascinated with listening to people’s stories as a way of engaging with the world that took into account this new perspective. As I listen to people, I can see how these systems that run the world such as education, healthcare, governments, and religious congregations exist under the world’s capitalist mode of production and tangibly impact people’s lives. By critically interrogating this capitalist mode of production we are able to better understand how Black people were enslaved, are imprisoned, and Indigenous people are dispossessed of their land during colonialism. Furthermore, we can understand how neo-colonialism and systematic racism continues to negatively impact Black and Indegenous People of Color (BIPOC) in the United States. Like in the rest of the world, they are ‘imprisoned’  under a colonial perpetuity. Therefore, I began to write and assemble other Black students on campus to share their stories with me. Accordingly, I launched Khaya Magazine under DukeAfrica, a student-organization that fosters community among African students on campus. Khaya features the stories and art of Black and African students on campus bridging across multiple networks, organizations, departments, and schools. My greatest lesson from this experience was that storytelling is truly one of the greatest forms of activism. This is the power of education.

This experience is what led me to apply for the Summer Fellowship Program offered by Kenan Institute for Ethics to create the premiere digital archive of TLGBIQ+ resistance across Africa, starting with countries in East and Southern Africa. While it took a while to get individuals who were willing to share their stories with me, resilience is a storyteller’s master key. I took to the internet where we have created our own communities through transnational following —Twitter, Instagram, Facebook etc. I also reached out to organizations working to serve Queer communities to seek support. By sharing my open call to Queer people in their directories, I had a variety of groups and individuals to collaborate with. By allowing anonymous submissions to ensure security of people who would otherwise be endangered, we received multiple submissions. Our recorded interviews are conducted via end-to-end encrypted zoom calls and consenting participants are allowed to submit pictures if they can. Furthermore, by collaborating with other organizations, I have secured support for Queer participants who have never taken professional pictures before to do so for our magazine publishing this August. A life-long project, I am merging storytelling, photography and audio-recording on QueerAfricanNetwork (QAN), a social professional networking site, created by the brilliant Okong’o Kinyanjui, that will enable anyone to access Queer African stories, communities, and a database of opportunities vetted to be safe for Queer Africans. As one of QAN co-founders, I will curate stories, books, podcasts, pictures, videos and playlists for Queer Africans by Queer Africans on QAN. To this end, I will also be launching a magazine, AMANDLA, and radio station called MASHOGA, which will showcase the stories of Queer Africans starting with Eastern and Southern Africa. AMANDLA Magazine goes live on our website in September. MASHOGA Radio’s first program goes live in January, and will be accessible on Youtube and other platforms. We will expand to other regions accordingly over time. Finally, I am also publishing my first anthology of poems, The Gender Binary is a Prison that reflects my personal journey to becoming a queer non-binary artist (feel free to use any labels and pronouns from this binary prison.)

In documenting these stories, I hope to offer insight into a more critical understanding of queerphobia in Africa and the world that is not disengaged from our mode of production and this colonial perpetuity. In order to offer restorative justice to any marginalized populations, especially Queer Africans, we must employ intersectionality into our praxis. Intersectionality is a theoretical framework developed by Kimberlee Crenshaw, for understanding how aspects of a person’s social and political identities might combine to create unique modes of discrimination and privilege. AMANDLA and MASHOGA, in line with the mission of QueerAfricanNetwork will empower Queer people from various disciplines, activist forms, and countries in the hope to build coalition work that goes beyond the neo-colonial borders that divide Africans. If Africa will ever realize Pan-Africaninsm, Queer people must be at the forefront of the movement. In pursuit of a Pan-Africanist future, AMANDLA will take after the virtual revolution started by #Repeal162 through activist storytelling. Amandla Awethu ! Power to the People! Power to Queer People!

[1] Matatu (Swahili): public minivan transport in Kenya