By Kevin Mwachiro
‘His crime was to live openly as a gay man. Yes, Spha died because someone hated his sexuality so much that they decided to end his life.’ Ndumiso Daluxolo Ngidi spoke these words in late March following the homophobic murder of his cousin, Siphamandla Khoza. The thirty-four-year-old man was murdered in the South African city of Durban. This is in 2021, South Africa. The most progressive nation for queer people in Africa. Yet, despite this, queer folks are still not entirely safe in the rainbow nation.
Within the same week, the Durban High Court passed a 25-year prison sentence to the murderer of Lindo Cele, who was killed just over a year ago in another homophobic attack. Different emotions ran through me as I read about the two cases. It took me back to a phrase used during the panel discussion with Nigerian activist Xeenarh Mohammed, South African journalist and activist, Nickita Maesela and South African writer Mark Gevisser. That phrase was ‘that awkward dance between legal reform and social change’. That is part of the challenge faced here on the continent in the fight for queer rights. According to Xeenarh, the hard work for activists is to normalise and visualise queer existence within society and create safe spaces, and that the work doesn’t stop even if and when the laws change. This normalising of queerness is the strategy being adopted by activists in Nigeria.
I may have started with a grim account, and it is so easy to go onto that bandwagon and say nothing good is happening for queer folks on the continent. Please don’t get on board. However, when looking at my queer Africa, one must recognise that both good and evil acts simultaneously occur. Looking back at the conversation with Nickita, Xeenarh and Mark, we went on a journey that recognised that things are changing on the continent. It shines and rains on us too. It was encouraging to know that the new government in Sudan, in its reforms, announced that gay sex was no longer punishable by death or flogging. Then, the news that Nollywood, the third largest movie industry globally, is changing how it depicts queer folks on Nigeria’s silver screen. Furthermore, there is a lot more positive representation taking place through pop culture across the continent. More movies are coming out from the continent that depict the lives of queer Africans in the way they want to be seen. Last year, saw the release of the movies, Ifé, a lesbian love story from Nigeria, I am Samuel, a film about a gay couple from Kenya, Kenya Christian Queer, a documentary on faith and sexuality and the documentary, Defiance, which took a brazen look at what it was like to be a queer Nigerian. All this in the year of COVID-19.
The panel recognised that the internet offers queer Africans a space to connect, see, listen, and read their stories. As Nickita Maesela beautifully stated, ‘We have words and movements to say we are here…These words are helping reclaim African queerness; they are reinstating African queer stories in the story of Africa.’
I remember warmly how Mark mentioned that Africa still respects its writers and, in turn, the written word and, to quote him, ‘Writers have status, writers have heft.’ I’m proud to say that his book, The Pink Line: The World’s Queer Frontiers, has added to that heft and is helping the continent’s queer community get back its place at the table. Twenty-twenty also saw the debut of Unoma Azuah’s memoir, Embracing My Shadow, Growing Up Lesbian in Nigeria. Both writers have added to the library of recent African queer writing and joined Siya Khumalo, Frankie Edozien, and Saida Sheikh Ahmed. Ahmed has written a book on queerness in Somalia in Somali. One can hope that Ahmed’s book, Lagaama Roona, might encourage other African queer writers to pen in their tongues.
Our conversation acknowledged that there is more focussed activism taking place on the continent, leading queer activists to engage with individuals who aren’t supportive of queer rights. But the role of mainstream media was seen as key in shifting the narrative because our continent still trusts the bulletins and broadsheets.
‘What the media can be doing more is initiating more honest conversations on human sexuality in the African context, not only talking about it in the present tense but what African sexuality looked like in the pre-colonial context.’ That was the challenge thrown by Nickita to fellow her journalists. Our queer narrative still needs to be shifted.
The names of Lindo and Siphamandla, alongside the many other queer Africans who have been killed for their sexuality, should not be forgotten. Their deaths prove that the pink like is still deeply etched in this continent. However, this adds even more impetus to the work that is being carried out by the various queer activists and creatives dotted across the continent who dare to speak, be seen, hope and openly love. Africa’s queer story may be full of twists and turns but it is one that is definitely on the right side of history.
Watch the Commonwealth Writers Conversation: The Pink Line with Kevin Mwachiro, Mark Gevisser, Nickita Maesela and Xeenarh Mohammed here.
Kevin Mwachiro is a writer, journalist, podcaster, and queer activist. Kevin’s first book is, Invisible – Stories from Kenya’s Queer Community. He was part of the editorial team for Boldly Queer – African Perspectives on Same-sex sexuality and gender diversity. His first play, Trashed, was published in the anthology Six in the City – Six Short Plays on Nairobi and his poems are published in the Pan African queer anthology, Walking The Tightrope. His most recent work is the short story, ‘Number Sita’, published in the anthology, Nairobi Noir. In 2017 he launched a story-telling podcast, called Nipe Story, which produces audio versions of short-story fictional stories from the African continent.
Working in collaboration with the Gay Kenya Trust and the Goethe Institut – Nairobi, Kevin is a co-founder of the Out Film Festival which is the first LGBTQI film festival in East Africa. Kevin Mwachiro currently serves on the boards of the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK, an LGBQ coalition), PEMA Kenya (a grassroots LGBQTI organisation), and Amnesty International – Kenya.