Continuing her series of interviews with radical African feminists, Rama Salla Dieng speaks to Jessica Horn. As a poet and activist, Jessica describes her involvement in feminist groups and movements on the continent, and how repressive economic and political structures must be changed to enable woman to genuinely thrive.
Rama: Thanks for accepting to be part of this interview series on roape.net, I discovered your work a few years ago through the blog you created with Amina Doherty, Our Space is love. I believe you identify as an artivist, can you please tell us more about your creative work and the philosophy of love revolution?
Jessica: It’s actually a relief that you begin by asking me about art, and about love, and the way that both fuel revolutionary praxis. I say relief because I spend much of my time working in the pragmatic and practical worlds of institutional efforts towards transformation where we can often lose sight of the aesthetic and the emotional resources that humans have always drawn on to inspire and create change. This is true in African liberation struggles where music, literature, theatre and other art forms have always been integral to resistance. I am a poet, and my poetry is often political, however in many ways that is not intentional – it is just a product of the fact that I am channelling the experience of the world around me and reflecting them back in poetic form. Revolutionary love is a concept I started exploring in the early 2000s after a particularly harrowing experience in an African feminist movement space. I started thinking about what energies we choose to tap into in our activist communities. I remembered my mother’s words: ‘to love is to free’, and thinking about how then the practice of freedom is ultimately a practice of love. So, I started writing about it, speaking about it, co-creating around it, and building collective spaces, like The Love Mic – as a way to inspire us to express and explore how love fuels our desires for revolution, and vice versa.
Rama: This is so powerful Jessica, following your and Amina’s blog definitely inspired me, and I believe a lot of other young feminists. Your words also remind me of the powerful response of Bibi Bakare-Yusuf when asked in an interview about why she created Cassava Republic. Her response was just beautiful, it was the emergency to move the narrative from ‘the politics of the belly’ to the ‘poetics of the belly.’ As an award-winning poet Jessica, whose work has influenced you?
Jessica: I come from a family of writers and readers. My grandfather, Timothy Bazarrabusa, was a pioneer in developing poetry and fiction in his language Rutoro (spoken in Western Uganda), and my father is a literature professor and part of the pioneering generation of theatre for development practitioners. My poetry was influenced in my teenage years and twenties by political poets – in particular African American feminist poets like Sonia Sanchez and Ntozake Shange and writers like Eduardo Galeano and June Jordan, but also the mystics – Rumi and Hafiz – who explore love, spirit, and the natural world as sources of insight into humanity. Poetry to me is a practice of witnessing. It’s why I called my first poetry collection Speaking in Tongues ; I was channelling the stories of the world and lives of women around me.
Rama: This is so inspiring Jessica, thanks. Can you please tell us about your role in putting in place the African Feminist Forum (AFF), and the motivations for this?
Jessica: My journey with the African Feminist Forum actually started in Zanzibar, at a now fabled meeting of African feminists that ended in fundamental disagreement. I was the youngest person in the room, and also ended up as the youngest member of the founding African Feminist Forum Working Group that came together to create the AFF. For the inaugural African Feminist Forum in Accra in 2006 I led the process of developing the agenda and was active in the planning, which, in retrospect I suppose was significant given that I was in my mid 20s. I also co-edited the first edition of Voice, Power and Soul: Portraits of African Feminists which was a significant book at the time because no one had produced a publication profiling so many African feminists before.
After the last African Feminist Forum in Harare in 2016, I worked with colleagues to create the third edition of this series which we decided to do in film to redress the lack of film documentation of African feminist activists. The series is available online and is again the first of its kind to profile this many African feminists in the medium of film interviews.
The AFF is an incredible space, allowing African feminist to meet each other on our own ground and across different disciplines and modes of feminist intervention. I have met African feminists whose theory and practice informed my early activism, and have made feminist friends that will stay with me for life.
Rama: How about the African Feminist Charter?
Jessica: The African Feminist Charter, in full the Charter of Feminist Principles for African Feminists, was a collective grounding document, developed by the African Feminist Forum Working Group and endorsed by more than 100 African feminists that attended the first African Feminist Forum in Accra in 2006. It is significant in that it lays out some bottom lines as well as big picture visions. Perhaps the most valuable has been its principles around affirming the rights to choose regarding our sexual and reproductive bodies. These positions have been the red line so to speak that differentiates African feminists from ‘gender activists’ and people working more generally around women and gender equality.
On joining, every member of the AFF or a national feminist forum have to sign on to the Charter, a process that involves individual and collective clarification of values around what we stand for as feminists. This process has proved invaluable in building a base of clear and brave solidarity in the face of religious fundamentalist backlash across Africa. The national feminist forums in Uganda and Nigeria for example have been a core community of solidarity against repeated efforts to impose harsh homophobic and sexist legislation and growing intolerance at a popular level. As the Charter states, ‘Our feminist identity is not qualified with “Ifs”, “Buts”, or “Howevers”’- stating a position against excuses to not stand up for the full gamut of feminist demands by invoking culture or religion.
The Charter itself has been translated in collective translation processes into French, Portuguese, Arabic, Kiswahili and Wolof and is used widely. We have even had feedback on feminists using it in South Asia and other global regions, which is fantastic.
Rama: Thank you, Jessica. What do you think are the challenges and priorities for grant-making in relation to women, and minority groups in Africa?
Jessica: Grant-making in order to be effective has to follow the political priorities of the movements that it seeks to support. African feminist movements and activism span the gamut of political, economic, social and cultural rights and transformation agendas, as well as environment and climate justice, so we have to be attentive to each of these interlinked issues. In terms of how donors fund, we know it is vital to pay for core expenses to allow organisations to sustain salaries, invest in institutional growth and change and be able to be agile and not stuck in a project-restricted mindset.
We also need to support the process of introducing new people to African feminist work and consciousness and build and replenish a broad leadership that way. As we do of course, we need to take into account the diversity of African identities and needs across the gamut of issues from disability to sexual orientation, gender identity, age, class, HIV status. People mobilise as their full selves and so our grant-making needs to ensure that we allow for that and allow for solidarity across identities as well.
Rama: Religious fundamentalisms are on the rise everywhere, and Africa is no exception. This has been examined by feminist scholars including yourself, Ayesha Imam here or here, Fatou Sow, Mame Penda Ba, Barbara Bompani, Adrian van Klinken, to name a few and various research institutions such as WLUML, AWID and Timbuktu Institute. In an AWID Report, you map the terrain of Christian Fundamentalisms and Women’s Rights in the African Context. Most specifically you also document the ways in which Christian fundamentalists that occupy political and policy-making positions have used these institutional powers to back Pentecostal churches in Uganda and promote homophobia, restrict feminist organising (the arrest of Stella Nyanzi illustrates this), adopt a conservative position on the use of condoms for instance. In your opinion, what are the main challenges of this fundamentalist threat, and how can feminists counter it despite the continuous closing of their civic spaces?
Jessica: The roots of the rise of fundamentalisms are structural. As much as the African region is growing in official economic statistics, the income gaps are widening. People are feeling disenfranchised and abandoned by governments on education, health, infrastructure and the economy. We speak of a collectivist spirit, but actually consumer capitalism very much frames our visions and desires. People want to be rich and they see the very rich passing by in Pajeros and think ‘that could be me.’
Interestingly charismatic Christian fundamentalisms tend to focus both on the policing of people’s sexuality and health choices, but also very much on hyper-consumerism and wealth accumulation – the so-called prosperity gospel. So, the discourse provides for both the hope that life will change for the better, and also social pariahs to blame for why it is not going well. Muslim fundamentalisms also draw on grievances and enforce restrictive patriarchal visions for women’s political and bodily freedoms, although the economic dynamic is different.
In terms of responding, the challenge is the scale at which fundamentalists are resourced and hence mobilise. And there we really do have a problem on our hands as feminists when it comes to fundamentalisms, and this is because it has become increasingly difficult to defend principles of secularism and critical perspectives on religion within women’s rights space itself. Of course, activists are part of the societies that we live in, and as those societies become increasingly bound by conservative religious politics so do some of the people in our spaces. It also means the stakes for being a vocal feminist activist become higher, and some people are getting cold feet. There are many examples of people who are supportive of say access to safe abortion or LGBTI rights ‘at the feminist conference’ but will not stand up in public to pledge their support. We owe it to ourselves to take a deeper look within and reaffirm why we critique these patriarchal visions of our bodies and choices, and how religion is being used as a tool to reinforce social and emotional violence and exclusion.
Rama: You are the busy Programme Director of the AWDF and also a writer and a mother. How do find a balance between these roles, and how you practice self-care?
Jessica: Well the truth is, I haven’t yet! I am exhausted. That’s the truth and am saying it because it is the truth for many of us. Our economies were not designed with mothers in mind, and these days I think everyone is feeling the reality of overwork and constant pressure to be ‘on’. Productivity is king (I use that gendered phrase intentionally). This is the reality of late capitalism and it is breaking our reserves of resilience. We need to rethink it. In a moment when the expectation is to do more perhaps what we actually have to do is less? On International Worker’s Day a few years ago I wrote about the need to reclaim the point of the day which is actually a celebration of the right to rest.
Rama: I really love the lullabies for freedom’s girls you shared last year. What is feminist mothering in your opinion, and how do you walk the talk?
Jessica: Feminist mothering means applying the same principles of feminism – a critique of patriarchy and its intersections, and the affirmative vision of being differently in the world – to the work of mothering. To me it has meant actively seeking out affirming, pro-woman obstetric care and birth support so that I could have the birth that I chose to and not an over-medicalised, interventionist birth that is so common in patriarchal birth practice. It has meant listening to guidance and knowledge from other women around breastfeeding, nutrition, and methods of infant care and listening to my own mother’s sound advice to raise my child as fits with my own ethics and not what people tell me I should be doing. It has meant negotiating care work from the very beginning with my partner, and also allowing him the space to be a loving father in all dimensions of care and not silence him with ideas of conventional masculinity and what his role ‘should’ be. We operate on the assumption that both of us are professionals and need to be able to do the work we love, while also supporting each other and our child to grow, learn and have the care that she needs. As for the relationship with my child, my daughter goes everywhere with me and with us (including to protests, arts events and activist seminars!) and can explore as she likes. Her girlhood is not a limit, it is an open door of possibility.
Rama: Amen to that! Last question: What does a feminist future look like?
Jessica: A feminist future is a future outside of patriarchal power and its oppressive intersections. It requires the structural conditions for everyone to make autonomous, life-sustaining choices and to have opportunities to be and thrive together. I place emphasis on the structural because the liberal feminist narrative of ‘choice’ masks the reality that most African women exist in economic and political contexts that do not enable us to thrive. It has to mean a future where the sustainability of the earth is taken into consideration and where we have redistributive rather than extractive economies. It is a future where we all belong, and where xenophobia and deeply (neo)colonial homophobia and patriarchal silencing of women’s diversities are replaced with a radical embrace of difference. We all have a right to belong. To me, it is not a utopian idea, it is something we have been actively working towards all of these years. I am hopeful that the seeds of this collective African feminist labour will grow into a vibrant present-to-be.
Jessica Horn is a feminist activist, writer and technical adviser with roots in Uganda. Her activism and analysis focuses on body politics, social movements, philanthropy and building scenarios for feminist futures.
Rama Salla Dieng is a Senegalese writer, academic and activist. She is currently a Lecturer in African and International Development at the Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh. Rama is the editor of the Talking Back series on roape.net and a member of ROAPE’s editorial working group.