07 Nov Talking Back: a conversation with Lyn Ossome
In a wide-ranging interview with Lyn Ossome, Rama Salla Dieng and Françoise Kpeglo Moudouthe discuss her politics and activism. Ossome argues that the maintenance of a façade of stability across Africa rests on the super-exploitation, repression and violation of women and gendered bodies more broadly.
Françoise: Can you briefly introduce yourself, Lyn?
Lyn: I am a researcher and educator from Kenya, presently living and teaching at Makerere University in Uganda. My primary interest both inside and outside of the academy has been in understanding the production, nature and manifestations of inequality in society. The historical question of violence and the function it plays in societies preoccupies me a great deal. I am also interested in questions of difference. I decided quite early on that I wanted to understand these issues in a deeply theoretical sense, and because gradually this path has compelled me on to more structural critiques, this has meant at the same time making sense of them in a lived and existential sense. That path has led me into a kind of activist-scholarship which bridges my work as an educator with movements and practice beyond the academy and guided me nearly two decades ago towards feminism. I am also a daughter, sister, lover, aunt, friend and comrade.
Rama: You have written extensively on women’s land rights in Africa (in Feminist Africa, Agrarian South Journal, or Feminist Economics). Why is it important to you, as a feminist political economist, to focus on this issue? What have been the contributions of African feminists to land issues, and what would be your main critique of the dominant discourses on this topic?
Lyn: The predominant discourses on land insist on linking it to questions of economic development (the industrialization myth). Our critiques have on the contrary tried to show the unrealistic basis of this insistence. Most of the world is simply not going to be lifted out of poverty on the basis of access to land, and yet the peasant path remains relevant and needs to be defended today more than at any other time. For millions of people existing under capitalism’s utterly immiserating conditions, access to land and the commons is the only recourse they have for survival. It is no longer even feasible to think of wage labour and petty commodity production in isolation from peasant livelihoods, as all three are intertwined and necessary for the survival of most households in the global south. In this regard, feminist agrarian scholars have focused on exposing the fallacies built into some of the women’s land rights discourses that continue to hold great sway.
I want to highlight two in particular that have been extensively critiqued in the more radical feminist political economy scholarship. First is the discourse on titling as the quintessential basis for securing women’s land rights. This discourse was popularised by the World Bank from the late 1980s, entrenched by prominent neoclassical economists of the north, and has remained unsurprisingly influential, given the predatory and unequal funding structure of NGO-driven activism. In Uganda for instance, the World Bank literally will not fund grassroots organisations speaking against the grain of this argument. Yet empirical evidence shows us that titling is less likely to favour poor and effectively landless women, who are likely to dispose of their assets including land at the first sign of economic distress. The market orthodoxy that underlines the titling discourse needs debunking.
The second discourse is the one that continues to tie the question of women’s land demands to accumulation and development. The reality is that for the majority of semi-proletarianised households with a net supply of surplus labourers (compared to the effectively employed) most of whom are land poor or effectively landless, land forms the primary basis for the social reproduction, is not a basis for accumulation but rather part of a cornucopia of livelihood strategies which are primarily geared toward survival. Even as agriculture’s contribution to the GDP of most African countries has steadily declined, the relevance of land and landed resources, especially access to the commons, has continued to rise – but for reasons other than those justified in neoclassical economic thinking.
There has been a relatively small but significant voice of African feminist scholars countering this conservative thinking, including Dzodzi Tsikata, Marjorie Mbilinyi, Dede Amanour-Wilks, Rama Salla-Dieng, Celestine Nyamu-Musembi, Ambreena Manji among others. I am also inspired by the work of grassroots women’s organizations such as the Land and Equity Movement Uganda (LEMU) that are magnificently challenging the dominant discourses around titling, re-engaging debates on customary tenure, and of course, paying the price for it in terms of funding opportunities. Part of our feminist strategies in support of such progressive thinking/praxis has to be imagining alternative ways of resourcing these local movements. It is their practical illustrations of possibility among local communities that strengthen and challenge the dominant discourses that are only doing the work of obscuring much of reality.
Françoise: The continuous shrinking of civic space for feminist organizing has been a source of increasing concern for African feminists – you recently wrote about it in an article for BUWA! in relation to women’s work. What do you think African feminists can do to adapt to, or, if possible, fight to reverse the closing civic space?
Lyn: As I said in that piece, growing unrest, protest in all forms, and demands for recognition and representation are among the more immediate signs of the distress that African women are experiencing, and also reflect the fact that many feminist demands actually exceed the civic space. That civic spaces are shrinking in response is therefore not surprising. But the larger question with which we must grapple is the extent to which these spaces can address issues such as the agrarian distress and dispossession that continues to place significant strain on women’s productive and reproductive labour, pushing millions of rural women out of common lands and restricting their use of communal land, compelling women into tenuous informal, low-status and low-wage work. We must also deal with the contradiction that while under neoliberal capitalism, more women than ever before have entered the labour force, their terms of entry remain highly unequal and exploitative compared to men, partly because women’s participation in the labour force has failed to ease their historical burden of reproduction at the level of the family and household.
With regards to what paths of struggle are available to African women in the face of shrinking civic space, I posed a number of questions that I think we ought to consider: firstly, whether the state has been successful in its not so hidden objective of divorcing women’s rights activism from the structural bases of women’s oppression; second, whether and which alternative paths for social organising are possible in contexts where authoritarianism dominates civic space; and thirdly, whether the role of civil society organisations in mediating social change is, in fact, an exaggerated one.
I have argued in that piece and in much of my work that the separation between what is considered ‘political’ and ‘economic’ under neoliberal orthodoxy constrains interpretations of women’s structurally defined positions in the global political economy. In this regard, the attack on civic space mirrors the purported divergence between cultural oppressions, with their basis in gender, and oppression emanating from the political economy, with their basis in class struggles. While the former is trivialised, the latter is regarded as the ‘subject of politics proper’. The effect has been to privatise and render the embodied nature of the domination and exploitation of working women invisible to law, policy and public discourse. But as is becoming apparent now with not just protest but actions being taken by women in response to the war on our bodies, these spaces shall be demanded and claimed if they are not readily available. Our personal and political resources are neither infinite nor beyond further harm, but they are powerful tools that do not always bend to the magnanimity and disciplining of civic authority.
Rama: In your 2018 book, Gender, Ethnicity and Violence in Kenya’s Transitions to Democracy: States of Violence, you state that ‘the prevalence of gendered and sexualised forms of violence against women observed in Kenya’s democratic politics has far-reaching implications for the country’s democratisation as a whole.’ Can you please tell us if this is specific to Kenya, or if this is relevant in other African countries?
Lyn: The link between democracy and violence is no longer a tenuous one, and is now more acknowledged in the literature, even by liberal and mainstream theorists of democracy. What, however, is less readily acknowledged is how much, historically and at present, the maintenance of a façade of stability of society has depended on the exploitation, super-exploitation, discrimination and violations of women and gendered bodies more broadly. This was as true of Europe’s transition to capitalism as it was its colonising mission and present-day theatre of regular political contestations (elections) that is a normative marker of democratization. So yes, in this regard, the theoretical lens through which I examined the case of Kenya could apply just about anywhere in Africa and the colonised world including Asia and Latin America. The interpretative difference would of course emerge from the historical and structural specificities of each context, but the attachment of political violence to gendered bodies would be a common denominator across these countries. Women’s experiences with the democratization project have been remarkably similar – which places the imperative for interrogation on the liberal variant of democracy rather than on its casualties. Liberal democracy is an inherently violent mode of organising politics, not because one disagrees with liberalism’s idealised notions of freedom, equality, liberty, rights and so on, but rather because our histories of slavery, colonialism, and imperialism and their attendant legacies (of racism, politicized ethnicity, and violence) that need to be accounted for have remain marginalised in the mainstream discourse and treated as an aberration.
Françoise: In March 2019, you took part in a fascinating panel about ‘decolonising the university and the curricula’ at the LSE in London. What would a decolonized academia look like? And what would it take for all the talk there has been around this issue to lead to tangible change in the academic world?
Lyn: That was a fascinating discussion, and of course, one whose demands are invariably determined by the contexts in which it is being held. The issues that concern young people under the common banner of decolonization are as diverse as the contexts in which people experience the weight of the colonial academy. A number of interesting questions/ comments emerged from that audience, on which I am still reflecting. There are also many views on this issue that have been made available to me in discussion with my students, colleagues and friends.
For instance, one of the things I pointed out was that the colonised curriculum has turned away from reality, obscures it, and is in fact dependent on the denial of reality. The work of decolonization in this regard has to deal with this fact. In all of the difficult spaces we encounter within the academy, part of our commitment has to be in insisting on a version of the world that reflects our own experiences of it, that approximates our daily realities of the world. There is a reality that is constantly imposed on us but that is based on the experiences of the coloniser – be it through the disciplines, curriculum content, the world of publishing, in pedagogical approaches, and in hierarchies of recognition and tenure. The colonial university is also a patriarchal, phallic structure in which the presence of particular women, queer bodies and colonised races remains very offensive to the status quo.
So, the work of challenging this structure and superstructure is an exercise invariably fraught with threats, intimidation and sometimes just plain bullying as I have come to discover. Decolonization is and will remain an exercise that goes against the grain. A question therefore that we need to seriously pose and re-pose as we go along is this: how much are we willing to lose? What price are we willing to pay? Furthermore, if all this talk of decolonization remains in the ivory tower and ignores the broader social and political milieu that necessitates it then it will be for nothing.
A friend who is a creative also recently reminded me that it is in the locations where one spends most of their time that education takes place. The academy is a miniscule part of those locations. Meaning that even as we challenge the curricula within the academy, we must pay attention to the voices, practices and struggles beyond it (or cynically, marginal to it).
Rama: In your opinion, which research areas deserve more attention from feminist academics, and why?
Lyn: There is actually nothing of importance that feminist academics are not already critically engaging and interrogating. So, for me it is not as much about a lack of attention as it is about the readiness to deliberately modify our approaches as and when the conditions and circumstances (what might be termed as the problem space) demand. That said, I think that a lot of what our attention has been trained on does not emerge organically from below: as suggested above, a lot of the research questions to which we are responding travel to us from outside, from the colonising world. Whatever the questions may be that we prioritise, they need to be ones which we ourselves formulate out of our own understanding of our social and political contexts. They need to be relevant to us, and they need to take our own histories seriously. This is an additional challenge that must be posed to the issue of decolonization.
Françoise: There has been much debate recently, especially on social media, about whether African feminists should anchor their activism in feminist theory or in their personal/collective experiences. As an academic, what would you say to those who question the importance of feminist theory?
Lyn: My own eventual self-recognition as a feminist, and acceptance of its centrality in my political orientation came through a concrete engagement with feminist theory. Through it I discovered a long and consistent history of African women in challenging oppression of all forms. I learnt that I was not inventing anything, and that feminism offered a vantage point to the world that was distinct and meaningful and powerful. There is something very empowering about stepping into the proverbial room full of feminists who have literally, and sometimes with very little at their disposal, changed the course of history and knowing that all one had to do was acknowledge those earlier struggles as well as learn from them, and then renew them based on the present challenges. In short, feminist theory has for me also been an encounter with history, with thought, with politics, with lived realities, and with the necessity to question everything. That said, I believe we must eschew the kind of intellectual narcissism that convinces us of the correctness of our positions just because we can articulate them in certain complex ways. The disarticulation between the rural urban/elite and grassroot element of feminist movements across the continent is symptomatic of this. We need to understand the field as also a space of theorising.
Françoise: In another interview, you stated: ‘activist work is dangerous when we are isolated or insular’, and added that solidarity was the best protection. Can you tell me more about how feminist sisterhood has been a source of strength and protection for you personally?
The sense of community has been important for me, the knowledge that my struggles are not singular or isolated occurrences. It is, for instance, from within feminist sisterhood and networks of solidarity that I understood that every other woman I encountered in trust and friendship had also suffered some form of abuse or another. There is a lot of gaslighting when it comes to our life experiences. This is usually half the trauma, being compelled to exist in one’s head. Feminist sisterhood has been for me an important place of sublation, of rejecting the constant pressure to remain silent or question or modify my reality to suit the status quo or dominant perceptions. If I have found this solidarity in obvious spaces and sometimes also in the most unexpected ones, it is precisely because of the work that solidarity does – enabling encounters with freedom as diverse as the people with shared commitments who we meet every day.
Rama: What acts of radical self-care do you practice?
Lyn: Exercise – I have been faithful to yoga for a couple of years now. It taught me to breathe deeply and I am physically stronger for it. Sleep – every once in a long while I allow myself very long stretches of ‘death’ sleep whenever my body needs it. Music has always felt healing to me, and nowadays so does cooking. I embrace silence and solitude, but also seek the company and inspiration of spirited people everywhere.
Françoise: Allow me to ask you the final question I ritually ask my Eyala guests: what is your feminist life motto?
Lyn: Stand in your power. For Black and queer women, because so much of our histories have deprived us of formal and institutionalised power, substantive power for us has taken a variety of forms that remain marginalised and devalued – spiritual, mental, emotional, corporeal, intuitive and so on. We have been taught to distrust and turn away from these sources, and those who nurture them are labelled all sorts of things. But power for me in this regard means recognizing the fact that ultimately, none of our personal and political struggles against injustices of all kinds – against violence, abuse, exploitation – make sense outside of the (very feminist) self-recognition that we are worthy of respect, of dignity, of love and of happiness. There is no power in ceding decisions over these aspects of our lives to others. Nothing good comes out of that. An individualising and manipulative mentality will read this as self-serving. A collective and healing one will read it as the basis for self-renewal and the necessary repository of strength and perception from which to recognise both those forces that are arrayed against us and the power that it will take to wage our battles against them. Ironically, morbidly, I think that the only point at which the question of power actually resolves itself is in death. In life, it re-inscribes itself in a constant dialectic of renewal, both for and against us. But we cannot keep fighting simply in order to survive. Our struggles are meaningless and certainly not revolutionary if they don’t also offer us the serious possibility to thrive as human beings.
Lyn Ossome is a Senior Research Fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research, Makerere university in Uganda.
Interview by Françoise Moudouthe and Rama Salla Dieng. Françoise is curator of the feminist blog Eyala, a researcher and a consultant. Rama 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.
This series is dedicated to Ndeye Anta Dieng (1985-2019)