African Queer Women Find Their Voices Through a Storytelling Project
By Tracey Gurd
The Open Society Youth Fellowship supports young activists and organizers in crafting solutions and youth-focused approaches to open society challenges. Fellow Tiffany Mugo, who is originally from Kenya and now lives in South Africa, is producing a digital media toolkit for African queer women to share their stories. She talked to us about the project’s goals and the challenges her community faces.
Tell us about your fellowship project.
Africans are huge storytellers—we color the world with tales of existence through speeches and conversations. But we haven’t been the best at archiving. My project, HOLAAfrica, seeks to archive and make sure that the story of African queer women, which is one of the most nonexistent stories in a sense, is actually documented, that it’s archived. That it’s told by, what I feel, are the right people to tell it, namely the people living that narrative, as opposed to others who simply observe it.
How are you documenting these stories?
My project seeks to zero in on them in a modern way. I shall gather stories in written form, and create audiovisual material in the form of podcasts and videos. The use of digital media will be my primary tool in knowledge production and documentation.
Archiving is moving away from offline spaces to online spaces, and my plan is to ride this shift in order to make sure that in the future, these people still exist. That we still exist. That my existence, as an African queer woman at this moment in time—which is very contentious, but also has so much potential—that this weird nexus in time is actually archived properly.
We all bring our identities to these projects. How does your own identity contribute to yours?
The project was all about archiving a lived experience. And my identity is, as you probably picked up: African queer woman. Ha ha! The project stemmed from this notion that when I tried to find people like me, it was very difficult. As a queer woman, you’re having this crisis of self at home: “Oh my god, I like girls, this is the worst! What am I going to do? This is … it’s not biblical, it’s not Africa, it’s not traditional. Somebody out there must be going through what I’m going through.”
And then I go online, which is the biggest resource in the world at this moment in time, and there was nothing, absolutely nothing, in terms of material that spoke specifically to the African queer female experience. There was a great deal that spoke to the American queer female experience with sites such as Autostraddle and the like topping search engine results.
These online resources spoke to an experience far removed from women within African borders. This is one of the key problems within sexuality movements, the idea that all people live the same way. A woman searching for advice in New York or London will not need the same advice as a woman in Maputo or Kampala.
Can you give us a few examples of experiences unique to African queer women?
African queer women have experiences such as coming out to parents who had extremely traditional cultural values and had functioning ideas of how many cows they would get for you, be they symbolic or actual cattle. The experience of having to navigate the dating world when you are not even sure if there is a queer community within 500 miles of you. The experience of knowing that holding your girlfriend’s hand could land you in jail.
Why is it important to involve young people in this documentation process, this narrative?
If we miss out on young people [when] we are creating narratives, we miss out on a very important part of human growth. We think, you’re born and you’re so sweet and adorable, and then all of a sudden you’re an adult and doing proper things. But what got you to that point of doing proper things? What got you to that point of being able to do the good or the bad that you’re able to do in the world?
It’s almost like people seldom look to the youth unless something bad happened. When someone ends up a serial killer then everyone starts trying to backtrack: “Oh, how did he end up a serial killer?” But if you hear about some of our greatest leaders—like, what was Nelson Mandela doing when he was young? What was Wangari Maathai like when she was young?
Knowing what people were doing at these ages will inform the next round of people. If we look at these people in their youth and find that they were all doing amazing things, then it tells you to get off your ass and do something if you want to be something.
How do you see your leadership role in terms of social change?
I see my leadership role in terms of social change as leading from the back. There are leaders who are actually on the forefront. They are there. They’re the ones speaking.
But then there’s the notion of being the power behind the power. That’s where I feel my leadership will be, if they’ll have me—being able to use my access to spaces, my ideas, the fact that I wake up at 6:00 a.m. just to think about stuff. Just using what I’ve got to sort of push people forward, rather than pull them forward.
Until June 2016, Tracey Gurd was the division director of strategy at the Open Society Foundations.