Issue 14.2 | 2017 / Guest edited by Gema Pérez-Sánchez and Brenna Munro

Blogging Queer Africa. Interview with Sokari Ekine, April 2015

This interview has been edited for clarity and length

B. Munro: Thank you so much for giving us this interview, Sokari. Maybe we could start with giving us a sense of the transnational paths that your life and work has taken you on.

S. Ekine: I’m Nigerian and British. A mix. I was born in London and I grew up in Nigeria. And I left Nigeria as an adult and then I came back to London. And that’s where I spent most of my adult years, my formative years, in London. So, in a sense, I’m not quite sure where home is.

B. Munro: Thank you. Let’s talk about Black Looks, the blog you began in June 2004, which is an amazing archive of all things queer-African, and which I would argue played an important role in shaping a queer African diasporan public sphere, and a pan-African queer sensibility in politics. How did the blog begin and how did it grow?

S. Ekine: Black Looks began, as you said, in June 2004, at which time I was living in Spain. I’d gone to Spain in mid-2002, to the countryside, so I could heal from an illness that I had. So by the time 2004 came, I was wandering; I just wanted to reconnect to my old life because I was farming and walking and just generally taking care of myself. But there came a point when I wanted to think about my life before 2002. So this was at the early days of blogging, so I decided I would start a blog. And I actually started lots of different blogs, all in a space of about two months… and shut them down, because I wasn’t really clear what I actually wanted to do. And also, there was quite the level of abuse initially.

B. Munro: Do you mean from readers?

S. Ekine: From readers, yes, in terms of comments. That was quite shocking. So I shut them down, and eventually I came up in June 2004 with Black Looks. So really for me it was a way of reconnecting back to my previous life; we’re constantly reinventing ourselves and transforming ourselves, so this was another reinvention of that kind of going back, but also going forward. And I eventually found my voice, and I wanted to present a different narrative, and I wanted to be a lot more critical in my commentary than the mainstream media. At that time there weren’t that many blogs written by Africans, whether on the continent or in the diaspora, on Africa. There weren’t a lot of blogs on Africa generally, but certainly not that many written by Africans, and even less by women. So it was a very, very small circle of people. But very early on I met a Ugandan trans activist, Victor Mukasa, online, and chatting. At the time he was having to go into hiding in Uganda, and so we were chatting by phone, and text, while he was hiding. So that influenced me. But I was also writing about lots of other different issues. It was very intense, and it was a very steep learning curve. I was writing about Zimbabwe, and the Democratic Republic of Congo – I had to kind of learn the history. I mean, I knew the history, but I had to learn it in depth. So, it was a very intense period, but it was also exciting. It ran for 10 years. I closed it down on August 2014, but it’s been very much part of my life, and I am very proud of it looking back. I just think it’s quite an amazing archive of lots of different issues, and it also says a lot about who I am.

B. Munro: In a way the intersectional nature of it reflects how queer African issues are not just about one thing.

S. Ekine: Yes, I agree with you, but I think it was also the time, because if I was to start a blog today, I don’t think it would be so diverse or intersectional, as you put it. Now, there are people who are writing about Sudan and so on. So it would still be intersectional in some ways, but in other ways it wouldn’t. Because for one person to do that now, would just be too much, unless you were to create a different kind of website that had lots of different writers.

B. Munro: What was your sense of who the readers were?

S. Ekine: At the time, the access to the internet was limited. I don’t think I really thought who I was writing for; it was more that this is what I wanted to say, and this is how I wanted to say it. That was really the focus. I mean, when I started writing about, for example, the Nigerian same-sex marriage bill (the name has changed over the years, but it’s essentially the same bill that was passed in 2014) I had quite a big Nigerian readership; through the comments I knew that they were Nigerian, even if they were anonymous, because of what they were saying. So that was quite interesting, that it was being picked up, and there were some comments that were pretty hateful, but there was a conversation. So you had to focus on the fact that there was a conversation, because within the hateful comments there were also very positive comments as well. And later on I would meet people randomly at events or conferences and I would introduce myself, not as Black Looks, but as Sokari, and they would say, “Oh! You’re Black Looks!” and, “Oh, I read that all the time!” So that was very encouraging, and I realized that people read and don’t make comments. But there was a time, I must admit, when every time I’d press the ‘post’ tab, I would just go into a panic about what the response was going to be.

B. Munro: What would you say was the most controversy-inducing post that you’ve done?

S. Ekine: Well, I think a couple of posts on the Nigerian same-sex marriage bill. There was one particular person, who is still around today, and he was very, very ugly. And he actually made a comment on his own blog to the effect of ‘beating up lesbians,’ something like that, but it was said in very, very strong language, much stronger than what I’ve just said. I did take him up on it, and a couple of other people, but what I found was that, there were a lot of disappointments as well as encouragements, in that there was a group of feminists who were very supportive—bloggers, I’m talking about—but then there were other kinds of liberals who never, ever came to your defense when there was some vile comment made. They wouldn’t take a stand on it, so that was very disappointing. But the worst experience, which actually brought down Black Looks, was when a guest writer from the US wrote a critical post about a video game and we had 300 plus comments, and then I had to shut off comments, and they were vile. Racist, misogynist, homophobic, they were just nasty nasty comments.

B. Munro: From American game players?

S. Ekine: From American game players, yes.

I know we don’t want to go back too far, but I actually started my online life in 1995, when a Nigerian friend of mine, who’s a computer programmer, and a pilot, started a dial-up service called The Aviator’s Network. And so, he said, “you could get online with me and you don’t have to pay anything,” because getting online at that time was quite expensive. So, I was part of The Aviator’s Network, but I knew nothing of aviation or computer programming, but I started this list, called Black Sisters Network, so that was 1995, and that ran for a couple of years.

B. Munro: That makes me think about how blogging is one form of digital activism, but there are many other forms of online communication and networking, some of which I know you’ve been involved with.

S. Ekine: I think Twitter in particular is an excellent campaign and informational tool, more so than Facebook, I think it’s really grown. But what I like most about Twitter is it really gives you a sense of the range of political positioning, and in some ways that’s quite frightening, the level of homophobia and racism and misogyny that is spewed on Twitter. And it’s representative of something. And, you know, you can live in your little bubble of your own little set of like-minded people, but once you’re on Twitter, you can’t necessarily do that. But also you can participate in so many other events through Twitter if you’re not there physically. There’s a way to follow the event or conference online, and I think that that’s really kind of amazing, and you’re not just following it passively; if you want to interact, you can. I did experience, just one experience from one individual a couple of years ago, when I was called a cockroach by a Nigerian blogger. And the great thing about it is, I just wrote about it, and quoted his tweets, so you can do that, whereas before Twitter you couldn’t necessarily react in that kind of way.

B. Munro: It does seem like the Nigerian diaspora in particular has such a lively online world, so all political points of view are being expressed there and meeting one another; my sense of this comes from discussions of Nigerian writers who have diverse diasporan readers. So it’s interesting to think about how the politics of same-sex issues in Nigeria are being shaped by this larger online conversation.

S. Ekine: Yes, absolutely, and at the same time as this very homophobic misogyny is going on, it’s also inspiring and encouraging because there are voices out there that are contrary to that, and when the same-sex marriage bill was passed in 2014, a lot of prominent Nigerians did come out against the passing of the bill, and in the context of Nigeria, that was something to be respected. And, from reading the comments on Twitter, it was clear that there was a certain group of people that were very critical of the passing of the bill, and their voices were allowed as well, so they weren’t just smothered. In fact, I would say that their voices were actually stronger, so that was very encouraging. But, you know, you have to go back to the fact that, Nigeria is a country of around 170 million—inexactly. If there are 20 million people online, it’s still such a very small percentage of people. So it’s representative in some ways and it’s not representative in others. So we just have to keep that in mind.

B. Munro: Yes. Well, maybe that brings me to the question of what you think about the possibilities and the problems in general of transnational digital tools like blogging.

S. Ekine: Well I couldn’t imagine working without the internet. It would just be very, very difficult. Because now, we can create networks, and these networks are across the continent and the diaspora, and beyond that as well. For example, a network actually started in response to the passing of the Ugandan anti-homosexuality bill and the Nigerian same-sex marriage bill. In response to that, a group of us got together very informally that were in touch online, without any formal organization, it’s just a collective network; and a year ago, we put together a document called the Mayibuye Pledge. That is a very radical document that speaks to the pan-African, transnational and intersectional position and approach that we, as a collective, put together. Now that wouldn’t have been possible without digital activism. One of the problems with forming a network like the one that wrote the Mayibuye Pledge is that we’re all in different time zones; we’ve all got different commitments in terms of work, home, family, education, whatever. So, it’s difficult sometimes to get everybody to be in the same place to have a meeting. I used to be part of a group in London in the early, mid-80s, which was called The Camden Black Sisters; we used to meet on a Saturday or a Sunday. We all lived in Camden, so it was easy to meet and spend the afternoon together, but in this context we’re not all from one space. We’re trying to bring in lots of different spaces and time zones and everything, so that’s one of the challenges I think that you face when you do this kind of transnational activism.

B. Munro: Such an interesting historical comparison, those two modes.

S. Ekine: I love the Camden Black Sisters. That was a really wonderful period in my life, the mid-80s to mid-90s London.

B. Munro: It seems as though you’ve moved between many different spaces, and between bringing together people who are occupying very different spaces, and much more local work, like the work you’re doing in Haiti at the moment. Can you tell us a little about that recent work?

S. Ekine: In 2013, I got a New Media Fellowship from The International Reporting Project, from Johns Hopkins. So I got that for a year, and my proposal was to write about health issues in Haiti. So, that’s what I did, and my approach to the health care came from a very grassroots place. I am a photographer as well as a writer, and the intent behind the photographs is the same intent behind my blogging, which is to present a different narrative, whether it’s around Haiti or Nigeria or the continent. I’m just trying to get away from the victim narrative, the white savior narrative, all the negative images that are reinforced all the time. So, my intent is the same with the writing as it is with the photography to do that.

B. Munro: I was going to ask you about creative work, how creative work can be political, but also how political work can be creative.

S. Ekine: I think what art does is allow you to process the political in a way that is experiential, so then you come out at the other end with understanding, and not feeling so overwhelmed. I think that’s what art does in a political sense. I think that’s where its power lies.

B. Munro: The Queer African Reader, the collection you co-published in 2013, includes memoirs, scholarly works, manifestos, fiction, poetry, and photography from people all over the continent.[1] Tell me about how you came up with the idea for that.

S. Ekine: At the time I was one of the writers with Pambazuka online magazine, and the director at the time and I were having conversations about putting together some kind of small booklets around different issues on the continent, particularly for youth, and the idea of the one around LGBTI eventually developed into the Queer African Reader. I was a bit reluctant because it just seemed like such a huge thing, and I was in a conversation with Hakima (Abbas), who was the director of Fahamu, the parent of Pambazuca. And she said, “Oh, that’s really interesting. I think you should do it.” So I said, “I’ll do it if you do it with me.” So that’s how it started, from conversation, as most things do. And then, we drew up an outline, and we decided that we wanted it to be participatory, and by that we meant that we wanted the contributors to participate in the project itself—rather than the usual thing, which is there’s a call for papers, and you send out your abstract and you don’t really communicate with anyone else except the editor or editors. So we had the idea of doing it so that there would be more of a conversation around the book, and it would be a group that was working together. That was our vision. But it didn’t really work out like that. So we made a list of people that was a very huge, massive list, and sent out a call for abstracts, and ideas on topics. We had a set of themes, and we just said, you know, add to it, take them away, criticize them, do whatever. Just get back to us. These are just guidelines, they’re just ideas. We had a good response, but there were gaps in the response.

B. Munro: So people came back with ideas and suggestions?

S. Ekine: Yes, but not necessarily the people who ended up being contributors to the book.

B. Munro: That’s fascinating, and possibly true for all kinds of projects like this, that there are so many more people involved in it than end up in the final product.

S. Ekine: Yes absolutely. If you remember Sylvia Tamale’s book, African Sexualities, we had that as a guide as well, and we wanted it to be a mix of writings.[2] We didn’t want just academic writers, we wanted journalistic voices, we wanted activist voices, we wanted poets, short stories, and visual artists, as much as we could get. I mean, there was a limit to the number of words, so we had to stop.

B. Munro: You mentioned that there were gaps. What were the interesting gaps for you?

S. Ekine: There’s only one Ugandan activist, or contribution, in the book, which is David Kato’s, and we don’t have any contributions from North Africa, Egypt. We tried, and I remember there was an Egyptian that sent a piece—I always wonder what happened to him, because he didn’t follow up, and I never heard anything from him again. But we did try to contact people in Tunisia, Morocco, but we weren’t able to, and in other parts of the continent, like Democratic Republic of Congo, that central area’s also missing, even Nigeria, as well, is missing. We really tried to get something around the fundamentalist religious theme, so that was missing as well. So it was a bit concentrated in Southern and Eastern Africa, which was disappointing to both of us, I think—not that we weren’t happy with what we had, but it would have been great to have voices from different parts of the continent where people are not necessarily aware that activism is taking place.

B. Munro: Well, for it to be truly comprehensive of every place in Africa, that would be difficult.

S. Ekine: Yeah, that would be. When we started the project, though, we did have the idea that we would continue online, through Pambazuca. We also wanted to have a kind of retreat as well, of the authors, to come together in one place and talk, but we had to get funding for the book, and funding for the retreat just didn’t happen. But I think it’s important to mention that we had those ideas, even though they didn’t materialize for one reason or the other. So in that sense it was really quite an innovative anthology project that we were trying to put together.

B. Munro: It’s interesting that you tried to foster a conversation amongst the contributors. Do you think those kinds of conversation across borders within Africa between I guess queer writers and activists have been happening?

S. Ekine: Yes, I think that that was already happening, and the idea of the Queer African Reader was really just to bring that together. With being able to engage with each other with email and internet and so on, it looks like it’s just beginning, but in actual fact, the transnational form of this activism was already taking place. And that’s one of the problems with the internet, is that you kind of think that everything suddenly just started, you forget that people were doing queer organizing already, and feminist organizing. I think one of the things the book does is shift the movement away from looking at LGBT as this single issue, so we’re not just talking about it in terms of identity. Together with African Sexualities, which was edited by Sylvia Tamale, I think are the two most radical books on sexuality and gender.

B. Munro: So for you, “queer” doesn’t mean lesbian and gay in this book; it means something a lot larger than that. I can read what you say in the introduction, which I love.

S. Ekine: Oh, okay.

[both laugh]

B. Munro: – which is, “…to denote a political frame rather than a gender identity or sexual behavior. We use ‘queer’ to underscore a perspective that embraces gender and sexual plurality and seeks to transform, overhaul, and revolutionize African order rather than seek to assimilate.”

S. Ekine: That in itself, I think, is quite a radical statement, and I remember a meeting I was having in London around 2008-9, I can’t remember exactly when – it was around the Nigerian same-sex marriage bill, and I remember using the term “queer,” and someone saying, “Well, I don’t like that. I’m gay. I’m a gay man.” And I said, “Well, yeah, that’s fair enough, but, how about we try to think beyond that to imagining a political position that encompasses far more than our being lesbian or gay or transgender, and try to imagine a whole different way, a whole different set of Africas. You know, we’re all lots of different things. I mean for example right now, the two issues that we’re looking at in this moment, in April 2015; on the Southern tip of the continent in South Africa there’s this wave of resurgence of xenophobic violence that is taking place, and then you can put that in the context of the violence against women in South Africa and the violence against black lesbians. And then at the other end of the continent you have thousands of Africans drowning in the Mediterranean, and the dream is to get to Europe, but once they get to Europe, that dream becomes some kind of nightmare because of racism and there’s no jobs, people end up in the streets and in poverty. I mean, I experienced that when I used to visit cities in Southern Spain. So, if you say, “Oh, I”m a gay man, and that’s it,” well what about all this, you know. So, I think it’s a way of looking at the world that is far broader than one single identity that you have, or two identities that you have. And it doesn’t allow for any kind of fluidity or transformation in yourself because you’re just that. We tried to be imaginative in the ideas behind the book, and I think the contributors too have tried to imagine something quite different on whatever they were writing on, and that’s what “queer” is to me, it’s trying to imagine something that is real but also is a different way.

B. Munro: What were some of the contributions that were most important or interesting to you?

S. Ekine: Definitely David Kato’s piece, which we started the book with. When we sent out the abstracts, David was one of the first people to respond, and he did so by an email to me. We were quite good friends. And so he sent this email laying out everything that he wanted to say, and then, he was murdered. And I didn’t make any connection between the email and the book at first. And then at some point Hakima and I were talking, and I said, “You know what, I got this email from David, maybe we should use that.” So that’s what we did. We opened the book with an edited version of David’s piece, and then ended the book with a poem by a young South African lesbian, Busi (Busisiwe Sagasa), who I met in South Africa in 2007, because she was interested in blogging. Busi had been raped and contracted HIV, and was also diabetic. She was always trying to look for work, and it was very difficult because she lived in Soweto and to get into Johannesburg was very time-consuming. The last time I heard from her she sent me some text messages which were disturbing, because it was as if she knew she was going to die, and then I got the message that she had died of a diabetic coma. She had just come home and gone to sleep basically and forgot to get up and take her meds so she just died. And that was really sad. Her website is still up, it’s called My Realities, you can still find it. And so, that kind of made sense that we chose to begin and end with David and Busi.

B. Munro: The sadness of those two stories is making me think about what you think about the outlook in general. What your thoughts are about where we’re headed; are there modes of resistance and activism happening that you’re excited about?

S. Ekine: Well, I think Mayibuye, which I mentioned before, if that conversation can expand and more people can be involved, I think that’s very positive. One other very interesting and positive development is on Saturday the 25th of April, the CAL, the Coalition of African Lesbians, were granted observer status at the African Commission for Human Rights. This is a combination of years and years of hard work, years and years of not getting that status. But yesterday, they were granted status. There were dissenters in terms of giving them the status, and one particular commissioner described homosexuality as a virus that would divide Africa. So it’s just wonderful that CAL now has observer status, so that’s a new beginning.

B. Munro: I wanted to ask you about about Binyavanga Wainaina; what kind of impact do you that it’s having to have a major, globally known African writer come out as gay publicly?

S. Ekine: It seemed to have a lot of impact in the West; Binyavanga’s a very articulate, well-known name, so, I think it impacted on the West a lot. I don’t really know about how it impacted in Kenya. I think it was very brave, and I think it was kind of a beautiful thing for him to do, and the way he did it, in the writing, “I am a homosexual, mum.” I think that was really well done and quite beautiful to read. But if I look at Diriye Osman and his book Fairy Tales for Lost Children, I think that’s quite different.[3] First of all, he had already been out when the book was published, and his coming out was not some big event. It was just locally known to his friends and family. But there was a great risk there. He’s a beautiful writer, very kind of poetic in his writing, it dances and moves, and brings out all kinds of emotions. He writes about so many different issues. He left Somalia as a boy and went with his family to Kenya, and then he left Kenya, a bit older, and came to London. There’s lots of exile there, and then being Somali in Kenya has its own politics. And being Somali in London also has a different set of politics. So there’s all of that plus his sexuality and the family, religion, culture. All of those issues are brought together in his book. And if you look beyond Fairy Tales, you look at his writing recently in The Huffington Post, which is even more personal because it’s not necessarily a fictional narrative. So there, I think, the potential for the conversation is huge. And he has a blog, and one of the blog posts, “To Be Young, Gay and African,” had about 3000 plus responses on Tumblr, which is just completely amazing, and it’s still getting re-posted now. If you go through his blog a lot of people are responding to his writing, and I can’t speak for him of how he feels, but I do think that he has been able to connect with people and encourage a deeper conversation through his writings, amongst Africans, Kenyans, Somalis, and beyond. But there was no big moment, there was just a process, and a quiet coming out that was very personal. So I think in that sense writing can be really powerful. And I think sometimes we kind of forget that. It goes back again to what we discussed earlier on art. I mean there’s a lot of artists, writers, sculptors, that are really doing some very excellent work, but we don’t always know, you know, you don’t necessarily have to come out and make a big noise about it, but that’s not to undermine Binyavanga in any way. I mean we each do what we have to do, what we feel is best and what we are capable of doing.

B. Munro: So what Wainaina did is against the backdrop of all kinds of people for whom these questions of sexuality are part of their work increasingly.

S. Ekine: Yes, I think so, very much. I think we are changing the narrative. We are pushing back against both narratives, on the one side, the kind of gay imperialist narrative and the white savior narrative, and then the cultural and religious fundamentalist narrative on the continent, which is also around nationalisms and citizenship. So I think we are pushing back, and the observer status for CAL, is a huge change. If we talk about Fairy Tales as well, and the Queer African Reader, and African Sexualities, and also the work, I need to say, of Zanele Muholi, and her visual activism in South Africa, and the work of Gabrielle Le Roux in her work as a portrait artist and activist around transgender on the continent, there’s a lot of different things that are happening. There’s still a massive amount of work to be done, but things are moving. Some things are moving backwards but some things are moving forward and in different directions.

Footnotes
  1. Ekine, Sokari, and Hakima Abbas, eds. Queer African Reader. Pambazuka Press, 2013. [Return to text]
  2. Tamale, Sylvia, ed. African Sexualities: A Reader. Pambazuka Press, 2011. [Return to text]
  3. Osman, Diriye. Fairy Tales for Lost Children. Team Angelica Publishing, 2013. [Return to text]