Not Out of the Woods Yet: A reflection on the 4th Pan Africa ILGA Regional Conference.

Article

The status of and way forward for LGBTQI+ rights on the African continent.

By Kevin Mwachiro, journalist and member of the new PAI Board.
June 28, 2018. Botswana. This article first appeared in Daily Maverick.

The war for the acceptance of LGBTIQ rights on the continent is far from over.
When I used to cover conferences the phrase ‘talk shop’ would find its way into my reporting. As a journalist I had inherited a jaded view of these annual, bi or ten yearly gatherings. Then I became an activist and worked in the development sector and found myself attending a number of ‘talk shops’.

I am still running on a high of gratitude after attending Pan Africa ILGA’s bi-annual conference that was recently held in Gaborone, Botswana. I won’t deny there was a lot of talking that took place, but there was also a lot of laughing, unlearning and learning, singing, growing, celebrating and crying. I think the tears both happy and sad were mostly mine. I’m still on this high because, I experience what it felt like being ‘free’ as a gay man on the continent outside of South Africa and it tasted good. I’ve been to other LGBTI meetings on the continent, but Gabs felt different.

During the country roll-call of countries present at the opening dinner, the room would burst into song, dance, cheers and rallying calls, as countries were called out, from Algeria to Zimbabwe. We were Africans, and we were queer in Africa. On that wintry Botswana night under a beautiful star peppered sky we laid aside long hours of travel, the challenges experienced in respective home countries and we were fabulous and free! I was surrounded by trail-blazers who had overcome such adversity for the advancement of the LGBTI voice on the continent. Lesbian activists from Sudan, trans and intersex activists from Tanzania, activists from Nigeria, Cameroon and Congo and Morocco for instance. I single out these countries because their current socio, cultural and political climate ignore any reference to the sexual and gender identity concern.

The recognition of queer individuals faces greater challenges in these spaces than in the country of my birth, Kenya. Yet, the unfavourable environment in their respective countries hasn’t stopped them from their activism. Even in spaces that are meant to be more liberal, like South African, violence and even death still knock on the door so easily. That reality was brought to the floor once too often. Too often. Enter sad tears. And outside of that I had one on one conversations with individuals who are fighting their personal battles of acceptance within themselves and within their families. Enter supportive tears.

Every day, battles are fought confirming that the spirit of intent is alive and that the will of the membership strong. The mere fact that thirty-three countries from Africa were represented over the five-day meeting confirms the pan African identity of the event. It is this fact that struck a chord deep within me. It is why meetings like the PAI conference are important. As I write this, I can confidently say that in every single African country there is a community feverishly supporting the LGBTI cause; and that is a victory itself. The conference was an apt reminder that when struggles and victories are shared, a continental voice is harmonised to sing and, all of a sudden, Africa is here. The days of saying homosexuality is unAfrican are behind us.

There is still a lot of work that needs to be done within the movement itself. There are matters around sustainability and reliance on donor support for the LGBTI organisations. It would be a dream for our organisations and even conferences like PAI to be supported by African funding. Though for now, that is pie in the sky. Cheesy pun intended. We still need to be more inclusive of differently abled LGBTI individuals; for gay men to learn and understand the unique responsibility we possess in relationship to our lesbian sisters; and to ensure that our language and ‘fight’ guarantees a place for trans and intersex members. As a movement we also need to see how best we care for ourselves. For this journey to self has scarred many of us. We need to broaden our health agenda outside the HIV/AIDS and see how we can support members of the community who are battling other diseases. This conference reminded me that the ‘fight’ is still very much about people.

I look forward to the day when all the countries of the continent will be represented at such-like conferences. I look forward to a time when cities like Kampala, Abidjan, Niamey, Port Louis, Asmara or even Tunis will welcome us to their cities. It was amazing to be welcomed to Gaborone by an official from the city council, Hon Sergeant Kgosietsile. It is possible.

My heart still gets warm as I remember the candour of Justice Edwin Cameron, the tenacity of former Botswana Cabinet Minister, Prof Sheila Tlou, the challenges thrown at us by Kenyan HR defender Maina Kiai and the inspirational words of Victor Madrigal-Borloz the UN’s Independent Expert Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression and Sex Characteristics- SOGIESC. But equally as moving was seeing matters of faith being discussed that weren’t coming from a place of hate. There were parents sharing how they got to learn of their child’s sexuality and how their own journeys evolved. It was a powerful reminder that there are parents willing to support their children. This is a powerful. PAI Botswana was different because it showed me that an inclusive, unapologetic and queer loving Africa is here.

I think there are onions on my keyboard, I need to stop now.

Kevin Mwachiro
Kevin Mwachiro is a Kenya based activist journalist, writer, podcaster and cancer fighter. He is the editor of the anthology, Invisible – Stories from Kenya’s Queer Community. He was elected to the new PAI Board at the Conference on the4th of June. He can be found Twitter: @kevmwachiro.