When I was asked to write something for the tenth anniversary of the Coalition of African Lesbians, I wanted to dig out old reports and documents to recap facts, names and dates of the founding phase. But then I decided I want to remember those early years in my own way – by just letting the memories flow and take me on that unbelievable ride that led to the founding of the African Lesbian Association, and a year later, CAL. I was one of eight lesbian women from seven African countries who came together in Johannesburg in March 2003 for a research project, led by two lesbian anthropologists from the Netherlands and South Africa. We project participants, from Botswana, Kenya, Uganda, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania and Swaziland, were trained to do life history research with small groups of lesbians in our own country, focussing on our journeys with negotiating our sexuality amidst oppressive laws, traditions and norms.
During this time we recognised the urgent need to start some sort of network that would link African lesbian women for solidarity and support as well as coordinated and strategic responses to our situation in our countries and on the continent. It started with conversations led by a passionate feminist: I remember so clearly the calm determination and persuasive voice of Elizabeth |Khaxas, my lesbian sister from Namibia. Naturally some of us were a little apprehensive – with all of us coming from countries where the sexual rights of women are compromised in so many ways, the idea of lesbians claiming their human rights seemed simply outrageous in these contexts.
We met twice for the life history project, preparing ourselves to present our research papers at the Sex & Secrecy Conference of the International Association for the Study of Sexuality, Culture and Society that took place in Johannesburg in June 2003. It was at this conference that we took a deep breath and said to each other: Yes, we need it, we can do it, so let’s do it!
So there we were, eight women all fired up, a little scared but excited beyond control, ready as we would ever be, to make history! Although I don’t think any of us could foresee that this dream would become reality. We became the founding members of the African Lesbian Alliance, which a year later gave birth to the Coalition of African Lesbians, a feminist movement by African lesbians, for African lesbians. Feminism became the tool with which we learnt to dissect and rebel against our positions as lesbian women in our lives and in the world. At the same time there was the need to connect with other lesbians and women’s movements in Africa.
It was just amazing how things fell into place for CAL. We were fortunate to have from the beginning one donor partner, namely HIVOS, stepping with us on this unknown journey. Without their belief in the idea things would not have moved as well as they did in those initial years. For sustainability, it was decided that CAL would be based in Namibia, with The Rainbow Project (where I was employed) as fiscal host and Sister Namibia providing technical and other support. It was a daunting undertaking, but I can truly say that with the support of two formidable women, Elizabeth |Khaxas from the Women’s Leadership Centre and Liz Frank from Sister Namibia, we were able to make it happen!
The exciting first steps of CAL took place in Namibia: we had our first Strategic Planning Session in Windhoek, our First Feminist Leadership Institute, and also the launch of CAL. With every meeting we grew bigger. It was astonishing to learn about the plight of our sisters in the rest of Africa – and our resolve to change the political and socio-cultural landscape for African lesbians just grew stronger. Friends were made…even lovers…we were a fiery group of women that brought many different skills, personalities and energies to the collective struggle. I remember when we appointed Fikile Vilakazi as the first Director of CAL, and established the Secretariat in Johannesburg. For everyone on the Board it was one of the bigger needs and accomplishments. From there on our baby CAL could truly start walking on her own and we were proud and happy to oversee and support while she fought and danced her way into the political sphere in Africa and the rest of the world.
Dear Sisters, it has been exhilarating and an immense honour to have been part of the birth and growth of this, our very own African lesbian feminist network in Africa, CAL! I salute all of us for a job well done – may there be many more years of wisdom and victory through solidarity and action.