The Feminist Republik – ‘We are the ones we have been waiting for

When we were putting together the concept for issue #3 of the African Feminist Standpoint it was immediately obvious that we needed to speak to the folks at The Feminist Republik Platform. As we are all aware, feminists have been thinking, theorising about and putting into practice wellness and care practices that take into account political, social and economic context in the ability and opportunity for us to heal and to be well. The Feminist Republik is project that is necessarily built on ensuring that African Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) and Africna women and non-binary people have the space, time and resources to futher our efforts at building communities of care and practice that are able to hold us in our entirety. 

We sat down with Melissa Wainaina, Feminist Republik Creative Facilitator, to speak about the genesis of the Feminist Republik and some of the ways they are thinking about healing justice and what it looks like to think about accountability and care within the feminist movement.

We need this space and we would like to determine for ourselves what care looks like

CAL: 

Melissa, thank you so much for giving us your time. We are thrilled to get a chance to speak to you today about this worthwhile and important work of healing and caring for one another. Can you start by telling us a little about what the Feminist Republik platform is and how you came to be?

Melissa:

The Feminist Republik platform, currently housed by the Urgent Action Fund Africa (UAF-A), was developed as a response to the trends we saw between 2016 and 2018 where African WHRDs were reporting burn out. People were getting sick, not just physically sick but sick from daily struggles and fighting systems. The grants we were giving through the rapid response mechanism were not doing enough in terms of supporting African WHRDs as individuals, as people in a context where they were under threat. The rapid response grants weren’t also necessarily looking at the larger communities that African WHRDs belong t,o such as their families or the larger network of their organisations. We felt like this was not an adequate way to respond and we asked ourselves “So what does a response look like, rather than a reactionary work”. Part of the answer looked like calling this response care, healing and care for the self because that’s political and that is necessary. We also then expanded this to think about the broader community, the ecosystem around a human rights defender in the business of social transformation and what that would look like. 

What we did with the analysis and the trends was to create a conversation with different African WHRDs, activists and feminists on the continent in different sectors and different generations working on different issues. We held several meetings in Nairobi, Abuja and Senegal in 2018 and 2019. And it became clear from the conversations that there was a real need for resourcing women’s transformational work to be more feminist and intersectional – and to infuse the care element – looking at someone from a place of compassion and care. It is with the permission of those stakeholders who are a representation of the continent’s sentiments that the idea of the Feminist Republik was born. A platform that exists for African WHRDs to tap into, to access, to share , to be, to live, to exist, to have sound wellness practices, to generate knowledge around wellness, care and healing, to share it, to share what’s working, what’s not and also to celebrate stories of resilience, so it’s not all doom and gloom. To create a space, which is for us and by us. After a lot of deliberations it was also decided that the UAF-A, for a period of time, would be the custodian of this platform in a way that allowed for it to evolve back to the people it was designed to support. However, the Feminist Republik is held independently [from UAF-A] in terms of decision making and relies very heavily on co-creation and consultation with African WHRDs. 

Feminist Republik was ratified by nearly 350 feminists at the launch that happened in December 2019 saying ‘yes, we need this space and we would like to determine for ourselves what care looks like’. For these feminists this meant care that holds that an African WHRD is not a single entity, they come with their community. This care also incorporates age-old ways of knowing including the traditional and the spiritual aspects of what it means to be African and to seek healing and to find care back in society. These feminists also considered how the Feminist Republik can be a place where people gravitate for collective power that does not in its design exclude those who are gender non-conforming and those who are transgender.

CAL:

How is the Feminist Republik Platform currently constituted and what are some of the practices that both the platform and the UAF-A, have around wellbeing and Collective Care?

Melissa:

In terms of the constitution of the feminist republik…

We are currently a team of 3 and all the interventions we do are with friends of the network. Our gatherings are designed by people who consider themselves members. To be a member, loosely, you need to be African, a WHRD and working on social justice and transformation and have the willingness to interrogate healing from a place of ‘I am struggling with it but I am also practising it, from a place of wanting to offer, to share’. 

At the heart of it we are catalysts for change. We organise ourselves in ways that are very consultative in both our in-house discussions and interventions. We need the validation of African WHRDs to say ‘this is what we need’. From a feminist perspective we embrace contestation, which, historically has seen people stop speaking to one another and speaking across each other. How do we embrace contestation, where people can never see eye to eye and not have this bring harm to the movement? In our online magazine, Dzuwa, you’ll see an article about indigenous practices of massaging and healing and on another is a feminist nun Afrocentric healer who’s saying yes I am catholic and a practicing nun but I am also very much in touch with my ancestors. We welcome contestation, disagreement and different viewpoints because this is a discourse that has been taken away from us through colonisation, globalization and through the indoctrination of ideas that are not ours. 

We also consider the Feminist Republik as a friend of African WHRDs, a deeply political stance, and what has emerged is that the platform has enhanced the ways in which Urgent Action Fund Africa provides grants. In May 2020 UAF-A sent out a call for applications for grants that were specifically focused on collective healing and care and it’s this kind of deliberate work that is asking funders to be intentional and deliberate about how they are supporting this work. Charity begins at home, with your host (in our case that is UAF-A) and we are saying to them “can you look deeply, in times of a pandemic and at all times really, and provide the necessary support catered to what African feminists are finding themselves grappling with in times of crisis”. 

In terms of what the Feminist Republik is currently focusing on…

From 2018 there were certain asks from the different iterations of conversations we had with different kinds of advisors and feminists and out first mandate is to put together a healing farm, a physical farm and an online space where conversations that are outside of the public view can happen where people can build and get to know each other outside of physical meetings. The other thing we are also focusing on is producing healing justice research and knowledge repositories that are, as much as possible, free or decolonised from a very western lens. 

In terms of care and wellbeing practices…

Healers also need an emotional home and a home for healing outside of the space in which they are doing transformational work and so within our internal portfolio we do have care practices – we check in on each other, we go light on meetings when it’s not necessary, so no death by Zoom. We try to hold each other, including Feminist Republik members and consultants, by constantly checking in and calling one another pre and post gathering. 

The culture in UAF-A around care practices is also transforming – for example, we have a shorter work week. Some of the work we do can be quite difficult, as first responders to activists who are in situations that need urgent attention – so we have a check-in system, we have shared therapy and team meetings where we are able to debrief and talk about what’s happening in the professional, personal and political realm because we’re all 360 degree humans. For Covid specifically we started the covid diaries where as staff we share what we’ve been up to on the weekend that was not crisis related. – it’s been a great way for us to connect. There is so much uptake about trying to be mindful of each other. 

CAL:

Your work is specifically cognisant of the root causes of emotional, mental and spiritual distress. I want to focus on the spiritual aspect a little bit -personally I think it’s one of the most difficult aspects to navigate and then utlize as a feminist. 

Without falling into the trap of believing all things ‘indigenous, traditional and pre-colonial’ being good, especially for women, how have you seen women and WHRDs in your work reclaiming traditional ways of healing and spiritual practice? How are we reclaiming and using aspects of traditional practice when we know how harmful, patriarchal and sexist some of those practices have been for women

The space that allows us to see and hear one another has largely been erased, it’s been colonized, it’s been infiltrated, we’ve forgotten, some of us never had it in the first place

Melissa:

Within movements I think we are at that place where we recognise that people have conceptualized the site for their oppression, connecting with it and what emancipation and liberation look like from their context. Some of us allude that to intersectionality, some of us allude that to different kinds of feminisms. There are many ideologies that people resonate with and I feel like it’s important for me to bring in my personal view. I think that feminisms are a very refreshing way to keep ourselves analytical but also to keep reminding ourselves that how we experience oppression is so vastly different. As long as some of the core tenets of what we are thinking and how we are considering liberation to look like are not causing harm then they are valid even when we are struggling with them , even if we  don’t understand, agree with or subscribe to them. So that then defines and puts into action the word respect. And I think it’s important for us to accept that we live in oppressive systems. They are in our institutions, they are in the places that are closest to us, they are in our actions in a way. They are defined to us in our histories and so when you’re fighting a system that is so embedded with the things that are most near and most dear to you, it’s complicated. It’s completely complicated when you’re talking about belief systems, spirituality, your sense of how you see yourself in the constellation of the  world and what makes sense, what is out there for you, how you are here and making sense of the world. 

It’s such an individual but also profound question and people are constantly trying to ideate and find meaning. Some are reading stars, some are reading coffee [beans]. What I love about feminist ideologies is how they allow for nuance even in complicated and impossible situations.  My interaction with a certain sect of organised religion may have come from a place of war but it’s completely valid that this is also a place where someone else was able to emancipate, access education, access care, access another world beyond what they knew. What it means for me and for them can be so vastly different so where is the space where we can share and sit with these ideologies? I think those ideologies, specifically, are of regeneration politics, the politics of care where you get to a place where you are able to see ‘oh you do this ritual when you’re doing this thing, we do this prayer so we’re kinda doing the same thing but vastly different’. 

The space that allows us to see and hear one another has largely been erased, it’s been colonized, it’s been infiltrated, we’ve forgotten, some of us never had it in the first place. As collectives like the Feminist Republik and the people who are doing and have been doing care work for a long time – I think these are the ideas of care societies we are routing for – going beyond our cultural, ethnic divides. Care societies that tell us its ok to have all of these identities and from that place to then be able interrogate how violent some identities can be, not just to you but to others and maybe not by you but by others who subscribe to the same set of ideologies – so how are you reformatting systems of humans so we become human again. I think that’s why we, at the Feminist Republik, are ok with the discomfort and we are ok with people then grappling with what inner work means, because inner work means ‘ok I am taking responsibility for healing and there’s no healing that’s going to start if I don’t acknowledge that there has been harm done to me, perhaps even through my ancestors [intergenerational trauma], and I may even be complicit to that harm, so what is the reckoning? What does reckoning look like? 

So I think that the idea of spirituality will be a hotly contested issue as long as humans exist. There probably aren’t many solutions, if any, I think the most important thing is that conversations don’t stop.

CAL:

We have been hearing the term ‘Healing justice’ quite a lot these days. Can you explain to us the Platform’s concept or understanding of healing justice 

Melissa: 

What does transformation look like? And when we get it, will we be ready? Will our bodies be ready? Will our movements be ready? Will we recognize what liberation looks like?

I want to flip this on its head a little and say what we are trying to do at the Feminist Republik is to gather conceptual framings and underpinnings that define what healing justice looks like from an Afro-centric setting. And I start with this because when we ideate about certain concepts, like feminism and indeed healing justice, we are often seen as giving attention and focus to things that are ‘foreingn to us’, ‘unAfrican’ – and I think a large part of that is due to the fact that a lot of these concepts are only spoken about using colonial languages. And I think that is part of what we want to decolonize – to reconfigure ourselves around the framing of healing justice because I think healing justice, at the heart of it, is a very African philosophy. 

We have had wars, conflict and frankly we have also colonized each other on the continent. We have done some messed up stuff and we’ve done some great stuff and we own that but I think there are some core ways that we have thought about humanity that have been separated from us as a result of many things, among them, imperialism, extractivism, believability, the post Jim Crow era, slavery and then our own indigenous scenes like corruption. These things that have happened have separated us from a sense of ourselves and I think that as a platform we are trying to conceptualize what societies that are rooted in care can look like for us and showcase those places where care is deeply practised to inspire ourselves on what could be done differently. To give us an opportunity to see what care can look like in a society where there are social protections in a crisis; where no home goes hungry because people know how to take care of each other, where money does not define who you are and where your role as a leader is in service – and in service not just to those who are present but those who have passed and honouring that. 

And so what we are doing around healing justice is avoiding prescriptive frameworks. We are not putting out ‘this is our way or the highway’. The Feminist Republik also moves away from polarizing issues around healing and in fact what we are trying to do then is to conduct rigorous academic research but also really cool stuff of going down to the healers and asking so now ‘what do I do if I have the malaria of the stomach’. We want to put those framings together in collaboration with African healers and thinkers and people who are really passionate about healing to enable us to think, grapple with, pull apart, reformat, realign and reconstruct in our own societies, in our  own practices. 

This year we are going to conduct a study taking stock of what’s going on, on the continent, with regard to healing justice as a framework for which people exist, cultures manifest and evolve and what that looks like in a very practical modern day 2020 era. We’re in the process of finalizing our first study, we are hoping to have it available early next year. We are also asking people to conduct studies and research and give us their ideas of what they feel this as a framework could look like or from an anthropological place maybe do an ethnography of what healing justice has looked like over time, space and a people – are there similarities, are there very different or distinct ways certain communities look at it – it’s really one of our baskets that we hope to fill. We come with it, reading it, opening it, finding resources to support it. We are trying to remove the structural barriers that have existed in research work particularly such as who is believed/listened to, the face that you have to speak a certain kind of language or have a thick reference to your work – those are some of the things that we are deconstructing to allow for a repository of a set of deep thinkers and academics and making it available for people to grapple with. I think those are our politics around healing justice. 

We think that this is also an acknowledgment that trauma exists and it exists in an intergenerational way and that there is a need for us to metabolise how strong emotions, strong experiences, trauma and how it courses through our lives and our movements and our bodies and our minds. How do we metabolize it in a way that is transformative and how do we compost pain and suffering into transformation? What does transformation look like? And when we get it, will we be ready? Will our bodies be ready? Will our movements be ready? Will we recognize what liberation looks like? We are so busy surviving, thriving, resisting, when we’ve moved beyond that how whole will we be? Our individuality is important and we need to not subsume the importance of self but we can’t do that in isolation so how do we do that with self being important as the collective. I think those are the philosophies that ground us.

CAL:

There is a lot of trauma that we have incurred within our own movement, trauma that still affects us and still happens – how are we or how can we address this hurt and violence? What does feminist accountability look like – thinking specifically about cancel and call out culture?

Melissa:

At the end of it all we kinda need each other in that way, it’s important, if feminism is important then we need each other. We need each other with all the ickiness in there and then if we don’t need each other it’s also ok to walk away and to walk away complete

I think my response will be unexpected. I want to speak to the proliferation we hear of how we expect better from other feminists. We live in a world that is so steeped with disappointment that when we have a political reason to come together we have very different ideas of what solidarity looks like. I liken this to certain organized religions where you get into salvation – you go in front, you get prayed for and you say ‘Now I am free, now I am the bestest’ and you’re not, right. The kinds of people, however, that I find deeply admirable who believe in these systems, and that’s not me, are not sanctimonious about their beliefs and ideologies and when I say sanctimonious I mean they are humans, they are humans who are aspiring for a standard from which they’d like to live and emulate. I feel like for me personally feminism has saved my life because it has given me the lens by which I am able to see, not a sanctimonious self but a self that is human, a self that lives in an oppressive world, a self that may be complicit in oppression or indeed a self that may very well be an oppressor. And so what is out there for me to transform these systems, to transform me, how can I live with myself after a reckoning – how can I live in the world after a reckoning – if all I am doing is taking a sanctimonious approach. 

So on a personal level I do not subscribe to gladiator style approaches to any movements I exist in, gladiator style approaches are an easy place to occupy and frankly live in. In fact I know that there are people who are like ‘these things give me life! Let’s see who we are taking down’. But finding yourself as the one who is in danger of being taken down, how would you want to be held in account and in integrity? How would you want to be held in community? I feel like that’s a difficult thing to do because part of the currency there is anger and outrage. 

I don’t have an easy answer for anyone around this and I would say the only reason you get angrier and expect more from other feminists is because you are in relationship with them. You care for them. You have a love for them that you didn’t even know existed until they deeply hurt you. If you are out there and someone came up to you and said ‘yo! I don’t like you’, you’d be like ‘what? Wait who? Who appointed you? See if I care. Move along’ and perhaps you’d feel like the exchange was weirdly disconcerting but you’d be inclined to move along because you don’t know this person. But why would the same set of words mean something if it’s another feminist? It’s because you are in care with each other. You recognize a shared trauma even when the other person doesn’t know you, doesn’t care about you, isn’t in your social class, isn’t in your lane, you feel a sense of solidarity but you have not negotiated the terms. So I would say that maybe we need to negotiate our terms of compassion with each other as a feminist collective. How I have done it when feminists upset me (and they upset me all the time, some upset me waaaayyy more) is I always find a way to negotiate an honesty with them. The inbox is a legitimate place. Also finding people who know them to say ‘look that was so not cool, do we mediate here or just get some feedback’. You know there are so many ways when you are in a relationship with someone, when in matters and you’re seeking them to hear you and to see where you are coming from that you choose on what to do.  

I’m not so sure about cancel culture, in fact I didn’t know that word until you said it but I completely understood what you meant. I think that if people have an alternative around that where they’re able to metabolize how they are thinking and feeling about certain things they don’t need to take someone down at the core. I am talking about a place where you are able to say to someone ‘my friend I am not liking very much right now how you’re being my feminist person and I’d like to have a conversation with you about it and the conversation will not be a nice one, I love you but what you’re doing right now is not cool – this is not a cool thing’. And that someone is then able to grapple with that. This is also a place where you are able to say to someone ‘you need to tell me when I step out so that I know how to apologise. So that I know to take responsibility for my actions’. 

I think it would be a lot healthier for us to use anger more effectively because anger is an amazing fuel – it’s the thing that gets you off the couch and says ‘ah ah, enough. I’m done’. It’s ok to get angry with another feminist and to effectively end that relationship. And it’s possible to end a relationship without it being harmful to both of you. If you look carefully you will begin to see feminists, who may or may not identify as such, who work like that . You will see women collectives who operate like that. Most times our personal beef should not be big enough to affect the movement’s work, but it’s still important to feel your personal beef has been honoured, that someone was able to convey to you that you have been seen and heard. 

Maybe those are the spaces we need as feminists so that the call out is one that is more sustainable and is one that builds resilience and emotional muscle, like a 6 pack, to be able to deal with conflict, to deal with stress. Because right now i think a lot of people are numbing the pain and doing something that is perhaps causing them more harm. My response is can we think of ways that cause less harm to each other- the person who is aggrieved and the person who is perpetuating. At the end of it all we kinda need each other in that way, it’s important, if feminism is important then we need each other. We need each other with all the ickiness in there and then if we don’t need each other it’s also ok to walk away and to walk away complete.

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