A radi-CAL journey

I remember my former partner – Zanele Muholi, with whom I co-founded Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW) in Johannesburg – coming home and telling me about “Tommy Boys”, a publication on lesbian oral history research. She was desperate to document what her instinct told her was a defining event in lesbian organising on the continent, and frustrated that she had so far been unsuccessful at getting in. When co-author Ruth Morgan, formerly of the Gay and Lesbian Archives (GALA), invited her to do the photography for the book, she was ecstatic, and regaled me daily with stories and pictures of the amazing experience she was having. This was my first contact with what was to become the Coalition of African Lesbians. Over the ensuing years, my deepening involvement with CAL became, easily, the most enjoyable aspect of my work at FEW. I’ve been reflecting on why that is. Firstly, I think, it’s the attitude, the sass. This became apparent almost immediately, at the symposium of the All-Africa Rights Initiative, organised and hosted by Behind the Mask, where I was consulting at the time. The women delegates took exception to the limited space that had been allocated to lesbian issues on the programme, and demanded more. This resulted in a caucus which effectively gave birth to the Coalition, then provisionally named the “African Lesbian Alliance” (or Network, I don’t think we ever quite decided). Linked to this was the tremendous courage of these women of CAL who, against all odds and in hostile environments – some even underground – were willing to work towards a continent in which they and others like them could live their lives with dignity, and free from fear and discrimination. I particularly remember Sophia of Tanzania, Naomi from Rwanda, Nancy from Kenya, Fadzai representing Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) and, most poignant, Fannyann who was later murdered in her native Sierra Leone. Then there was the learning – not only from each other’s experiences and staggering collection of skills and strategies, but also about each other, and about feminism. Before the Strategic Planning meeting held in Windhoek, I didn’t really know what feminism was, and what it meant to be a feminist. But two truly inspiring presentations from Pat McFadden switched on the lights for me, and embracing radical African lesbian feminism – both for CAL and for myself – was a no-brainer after that.

The pioneering grand vision also had me sold, and I was thrilled to play a key role in articulating that vision. As part of the Steering Committee and, later, in the capacity of elected chair of the first Executive Committee, one of my tasks was to draft our constitution. Re-reading it almost 10 years later, I find myself so impressed by myself! And, although it is now slated for amendment, I’m still struck by the sheer awesomeness of the minds and hearts that contributed to its crafting. Since CAL evolved out of a story-telling project, it’s no surprise that creative expression is one of the organisation’s programme areas, and formed part of the First Feminist Leadership Institute we held in Windhoek. Being a writer and performing artist myself, this really resonated for me. I must confess to being a trifle disappointed that this area has not received significant attention in the intervening years, and I look forward to that changing. I’ve always been in touch with my inner child, and so the playfulness of CAL was a perfect match for me. There was liberal use of energisers during the Feminist Leadership Institute but, for some reason, I can only remember Elizabeth’s “Do like I do” game, in which the group forms a circle around one person, who demonstrates some move while repeatedly chanting “Do like I do”, to which the rest must respond with “I do, I do” as they copy the move. As that playfulness spilled over into our social engagements, it intersected with the freedom we felt to express our sexuality, creating a hot-bed (pun intended!) of flirtations, hook-ups and night-time activities behind closed doors. Sophia coined a term for it – pussy-networking – and there was no sense of shame, no apology, for our indulgence in it. My work with CAL dovetailed with one of my all-time favourite activities – travelling. From Kenya to Bangkok, Sri Lanka to Montreal – and always, the constant, Namibia, where the initial Steering Committee was based – I’m blessed to have seen sights, witnessed events, engaged with people, tasted food, experienced cultures and learnt things that I wouldn’t otherwise have. But none of those trips come even close to the journey that CAL has been on over the past decade; and I’m proud to have gone some part of the way with her.

Here’s to the next 10 years of Radical. African. Lesbian. Feminist. … (R)evolutionary… CAL!

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